If you were asked to name the most notoriously deadly characters in fiction – be they driven by good or evil designs – more likely than not it would be the men who leapt forward with knives unsheathed. Hannibal Lector, Tom Ripley and even James Bond are unforgettable, ruthless killers for sure, but it’s not always true that women are the meeker sex. Here we run down our top five fabulous and deadly females – those who inspire fear and respect into even the bravest heart!
5. Katniss Everdeen from The Hunger Games trilogy by Suzanne Collins
From the instant we meet Katniss, we know she’s not an everyday heroine. The sole provider for her family, her dedication drives her to cross the dangerous zone border daily in search of food. It’s this love for her family, particularly her sister Prim, that motivates so many of her actions and makes her so admirable. When Prim is picked to compete in the deadly Hunger Games, Katniss intervenes without hesitation. Her bravery continues throughout the series and is matched only by her staggering lack of self-pity. She never complains about her fate, and she continually outwits and out-survives those around her to become the reluctant but worthy symbol of the Resistance. She’s not afraid to get her hands dirty – even kill when she needs to – but she undertakes her duties with her head held high and never shifting her stare from the greater good. Go Katniss!
4. Merricat from We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson
Merricat is the archetypal outsider when we meet her, strange and lonely, struggling in the wake of losing her family, taunted by the townsfolk and plotting her very justifiable vengeance with the most fabulous imagination. In an instant, we’re on her side. As the story progresses and we realise the extent to which this most unreliable of narrators has hoodwinked us, it’s hard not to still remain under her spell. If nothing else, the tiny, marvellous, sinister details she’s planted in her trickery – and how she’s done so with the most all-encompassing lack of conscious – makes it impossible not respect her as much as be afraid!
3. Brienne of Tarth from the Game of Throne series by George R. R. Martin
If Ned Stark was the most honourable man in the seven kingdoms, Brienne must surely be the most honourable woman. She more than holds her own in the male-dominated world of knighthoods, rising above her cruel nickname of ‘Brienne the Beauty’ to maintain her moral fortitude and idealistic view of honour. Her oaths are to be upheld at any sacrifice and she’s loyal and trustworthy to the bitter end, but she’s also utterly fearless – and completely deadly. It’s the vulnerability behind her terrifying warrior persona that melts our hearts, however. It also melts the heart of the Kingslayer, Jamie Lannister, and their friendship provides one of the most genuinely touching subplots of the books.
2. Lizzie Borden from The Fall River Axe Murders, a short story by Angela Carter
Borden was the real-life New England spinster who gained notoriety after dispatching her father and step-mother with an axe in 1892. Her story has been retold many times (most recently in the successful novel, See What I Have Done by Sarah Schmidt) but in this short story, we meet her on the morning before the murders take place. Carter invites us inside Borden’s mind in exquisite, excruciating detail, showing how she lived with her stepmother “oppressing her like a spell”, their squalid home and the overbearing high-summer heat. Although there’s little doubt that Lizzie did it, Carter strikes a tone that somehow avoids judgement. Borden is furious and bloody-minded but she’s also sharp as a knife, caged by her circumstance and living in a pressure-cooker, so when the tension is mercilessly ramped up, stopping in the moment before chaos is unleashed, it’s almost too terrible and glorious to bear.
1. Carmen and Vivian Sternwood from The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler
It’s a two-for-one deal at the top of the pack with Carmen and Vivian Sternwood taking the crown; sisters from Raymond Chandler’s classic, The Big Sleep. Together, they are the perfect femme fatales. Carmen is the beautiful, flirtatious socialite, spoilt into ruin. At first appearance, this childlike waif couldn’t hurt anyone, but her behaviour soon raises serious concerns, not least when she appears naked in Detective Phillip Marlowe’s bed, sucking her thumb and whispering “I’m innocent”. Vivian is just as irresistibly attractive but with none of the submissive, timid pretence. It’s her psychological complexity, particularly her fierce protectiveness of Carmen, that stops her from being anything like a cliché, however. As well as almost enchanting Marlowe, it leaves us guessing who is truly the damsel in distress – and who’s the murderess.