Literature’s Most Iconic Female Characters

Some of the most inspiring females in history spring to life from the pages of these great novels.


Celie is the protagonist and narrator of The Colour Purple, the 1982 prize-winning novel by Alice Walker. She spends most of the novel as a victim, dejected, emotionally and physically abused, and lonely.

The power of forgiveness and love see her through, however, and we watch Celie finding her own strength and changing from a weak, wounded woman into someone confident, compassionate, and utterly independent.

Elizabeth Bennett

A stubborn, witty character from the 1813 novel Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen, Elizabeth Bennett is the oldest of five daughters in the Bennett family.

Like the rest of her sisters, she’s expected to forego love in a marriage partner and focus on money and status instead, but she elects to remain single rather than compromise her needs. This was an outlandish concept during the Georgian period, and she remains a heroine to us all.

Hester Prynne

Many critics hail Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Hester Prynn, the protagonist from his 1850 novel The Scarlet Letter, to be one of the most important female characters in literature.

Prynn is married but distance separates her from her husband, and she enters into an affair with a minister, falling pregnant eventually. Because she’s still wedded in the eyes of law, she is deemed guilty of adultery and sentenced to prison, as well as being brandished with a red letter A, which she is forced to wear for the rest of her life.

Instead of isolating herself or leaving town, however, this marvellous woman decides to confront the sanctimoniousness of the hypocritical townsfolk and fight back against the oppression of the Puritanical society she lives in.

Lisbeth Salander

Intense, provocative, and somewhat unhinged, Lisbeth Salander, star of Stieg Larrson’s Millennium Series, is a ferociously clever computer hacker with an Eidetic memory. She overcomes a disturbing childhood to help solve an enduring family mystery, all without compromising her fierce moral code. Given her skills, she would have made a killing if she ever decided to play Blackjack in New Zealand!

Nancy Drew

One of the most iconic female characters of all time, and the star of the Nancy Drew Mystery Stories, was conceived by Edward Stratemeyer. Carolyn Keene is the pseudonym of the authors for the series, and this persona broke ground thanks to the fact that she isn’t just a pretty sidekick to a lead male counterpart but a great detective in her own right.

Scarlett O’Hara

As selfish as she is brave, Scarlett O’Hara, the star of Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With the Wind remains a problematic hero to women of today.

She’s a slave-owner, no stranger to implementing incredibly manipulative tactics to get her way, and her infatuation with the listless Ashley Wilkes, husband to her eventual best-friend Melanie Hamilton, is vexing. But it’s difficult not to find her charm, unfailing ingenuity, and great strength bewitching, especially since without both her good and bad attributes there’s no doubt her family and friends would not have survived the war or its aftermath.

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