This post lead to this list. The list I originally found was almost entirely movies, TV, and some comics. So, I put together a list that was more oriented towards books. This is sort of in order, but not enough of an order that I'm willing to put numbers on them.
This is intended to be a work in progress. We'll see.
Not one of my favorite characters, but she’s strong and does what she thinks needs to be done, regardless of the consequences. However, she does make a lot of dumb mistakes.
- Illyra the Seeress – Thieves’ World
One of the most sane and normal characters in Thieves’ World (aside from Lalo the Limner and Gila his wife). Sometimes she’s scared of everything, but gets out of bed to do what needs to be done, and even when she’s been pushed too far, she eventually recovers, and you can’t help but admire her for it.
- Leloo – The Fifth Element
Kicks everyone's butt.
- Sookie Stackhouse – The Southern Vampire Mysteries by Charlaine Harris
She's not really a heroine in the traditional sense, in that she doesn't fight. But she thinks her way out of situations, and when she gets into trouble, she buckles down and works herself back out. Strong, self-assured, and realistic--she's a hero as far as I'm concerned.
A genuine middle-aged heroine (despite the cover) and warrior. She has strength, but has lived long enough to temper her strength with wisdom.
- Mara of the Acoma – Daughter of the Empire by Raymond E. Feist & Janny Wurts
Mara is another woman who uses intelligence and cunning to solve her problems--in this case in the realm of politics.
I just like Jinnarin. She goes out and attempts something that hasn't been done before, and is willing to expose herself (literally) to do what she believes is right and good and important.
- Dorothy Gayle – The Wizard of Oz by Frank L. Baum
The book, not the movie.
Lady Teldra doesn’t fight, she doesn’t carry a sword, and she isn’t a mage. She’s simply a woman who does what needs to be done without complaint, and with more tact than any one being should have.
- Kerowyn – By the Sword by Mercedes Lackey
- River – Serenity
"Just because she knocked out Jayne," says Michael.
This is a phenomenal book. Upon first meeting her, I was not impressed with Kaede, however, as the story progresses she takes control when she can, and acts when action is necessary, even if if goes against how she was raised and how society expects her to act.
Lots of butt kicking, and doing what needs to be done despite being scared.
Gyp is chubby and unattractive (mostly because she dresses badly), and thinks that “ultimate fashion sense” is a curse. How could I not but love her? She's another who is not a hero in a traditional sense of butt kicking and taking names, but is a hero in that she conquers her fears.
- Susan Ivanova – Babylon 5
Ivanova is my absolute favorite character on Babylon 5. She grows through the series, has an black sense of humor, and does what needs to be done when it needs to be done. She follows her beliefs, but isn't afraid to admit when she has made a mistake. And also isn't afraid to point out when you've made a mistake.
Ivanova is always right.
I will listen to Ivanova.
I will not ignore Ivanova's recommendations.
Ivanova is god...
[looks up] Just kidding about that God part. No offense.
What I like about Sunshine is how on the face of things she is so ordinary. She’s a baker, she fights with her mom, and she gets along as best she can. When she’s put in a bad situation she’s afraid, but she tries to think on her feet. She doesn't stand up to the bad guys unless she absolutely has to, but uses her wits and skills instead.
- Kira Nyres – Deep Space Nine
Kira isn't my favorite character on Deep Space Nine, but there’s no denying that she’s a strong woman who isn't afraid to take action. What I liked is that through the series she learned that sometimes different types of actions are appropriate to different types of situation, and that everything can't be resolved with a phaser. I also liked her relationship with Ziyal, and how she wants to keep Ziyal safe, even to the point of putting up with Dukat for her sake.
What’s not to love?
- Snow White – Fables by Bill Willingham
- Sulien ap Gwien – The King's Peace / The King's Name by Jo Walton
I picked this book up initially because I was so impressed with the depiction of the heroine on the cover. She’s strong looking, and sensibly dressed. She’s also a sensible character who trained to become as good as she is, but is willing to admit to her weaknesses.
- Jacky – Jack of Kinrowan by Charles de Lint
- Aliera – Five Hundred Years After and Vlad Taltos by Steven Brust
Aliera tends to think with her sword first, however, unlike another of my favorite Brust characters, Tazendra, Aliera is capable to doing more than chopping people to bits with her sword (although she is very good at that). It’s the little bits about Aliera that I love so much: she’s short, so she tends to float several inches off the ground to make up for it, she’s willing to accept those who are different (or at least Vlad), and she may think with her sword, but she'll allow herself to be distracted in lieu of backing down.
