Top 10 Female Characters Who Know What They Want

By Madeline Dennis-Yates · February 9, 2016

2015 provided us with plenty of great performances from women, making now the perfect time to celebrate the boldest ladies in all of cinema. The characters on this list are layered and complicated, but, above all, they know exactly what they want (and are willing do whatever it takes to get it).  Whether you’re seeking inspiration to write rounder female characters, motivation to to take on the world, or some good old fashioned entertainment, you’re bound to find something worthwhile with the help of these women.


10. Brunhilde Esterhazy (Betty Garrett) in On the Town (1949)

In a film about sailors on leave, you wouldn’t think the biggest sexual aggressor would be the woman driving the cab.  And yet, Hildy indeed tries harder than anyone else to get laid – by Frank Sinatra’s Chip.  Sinatra’s known sexual appetite makes Chip, the adorable innocent, even funnier as he fights Hildy off.

While Chip is filled with childlike eagerness to see the New York of his grandfather’s guidebook, Hildy is all set to show him the hard truth (that little of that New York remains) so that they can get down to more important things, like making out in her apartment.  Hildy and Chip are an odd match, but we never doubt that she’s turned on by the pipsqueak, and few would have the guts to say anything about it to her face.


9. Carol (Lake Bell) in In a World (2013)

Lake Bell wrote, directed, and starred in this film about a woman trying to make it to the top of the voice-over world.  Carol has a lot going against her – an industry dominated by men, general sexism, a father of little faith – but despite discouragement from all directions, she just keeps showing up when given the chance. 

This character does nothing more extraordinary than to take an opportunity to audition for a job for which she is qualified.  There are, however, hilarious, infuriating, and generally quite realistic complications, and the journey Carol must take just to get one damn job reminds us that almost any story is worth exploring in-depth.


8. Princess Anne (Audrey Hepburn) in Roman Holiday (1953)

Audrey Hepburn is often the unexpectedly headstrong waif, and this time, as usual, she has a lot of fun with it.  She’s a princess sick of touring Europe and intent on enjoying the city she’s in for a change, and when she gets going, she’s a whirlwind who Joe Bradley (Gregory Peck), a reporter who finds her wandering the streets on a sedative she was given before her escape, must watch over – mostly for his own benefit.  Princess Anne often appears almost childlike, mainly because she has no idea how to function in the real world, but when she returns to her duties in the end, we see that she is more capable and hardy than any of her supposed guides in Rome. 

Anne’s story is similar to that of Ellis’s in Brooklyn (2015) in that both characters leave their homes essentially because they need a change and find, in the end, the ability to fend for themselves.  Anne is adorable, perky, and innocent, and it seems as if this will leave her dangerously vulnerable to the reporter who can benefit from her scandal.  But in the end, she wins him and everyone else over, and she’s the one who gains something from the experience.


7. Gillian Holroyd (Kim Novak) in Bell, Book and Candle (1958)

Though you could theoretically discount this as a story of a woman giving up her individuality and becoming the “marrying kind,” it’s more a study of a woman realizing that she can allow for a little vulnerability and still be herself.  Gil is the most talented witch in her very cool circle of magical Manhattanites, and she uses this talent to cast a love spell on Shep (Jimmy Stewart), her upstairs neighbor.  She steals him from a former (non-witch) classmate, and it’s apparently just for fun.  When you’re a witch, you’re literally incapable of falling in love, but Gil does eventually fall for Shep, and she loses her powers as a result.  Shep, having found out about the spell and left Gil heartbroken, meets her again after she’s lost her powers and, finding her more open and, frankly, human than before, he believes her when she says that she really was always in love with him.

Gil is changed by love, and she is crushed by the loss of a part of herself that defines her so strongly among her friends.  But falling in love doesn’t merely make her go soft; she can, for once, define herself, outside of the world of people with magical abilities, which has never very much appealed to her anyway.  She has found, in Shep, something different, and even when she believes he’ll never come back, Gil pushes herself to explore a different way of living.


6. Tiffany Maxwell (Jennifer Lawrence) in Silver Linings Playbook (2012)

Jennifer Lawrence has established herself as the actress who knows what she wants – be it onscreen or off, where she’s proven she’s not afraid to speak up for herself.  She’s built a career on playing women who it would be almost an insult to call strong.  Last year’s Joy gave us Lawrence as perhaps the ultimate woman with drive, but Tiffany in Silver Linings must not be forgotten.  Her needs as well as our feelings about her are also more complex than Joy’s, so her payoff is in some ways more rewarding.

Tiffany handles her struggles, internal and external, openly.  This gives us the advantage of being able to parse every bit of her character, but it can also be bracing.  In the end, we’re on her side because we understand and care about her needs.  In Pat (Bradley Cooper), she recognizes important parts of herself, and she knows, easily, what she must do to help both of them.  Though we follow Pat most closely, there would be no story and no character development for Pat if Tiffany didn’t make it happen.


5. Mildred Pierce (Joan Crawford) in Mildred Pierce (1945)

Poor Mildred Pierce just wants to own a successful restaurant and have her daughter stop being an ungrateful brat.  She gives up plenty to support Veda (Ann Blyth) and Veda continues to do increasingly distasteful things, apparently to test just how obnoxious a daughter can possibly be.

