From magical kingdoms to epic quests, princess protagonists have long captivated readers of fantasy literature.
While early fantasy works often portrayed princesses as damsels in distress or prizes to be won, modern takes on the archetype have brought nuance, depth and agency to these royal heroines.
Let’s explore some of the most influential princess protagonists in contemporary fantasy novels and what makes them so impactful.
A Leader of Legends: Eilonwy in The Chronicles of Prydain
Though Lloyd Alexander’s The Chronicles of Prydain often takes a lighthearted tone, the series broaches serious themes of war, death and finding inner strength. At its heart is Princess Eilonwy, a headstrong young girl grappling with her magical gifts and her role in saving the mythical land of Prydain. Far from a passive damsel, Eilonwy shows courage and cleverness from the start, often rescuing the hero rather than waiting to be rescued. Her matter-of-fact personality and dry wit add humor to the epic journey. Eilonwy emerges a wise, powerful leader who chooses duty over love – a subversion of classic princess tropes.
The Girl Who Would Be Queen: Aerin in The Hero and the Crown
Aerin, the heroine of Robin McKinley’s acclaimed novel The Hero and the Crown, is a fascinating study in duality. As the ignored daughter of the king, she is no one’s idea of a princess, much less a future queen. Shy and bookish, she seems an unlikely hero. Yet through grit and ingenuity, Aerin overcomes deadly dragons and becomes a battle-tested warrior. She claims both her magical heritage and her rightful place on the throne, proving that a princess’s power lies within. McKinley crafts a psychologically complex, inspiring character who finds greatness by being wholly herself.
The Princess as Warrior: Angharad in The Green Rider
Kristen Britain’s Green Rider series whisks readers away to an enchanted world on the brink of war. Standing strong against looming darkness is Princess Angharad, heir to the empire. Though a skilled fighter, Angharad’s true power lies in uniting allies toward a common cause. Her keen sense of diplomacy complements her warrior skills, showing that mind and muscle can partner in a strong leader. Angharad must navigate complex family dynamics and political intrigues while staying true to her principles of loyalty and justice. She proves a princess can fight battles both on the battlefield and in the cutthroat royal court.
Princess of Shadow: Elisa in The Girl of Fire and Thorns
Rae Carson’s The Girl of Fire and Thorns follows Princess Elisa, who must shed her insecurities to embrace her destiny as a prophesized ruler. Marked by a magical stone in her navel, Elisa is blessed – or cursed – with an ancient power, and hunted by dark forces who want to control it. Though born a princess, Elisa begins an unlikely hero, overweight and uncertain. Through painful growth and loss, she taps into her hidden strengths to claim her birthright and stand against evil. Elisa’s transformation inspires readers to look beyond the surface and find the spirit of the warrior princess within.
The Princess and the Commoner: Sophie in Howl’s Moving Castle
Diana Wynne Jones’ fantastical Howl’s Moving Castle stars Sophie, the eldest of three sisters doomed to fail in her fairy tale world. When she’s turned into an old crone by a jealous witch, plucky Sophie refuses to accept her fate. She bargains her way into an apprenticeship with the wizard Howl and finds magic, adventure and even true love. Sophie uses wit and indignation to become a powerful sorceress in her own right, proving that destiny is what you make it. Though a commoner, she ultimately wins over Howl, resolving the tension between princess and peasant that permeates fairy tales.
The Warrior Heir: Princess Cimorene in Dealing with Dragons
In Patricia C. Wrede’s endearing Enchanted Forest Chronicles, Princess Cimorene bucks tradition by running away to become a dragon’s princess. Cimorene’s practicality, competence and no-nonsense attitude make her an untraditional yet beloved heroine. She slays stereotypes of princesses as demure and passive.
The Clever Spy: Princess Irene in The Princess and the Goblin
In George MacDonald’s classic The Princess and the Goblin, young Princess Irene displays courage and wit. When her kingdom is threatened by sinister goblins, Irene devises clever traps and strategies to defeat them. She proves you can fight evil with intelligence just as well as strength.
The Beast Charmer: Beauty in Robin McKinley’s Beauty
Robin McKinley puts a fresh spin on the classic fairy tale Beauty and the Beast in her novel Beauty. As the title character, Beauty must navigate her shifting feelings for the Beast while defending her kingdom from political unrest. Her empathy and inner strength enable her to gently tame the Beast and restore peace.
The Summoner: Aru Shah in Aru Shah and the End of Time
In Roshani Chokshi’s Pandava series, 12-year-old Aru Shah can summon ancient Hindu gods and goddesses. When she accidentally sparks the evil god of time, Aru must undertake a dangerous journey to turn back the clock. Smart and brave, Aru proves you don’t need a crown to be a hero.
The Reluctant Ruler: Sophos in Megan Whalen Turner’s The Queen’s Thief series
Sophos is an unlikely king – timid and bookish, he’s more scholar than ruler. Yet in Megan Whalen Turner’s Queen’s Thief books, Sophos displays quiet strength and care for his people. Though he never expected the crown, Sophos grows into a just, compassionate leader.
The Assassin Who Would Be Queen: Celaena Sardothien in Throne of Glass
Sarah J. Maas’ bestselling Throne of Glass series introduces Celaena Sardothien, a legendary teenage assassin sentenced to toil in the salt mines of Endovier. Offered a chance at freedom if she wins a competition to become the king’s champion, Celaena must summon the strength to once again embrace her deadly talents. Behind her fierce exterior, she hides a painful past and greater destiny as future Queen of Terrasen.
These princess protagonists capture the hearts of fantasy fans by showing courage, intelligence and growth.
While honoured for their royal blood, they rely on their personal strengths—quick wits, martial skill, humility in the face of destiny.
They lead with wisdom and prove girls can be the heroines of their own stories.
Fantasy authors continue to move princess characters to the foreground, making them complex individuals rather than lovely figures in the background.