The risk of unlikeable females

It’s every author’s worst nightmare:
‘I like the book, I’m just not sure she’s a likeable character.’

I totally get it – we need the reader to give a crap about the person they’re reading about. That’s the whole point. You need to care. And yet every time this question comes up, I want to say ‘to hell with it! She is who she is – she doesn’t need to be liked!’

Of course, I don’t do that. Because I do want you to love her, and invest in her and want the best for her…even if you don’t like her sometimes.

In my forthcoming book about two friends, I was very concerned about the likeability of one of the characters. She’s a renegade, she’s confident, she doesn’t take shit from people and she’s inherently selfish. She was pretty much created out of my own self hatred whenever I agree to do something I don’t want to do, or prioritise someone else’s needs above my own in a stupid way, or apologise for something that I know wasn’t my fault.

Any time I diminished myself, I put more life into Cass. Cass is a ballbuster – she’ll call you out and push you to your limits and she sucks at apologising and she always does what’s best for her.

And I worried about that. Because it’s hard for a woman to be like that. If you’re not nice, what are you?

So my other main character, Lauren, is the antithesis of that – in fact, she’s me. She’s anxious and angry, and can’t deal with her feelings. She thinks something mean and then feels bad about it. She says the thing that feels right at the time and then tortures herself with it for hours. She does what people ask, and she goes with the flow.

It surprised me that Lauren was the one people were worried about when it came to likeability.

Because she was bitter. She was jealous. She thought mean things and didn’t take chances and even though she did the kind thing, she was kind in her thoughts about it.

It blew me away because I thought Lauren got a free pass – she’d been through some tough shit, and she was handling it badly, wouldn’t you? I wanted to defend my poor little Lauren, and myself.

And I wanted to defend female characters in general.

It’s gendered, without a doubt.

Women need to be nice. We need to like them. No one stopped reading Fight Club because Tyler Durden was an arsehole. No one stopped reading American Psycho because they couldn’t relate to the absolute psychopath.

Fictional women, just like real women, are held to a higher standard. Yes, be interesting and flawed and broken, and vulnerable. But also be strong and sassy. Be flirtatious, but not too sexy. Be just a little unsure of your looks, even when you’re confident in your work life. Never think you’re beautiful. Never accept a compliment. Demurely discard it.

If anything, look at the reaction to a female football star declaring that she deserved her win – outrage! How dare she? Because male footballers aren’t arrogant at all. For some reason, it doesn’t look right on a woman, and that’s because we aren’t showing it.

I love unlikeable characters. I’ll admit, I had to grow into them but time and perspective changes your feelings too. When I was a kid I used to watch Gone with the Wind with my nan and my mum. Super long movie, but I loved the big fancy dresses, and how Rhett Butler swept in and wanted to look after Scarlett. I could never understand how she was so interested in boring Ashley when there was Rhett, being all Rhett-like.

I couldn’t stand Scarlett the first few times I watched that movie. She was mean and conceited and selfish. She never did anything for anyone else, only cared about herself, put her feelings for her sister’s husband above anything else and didn’t care who she hurt along the way.

I remember saying so to my mum, who shook her head and said, ‘Oh but poor darling, she was only a teenager when she was widowed. She’s all dressed in black and just wants to dance and be a kid. She’s so young and everything’s so hard.’

When I grew up, I began to love Scarlett. Yes, she was conceited and young and stupid, but she was tenacious, determined. She was a survivor, no matter what. She worked hard, and she knew how to charm people to get what she needed, to keep her home, put food on the table.

She is one of the most complicated female characters I’ve ever seen, and every time I watch that movie (I need to re-read the book, that was a teenage read and I have a feeling my thoughts will have changed!) I feel differently about her.

But I love that she’s complex. There are so many people in our lives who we accept are contradictions. They’re wonderful and loving, but their politics are opposite to our own. The elderly relative who accidentally says awful things, or can’t understand modern issues, but was there for you when you needed them. People are complex and flawed and beautiful and awful. They make poor choices and think bad thoughts and try to do the best they can.

I think that’s more important that likability.

So I hope you do like my girls in the new book – I hope you like their friendship, their devotion to each other, their dedication to the child in their care. I hope you fall in love with their memories and you want to yell at them when they’re stupid and empathise with them when they fall prey to their weaknesses.

But more than that, I hope you find them interesting. Because that is far better than liking them, in my opinion.

You can like a sunrise, but you can’t tear your eyes away from a storm.

What do you think – do unlikeable characters put you off a book? Has it stopped you finishing a book? Which unlikeable characters do you love the most?

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