Cracked Up to Be came out four years ago on December 23rd and January 5th will mark the third anniversary of Some Girls Are’s release. It is weird to think about that! Especially Cracked Up to Be. Cracked Up to Be is one of my more personal books but not in the sense I am Parker and we have done the same terrible things. But there are little injections of myself in the pages, moreso than any of my other novels. Parker goes to a Catholic high school that looks exactly like the one I attended (how STRANGE). I was that kid in art class who was told to “think outside the tree” which upset me at the time but made me laugh years later. The very opening conversation with Chris heckling a girl named Jules was one I overheard on the bus in the 9th grade. I never forgot it so onto the first page it went. (Tip: don’t have ridiculous conversations near me or I will put them in a book.)

I already announced this on Twitter and Facebook but in Fall 2013, St. Martin’s will be releasing a bind-up of CUTB and SGA called What Goes Around. It will be a nice lead in to All the Rage in early 2014. Not only that, it is very cool to have Parker and Regina in one place because these are the characters I owe a lot to and I am going to tell you more about that in a second. But first, this is the cover, which I think is such a clever combination of key elements from the originals:

I’ve mentioned before that writing Cracked Up to Be was a response to agents disliking a female character in a previous (unpublished) novel I’d written. I actually revisited that novel before writing this post and noticed the male characters are just as flawed as, if not more flawed than, the female protagonist but the majority of my rejections for that novel pinpointed the unlikability issue as female one, one that needed ‘correcting.’ Then again, that old novel has a variety of problems in it, so it’s hard to say definitively that the awful expectation that Girls Must Always Be Nice at the Expense of Themselves is the reason I didn’t debut with that particular book. The rejections did make me at least consider the possibility, which made me very angry and inspired me to write a female character that spit in the eye of those expectations: Parker Fadley.

Minor spoilers ahead!
If you have read Cracked Up to Be you know that Parker is abrasive and cruel. She is foul-mouthed. She can be selfish and petty and that selfishness and pettiness causes her to make the worst mistake of her life. Initially, the reader might think that mistake is what brought her to this level of utter unpleasantness but no, they will discover she has always been this way but now she’s worse. She views her pain through a very narrow lens, one that is primarily focused on herself, even in the end. And even in the end, She is not ready for the bigger picture but she can at least acknowledge that there is one. She is a girl with a long road ahead of her. But she will probably never, ever be ‘nice.’
End spoilers!

Can I confess something to you? Even fueled by my anger and indignation, writing Cracked Up to Be was hard. So much of what Parker did made me uncomfortable and sometimes it still does. As someone who wants to be liked and thought of as Nice even, yes, at my own expense sometimes (I am working on this), the meaner I made Parker, the more I wanted to find ways to apologize for her and to convince readers that, at her core, there was a NICE girl. A nice girl that fit into a nice-shaped box. And was nice. But every time I came to a point in the book where I could make her sharp-edged existence a little softer, I forced myself not to; sometimes I even chose to make it sharper. That is not to say that there are no soft or even nice moments in Cracked Up to Be, but I wanted them to be earned, not given, and there are far fewer than there would have been if I’d just wanted you to like Parker for the sole purpose of forgiving her mistakes.

Needless to say, Cracked Up to Be gave me the tools to write Some Girls Are. I could not have written Regina and those girls if I still carried with me that need to apologize for their anger. I could have not written any of my girls–Eddie and Sloane too–if I felt the need to apologize to readers because they didn’t fit into a box of sugar and spice and other tiresome and damaginge gender stereotypes.

My site analytics tell me I get a lot of searches about how to write mean GIRL main characters or unlikable FEMALE protagonists. I have never gotten a search referral about unlikable or mean protagonists–female is always specified. It’s as if the people searching need permission to write them and they want to know, can a girl really be more than NICE?

First I think–how is this answer not obvious?

But then I think of myself at 21, feverishly typing Cracked Up to Be wondering, “Can I really do this?” I was so scared to let a girl be angry and unkind simply because she was a girl and girls are expected to. Be. Nice. I was even scared of my own anger about the whole thing because what if writing an angry girl meant she would never be read. But writing Cracked Up to Be and Some Girls Are helped me to unlearn this. And those books found their readers and I am so grateful for that.