Granny Weatherwax is one of my favorite Discworld characters, and the "witches" books tend to be my favorites (along with the books about Samuel Vimes and the Guard). She's also one of the older women heroines I can think of. (Sethra Lavode may be old, but she doesn't look it.) It's easy to have a beautiful heroine who kicks butt. It's harder to have one with gray hair and a dumpy figure.
- Ischade – Thieves' World
Whatever you do, don’t piss off Ischade.
How many horrible things can be done to a person, yet still they have a good heart? For Jilly, the answer is an awful lot.
- Morgaine – The Mists of Avalon by Marion Zimmer Bradley
When I read The Mists of Avalon I loved Morgaine so much that I took her name as my handle on the BBSes. Morgaine showed me that there were two sides to every story, and that bad guys didn't do things because they were evil. In fact, they most likely saw themselves as good guys, trying to do what they believed was right, for reasons they believed were just. Not that I don’t think there isn't evil in the world, and that people don’t do evil for wrong and self-serving reasons. But I don't think it's as common as we'd like to believe. What it taught me was that I should listen to those I disagreed with, because perhaps their truth was better than mine.
- Tamra – Oathbound and Oathbreakers by Mercedes Lackey
- Princess Leia Organa – Star Wars
Star Wars came out when I was eight, and as far as I was concerned, it was the best thing in the entire world. It also led me to accept as given that women could do anything they wanted—although I wasn't enamored of the fact that she still had to wear a dress. This is the way the world was—women could be heroes if they wanted to. The choice of what you want to do with your life lies in your hands, and you were limited only in how hard you worked. Not that the world really turned out that way, but it’s far closer to that world for me, than for my mother and my grandmother.
- Trinity – The Matrix
Funny thing about Trinity, is that I think I like her best in the real world, outside of the Matrix. The Trinity in the Matrix is hard. She has to do what the guys do, only better. She not only kicks butt, but she does it in a skin tight outfit and high heels. In the real world that sense of competition is lessened, and I like her much better. She's softer, but not soft. She'll still kick your butt, but she doesn't care how she looks doing it.
I loved Sabriel. She's a teenager, but she's not a twit. She's brave, but she doesn't take stupid chances. When she does make foolish mistakes, they’re through inexperience rather than stubbornness.
- Yu Shu Lien (Michelle Yeoh’s character) – Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon
- Zoe Washburn – Firefly
Zoe is beautiful, but you'd never know it from how she acts. She gets what she wants through force of personality, and because she carries a sawed-off shotgun and isn't afraid to use it. Her relationship with her husband is the sense of humor she needs, but we also get to see that sometimes marriage is difficult, and hard work.
- Polgara – The Belgariad by David Eddings
The Belgariad is the series that got me reading fantasy in college. I’d always loved The Hobbit but other than Tolkein, my dad reads science fiction, and I never developed a taste for science fiction, so I never read any fantasy until this. However, once I started reading The Belgariad I loved Polgara. Belgarath was interesting, Silk was fascinating, but Polgara made the story. Plus, she gets to totally destroy stuff when she gets mad.
- Jadzea Dax – Deep Space Nine
I love Jadzea. She’s the character that first drew me into Deep Space Nine--despite the fact that I couldn't stand all things Star Trek. She's strong, she's smart, and she can put Worf in his place. Although season 7 has some great single episodes, it's one of my least favorites, because it doesn't have Jadzea. She's got a sense of humor, and says almost as much with her eyes as Worf. It's good to see female scientists that can also kick butt when needed. But when the time comes for Jadzea to kill—after taking up an oath made by Kurzon Dax—she can't just brush it off like you often see in stories. It affects her, and it's good that it does. I liked how her memories of war and death still didn't prepare her for it.
- Buffy Summers – Buffy the Vampire Slayer
Buffy does it all: she's smart, she's witty, and she totally kicks butt. But she also makes mistakes, and has to live with the consequences. I think what I like best about Buffy is that she realizes that she can't do it all on her own, and turns to her friends when she needs help. That's a hard things to realize, and not many female heroines do it well, if at all. Often they have to do everything men can do—and better—and are afraid to admit any weakness. But Buffy asks for help (eventually) when she needs it, and totally kicks butt once she has the strength of those she loves behind her.
I love Steven Brust’s writing and dialog and characters and stories, and of those characters, Sethra Lavode is one of my favorites, second only to Morrolan. Sethra has done everything, and done it well. She’s been warlord and sorceress as well as hero and traitor. She’s the most feared person in the kingdom—with good reason—yet she still has a sense of humor, can still admit when she makes a mistake, and most importantly, knows people.