I’m back from my vacation (which was awesome and wonderful), but I hope you all enjoyed my guest posters while I was gone. A huge Thank You! shout-out to Renee, Davonne, Becca, and Marcy for filling in for me.
If you missed any of their posts, I encourage you to check them out. They shared their expertise on entrepreneurship, Tumblr, using setting to enhance a mood, and empowering description with contrast.
I have surgery scheduled for later this week, so I’ll be running another guest post on Thursday, but today, I want to touch on a topic that came up while I was on vacation.
If you follow me on Twitter, you might have seen that one of my tweets while I was gone was a link to an article about unlikable heroines:
— Jami Gold (@JamiGold) June 16, 2016
Character Unlikability: Why and How to Fix
Before I get into today’s topic, I want to point out that I’ve previously written several posts here about character likability, just in case you’ve missed them:
- What Makes a Character Unlikable? Let’s analyze our characters’ goals, behaviors, actions, reactions, and especially their motivations.
- 3 1/2 Tips for Fixing an Unlikable Character We often love our characters—even the villains—so we’re not a good judge of likability, but we can fix some of the problems.
- Character Likability and Subtext The follow-up to the above post delves deeper into applying those tips on a subtextual level, which can also help create layered antagonists.
- How to Create Characters Worth Reading Why character likability shouldn’t be seen as the end-all-be-all for why readers feel compelled to read a story.
Great! We’ve covered the basics. Now let’s dig deeper.
Character Likability Is Trickier When…
As the link in that tweet points out, likability is often more of a problem for female characters than for male characters. While male characters can be compelling and unlikable, readers often want female characters to be compelling and likable.
Male characters are much more likely to be accepted as jerks, alpha-holes, addicts, uncaring, etc. Female characters are often raked over the coals for those same traits.
Yet when writing romance, I love exploring the power struggles and negotiations between the couple, as they figuratively battle each other for the upper hand and gradually learn to function as a healthy partnership. So my stories need strong heroines who are on equal footing—power-wise—with the hero.
Between my heroines’ alpha qualities and flaws (they do need room to grow as a character after all), I often receive feedback from beta readers and editors about their unlikability. And while I’ve learned how to minimize those issues by bringing out their vulnerability, the problem still rankles me.
Are These Characters Really Unlikable?
If we look at character introductions with no gender attached, do we still come away with the first impression of unlikable? And if so, is that unlikability still a deal-breaker for us?
Intro: A Jewel Thief Sneaks into a Party to Steal from the Guests
Countless stories feature thieves and con-artists as protagonists, so whether we think this character description makes them unlikable or not, the premise obviously isn’t a deal-breaker for the vast majority of our audience. Maybe we’d root for them as an antihero, or maybe we’d want them to become better, but we wouldn’t reject the story just because of their description.
If this character were male, we’d think nothing of it. But as a female character?
Early beta readers and contest judges wanted Elaina of Treasured Claim to have a Robin-Hood-type motivation for her thefts. They could not accept a heroine stealing jewels for any selfish reasons.
(And I am grateful those readers pushed me to deepen her character and get at the heart of her life-and-death motivations, so this isn’t whining. *smile* However, evidence from plenty of other stories proves that male characters wouldn’t receive that same type of pushback on page one, as readers would instead cut the characters some slack before judging them—which is my point.)
Intro: A Foster Parent Hides Their Ulterior Motives for Taking on a Child
This situation is unfortunately all too realistic in the foster system. While many good people want to help kids, plenty of others foster as a way to earn money or achieve another non-kid-focused goal.
I can’t think of specific titles off the top of my head (feel free to name them in the comments if you think of any), but we’ve seen comedies where the (male) protagonist pretends to be a caregiver (father, day-care teacher, pet-owner, etc.) to appeal to the love interest.
Whether or not the character actually cares about those under their guardianship is irrelevant to their likability. In fact, their ulterior motives are often played for laughs. In other words, this description is not only not a deal-breaker, but also can improve the character’s likability.
