Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Faultless in Spite of All of Her Faults: The Unlikable Heroine

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?



    You know, Katniss, Celaena, Whitley, Emma and Nyx are some of my FAVORITE characters, (and I would argue that Evie from The Diviners also fits in that row) but it's exactly that: they're flawed and they realize it, own it, and learn/grow from it. That makes them so much more real to me, and it gives them so much more character depth that lets me really understand them. It's just more INTERESTING, and it's easier to make me care about their story as well. I'm very much about the character growth.

    It's actually harder for me to like the stereotypically "likable" characters because they'll either seem Mary Sue-esque, or I'll find them boring because there's nothing SPECIAL about being good and perfect and kind. When they get their romance, I'm usually like BUT WHY SHE'S SO BORING.

    But overall, yeah, I have been harsh on female characters, and way more than male characters. I'm currently in a constant state of cringing over how I praised St. Clair so much in my Anna and the French Kiss review. No one should listen to me about that. He's a douche. How have we not all called him out? If a girl did what he did, you bet people would be harping about the love triangle drama going on and how DARE she keep stringing people along and not making decisions - she's so SELFISH. *hides forever*

    At least I've learned and grown and now call all people out, regardless of gender, for what needs to be said. And not all unlikable characters work for me, there are still limits, and it may be hard to find the line. But overall, flaws make a character more special, real and memorable.

  2. I think I can pretty harsh on some characters, sometimes because they don't feel, other times because they make silly mistakes that in fiction I expect them not to make, but honestly, I feel like the raw emotions and actions of someone is what makes them likable. I didn't always take to Katniss, but it was her love for her family, for her friends that won out over her determination to win the games, I liked that she was human, that I could understand that love and when all else failed, she did it for others, not herself. Flaws are important, and unlikable heroines aside, we all need flaws :)

  3. I agree wholeheartedly with this post. I wrote a very similar one last week on why I like "unlikable characters." It's those flawed and far from perfect characters that tend to stand out for me. They are more realistic and complex which for me makes them more enjoyable for me to read about.

    For me with "unlikable" characters the question is, are they sympathetic? There is a big difference between being unlikable and unsympathetic. If I can understand their motivation and why they are doing whatever it is they are doing then I will root for them and want them to succeed. I always love characters who are doing the wrong thing for the right reasons or vice versa. It's that grey area that makes them compelling. Even those characters that you love to hate are fantastic! (like Joffrey)

    I really like that you mention characters that are prickly, sarcastic, jaded, and vain. Too often we are told to be "nice" as women and if you're not then you're called the dreaded B word. What I like about the characters you mentioned is that they are unabashedly themselves. They're not who others want them to be or who society tells them to be, they are who they are. The conflict often occurs when they try to be something other than themselves. Isn't that what it's all about? Being ourselves? You do you!

    Great post!
    Cassi @ My Thoughts Literally

  4. Sooo, I completely understand what you are saying. That girls in life and in fiction are held to a higher standard than boys and it's not fair. I totally, 100% think of myself as a feminist.

    That said, if I don't like the main character (whether it's a boy or girl) I almost never like the book. And, as I read books primarily with female main characters . . . well, you can see where that is going. However, I think there is a HUGE difference between likable characters and perfect characters.

    Some of my favorite characters I loved, but they weren't perfect. Like Emma Woodhouse, or, even sticking with Jane Austen, Lizzy Bennet. She makes huge assumptions about people, but she's probably my favorite heroine ever. But it goes to guy main characters, too. I did not like Diary of a Wimpy Kid because I thought the main character, Greg, was such a jerk. And I loved Harry Potter, and he wasn't perfect, either. And I loved Ron, even though he got jealous a lot. And I loved Hermione even though she was a major know-it-all.

    You make some references to saying please and being polite. But, I value that in anyone - not just women. And that boils down to empathy. If you are being served something, even if it's someone's job, I'm still appreciative and I want to say so. But I expect politeness from men and women.

    My favorite books are always the ones with likable REALISTIC characters - but not perfect. There is a major difference there.

  5. I need to find a way to "favorite" posts like this so that they are saved into some "read these posts when you're feeling uninspired" list. I just sent this to my writer/reader friends. So interesting to consider! Ten points to Gryffindor!

  6. "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." <--- SO MUCH THIS

    Although, I will admit I have a soft spot for compelling, unlikeable characters in particular. Possibly because I feel like they're the hardest to write? I don't know. There's a fine line between YOU ARE AWFUL YET FASCINATING AND I CAN'T GET ENOUGH versus OMG YOU ARE THE WORST PLEASE STOP TAKING UP PAGE SPACE.

