You know what we really want from our "strong female characters" in pop culture? Not to be perfect human beings. Or to screw up and be sidelined. What we want is to see them do what all great characters do: make mistakes, and grow as a result. Here are a ton of female heroes whose mistakes made them great.
Xena (Xena: Warrior Princess)
When Xena first appears in Hercules, she's a villain—so in a large sense her mistakes are the entire framework for her show. She turned to evil when two of her loved ones — her brother and a slave girl who rescued her from Julius Caesar and later sacrificed herself to save Xena yet again — are killed. She does a lot of murdering and pillaging, until she's a super-badass warlord with an army at her back.
But when Xena refuses to kill a child whose parents have failed to pay the demanded ransom, her army turns against her. She joins forces with Hercules, and eventually decides to seek redemption by working for good. That turns out to be a pretty overwhelming task, and she decides to give up fighting entirely. Then, when she sees a group of people being attacked, she has to intervene. In the group is future-companion Gabrielle, and through their growing relationship Xena learns that she does not need to bear all her burdens alone and that she can continue to fight for redemption.
Daenerys Targaryen (Game of Thrones)
Daenerys' sobriquet should be "maker of epic mistakes" rather than "stormborn." She trusts Mirri Maz Duur to tend to Drogo's wound after he is gravely injured in battle, and then trusts her to perform magic to save his life. This costs her both her husband and her unborn child. But Daenerys turns this mistake into a kind of victory, when she walks into Drogo's funeral pyre and emerges with three live baby dragons. Later, after sacking Astapor and freeing its slaves, she moves on — only to find that her replacement government is overthrown. Facing a similar situation in Meereen, she decides to stay and rule... only to make a whole new batch of mistakes, that she'll hopefully learn something from.
Chihiro (Spirited Away)
Culture shock always leaves room for mistakes and confusion, especially when you're a little girl thrown into the midst of a supernatural bathhouse/inn. Chihiro commits the small faux pas of inviting the haunting No-Face inside. To repay her kindness, No-Face proceeds to devour a number of her coworkers, toss around fake money, and eventually attempt to eat our heroine, herself, when she tries to get back the second shift. At last, Chihiro claims responsibility for inviting No-Face in, runs him ragged to resolve the issue, and accepts his meager company. The event proves to be a prelude to Chihiro's maturation and the salvation of her parents.
Sarah Connor (The Terminator series)
In the first Terminator movie, Sarah Connor is largely dependent on the protection of Kyle Reese, a soldier who has traveled back in time with the purpose of protecting her. This experience, culminating in Reese's death, leads to the change we see in Terminator 2: Judgment Day and the television series Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles. She becomes obsessed with being physically and mentally prepared to protect herself and her son. In the course of doing so, however, she becomes incredibly paranoid and unstable, leading to her being confined to a mental health facility and John Connor being placed in foster care. She also finds it extremely difficult to trust any of the Terminators that are sent back to aid her. Her obsession with stopping Judgment Day leads her to attempt to murder the engineer Miles Dyson, before he can create a critical part of Skynet. She realizes just in time that she's becoming a monster, and instead finds another way to stop Dyson's research.
Sarah Manning (Orphan Black)
Sarah starts out as a grifter, who has abandoned her daughter. After seeing another clone commit suicide, she immediately decides to steal her identity in order to empty her bank accounts. In doing so, she unwittingly reveals herself and her daughter to the organization responsible for the creation of the clones, placing them in danger. In trying to outwit and evade these people, Sarah becomes more of a classic heroic figure, staying on the run and fighting off henchman sent by the Dyad Institute and religious extremists for much of the series so far. Beyond just fighting people who are trying to kidnap or kill her throughout the show, the character is also shown as willing make sacrifices for those she cares about, including her daughter, foster brother, and the other clones. Several of the other clones experience growth following their mistakes, as well — but Sarah shows the most dramatic character progression.
Sunshine (Sunshine by Robin McKinley)
Sunshine first ignores (to the point of repressing) her magical heritage and then, once it reemerges, tries to ignore it again. But after finally understanding that the bad guys are not going to stop coming and that society in general is being overrun, Sunshine embraces her magic and becomes a force to be reckoned with.
Dana Scully (The X-Files)
Scully was trained as a physician before joining the FBI, and generally is a skeptic, looking for rational explanations in contrast to her partner Fox Mulder's propensity for immediately jumping to a paranormal explanation to the cases they investigate. Over the course of the series, Scully's religious faith and morality are tested — especially in the storyline with Donnie Pfaster, a serial killer that is actually some kind of demon incarnate who repeatedly targets Scully. In their final confrontation, Pfaster tries to kill her, but fails when she and Mulder gain the upper hand. Instead of arresting him, though, she shoots and kills him out of fear or anger, something she struggles with and wonders whether she or something supernatural was in control. Scully also changes in that she begins to become more receptive to supernatural explanations for the things she and Scully encounter, instead of reflexively denying them in the face of obvious evidence, as she does early in the series.
