I’ve wanted to do a blog entry on writing unlikeable (why did I write ‘unlickable’ first?) female protagonists for a while now, because it’s something I get asked about with a surprising–to me–amount of frequency.
The only problem was I wasn’t sure how I’d frame such an entry. How to Write an Unlikeable Female Protagonist? Uhm, that would be awfully presumptuous of me and besides, I don’t think writing an “unlikeable” girl protagonist is all that different from writing a “likeable” one. Also, there’s the issue that Parker and Regina seem to be more liked than they’re hated, so have I even written an unlikeable protagonist? Or maybe I shouldn’t say readers actually like them, so much as they understand them? Also, if I write unlikeable too much it stops looking like a word and my God that is tragic, why would anyone make me do that to a word.
So THAT is why I haven’t written a blog entry on the topic: the actual writing of an unlikeable main character is less complicated than talking about writing one. But still, I get questions about and relating to the likeability of my female protagonists.
Readers seem to want to know why:
1. I would make Parker and Regina so unlikeable and
2. Do I really believe anyone would suffer their company willingly (like Chris, Jake and Michael) and
3. Do I think readers (or anyone) should like them
These are pretty great questions. If you don’t want to read the rest of this entry, the short answers are 1) because I wanted to 2) yes and 3) that’s up to the reader and there you go.
Before I wrote Cracked Up to Be, I wrote another YA novel. It had two POVs–a boy named Peter and a girl named Margot–and, get this, it was written in third person. The book got me so close to representation, there is a whole story there about how I pulled my hair out, but never mind that.
So it got rejected a lot. And what all the rejections seemed to come down to was that people liked Peter and hated Margot. SURE, there may have been massive other problems with the novel but to cope with the sting of (literally) hundreds of rejections, I needed to pinpoint what they all had in common and then uh, get defensive about it. So Margot was what they had in common. She was cold. They couldn’t connect with her. I took the manuscript out and reevaluted it, wondering if I could make her more ‘likeable’ (whatever that means). But when I read it, I had a problem: I liked her and I didn’t think I could change her.
(Just so you know, Margot spent the first half of the book hating her perfect boyfriend and wanting him to die. Then in the second half he DID and then she was like, “Oh man.” WAT is unloveable about that, I ask you.)
So I did a lot of
navel-gazing soul-searching and I just kept getting annoyed because my thoughts decided to circle in this way: WHY DO GIRLS HAVE TO BE NICE ALL THE TIME THEY CAN BE MEAN AND ANGRY AND GENDER STEREOTYPING MUCH ARGH. Just. Like. That. I was bothered that the behaviours that are supported, loved, celebrated or romanticized in male characters would be, I thought, rejected in female characters because we have the perception that girls are sugar and spice and everything nice (er, not that I think wanting your significant other to DIE is an inherently male characteristic).
We are HARD on girls.
And please don’t mistake me: I’m not saying we’re not hard on guys at all, or that male characters aren’t held to their own set of ridiculous standards but I am writing an entry about writing unlikeable female characters, so. Anyway, just imagine a character like Sutter Keely (whom I LOVE) and Holden Caulfield (who I dream of repeatedly punching in the face) as girls. How do you think they would be received?
Or how about: imagine a girl who is outwardly hostile to her love interest, has violent tendencies, invades his personal space, and is just generally inappropriate. Like, you know–stalkery. I see a lot of that lately with male characters, and the implication is I’m supposed to think that’s hot. A lot of people DO think that’s hot in fiction, apparently, but I don’t know that we’d be encouraged to think the same thing if the aggressor in question was female.
I think that entire paragraph could turn into a conversation in itself and I’m sure someone can come along and passionately refute what I am saying etc. but I’m just telling you what got me to the point of wanting to write about and then actually writing a character like Parker. I was contemplating double standards, it was making me angry and I decided I wanted to write the meanest, most unlikeable female protagonist I could think of, because nuts to it all. Part of this also falls under the larger umbrella of why I like to write–I am interested in provoking strong responses, whether they’re positive or negative. The last thing I want is for someone to walk away from my books feeling indifferent (I think lots of writers feel this way).
