Five women from SFF who show you don’t have to lose your soul to be a badass
I love a morally-gray or villainous femme protagonist as much as the next person. Sometimes the catharsis of fiction can come through inhabiting the life of someone who has fully embraced their mean streak.
But if we’re being honest, the characters that really get me fist-pumping are characters with a little more heart. So today, I’m celebrating the women of SFF stories—film/tv and novel alike—who prove that badassery doesn’t have to come at the cost of your humanity. The women who challenge gender roles by inhabiting the in-between spaces that aren’t usually acknowledged. The strong female leads(TM) who aren’t just a collection of stereotypically masculine tropes in a pink trench coat.
1. Asami Sato
(possible spoilers for Avatar: Legend of Korra)
The Avatar franchise is full of strong, complicated women. In The Last Airbender alone, we have Katara, Toph Beifong, Suki, Mai, Ty Lee, and Avatar Kyoshi—all of whom could probably kill me with barely a pinky finger, but still have emotional depth. The Legend of Korra reignited the franchise with a new Avatar: Korra, who definitely fits the description of tough and powerful but driven by a genuine desire for the greater good. But in my opinion, it’s Asami Sato who most exemplifies this idea.
Asami is a non-bender. Unlike the rest of Korra’s friends and allies, she can’t manipulate any of the elements. The first season of Legend of Korra sets up the central conflict as being between benders and non-benders—the season’s antagonist wants to take bending away from everyone—and non-benders are seen as victims, helpless in comparison with the powerful benders. But Asami doesn’t let that stop her for a second. The daughter of the city’s most famous tycoon of industry has a mind of her own, and it surpasses her own father’s genius. Asami is also a trained martial artist who can not only hold her own in a fight, but frequently steps in to help when her bending friends get into trouble. She uses her brilliant mind to perfect and strategically use gadgets, such as her iconic electrified glove, to give her an edge.
But Asami’s strength is not just that she’s a fighter who can match any of the benders in the group—including, at times, the Avatar herself—it’s that she faces her own struggles with an incredible grace and emotional intelligence. In season one, her father is imprisoned for colluding with a plot to eliminate all benders. At first, Asami seems to harden her heart to him. But as time passes, she decides to risk the pain and finally visits her father in prison. She’s as unflinchingly brave with her heart as she is with her body, and when her father opens up to her, she listens and starts working to repair the relationship while still setting boundaries for herself.
Later, when Korra struggles to recover from a devastating loss, the only person she feels she can confide in is Asami, revealing the place Asami’s compassionate nature has made for herself in the lives of her loved ones. This part of Asami isn’t incompatible with her impressive fighting skills or business acumen—it’s just another facet of her: an element of Asami Sato that makes her even more powerful.
2. January Scaller
(possible spoilers for The Ten Thousand Doors of January)
The Ten Thousand Doors of January is told largely in January’s voice: one filled with wonder and whimsy. January manages to hold on to a sense of awe, despite the harsh lessons life delivers her from the start. She is a person from nowhere and everywhere at once. But January takes all those bitter challenges life throws at her and becomes stronger: not the brittle, fragile veneer of so many hard-boiled detectives of the noir genre, but a kind of strength that’s woven from her own hopes and dreams and the love that she shares with her closest friends.
But just because January’s strength comes from the bonds of love and loyalty doesn’t make it any less astounding or powerful. In fact, this story boasts one of the more intense acts of self-preservation I’ve ever read in a book. January has learned very little about her true powers, but she knows she has a way with words. A way that can make things happen if she writes the words with enough intention. Cornered by a terrifying creature, in a room with no pen or paper, January whittles a coin into a knife and writes a door into existence by carving the words into her own arm. You don’t get more metal than that.
January is faced with the kind of choices that are impossible to live with: choices that have her loved ones ripped away, entire universes severed. She lives with them anyway, the burden of the consequences only firming her resolve. But the woman she becomes is not cold and closed off. All her losses have not taught her to harden her heart, but to re-open it.
(possible spoilers for Arcane)
Of all the women I’m discussing in this article, Vi probably looks the most like that hard-scrabble, I-hate-everyone brawler of tropey creation. But there’s more to Vi than meets the eye, and it’s not even that hard to coax out her soft underbelly. She knows it’s there, and she’s ready to make the painful decisions that need to be made in order to redeem the ones she loves.
Vi’s childhood is, to put it mildly, difficult. Her parents are brutally slaughtered in an uprising and her younger sister Powder—whom Vi has made it her singular mission to protect—accidentally kills their adoptive father and nearly all of their friends. In a moment of emotional overwhelm, Vi makes a gut-wrenching mistake that leads to Powder being stolen away by their enemy. Vi is then thrown in prison for the better part of a decade. When she gets out, she initially seems closed off and angry, and she is that, at least in part. But Vi is driven by one thing, and it’s not the desire for revenge you’d expect: it’s an earnest belief in the possibility that the damage can be fixed and that if she just works hard enough, she can save the people she holds dearest.