Now I kind of think of Parker and Regina sitting on my shoulder for each subsequent novel I’ve written, reminding me that girls can be difficult and messy and angry and that they can be nice too–because of course your female characters can be nice–but on their own terms and without apology. When I get asked, and I do get asked this, about how to write female characters–likable or not–that is what I want my answer to be. Write your female characters on their own terms and never apologize for that. And don’t let anyone tell you that you should.

Anyways, the release annversaries and the bind-up announcement made me think about all this and so I wanted to share it with you.

Thanks for reading.

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9 Responses to if you’re never sorry

  1. Kelly says:

    Yes. Yes to ALL of this.

    But more than that, more than what these characters are, is the importance of what you learned of it — “I was so scared to let a girl be angry and unkind simply because she was a girl and girls are expected to. Be. Nice. I was even scared of my own anger at my anger about the whole thing because what if writing an angry girl meant she would never be read. But writing Cracked Up to Be and Some Girls Are helped me to unlearn this.” — it scares readers, too. It’s NOT the nice box. It’s not the thing girls are told to be. It challenges. the. status. quo. It’s going to piss people off and it’s going to cause unfair reaction toward YOU (rather than toward the characters, despite that happening too). But, but, but. That unlearning to boxes? That’s CRUCIAL.

    It’s good on you for doing it. Can’t wait to read Parker and Regina TOGETHER.

  2. Michelle says:

    Wow powerful stuff you just wrote there! I love how your characters are who they are and feel how they feel with no appologies. Like with Sloane, when I was reading I was thinking why can’t she just snap out of it?? But by the end I realized that the way she felt was her story and while it made me uncomfortable, I appreciated that you as an author gave her to us as she is. Oh and BTW I LOVE the cover of the bind-up… totally perfect!

  3. Anthony says:

    Goodness, Courtney.

    An honest reflection from an honest lady. I’ve always said it wasn’t that Parker was so mean, or “not nice,” but that she was so real. I’ve had several conversations about CUtB on this very subject. The lone guy in my lit circle that read the novel totally agreed with my original review. The women I spoke to (some teens), inadvertently have to go off and think for awhile before they comment, that’s how much Parker got into their heads.

    Thank you for this post.

  4. Good for you!

    Love the visual of Regina and Parker sitting on your shoulders.

    Also: “Tip: don’t have ridiculous conversations near me or I will put them in a book.” Yes!

  5. Doug Solter says:

    SOME GIRLS ARE helped me understand how to write my teen girl characters. Regina felt real and her situation felt real and that made me empathize with her more. If she was this “ideal” type of teenage girl, she would feel fake and artificial and thus, take my head out of the book. Likeability is crap. The real question is, do readers empathize with the character? Parker has not many redeeming qualities except…she is funny and clever which makes her INTERESTING. If she wasn’t funny and clever, she would just be a bitter teenager who would be a drag to read about. But thank goodness you made her so INTERESTING. :)

  6. [...] Characters need to be compelling. Ava Jae advises: make your characters angry to get the most out of them. But anger can make people unlikeable. Courtney Summers talks about writing unlikeable female characters without apology. [...]

  7. reynje says:

    Thanks so much for writing this – I’ve always found it hard to articulate why I don’t require characters to be “nice” or even particularly sympathetic – but I read this after finishing Cracked Up To Be this afternoon and its everything I wish I’d been able to express. I’m so glad you had the courage to write Parker so honestly, it makes her story even more powerful.

  8. Terri Bruce says:

    OMG, YES! Thank you for this! My female MC is often criticized for being mean – despite the fact that many reviewers say that by the end of the book they understand why she acts the way she does, but still have a time empathizing with it. They understand she’s lashing out and afraid, and yet, they still think she should still “act nice” for the sake of everyone around her. What always makes me laugh is that they criticize how mean she is to the male MC (a boy many years younger than her) and don’t seem to see that the boy is just as mean – if not meaner – at times as her! Yet he is seen as a sympathetic character and she is not. It’s a very interesting paradigm. Thank you for this post and thank you for writing female characters that are REAL – even if that means being “not nice.” :-)