Sarah Kerrigan (StarCraft)
Sarah Kerrigan has a lot of ups and downs, and a Pokemon evolution to boot! But she has a dark origin: At a tender age, with little control over her latent powers, Sarah accidentally kills her mother and maims her father. This event leads to her conscription as a Ghost and a number of doomed entanglements as our heroine fights to maintain a code of ethics that prevents such a tragedy from reoccuring. For instance, the Queen of Blades is born of a Overmind that shares similar aspirations to the young Kerrigan, hoping to retain a great power while avoiding destructive manipulation at the hands of others.
Starbuck (Battlestar Galactica)
Early in the series, we learn that Starbuck was engaged to Zak Adama, son of Bill Adama and brother of Lee "Apollo" Adama, in addition to being his instructor as a pilot. Because of their personal relationship, she passes him even though his skills are not at the level they should be. This ultimately results in Zak's death in an accident due to an avoidable error he makes as a pilot. Starbuck carries the guilt from this with her, and it affects her ability to train other pilots when she treats them with extreme harshness and refuses to pass them. She is eventually able to move past this after confessing the reason for her behavior to the Adama's and successfully trains new pilots (though she herself remains quite reckless for most of the series).
Clementine (The Walking Dead)
With no prior exposure to violence, death, or fundamental obstacles to survival, Clementine proves an apt analogy for the player, who grows and gains knowledge of the world with her. She truly suffers through the learning process, making various mistakes that instill valuable lessons of the new zombie apocalypse wasteland and strengthen her fortitude. One of Clem's earliest mistakes finds her trusting a mysterious voice on her walkie-talkie in hopes of reuniting with her parents. Such instructions eventually endanger the group, and our heroine is abducted by the deranged owner of said voice. A brutal and dark lesson comes upon Clem when she is forced to maim, if not kill, the Stranger in order to protect Lee. There's a grisly reminder of her choices when the duo encounters her parents shortly thereafter, and Lee begins to turn.
Image by Courtney Trowbridge.
Aerin (The Hero and the Crown by Robin McKinley)
Worried that she'll never come into her familial powers, Aerin, the daughter of the king, allows herself to be goaded into eating an entire branch of a plant that is known to be extremely poisonous to those with royal blood. She falls extremely ill and is down for several months. But then, Aerin's long confinement and recovery allows her time to make friends with an old warhorse and to research the history of her kingdom. During the course of this research, she discovers a recipe for an ointment that would allow her to repel the flame of dragons, leading her to go off on dragon-slaying adventures. She gains newfound confidence from this, although that leads to new rounds of mistakes. By the end of the book, she's learned to value herself.
Annie Sawyer (Being Human UK)
In the first two seasons of the show Annie frequently allows other people to shatter her self-confidence. This affects more than her self-esteem: when she loses confidence, she also becomes invisible to humans. Owen, the ex-boyfriend who murdered her, has this effect on her. His first appearance in the apartment (even before she knew that he was indeed the person who killed her) makes her invisible; he then goes on throughout series one to degrade and insult her. But Annie eventually reclaims her confidence by letting go of her relationship with Owen and taking her revenge upon him. Then she has a terrible experience with a boyfriend who's been manipulated by powers that attempt to drag her through death's door. With the help of a more experienced ghost, she comes back from this experience by facing those who are trying to pull her through the door. In doing so, she also faces her own fears and takes control of her destiny.
Samus Aran (Metroid)
In "Metroid II", our heroine awakens to her maternal instincts when a pint-sized version of the enemy latches onto her (in a good way). While "Baby Hatchling" initially proves to be a steadfast ally, things inevitably sour when the little guy falls into the wrong hands and outgrows its cuteness in "Super Metroid". Samus is beaten within an inch of her life bar by the mature metroid and is only saved by what may be one of gaming's most endearing and depressing deus ex machinas. The whole affair serves to humanize Samus — but also, our heroine has reluctantly learned a lesson, subsequently acknowledging her original mistake and bonding with Commander Adam Malkovich over the slaughter of millions of the little monsters in "Metroid: Other M"... after a brief PTSD flashback, of course.