Even with life throwing her darker and messier twists, Vi still hangs on to that belief. And despite her rough edges, her idealism shines through bright enough that people can see it right away. Another character, Caitlin, reluctantly helps get Vi out of jail in exchange for helping with an investigation. But less than a day after meeting, Caitlin tells her “you’ve got a good heart,” echoing words spoken by Vi’s foster father Vander years ago. But Vander had more to say; he followed up his statement about her good heart with “don’t ever lose it, no matter how the world tries to break you.” And Vi lives up to the hope Vander had for her. The world tries to break her, and her heart still beats strong and good in her chest.
4. Adequin Rake
(possible spoilers for the Divide series)
Adequin Rake has put up a lot of walls when we first meet her. She carries with her the weight of a decision she made long ago, and it’s not long before the fate of the entire universe is added to her burden. Rake checks all the badass space special forces boxes: she’s an astonishingly good pilot, an excellent marksman, and she’s covered in alien tattoos that give her superhuman abilities. Plus, her history is shrouded in the kind of whispers that tend to build a reputation. She’s a war hero, but also an exile.
But Rake isn’t all fancy tattoos and war stories she can’t tell. She struggles with leadership, not feeling herself right for the role of command. Where she truly shines is in the relationships she builds—haltingly, fearfully, but very intentionally. She may not feel comfortable standing above her crew, put on a pedestal that she’s very much earned but does not want, but people will still follow her to literally the end of the universe because she cares so deeply.
In particular, her friendship with initially-aimless exiled royal Cavalon Mercer shows Rake’s true heart. Even as Cavalon is driving her up the wall and threatening to self-combust, Rake persists in treating him like a person and not a royal, drilling down slowly to the insecure and frightened person hiding behind his bluster. Because one of the greatest strengths about characters with heart is that like recognizes like. Even when Cavalon doesn’t believe in himself, Rake believes in him. This is a favor that he returns enthusiastically when given the chance, and their relationship is truly friend goals.
5. Olivia Dunham
(possible spoilers for Fringe)
Stop me if you’ve heard this one: Olivia Dunham is a tough-as-nails FBI agent with a dark past. She’s an exceptional investigator, using her intellect and excellent instincts to make breaks in cases no one else can crack. And she’s an asset in the field, too. She thinks on her feet and doesn’t lose her cool, her aim is always true, and she’s never afraid to be the one who pursues the subject on foot—usually catching them in the end.
But Olivia has a vulnerable quality to her—she’s as unafraid of acknowledging her emotions as she is of dodging bullets. Olivia was the first time I saw this archetype done well, and it enthralled me. Suddenly, I saw the possibility of a feminine hero who could save herself, thank you very much, but also could accept help, could lift up the ones she loved, could acknowledge her emotions as strengths and not weaknesses. And Olivia does this openly from very early in the show. In a powerful season one speech to her boss, Agent Broyles, Olivia lays it all out:
I understand that you think I acted too emotionally. And putting aside the fact that men always say that about women they work with, I’ll get straight to the point. I am emotional. I do bring it into my work. It’s what motivates me. It helps me to get into the headspace of our victims. See what they’ve seen. Even if I don’t want to, even if it horrifies me. I think it makes me a better agent. If you have a problem with that, sorry. You can fire me. But I hope you don’t.
Broyles doesn’t fire her. In fact, he becomes one of her biggest champions: someone who sees how powerful Olivia Dunham’s heart is, and who follows her not because she’s an incredible shot or a great investigator, but because she leads by example.
Honorable mention: Jaya Mill
(possible spoilers for the Resonance Saga)
I couldn’t end this piece without putting in a good word for my own creation. I have been so inspired by these characters: women who have to fight in a world that’s constantly pushing them around, but who are driven by their ideals and who don’t lose their compassion. It’s something I put into my lead protagonist in the Resonance Saga: Jaya Mill.
Jaya has had her family ripped away, has been on the run for decades. The world has taught her that trust is dangerous, but she’s still made room for people she loves. It’s around those friendships that the heart of this series is built. They are the light that gets through the cracks, the bonds that hold the galaxy together despite the pressure.
Jaya struggles with anger throughout the series for the twists and turns life has thrown at her, but anger in itself isn’t bad. A wise friend reminds her that anger is protective. And Jaya learns what her anger is protecting and cherishes it: love. Love for her friends and the family she built and compassion for the other souls in the galaxy who have suffered. Once she finds that light burning inside her, nothing will stop her.
So raise your glass
Here’s to all the female protagonists that give us hope—the ones we want to rally around not just because they’ll beat up the bad guy and save the world, but because they’ll build a world around us that’s worth saving in the first place.
FIRST LIGHT, the first book in the RESONANCE saga by author and newsletter contributor Casey E. Berger turns one year old today!
Check out Casey’s website for short stories set in the universe, character playlists, and more goodies, including signed copies of the trilogy.