The upcoming fishbowl theme is "heras and villainesses" so I wanted to write a little bit about that tonight. Female characters often get short shrift when compared to male characters, whether good or evil. Let's take a closer look.
First, we have the two terms that everyone knows: hero and heroine. A hero is a male protagonist, the lead character in story -- especially an adventure or something else dangerous. He is often portrayed as somehow larger than life. Although a heroine is often described as a female hero, that's not quite how it works in practice. She's more of a junior hero, like the Little Sister at a fraternity. Often she is little more than the hero's love-interest. This can fail to satisfy female readers.
A hera is a female protagonist, the lead character in a story. She is strong and capable; she does not need to be rescued, can get herself out of trouble, and may rush to the aid of others in need. She has the same proportion of strengths and weaknesses as a hero does, which can vary depending on the type of story. She may or may not fall in love, and if she does, she is not a subordinate partner but an equal or even a dominant partner. She might take up with a hero. Then again, she might choose a heronet -- which means "little hero," the male equivalent of a heroine. He's the gentleman in distress whom she rescues.
The villainess is a counterpart of the villain. She is a female antagonist, the Big Bad of a story. Like the heroine, she often gets softballed in stories, or falls hopelessly in love with the hero and gives up her own goals to follow him. Meh, I say to that. "The female of the species is more deadly than the male." A proper villainess is both formidable and determined.
Note that not all antagonists are necessarily evil, or even wrong: they are simply opposed to the protagonist for whom the audience is supposed to be rooting. Sometimes they steal the show, and people relate to them more than expected. From this comes the dark sister of the anti-hero: the anti-hera. We'll get to them in May.
Ayla (from the Earth's Children series)
Cordelia Naismith (from the Vorkosigan series)
Destiny Ajaye (from Genius)
Ellen Ripley (from Alien)
Jirel of Joiry (from the Jirel of Joiry series)
Paksenarrion Dorthansdotter (from The Deed of Paksenarrion)
Sarah Connor (from Terminator)
Tarma and Kethry (from Vows and Honor)
Cruella de Vil (from 101 Dalmatians)
Grendel's Mother (from Beowulf)
Irene Adler (from Sherlock Holmes)
Lady of the Green Kirtle (from The Silver Chair)
Marquise de Merteuil (from Dangerous Liaisons)
Mother Gothel (from Tangled)
Poison Ivy (from Batman)
The Wicked Witch of the West (from The Wizard of Oz)
See also "Heroines and Villainesses."