Top 10 millennial heroines in fiction | Emily Austin

From Marianne in Normal People to Edie in Luster, these very different young women share pressures and anxieties specific to their era

The experiences of women through the ages have many common threads, but the heroines in different ages are all indelibly marked by their times. Esther from The Bell Jar, for instance, is a product of the “silent generation” and her struggles would be hard to imagine in any other age.

Millennial heroines have echoes of Esther’s story and other characters born before them; however, they also embody their own distinct experiences. They span from serial killer apologists to office drones trying to survive a plague, pregnant pizza delivery girls and atheist, lesbian church receptionists.

In my novel Everyone in This Room Will Someday Be Dead, a morbidly anxious millennial heroine named Gilda stumbles into a job at a Catholic church. There she hides her identity and becomes obsessed with her predecessor’s mysterious death.

When researching the traits that represent millennials, it was difficult to find results that did not present them in the context of work. Our characteristics seem to be defined by how we are as employees, which speaks volumes. Like many millennial heroines, Gilda struggles to work. This is not because she is lazy or entitled, but because it is difficult to wake up in the morning and go to a job when you are mentally ill, acutely aware of things like climate change, and concerned that somehow everyone around you is simultaneously both insignificant and incredibly important. Despite being deeply anxious and depressed, Gilda is hopeful. She cares very deeply about those around her, and given the opportunity, she would care about each of the brilliant heroines listed below.

1. Reese from Detransition, Baby by Torrey Peters
Reese has always wanted to be a mother, but that’s difficult because she is trans and because her long-term girlfriend, Amy, also trans, has detransitioned. They have now broken up and Amy is living as a man named Ames. Ames has been sleeping with his boss, Katrina, and Katrina is accidentally pregnant. Faced now with fatherhood – a component of living as a man that is especially incompatible with Ames’s true self – Ames reconnects with Reese to propose she help parent. Reese stands out as a smart, complex millennial heroine in an insightful, intelligent, and affecting story.

2. Pizza Girl by Jean Kyoung Frazier
The heroine here is 18, pregnant, in mourning and enamoured by the single mom to whom she delivers pizza. This is a character study about a troubled, funny, and relatable narrator. It is a coming-of-age story that centres on grief, trauma. And ordering pickles on pizza.

Candice Carty-Williams.
Candice Carty-Williams. Photograph: Suki Dhanda/The Observer

3. Queenie by Candice Carty-Williams
Queenie is a 25-year-old Jamaican British woman who is stuck between two cultures, dealing with career struggles and trying to overcome trauma. She works for a national newspaper where she is constantly being reminded of her cultural difference. She is struggling with her mental health, dealing with a toxic breakup and coping in unhealthy ways. Her story is funny – and heartbreaking.

4. Korede from My Sister, the Serial Killer by Oyinkan Braithwaite
Korede’s sister is a beautiful sociopathic killer whom Korede is for ever cleaning up after. She has murdered three of her boyfriends and now has her eyes set on dating a doctor Korede works with and is in love with. Korede is a devoted sister and a flawed heroine. This is a darkly funny, smart thriller.

5. Edie from Luster by Raven Leilani
Edie is a 23-year-old Black woman who has lost her job as an editorial assistant in New York. Unemployed, she moves in with her adulterous older white boyfriend in New Jersey. She lives with him, his wife and their adopted Black daughter, Akila. She becomes an ally to her boyfriend’s pragmatic wife, and a role model to their smart daughter. Edie is a sexually charged, lonely, perceptive, and comedic character. Hers is a story about a millennial heroine making sense of her life.

6. Ruth from Goodbye, Vitamin by Rachel Khong
Ruth is 30. She has just ended her engagement and left her job to help care for her father who is suffering from Alzheimer’s. Like many millennial heroines, Ruth is an imperfect, witty woman at a crossroads. She is a sweet, well-intentioned character with a unique and memorable voice.

Ling Ma
Ling Ma Photograph: No credit

7. Candace from Severance by Ling Ma
This story follows Candace Chen after societal collapse caused by a pandemic. Candace works as an office drone and is so caught up in her daily routines that, at first, she barely notices the plague. She represents a notable millennial experience under late capitalism, and her story reflects thoughtfully on topics such as immigration, gender and race.

8. Helen from Sorry to Disrupt the Peace by Patrick Cottrell
Helen has returned home after the suicide of her adopted brother. She is aiming to get to the bottom of why anyone would choose to die. She is angry, eccentric and unreliable (both as a narrator and as a person). She is also funny and humane, and, like many millennials, haunted by very dark worries.

9. Wendy Reimer from Little Fish by Casey Plett
Wendy is a 30-year-old trans woman who discovers that her late grandfather, a devout Mennonite, might have also been trans. She is in a dark period of her life: struggling, feeling stagnant and discontented. She feels drawn to unravel the truth to this mystery. She is a hopeful, realistic and sympathetic millennial heroine.

10. Marianne from Normal People by Sally Rooney
A list of millennial heroines would be incomplete without mention of at least one of Rooney’s. This is a story about Marianne and Connell, who are navigating their relationship within changing social hierarchies. They hide their relationship in school when Marianne is considered unattractive and shy, but later wins greater status and poularity. Connell starts out in high regard but later struggles to fit in. This is a smart story about human connection and class, and Marianne is a millennial heroine perfect for anyone who wonders why they can’t be a normal person.

  • Everyone in This Room Will Someday Be Dead by Emily Austin is published by Atlantic. To order a copy, go to

Emily Austin

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