Psychological thrillers can take you on a rollercoaster ride and hold you captive. Memorable female characters have been a standout in this genre.

Readers love memorable female characters in psychological thrillers.
Photo Courtesy of Alexandra Haynak on Pixabay

Many readers have at least one psychological thriller on their bookshelf. These books have plot twists that can challenge your mind, requiring an active imagination, a healthy dose of wariness, and a suspended sense of disbelief. Some of the best psychological thrillers have featured memorable, well-defined, central female characters. Here are a few memorable characters who made an impact in the literary world.

Memorable Female Character 1: Annie Wilkes from Misery by Stephen King

Memorable female character Annie Wilkes from Misery by Stephen King.
A variation of the Misery book cover

I watched the movie version of Misery before I read the book. Annie Wilkes was chilling in both. Annie Wilkes is a former nurse who lives in a remote part of Colorado. She has an unhealthy obsession with romance novels. When she finds her favorite romance writer, Paul Sheldon, injured in a car accident, she takes him to her home to recover. Paul Sheldon is the writer of Annie’s favorite character, Misery Chastain.

Annie learns that Paul has killed off Misery in his last novel. This leads to a slow unraveling of Annie’s mental state. She keeps Paul hostage instead of taking him to the hospital. She wants him to rewrite his novel and ensure that he keeps Misery Chastain alive.

Annie Wilkes is a psychopath. She terrorizes and tortures Paul Sheldon, eventually chopping off his foot with an ax. Although there are a few differences between the book and the movie, the essence of Annie’s character remains. Paul discovers that Annie is a serial killer and has left a trail of bodies in her wake. As a nurse, they also investigated her when many babies died under her care.

This is a well-written female character who evokes great fear. She exhibits many signs of mental illness. Her rage is spine-chilling. She is memorable because her cruel nature and psychopathic tendencies are so overt.

Memorable Female Character 2: Amy Dunne from Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn

Memorable female character Amy Dunne from Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn.
The cover of Gone Girl

Amy Dunne is the wife of teacher Nick Dunne.  The couple moved from New York after the financial crisis of 2008 and settled in Missouri. Amy is slightly famous because of her parents’ series of children’s books that feature a main character supposedly based on her. On her fifth wedding anniversary, Amy disappears. An analysis of the forensic evidence in the Dunne’s home points to a potential crime.

Amy’s husband Nick is a suspect in her disappearance. He aroused suspicion because of his apathetic attitude. Even his twin sister briefly doubted his innocence. As the book progresses, we learn how Amy and Nick met and fell in love. We also gain insight into the disintegration of their marriage once they moved to Missouri.

For most of the book, we view Amy as a victim. Nick suspects she’s still alive and connects with her ex-boyfriend. He learns that Amy planted evidence and framed her ex-boyfriend for rape. You sympathize with her character until you realize what she has done. We learn that Amy launched a grand scheme to frame Nick for her murder. She hatches this plan when she discovers Nick’s unfaithfulness.

The book reveals Amy’s genuine character in a shocking twist. Amy is cruel, manipulative, and intelligent. She has faked multiple crimes and a pregnancy. She was detailed enough to write a diary depicting her supposed abuse at the hands of her husband. She deliberately created financial stress and further solidified a ‘motive’ for her murder. The police cannot prove her deception even when she returns, because she has been meticulous in her planning. She is now free, pregnant, and still married to a resentful Nick.

Amy’s character is memorable because she is cold and calculating. We rarely associate those characteristics with a female character in a psychological thriller. Yet, many readers also sympathized with her because the reasons for her deception were relatable.

Memorable Female Character 3: Lisbeth Salander from The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson

Memorable female character Lisbeth Salander from books by Stieg Larsson
The box set of three of the books in the Millenium series

Mikael Blomkvist is a journalist hired to write the history of a family of wealthy industrialists. He learns that the family head, Henrik Vanger, wants him to solve the murder of his niece Harriet, who disappeared decades ago. The family lawyer hires Lisbeth Salander, a young woman who is a brilliant researcher, to assist Blomkvist.

As the story progresses, we learn more about Lisbeth Salander. She is a computer hacker and is very much a loner, except for associates from the hacking community. The court had declared her legally incompetent and appointed her a guardian. Her guardian controls her life. When her guardian falls ill, another replaces him.

Her new guardian is sadistic. He sexually assaults Lisbeth and threatens to take total control of her finances. Her guardianship prevents her from attaining true freedom, even though she works independently. After her sexual assault, Lisbeth tortures her guardian and finally gains access to her finances. She still has to work on gaining legal competence.

Although Lisbeth’s own story is so chilling and heart-breaking, she still assists Blomkvist in his quest to solve the mystery surrounding Harriet. Lisbeth also provides Blomkvist with information to repair his journalistic integrity. She is a memorable character because she survives against insurmountable odds. She is a troubled woman, but it hasn’t robbed her of her empathy or humanity.

These memorable female characters elicit different emotions in the reader. Horror, disbelief, and sympathy. They are fierce on the page. It is little wonder that these books were adapted into movies.