Mildred is practically a saint, and her devotion, which seems to repel Veda, wins us over.  This is done through a great up-by-your-bootstraps story, so that we don’t pity Mildred but are instead invigorated by her dogged efforts to succeed.


4. Ellis Lacey (Saoirse Ronan) in Brooklyn (2015)

In Brooklyn, we follow Ellis, a young Irish immigrant, as she tries, quite simply, to get settled in a new place.  If you like character studies, and even if you don’t in particular, this film is a gift, full of quiet intimacy and subtle details that tell us everything we need to know about Ellis without her having to explain anything.  What we find is a character who is flawed, frightened, lost, and, eventually, strengthened to a degree that she can accept the imperfections of life and her own decisions.

Torn between her home country – to which she is connected by a needy mother, old friends, the culture she grew up in, and an unconvincing love interest – and Brooklyn, where she has no family but finds fulfillment in new friends, romance, and figuring things out for herself, Ellis could represent any young person confronting the beginning of adulthood.  She has no anchor when she arrives in Brooklyn, but when she returns to Ireland for a funeral, she discovers that, out of necessity, she’s created one for herself.  Unhindered by the need for anyone else’s support, Ellis can feel free to make mistakes and do whatever else she likes. 

This is character development beautifully illustrated in a believable way.  By simply showing the day-to-day life of a young woman at home, out in a new world, and then home again, Nick Hornby (screenwriter) gives us everything we need to know.  Ellis’s little traumas of growing up are easily relatable, and her reactions tell us that she is more up to the task of handling them than we might expect.  Our immersion in this character is helped by John Crowley’s (directorial) decision to let Saoirse Ronan’s face do a lot of the work.


3. Marie “Slim” Browning (Lauren Bacall) in To Have and Have Not (1944)

Watching Lauren Bacall in this film, her debut, it’s not hard to see why Humphrey Bogart – and Hollywood – wanted to keep her around.   From the first moment we see “Slim,” as Bogey’s character Harry Morgan affectionately calls her, we’re struck simultaneously by her youth, sensuality, and strength.  Slim seems to be eternally at ease, whether she’s singing with the bar pianist Cricket (Hoagy Carmichael), coming on to Harry, or helping him out of sticky situations.  The character, if she weren’t a love interest, could easily have been a man.

In fact, she could have been played by Bogart.  Her easy, un-self-conscious sexuality makes her more powerful or competent than specifically feminine, and her ability to keep up with and often surprise Harry shows that the two are kindred spirits, regardless of gender.  In the end, Slim is a game companion worth taking on for Harry’s ever-evolving journey through life. 

Let’s not forget, though, that it is Slim who picks up Harry.  Although Harry is our given protagonist, Slim guides the romantic plot with total confidence and, in the end, the most thrilling story may be her evolution from intriguing bar singer to adventurer.  Things keep happening to Harry, while Slim keeps quietly making things happen for herself.  Bacall gives Slim a playful, unabashed attitude that makes her attractive as a woman and as a character.  Her structured ‘40s jackets and famously husky voice are unusually masculine elements, but we never forget that she is a woman.


3. Eve Harrington (Anne Baxter) in All About Eve (1950)

Anne Baxter is so perfectly conniving in this film that you can’t help but admire Eve.  This is a character who knows exactly what she wants, and we can see how brilliantly she and the screenwriter work towards her goal from her first scene on.  Eve knows that the way to become a star is to edge her way into the stars’ world – and to edge one of the biggest out in the process – and she never falters in her quest.  This generally means a disturbing mix of sucking up and trying to nab other people’s husbands, and Baxter keeps us wondering, with her slightly manic but almost creepily innocent face, just how much control she has.

In the end, Eve succeeds in becoming a star, but it’s not all it was cracked up to be.  She’s fully part of the world she’s put all her energy into duping, and the jokes will be on her from now on.


2. Allah Rakhi (Samiya Mumtaz) in Dukhtar (2014)

Allah Rakhi’s desire to give her 10-year-old daughter (Zainab, played by Saleha Aref) a decent life drives this film.  She makes the decision to leave behind the life she knows for a dangerous, uncertain future with no apparent hesitation – and her motive is conveyed, convincingly and strikingly, in a moment, when we see in her silent expression that she’s begun to process the consequences of Zainab’s impending marriage to an elderly man.  This comes after Zainab gives her mother her tragically innocent interpretation of the events of a wedding night.

Mumtaz so perfectly shows us in this very brief scene her character’s fears and motivation that we believe everything that follows – be it narrow escapes from trained thugs, hitching a ride on a tiger-emblazoned bus, or the clever trick the mother and daughter use to flee in the first place.  The film has a magical quality to it that can always be justified by the power of Allah Rakhi’s will.


1. Charlotte Vale (Bette Davis) in Now Voyager (1942)

Bette Davis is so badass that it (SPOILER WARNING)… 

… literally kills her mother.  Whether you’re familiar with Davis or you’ve managed never to see her in a film, her transformation in Now, Voyager is mind-boggling.  This is the mother of all makeover movies, and there’s nobody better suited to portraying a woman who is absolutely not taking any more crap than Bette.  She makes it believable that Charlotte, after a lifetime of psychological abuse and ridicule, could rise above her mother to become an absurdly sophisticated, successful woman and, again, literally kill her by doing so.