Before I dive into media, I’m going to list some real women with the reminder that they do exist and are worth looking at.
You don’t get any more real than reality.
Here’s some references to women in history, from a post made by Indiana Jen to Wikipedia, and we have the article, “Women Have Always Fought” by Kameron Hurley. Also this article talking about women in combat.
There are women combatants throughout history, and currently today, you can find them everywhere fairly easily. You just have to dig and not that hard. There are women who have been great at fighting, terrible at fight, middling, and just on the rolling spectrum. Every variety you want. You can find them.
Ronda Rousey is currently very popular in sports circles right now for good reason, however checking out the entirety of the women’s division of the UFC is a good idea because it’s fast access to looking at women who choose to participate in blood sport professionally. Gina Carano, Holly Holm, and others.
You can actually often find old videos of martial arts and other competitions from the Olympics, which have female divisions for most sports. These include fencing, archery, judo, taekwondo, etc. There’s information out there about them than you’ll get straight out of entertainment media, but it’s always worth looking to reality for comparisons with fiction.
Alien: specifically the first one for a look at characters who were written from the perspective of being entirely gender neutral in that they were all originally intended to be male. If you’ve never looked at it purely to watch how Ellen Ripley is very different from many of the female characters in the general media, it’s always good to start there.
Aliens: Ellen Ripley returns and this time she’s written from a more traditional perspective as a mother bear. However, holding her in contrast to the hyper-masculine Vasquez is very interesting. Both are fascinating characters in their own right and the movie is a fun time if you can handle a little horror.
Terminator 2 (and Terminator): In Terminator, Sarah Connor is the quintessential horror movie heroine in need of rescue and the transition from that to her Terminator 2 persona happens in the last five minutes of the movie. However, it’s worth watching and looking at. Sarah Connor is an excellent example of a female combatant in 2 and fully ripped.
Farscape: All female characters on Farscape, not just as combatants but in general. Aeryn Sun is the standout for female combatants and the Peacekeepers are interesting in that they are entirely gender neutral. She’s a good character to look at if you want one that’s been raised for war since birth and still trying to figure out the other particulars. Aeryn establishing her own identity outside her role as a Peacekeeper is a huge part of her arc.
Battlestar Galactica (The Remake): There are a bunch of really, really, really fantastic female characters to dig through on this show and the creators went specifically out of their way to play with concepts of gender with Starbuck. You want to see a very masculine, aggressive female character utilizing a lot of flaws that are traditionally masculine then watch Starbuck and compare her to the above. It has it’s flaws, but it’s on point most of the time.
Stargate SG-1: Samantha Carter, full stop.
24: Nina. Nina. Nina, Nina, Nina, and more Nina. Chloe. Also, Nina. Why Nina? Because Nina is awesome, because Nina is driven, because the answer to that question is spoileriffic. Because Nina is good at her job. Nina is a professional. Chloe is good too, for different and more conventional reasons.
Burn Notice: Fiona with the caveat that she’s not a professional and it’s important to remember that in context with the rest of the team. She’s IRA, a guerrilla fighter and she thinks predominately from that perspective. Still, the sequence where she tasers herself to get the guy is fun. She’s in the range of the very aggressive to the point of overly aggressive or hyper aggressive. She also gets off on violence, a lot.
X-Files: Scully. This may not be what everyone thinks of, but Scully is a federal agent and so she is a combatant. Unlike some other shows, X-Files did attempt to portray the federal agent part accurately. There are a few hiccups here and there, but overall it’s a good showing. Also, one of the earlier examples on television in the 90s of a woman getting to be the Spock and got her own trope out of it.
Elementary: Lucy Liu as Joan Watson. It takes her a while to get there, but it’s Lucy Liu. I mean, c’mon. Also, the Watson and Holmes friendship in that is great. You don’t get many platonic male and female friendships on television. Ever.
Babylon 5: Susan Ivanova for the military perspective, so willing to use violent solutions and is fatalistic. Delenn who walks the continuum from peaceful solutions but is willing to escalate into killing you and everyone who has ever met you, so the rare female character who prefers diplomacy but for whom violence is never off the table. Lyta Alexander and Talia Winters, the walking weapons like all telepaths and one of which is later commodified into a super weapon. The treatment of an incredibly powerful female character as an object by the other characters is intentional in the writing and it’s an interesting discussion on how people can be transformed into objects then discarded.
Salt: I can’t say this is a great movie, but Angelina Jolie plays a Russian undercover agent who is outed to the Federal government and must run for her life. The stunts are over the top, like in any action movie a real human being can’t do most of them. And her motive is very cliche for female characters. However, for attitude? Yeah. Jolie nails the ‘tude.
The Long Kiss Goodnight: These two are the Black Widow movies that you’ll never see, but Gina Davis plays a suburban housewife that discovers she’s a spy with memory loss.
Kill Bill: There are a lot of fantastic performances in this this and Volume 2, the fights aren’t realistic but they’re not supposed to be. Kill Bill is a great one when you’re looking for attitude.
R.E.D.: For Helen Mirren, she’s amazing. This is a much more classic example of the super spy in the genre.
