For some reason, whenever I read a female character terrifying other characters, I am reminded how much I like liking girls. There’s something about cutthroat characters that completely absolves them of any wrongdoing in my head—or maybe the opposite, that it is the wrongdoing that makes me obsessed.
In my humble opinion, there is one essential ingredient that makes a personality properly ‘cutthroat’: arrogance. Whenever a woman in fiction acts like she has the birthright to make people run or beg for their lives whenever she fancies it, and then—icing on the cake—bathes in that power trip, it’s impossible to look away. Characters like these are also tons of fun to write (yeah, I’m looking at you, Jenny Shindanai of Gearbreakers). It’s a delicate balance of fearing them, wanting to be them, and just wanting to look at them and all the morally questionable decisions they make with their heads held high.
So without further ado, here are some cutthroat female characters that thrill and chill all at once:
Juliette Cai — These Violent Delights by Chloe Gong
“Her words said one thing, but her cold, flat stare said another—One misstep while you’re in my territory, and I’ll kill you with my bare hands.”
The heir of the Scarlet Gang takes to the page with cold and lethal grace. If you ever felt that the Juliette of Shakespeare’s timeless work was too lovestruck to have any sense of agency, look no further than Chloe Gong’s YA debut. In a blood feud on the streets of 1926 Shanghai, Juliette Cai carries out the needed, gritty business of her gang with a sharp tongue and sharper observation of the world around her, so that each act of violence is brutal and unwasteful. I loved Juliette especially because she is fully cognizant of the crown she wears, and flourishes that arrogance just as blatantly as her flapper dresses. Even with her feelings for Roma (feelings of love, then hate, then…) this cutthroat side of hers is never once compromised—but let’s be honest, Roma is into it as much as the rest of us are.
Nausicaä Kraken — A Dark and Hollow Star by Ashley Shuttleworth
“She felt no guilt for what she’d done and no fear of whatever came next. Not even pain could rouse her from her apathy.”
Nausicaä Kraken: immortal celestial being, outcasted Fury, sarcastic sword-wielding lesbian. I was obsessed from page one, where she comes onto the scene having freshly fulfilled her revenge arc, and stands unflinching and unapologetic before the deity-court for her vicious crime. Tumbling into our world, Nausicaä brings onto the mortal plane a cutthroat personality balanced by a nihilism bred from her deathlessness (read: crackling one-liners, a particularly lovely scene where she’s casually rooting through a corpse’s chest). She commands every scene with cheeky dialogue that is shiver-inducing in its distinctness, and there are points where her mood slides effortlessly from humorous and sardonic to dark and dangerous. No matter how bored or careless she might seem one moment, Nausicaä knows the ridiculous extent of her power on the mortal plane, and she’s just waiting for someone to piss her off enough to shed her idleness and show them how badly they’ve slipped up.
Red and Blue — This Is How You Lose the Time War by Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone
“I love you. I love you. I love you. I’ll write it in waves. In skies. In my heart. You’ll never see, but you will know. I’ll be all the poets, I’ll kill them all and take each one’s place in turn, and every time love’s written in all the strands it will be to you.”
On opposite sides of an ancient war to control time’s threads, Red and Blue are their respective factions’ most brilliant and brutal talents. I’ve grouped them together here because, of course, they would want to be as close as possible (the cutthroat sapphic enemies-to-lovers of my dreams, thank you very much). They play a cat-and-mouse game with each other up and down the timeline, leaving behind crumbled worlds each time they climb out of a particular moment, alongside letters for one another that grow more and more bare as the forbidden correspondence carries on. There’s something particularly vicious about violence when it twines with protecting affections—love, of course, can just as easily be a powerful motivator for calamity as it can for softer acts.
Kasey Mizuhara — The Ones We’re Meant to Find by Joan He
“None of us live without consequence. Our personal preferences are not truly personal. One person’s needs will deny another’s. Our privileges can harm ourselves and others.”
I’ve always been a great believer that intelligence is the most lethal trait, which would potentially place Kasey Mizuhara of Joan He’s YA sci-fi as the most dangerous women on this list. Kasey is unlike any YA protagonist I’ve ever read, highly analytical of both the dying world around her and the people within it. To save the planet and the human race, she’s thinking decades ahead, fully capable of sacrificing who needs to be sacrificed in order to ensure a lasting future. In the first few chapters it’s easy to describe her as cold—and perhaps this is true; I like her just the same—but He does such a fantastic job of setting the reader into Kasey’s head that the descriptive seems too simplistic. Kasey does have quite a bold personality, structured in these vastly diagnostic lines of thought, bolder, I think, because it seems to herself, not something she actively shows. She’s more accustomed to being a fly on the wall to take in the information and churn out the brutal, needed solutions. Readers can really witness her feeling like she’s missing some softer trait that she sees the people around her experiencing, and then (and this is the part I always find so thrilling), leaning into who she is. She doesn’t exactly have power trips, but she does have a surgical appreciation of her experiments well-done, and that satisfaction is just as chilling as outright gloating. She herself may not be completely cold but her intellect certainly is, and I think that’s a little scary.
Zoe Hana Mikuta currently attends the University of Washington in Seattle, studying English with a creative writing focus. She grew up in Boulder, Colorado, where she developed a deep love of Muay Thai kickboxing and nurtured a slow and steady infatuation for fictional worlds. When she is not writing, Zoe can be found embroidering runes onto her jean pockets, studying tarot or herbology, or curled up with a cup of caramel coffee and a good, bloody but heartwarming book. Gearbreakers is her debut novel.