Yet with the character of Kira of Ironclad Devotion, even though she showed caring to her foster daughter on page one (a desire to protect the child from emotional harm and physically shielding her), I received pushback because her internal thoughts revealed she also had an ulterior motive. (The horrors! *rolls eyes*)
(Again, I’m grateful for that feedback so I could attempt to better balance her flaws and characterization and not turn off readers, but the different treatment of female characters still irks me. *sigh*)
Are We Judging Female Characters on a Different Scale?
Before I left for vacation, my beta buddy Angela Quarles posted about the issue of “unlikable” heroines on Facebook when she shared Kameron’s article. As Angela said (emphasis mine):
“Early feedback suggests I’ll have an unlikeable heroine in Must Love Kilts. I mean, she starts the book off drunk and makes a drunk-in-Vegas style bad decision because of it. But don’t flawed heroines deserve an HEA?“
(FYI: HEA is “happily ever after”—a promise of the romance genre)
I think Angela’s question is important. None of us are perfect, and that doesn’t stop us from deserving happiness. The romance genre should give hope to all.
It shouldn’t be difficult for a heroine to “deserve” happiness just because she starts off flawed. If we can root for a male character to grow and improve, why do we struggle with rooting for a female character with flaws?
Why is unlikability a deal-breaker
more often for female characters
than for male characters?
Are We Identifying with the Character Too Much?
The majority of fiction readers are female, and the majority of those giving pushback to “unlikable” heroines are women. So the question becomes: Why are we so hard on ourselves?
- Do we forgive men more easily than other women?
- If so, are we less forgiving of women because we hold them to higher standards? (Perhaps identifying with them too much means we expect them to react the way we think we would (if we were perfect) in a “well, they should be better” way?)
- Or maybe we’re less forgiving because we don’t like to see echoes of our flaws on the page with a character we might relate to too well, their flaws cutting too close to home?
- Do we more easily see men as worthy of redemption after mistakes?
- If so, do we blame women more when they display unlikable or self-destructive behavior, thinking it a personality flaw rather than a starting point for growth? (Perhaps the tendency of many women to stay in so-so relationships—thinking they’ll be able to make their guy change—means it’s easier to see a man’s potential for growth?)
- Or maybe we’re uncomfortable with seeing “irresponsible” women because we fear society would fall apart without women holding it together?
When Are Character Motivations Not Enough?
I don’t have the answers to those questions, but as my examples above with Treasured Claim and Ironclad Devotion demonstrate, those heroines were held to higher standards than male characters would have been in the same situation.
While we usually advise writers to help readers relate to and understand their characters by revealing their motivations, in the case of those characters, their motivations were deemed not “pure” enough. According to the feedback, Elaina needed to have a “positive” reason for stealing jewelry, and Kira’s selfish motives undermined her genuine caring.
In both cases, the characters’ motivations were driven by life-or-death survival needs. Is that not enough? Do we not value the lives of female characters enough to accept them doing grayish deeds to survive?
Obviously, this issue frustrates me. We can accept male characters even when they’re completely selfish, yet female characters aren’t allowed to be even a little bit selfish—even when necessary to avoid their death. This echoes real life and the ridiculous expectations on women far too loudly.
No matter the gender of our characters, their flaws have to be deep enough to give us room to write an internal arc for them, and their motivations must be clear enough to give a sense of internal goals and characterization. But given that perspective above, coming up with flaws for female characters is much harder.
To avoid “unlikable character” reviews on our female characters, we’d likely have to do more, such as…:
- Their flaws must be easily forgivable and somehow leave the (much smaller, narrower) door propped open to the possibility of redemption.
- Their motivations or goals must reveal a “good” side to their character (beyond selfishness, self-destructiveness, etc.) that readers can approve of.
Worse, every reader will judge those lines differently, and we can never guess which readers will be which. Some might be more self-accepting and thus be more forgiving of flaws they relate to. Others’ self-acceptance of their own journey might make them more impatient for the characters to get their act together. Etc., etc.
