Hey there. Thank you for asking this question, because I love talking about awesome ladies, especially awesome ladies in YA. And I am very, very glad to see people talking about them! The ladies sure could use it.
But I must be careful in answering this, too.
I do find it a little troubling whenever I see discussion of ‘which ladies are heroic’… studying which girls are qualified to be heroes, since I never see such discussions about men. Female characters get critiqued so much more harshly, and forgiven so much less (seriously: my ladies get more flak than my gentlemen, and one of my gentlemen is LITERALLY A DEMON) that I am very wary of saying anything that might be construed as a list of qualities that if a girl doesn’t fit them, she is a Bad Girl and Unworthy To Be A Heroine.
There is no wrong way to be a girl.
And I have no desire to give anyone sticks to beat the ladies with. Ladies get enough stick!
Plus I find it troubling that there is such a narrow range of characteristics which people deem to be acceptable in a heroine. A lady who has more than one dude interested in her is a ho, a lady with self-confidence is uppity, a lady who feels unworthy is a dishrag, a girl with many good qualities is a ‘Mary Sue’ and a girl with too few is a blank slate. They get you coming and going. ;)
But I always love to talk about awesome ladies! And I have many examples.
Sophie in Diana Wynne Jones’s Howl’s Moving Castle. She spends most of the book looking eighty years old: she’s practical and does a ton of housekeeping, which is hardly High Adventure. And yet she is brave, and strong, and loves her sisters, and stands up to everyone.
Frankie in E. Lockhart’s The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks. My friends and I were talking about Frankie in a frozen yoghurt shop the other day, and how she is intelligent and furious with it, wanting to have the fun boys are allowed to have and hard on other girls, but realizing the problems with how free and easy the boys’ lives are comparatively. She’s also fiercely funny and an awesome sleuth, but she is actively troubling to people: a lot of readers I’ve forced the book on didn’t get her. That’s because being a hero and a girl, is complicated. She gets stick for being mean and disrespectful to the boys in her life—none of the boys get told for being mean and disrespectful to her, though the point is that they are throughout. Frankie should be president, and her book should’ve won all the awards.
Tessa in Cassandra Clare’s Infernal Devices series. She’s a really convincingly rendered avid reader, being read by avid readers, and she’s a girl in Victorian times who has to find a way to be strong while weighed down by many oppressive expectations of how girls should be. She has to save people, love people in many ways when romantic love is a complicated and frowned-on thing, and make her voice heard in a world that doesn’t want to hear it.
Mary in Y.S. Lee’s A Spy In The House. Same as with Tessa, she’s struggling in Victorian times, but she’s also dealing with being half Chinese but able to pass as white—tricky—and she’s a sleuth, so stuff comes up that she absolutely has to handle. Stuff like cross dressing.
Flora in Ysabeau Wilce’s Flora Segunda. Flora is super grumpy, and she doesn’t care about clothes, and she is impatient with the angsty goings on of all the dudes around her.
Lila in Holly Black’s White Cat: I love her because she’s a femme fatale and a bad girl, a mobster’s daughter, who has sex with dudes she doesn’t love and commits Le Violence: she comes at the hero with murder in her heart. And she’s the heroine: she’s brave, and strong, and she has genuine love in her heart: the femme fatale has feelings, and that’s so obvious: a lady is a person! But we don’t see it often enough.
Ai Ling in Cindy Pon’s Silver Phoenix: partly I love her for a simple reason, which is that it’s super rare to see a heroine who is like ‘I LOVE FOOD, GIVE IT TO ME, ALL OF IT, ADVENTURING IS HUNGRY WORK.’ But she also sets out on an adventure in a super male-dominated world: she’s a knight errant.
Chloe in Kelley Armstrong’s The Summoning - tiny, and very shy, and very young-looking, and yet committed to a career she wants, and learning to stand up for herself when her instincts say nay!
So… traits in a MC, boy or girl, that I find heroic.
When the time comes for them to do something, they do it: when the time comes to be brave, whether they feel brave or not, or act bravely throughout, when the Moment Arrives, they are brave. They care about others.
As you can see, though, these characters are incredibly diverse. Some are shy, some brave, some fight brilliantly, some never pick up a weapon.
Like real women—like real people—heroism takes many forms, and nobody is able to be perfect and heroic all the time. What I see demanded of women too much is something that’s not demanded of men as much or in the same way: being perfect—though we also hear complaints that they are too perfect! None of the characters above are perfect, but they are heroic when it counts, and believe in themselves and their own ability when it counts. They seize the moment, and the story: the story is theirs.