Mad Max: Fury Road: Charlize Theron is great in this movie, but the other female characters are also excellent.
The Shield: All the actresses in the Shield deliver phenomenal performances, but all my love goes to CCH Pounder for being incredible. On the one hand, Detective Claudette Wyms is the stereotypical female Black cop on television. On the other, she’s incredibly well rounded, well acted, and very human.
Justice League: Unlimited: This one may seem weird compared to the others on the list, but it’s an excellent example of the more you have then the more diverse it becomes. Because it has so many superheroes, Justice League offers a wide variety of surprisingly well-written female characters complete with strengths and weaknesses. You want a low-key kick ass and take names approach that manages to transcend the silly/sexualized costumes by making its diverse cast of characters well rounded and human? Then watch Justice League. (It’s not just because CCH Pounder’s Amanda Waller is amazing.)
Queen and Country by Greg Rucka. Comics. Spies. Female spies that aren’t femme fatales, at all.
Live. Die. Repeat. (Otherwise known as Edge of Tomorrow): Mostly for Emily Blunt.
The Lord of the Rings: Eowyn. Because you can basically describe the Rohirrim as Fratboys and she’s one of them.
Strange Days: Angela Basset will take your teeth out through your nose. Like with Terminator 2, her character is one of the few examples you’ll see of women allowed to be buff. (TW: rape plot, though not her.)
Wing Chun starring Michelle Yeoh. You’re mostly watching this for the action, but there’s a lot of awesome martial arts to go around.
Get Smart (Original): This may seem a little out of left field, but Agent 99 from the 60s was actually a groundbreaking character on American television. This was long before the stereotype where women were automatically more skilled than men in spy fiction but not allowed to be the focus and she’s one of the first single, working women we have, and who is substantially more competent than her colleague, and who makes a great deal more sense given the gender roles of her timeframe. Anyway, if you’re looking for something a little lighter then give Barbara Feldon a shot.
Xena: Warrior Princess – Xena is one of the weird ones, because on the one hand she’s hypersexualized. On the other hand, Lucy Lawless fucking owns it. Honestly, I wouldn’t watch Xena if you’re looking for a female character that’s trying to be serious. I would watch Xena for reference if you’re looking to write a female character that’s just out to have a good time. Plus, when it came to LGBT representation, the showrunners were actively messing with Standards and Practices on what they could get away with. Remember, all that Xena/Gabrielle fanservice is trolling the network bigots.
Claymore – I don’t generally recommend a lot of anime or manga when specifically looking at female characters, mostly because like with any other piece of foreign media you’re taking a lot of the gender norms that come from that culture with it. If you aren’t familiar enough with the culture to really parse that out, then while it may be fun to watch it becomes more difficult to incorporate or you incorporate stuff you didn’t mean to. This is just as true if you’re not American and consuming American media, or not British and consuming British media, or any other kind of media.
That said, I’d read this manga. This is basically an almost entirely
female cast of characters that are taking on roles traditionally
masculine in the Shounen genre. It’s a whole bunch of complicated female
characters killing monsters without the hypersexualization or the jokes
that usually come with it. Basically, its kind of like Berserk with
women. If you’re going to do anything with the “I was experimented on
and turned into a killing machine” then this is a must read.
Legend of the Seeker, Season 2 – Keeping in mind that the novels are fetishistic and the show isn’t that great, the Mord Sith Cara specifically in personality is one of the better examples I’ve seen on television of a female character who has been abused and then transformed into an abuser. Tabrett Bethell nails the mentality, the personality, and the expressions of a warrior with that specific outlook. Especially someone who was raised to combat in an unforgiving environment as a child. You’ll see a lot of characters out there like Kahlan, you won’t see as many that manage to nail the mentality behind a Cara. Also, Cara refuses to bend knee to Richard’s moral authority. She develops as a character, but she is always the one who decides the direction that development takes. She owns who she is and is proud of it, even when that makes other people uncomfortable.
Protector of the Small by Tamora Pierce – If you’re not already reading Tamora Pierce, you probably should be. She writes some of the best female characters, especially for teens. So, just read the catalog. However, if you want to write a character who is a leader of men? Then, Kel is still the best and worth looking at. Pierce also does an excellent job digging into the sexual politics in a medieval setting, the lack of easy answers or solutions, and a lot of all around humanizing over finger pointing. Which is about 100,000x better than the vast majority of “teach them to fight” narratives.
Dark Disciple series by Margaret Weis – This is a sequel series to the War of Souls, but the evolution of Mina as a character is worth paying attention to. On top of that Weis’ books tend to have pretty good fight scenes.
At the end of the day, the real trick to writing female characters
though is to create well-rounded individuals who are a reflection or
informed by the world they live in. One of the biggest problems with female characters in fiction is often that they’re written to represent the way an author thinks women should be, rather than who they are. And no, sadly being a woman doesn’t automatically make you immune. Good female characters are characters, they’re well-rounded individuals who belong in the world they live in and whose lives are a reflection of their setting.
We are all the sum total of our experiences. If your characters experiences are not informing who they are, then you might have a problem.