Eleanor Oliphant, from Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman
Eleanor is an intensely likeable character, but one who is also incredibly lonely. She leaves work on Friday and doesn’t speak to anyone until she returns to work on Monday morning. Her social skills are, at best, subpar, but her honesty and her vulnerability invite empathy. Her struggle to make connections with others and her growth as a human being are wonderful to read about.
Beatrice Lacey, from Wideacre by Philippa Gregory
Looking at reviews of this book, it’s clear to see that Beatrice is a divisive character. Some find her headstrong, while others see her as just plain evil. Ruthless, cruel and destructive she may be, she nevertheless proves that female characters in fiction don’t always have to play nice. Her methods might be somewhat questionable, but her determination to get what she wants is admirable.
Vasya, from The Bear and the Nightingale and The Girl in the Tower by Katherine Arden
Vasya is a young woman living in medieval Russia who rallies against the constraints placed on her because of her gender. She refuses to accept demands that she either marry or go into a convent. Why would she confine herself inside four walls when she can go out and explore the world?
Lucrezia Borgia, from Blood and Beauty and In the Name of the Family by Sarah Dunant
Lucrezia Borgia is often remembered as ruthless and cruel, a woman who slipped poison to those who stood in her way. Dunant paints a different picture; of a woman forced to marry several different men against her will, a woman using the few weapons available to her in 16th century Italy to prove that she is more than just a pawn in her father’s game.
Kathryn Parr, from The Taming of the Queen by Philippa Gregory
Another real woman rescued from history is Kathryn Parr, Henry VIII’s sixth wife. While she is constantly reminded of her husband’s favourite wife, whom she can never hope to live up to, she is also haunted by memories of her predecessor, Katherine Howard, beheaded for her infidelity to the king. Kathryn must find a way to navigate dangerous political waters using only her intelligence and cunning.
Angelica Neal, from The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock by Imogen Hermes Bower
Like others on this list, Angelica is a character who invites debate. Viewed by some as infantile and selfish, others recognise her determination and strength. However, you can’t fail to admire the way she fights against society’s expectations and takes command of her own career (controversial though her choice of job may be).
Agnes Magnúsdóttir, from Burial Rites by Hannah Kent
In 19th century Iceland, Agnes is condemned to death for the murder of her lover. Viewed by her community as a kind of Lady Macbeth, no one is interested in hearing her side of the story; they only want to see her executed. Beneath her icy exterior, however, Agnes is intelligent, passionate and sympathetic.
Lyra Belacqua, from His Dark Materials by Philip Pullman
Although Lyra is only a child when The Northern Lights begins, there is plenty to learn from her bravery and courage in the face of adversity. She refuses to meekly accept what adults declare to be true, choosing instead to question the world around her and try to do what she can to make it better.
Lila Bard, from A Darker Shade of Magic by V.E. Schwab
The heroine of this fantasy series has been criticised as being a bit of a Mary Sue (a character who is perfect in every way), but I had to include her on this list for her formidable skill with weapons. A cutpurse and gifted user of magic, her approach is to kick ass first and ask questions later.
Hermione Granger, from Harry Potter by J.K. Rowling
Of course this list would not be complete without a mention of my favourite bookworm. Hermione proved to a generation of girls that it’s cool to be smart – and that, when in doubt, the best thing to do is go to the library.