What Should We Do as Writers?
Obviously, just as with every aspect of reading, character likability is subjective. Just because a character is unlikable to one person doesn’t mean everyone will think the same. And even if a character is seen as unlikable, not every reader will see that issue as a deal-breaker.
It’s okay if we decide that it’s not worth it to limit a character’s flaws or motivations to an “acceptable” list just because they’re female. No character will be liked by every reader, so we’re allowed to not bend over backwards to try.
If readers don’t like a character’s personality, that’s not a reflection on our personality, so that doesn’t mean we’re unlikable. (Unless we’re writing Mary Sue author-stand-in characters, but we’re not doing that, right? *smile*) We shouldn’t have a goal of making a character everyone will like because that’s impossible anyway.
Personally, while I want strong, assertive heroines, I’ve taken the feedback as an opportunity to find a better balance that stayed true to the characters. Elaina still steals jewelry, but I revealed how her motivation is based in her vulnerability. Kira still has ulterior motives, but I strengthened the details showing how much she really cares.
For me, that balance works. I don’t limit my characters, but I also try to eliminate or minimize triggers that will make readers unhappy for no reason. And if some readers still don’t like them? Oh well.
Unlikability is only a deal-breaker if readers make it one. If those same readers would continue reading a story with unlikable male characters (because of story, voice, worldbuilding, antihero/hope-they-change, etc. reasons), but they won’t give the same leeway to female characters, that says more about them than about my writing faults.
Of course I’m not going to purposely make a character more unlikable than they have to be—I believe in being true to them. Instead I’m just going to do the best I can to avoid unnecessary “unlikable” triggers, but I’m not going to worry about the rest. *smile*
What Can We Do as Readers?
When we’re wearing our reader-hat, we might be able to help combat this problem of judging female characters from a different angle. Let me give an example.
During my vacation downtime, I read several books. One of the books, Karma by Donna Augustine, is an urban fantasy that was on a freebie list (it might still be free) but has several “unlikable heroine” reviews:
“Is a reasonable, rational female lead too much to ask for? … Do they always have to be so unbearable?”
“The main character was really annoying … which made it difficult to get behind her.”
Now, I’m not saying those reviewers’ opinions aren’t valid. *smile* However, given that I came across this book so soon after Kameron’s article, I didn’t want the “unlikable heroine” reviews to prevent me from taking a closer look.
“Unbearable” or “annoying” or “difficult to connect to” are subjective. In addition, a good story, voice, worldbuilding, etc. can all make for compelling reading despite annoying male characters, and the same should be able to apply to female characters.
In other words…
An “unlikable heroine” shouldn’t automatically be a deal-breaker.
So, rather than rejecting the book based on others’ subjective opinions, I read the Look Inside sample. To me, the story, voice, and worldbuilding overcame whatever flaws I saw in the heroine, so I picked up the book…and then read the whole series over the next few days because I loved it. *smile*
My experience reinforced the idea that we might be too quick to reject unlikable heroines. Sure, we might all have triggers that we can’t stand, but one reader’s “annoying” might be another reader’s “funny and snarky,” so we shouldn’t assume that reviewers have the same triggers we do.
Instead, we can check out the character for ourselves by looking at the sample. Does the story’s voice intrigue us or cross the line from snarky to annoying? Is the character likable enough for us? Do the story’s pros outweigh the cons?
From now on, when I come across a story with an interesting premise and blurb—but also “unlikable heroine” reviews—I’m not going to take the reviewers’ opinions as fact. And if my experience with this technique so far is any indication, I just might find more stories to love. *smile*
Is an unlikable character a deal-breaker for you? What makes you read a story with an unlikable protagonist anyway? Do you think readers are harder on heroines than heroes? If so, what are your theories for that difference? Do you have any other suggestions for how to overcome this issue as writers or readers?Pin It