Laura Roslin (Battlestar Galactica)
Many of Roslin's dubious choices as President revolve around a sort of "do the ends justify the means" question. This includes things like her ban on abortion, and her plan to assassinate Admiral Cain. But her biggest, and most morally gray, mistake is when she tries to steal the election from Baltar. But she ends up agreeing with Adama that the election should not be rigged, despite her belief that that allowing Baltar to take power will end badly for the human race. Later, when Baltar is gravely injured during the Battle of the Resurrection Hub, he admits that he gave the Cylons information that led to the attack on the Colonies. She removes his bandages and begins to let him bleed to death. But she winds up going back on this decision, as well.
Lirael (Lirael by Garth Nix)
Lonely and worried that she's never going to get the mystical powers possessed by her entire clan, Lirael is shuffled off into a position as Assistant Librarian. While conducting her duties she accidentally frees a terrifying ancient evil. But then, in trying to defeat the evil, Lirael gains confidence and responsibility. By the time she triumphs over it, she has matured significantly.
A charismatic and purportedly learned counselor, Chiba's alternate self Paprika seems to have zero flaws. However, the entitlement and hypocrisy that fuels her counseling sessions opens a window for jealousy and violence. The same lack of safeguards and control that permit Paprika's strange sessions also allows Chiba's coworker to abuse the DC Mini, invading dreams and sowing as much discord as Paprika sows solace. Chiba only acknowledges the folly of her other persona after tragic events begin to consume her colleagues and love interest. Facing down her hypocrisy, our heroine is only able to defeat the darkness that arises from the violation of dreams by accepting her own insecurities and failings. Such resolve allows her to reconcile with the Paprika part of her personality and become wholly awesome.
Phoebe Halliwell (Charmed)
All four of the sisters on this show make mistakes and demonstrate growth over the course of the series (in fact, a-sister-makes-a-mistake-and-learns-from-it is practically a weekly theme for Charmed). But Phoebe's growth from ditzy-slacker-youngest-sister to mature-responsible-weary-middle-sister makes her stand out, though. For example, Phoebe falls in love with Cole, a half-demon who's trying to destroy the sisters. Eventually Cole becomes the Source of All Evil, impregnates Phoebe, and she chooses to go over to the dark side with him. But when Phoebe is forced to make a decision between Cole and her sisters, she sides with her sisters and vanquishes him. Shortly thereafter, she has to vanquish her own unborn child, which turns out to be the new Source of All Evil. In the sixth season, Phoebe tries to use her powers of psychic sight to find out who will be the father of her yet-to-be-conceived child — this violates the prohibition against using one's powers for personal gain, and Pheobe is stripped of her powers. So she has to earn her powers back, while learning how to handle situations without them.
Elizabeth (Bioshock Infinite)
Elizabeth's impetuous nature makes her one of the most amusing escort missions in this game. However, this same impulsive behavior leads to the creation of tears, which impact the whole universe... or universes. After the death of Chen Lin, Elizabeth begins to gain an understanding of how the tears impact people across timelines, from nosebleeds to byproduct derangement. By the climax of "Infinite," our heroine gains a bit of grit, creating tears with the intent of salvaging a world, rather than saving her own hide. And then in "Burial at Sea," Elizabeth struggles to right the timelines and give Jack (and Rapture) a fighting chance.
Aeryn Sun (Farscape)
Aeryn's journey is largely one from the cold emotionlessness of a Peacekeeper to human warmth and caring. For example, at the beginning of season three, she's brought back to life by a priestess who's fatally injured in the process, and Aeryn has great difficulty living with the guilt. This leads her to revert to her Peacekeeper ways, turning away from emotion. She repeats this cycle several times. But Aeryn comes to some new clarity about her situation when she is able to reconcile with her mother before her mother's death. She also evolves more through her relationship with John and her eventual motherhood.
Lucy Pevensie (Chronicles of Narnia)
Lucy routinely trusts people she shouldn't, like a strange faun who almost betrayed her to the queen, or her Turkish Delight-addled brother Edmund, who was known to be the stinker of the family. But goes on to help Aslan, defeat the White Witch, and becomes a Queen of Narnia. At the same time, she always returns to being a kid, with all those accompanying feelings. Along the way, she learns that getting wanting you want is not always a good thing.
Faye Valentine (Cowboy Bebop)
Out of the frying pan and into the grease fire, Faye can't seem to stay out of trouble. While her initial meeting with Spike Spiegel arises from a case of mistaken identity, and is typical of her habit of focusing on face values, the mistake that ultimately binds her to the crew is a case of the long (and failed) con. Faye bounces in and out of the crews' lives seemingly based on the prospect of profit; however, as the crew gathers a host of characters that expect nothing of Faye yet offer the little they have all the same (namely Spike's resources and Ed's savvy), Faye reluctantly begins to trust the odd rabble. For a woman who finds little value in others, Faye's desperate attempt to detain Spike in the final episode reveals a resurrection of heart and a small promise for her future.