When I first started to get serious about writing stories, I was really bad at it. I was a teenager filled with hard-edged feelings that needed to be let out, and writing was how I did that. I composed epics about heroines who personified what I thought I wanted to be. I wasn't just writing fantasy stories but fantasy characters that don't exist in any genre. I wrote about girls without flaws, because I wanted to be without flaws. I wrote contemporary characters whom I thought could live in this contemporary world better than I seemed to be doing. Why did I think that? Because they were likable. They were pleasant, they were pretty, they were selfless to a martyr-like degree, and they always got the guy.
It's tough being a YA heroine. Even after you save the world, resolve the love triangle, and achieve self-actualization, you have to pass that most important of reader tests: whether you're likable. Shockingly, I like a lot of likable heroines. "Likable" isn't an automatic dirty word for me, because there are tons of likable people in this world that still feel real. I like pretty much any character who feels real to me or that I understand all the way down to their souls despite whether they are, by definition, "likable" or not.
In her super awesome post on likable heroines, author Claire LeGrand suggests that a likable heroine is someone who doesn't challenge us or "make us questions whether or not we should like her". Of course I like Hazel from The Fault in Our Stars. She's funny, bright, and dying. Her morals adhere closely to the morals of our society, and we never question if she's a good person or not. She's immediately, obviously likable, and I like her. But even Hazel, I'm sure, isn't immune to the kind of delightful criticisms all YA heroines garner. She's a slut. She's a prude. She's leading him on. She's too bitchy. She's too bland. She's a pushover. She's a bitch. She's annoying. She cries too much. She's too flawed. She's too perfect.
Heroines, much like real live girls, can never get it right. (My rant about those who police the sexual decisions of YA girls is a rant for another day).
Which is why I kind of unashamedly love the girls who reflect who I really am as opposed to who I want to be, or who I force myself to be. I was talking with Meg and Christina earlier today, after ranting about a certain ridiculous article about catcalling that I refuse to link to, about the way we behave when we're out in public. Basically, I'm conditioned to make myself small and quiet. When I give my Starbucks order, I say "please" and "thank you" and "excuse me". In restaurants, I ask permission to order, like I'm afraid if I get too demanding or show too much desire for something, I won't be liked. And I hate that I do that. My brother doesn't do that. He informs the server that he will be having the steak au poivre, yes indeed, and you better believe the steak is going to show up at that table in a timely manner.
But then I think about the girls who often behave in ways that aren't considered "likable". Emma Woodhouse, meddlesome, entitled, and completely human. Katniss, prickly and occasionally cold. Nyx from Cruel Beauty, full of bitterness and resentment. Alina Starkov, ambitious and drawn to power. Celaena, arrogant, vain, tempestuous, and murderous. Eleanor Fitt, whose morality is deliciously gray. Whitley from A Midsummer's Nightmare by Kody Keplinger, who acts out in huge, dramatic, often hurtful ways.
|No, seriously, what's the answer? Anybody?|
Sometimes, I just really want to read about girls who occupy space, knock things down, make hideous mistakes, and don't fit into the narrow "likable girl" category that so many real life women are forced into. I want to read about girls who desperately wish they fit that mold, but can't. I want to read about girls who don't give a crap about the mold, or at least pretend they don't. I want to read about every single girl that's out there, no matter how "unlikable" she is.
Well. There are limits, obviously. (I draw the line at bigots, pretty much.) There are some heroines whose heads I have hated to be in, some heroines I have been incapable of rooting for when the book required me to do so. I've criticized the snot out of a whole bunch of leading ladies, and if I go and look back through my archives, I'm sure I'll notice that I've been harsher on the ladies than the dudes, and I'll want to kick myself. I notice it on Goodreads all the time. So many readers are willing to let fictional boys get away with things, but NEVER the girls. I'm one of them, and I'm trying to change that.
There are still going to be times when I toss out the L and the U words to describe my reaction to a character. I mean, certain books hinge on your ability to like a protagonist, and sometimes your personalities just do not jive. Sometimes there are heroines who are meant to be paragons of perfection--who are clearly intended to be "likable"--whom you'd really just prefer to stab with a fork because the narrative doesn't recognize or address their accidental flaws. In those situations, I try to take author intent into account, and judge whether or not this character is compelling to me personally.
|Aaaaand then there are the bitches you just straight up want to shank.|
To sum up a long, uncharacteristically serious post, I like to read about girls who feel real. Fiction is one of the best way to learn humanity and empathy, and reading about girls who are human helps you learn that real life girls are human, too. If more men read about real women, maybe things could change. Then there's what unlikable heroines can do for actual teenagers. I was such a mess of contradictory emotions. I hadn't yet formed, and I didn't know what to do with all the different bits inside me (dirty). If Teenage Gillian--a brat, a bitch, a snob, lonely, judgmental, selfish, and unsure--could read about more girls who were all those things and still managed to be the heroine of her own story, maybe she'd have grown up to demand the steak au poivre like her brother.
WHOO, so things got more personal there than they usually do. What is this open emotion doing here for all to see? PUT THAT AWAY, GILLIAN, IT'S DISGUSTING. (You don't even want to know how many times I accidentally wrote "unlickable". It's true, though. Joffrey is totally unlickable.)
Ahem. Anywayyyyy, what are YOUR thoughts on unlikable heroines?