    "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)." <---- I look forward to this day.

    "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." YES YES YES YES YESYESYESYESYESYESSSSSSS

    Re: being harsher on girls vs guys, my theory (and this is just an idle supposition based on my own brain space) is that (in addition to all of the subliminal patriarchal programming we've all been subjected to) we are harsher on the things that we see/recognize about ourselves, even if it's something we don't consciously realize. That saying 'the things you hate the most about others are reflections of yourself' (or whatever) has always struck a deeply true cord with me. So often I'm getting pissed off at a female character and my brain is throwing up examples of all of the times I've done the same thing and really I'm pissed at the pieces of myself I see in her.

    Also, I am sooooooo so so much more lenient with characters I'm attracted to. #Shallow #ICareNot

    I am so with you on preferring real people vs platonic ideals in my characters. Our quirks, eccentricities and asshole-ish tendencies are what make us unique and interesting, even if sometimes the unique is more uniquely awful. Maybe if more authors embraced the unlikeable character instead of throwing up likable ideals, we wouldn't feel like that's what we're expected to aspire to and we could all relax and be ourselves.

    I don't even know what I'm saying because sleep deprivation is a real thing so excuse my lack of coherency. Basically, I LIKE YOUR WORDS VERY MUCH PLEASE CONTINUE TO WORD THEM.

  7. Do you think you're more judgmental of female characters because THEY'RE female, or because YOU'RE female? (not based on gender, but familiarity- after all, neither of us has experienced life as a boy, so our critique is automatically alien and probably somewhat false).

    But as for like all women, I did and still do (frustratingly) apologize for everything, even when I'm the victim (notoriously, I apologized to the group of boys who tried to murder me. I guess for failing to die?) I say please, as you do, in potions where it's not warranted. I smile all the time, whether I'm happy or not. I pose viable work demands as questions in order to keep men in power feeling comfortably kowtowed to. I'm more concerned, on the whole, with being likable than being a good person.

    BUT, for me, a heroine who isn't necessarily likable but who sticks to her convictions, gets things done, makes the world better....that's the heroine I love, because that's the heroine I want to be. Those are the characters that resonate, and that are interesting and more 'real'. Likable characters are (probably like myself) boring.

    And on a side note....people actually judge the sexual activity of fictional characters? I mean, if it doesn't serve the plot, judge it for not serving the plot, but to approach a fictional character as a real human being...this confuses me. They're imaginary, serving a larger story purpose. Not...why....I guess I just don't understand. (maybe this is why I don't have 'book boyfriends'?)

  8. It's weird because I don't think I use the L word the same way everyone else does. When I use it, I mean likable for ME. I liked her. And I honestly don't necessarily like the most likable characters out there. I like Celaena, I like Manon, and I like Katniss. (And the guys? I LIKED Oliver from Dangerous Boys.) Maybe this says something inside me is twisted and weird, or hopefully, it says I've officially stopped trying to be likable myself.

    But that's just me. I totally agree with 100% of this post. I am tired of girls (and by extensions, fictional girls) being set to impossible standards, and if she even misses the mark by a hair on just ONE trait, she's deemed unlikable and awful. And god forbid she IS genuinely nice and generally well-liked and good at something she does, then she's TOO PERFECT and we just can't have that either.

  9. I have started to cut more slack for YA girls. I use to want the PERFECT person starring in the role, but I was slowly converted away from this stereotype. None of us are perfect, so why should I expect the people in books to be such?

  10. I completely agree with this post! I was actually one of those people who hated the "imperfect" YA protagonist - I used to hate on Katniss like nobody's business. But after I read Throne of Glass and fell IN LOVE with Celaena, and all her dislikable bits that actually made her human, my perspective changed. Like you said, the "unlikeable" heroine feels more realistic, and yet she's still the hero of the story. I feel like I'm just repeating your post, but I endorse every word of it!

    (I laughed so hard at the Joffrey picture, by the way)

  11. I really, really, really loved this post! I'm a big fan of the characters that are complicated, have many facets, the ones that feel like real people going through real things that may make them angry, bitter, sad or many other things. I won't say that I generally gravitate towards likable/unlikable characters (since I read about and love both kinds). I guess I would just sum it up as... I really like REAL characters :)

  12. Wow, lovely post! It would be nice to always read a book with a heroine you love, but what I really took away from your post is that there needs to be diversity in heroines, without going too much to either extreme. Sounds like a good deal to me!


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