The choice to return to an unlikeable protagonist with Some Girls Are was also informed by everything I’ve detailed above, perhaps even more so because girl-bullying is such a taboo topic. No one wants to believe the extremes girls will go to to make each other miserable. Like Rachel Simmons, I believe that the expectation that girls must be ‘nice’ abets their aggressive behaviour. I think girls can be physically violent (you wouldn’t–or maybe you would–believe how many times I was told by interested parties that if I was writing a book about girl bullies, they could not be physically violent with each other because girls are only aggressive psychologically).
Part of writing Some Girls Are was gathering up all these ideas of how girls are ‘supposed’ to bully each other and wanting to write against them. I’ve talked about why I needed to write Some Girls Are on a personal level, but so much of Some Girls Are grew out from–SPOILERS–the scene with the girls on the side of the road because I was told girls would never, ever behave that way because… girls. Just. Don’t. (Psh.)
Making Regina a former mean girl who grapples with and indulges in and, at points, enjoys her mean girl tendencies (whether it’s right or wrong) was a no-brainer for me. I wanted to make a difficult story more difficult; not only in the interest of challenging readers (hopefully) but to challenge myself. I think having Regina be a nice girl/accidental target would have been an easy, safe choice to make. I identify with Regina a lot but her instinct is different than mine. Exploring that was not always easy, but that is what made it rewarding. That’s what’s in it for me when I make these kinds of choices. That’s a lot, in my opinion.
Do I really believe that anyone would willingly suffer the company of my main characters? Would they really have a Chris, Jake and Michael inserting themselves into their lives? The answers to both of these questions, for me, is yes. I can think of about eighteen million jerks (yes MILLION) I know IN REAL LIFE who are surrounded by incredible support systems, who have love in their lives. I don’t hesitate in my answer. People are complex and it is never as simple as “bad people should have no friends, good people should.” (I don’t think Parker and Regina are bad people, though.) I think it’s realistic, I think it’s possible. Of course!
I sometimes think the reason people approach me with the question is because they (and I do this too) struggle with the idea of who deserves and doesn’t deserve that kind of support… when really, how much someone is given–regardless of how nice they are or aren’t–in terms of love and support isn’t up to us, unless we’re the ones doing the giving.
That is why reader response fascinates me; being told by people exactly what they think Parker and Regina do and don’t deserve is probably one of the most gratifying things I’ve experienced in having these books published. I don’t think anyone is wrong in what they feel about either of those girls, whether they hate them or they don’t. But I love when they feel strongly about it and I love when they feel strongly enough about it to tell me.
Finally, do I think readers should like Parker and Regina? As I said, that’s up to the reader and that’s all there is to it. As I said, I have hopes that people will respond to my work whether they like it or hate it (indifference is what terrifies me!), but the last thing I will do is tell someone how they should respond. There are no “right” or “wrong” ways to feel about Parker and Regina.
So. That is what I have to say about writing unlikeable female protagonists.
OH WAIT! I just read an interview with hilarious comedian Louis CK and he talked about likeability and I wish I’d just smacked this quote up instead of this entry BUT OH WELL, this is what he said:
“Well, I think “likability” is an overused word. I don’t watch people ’cause I like them; I watch them because they’re compelling. Sympathetic is a little different. It’s like I understand this person, and I never know quite what they’re going to do and I’m really interested in what they might do next and they feel real to me. That’s, I think, way more valuable than likable. Likable just thins you out…”
I love that man. UGH he is in Toronto in July and I won’t get to see him! Sob, sob. Wait what were we talking about again?
PS Eddie in Fall For Anything will be my first non-mean girl character. MAYBE SHE WILL BE THE MOST UNLIKEABLE OF THEM ALL! Who knows!
I can’t wait to find out.