June 21, 2016

Why Is “Unlikable” Often a Deal-Breaker for Readers?

Woman making a sour face with text: Are Unlikable Characters a Deal-Breaker?

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:

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:

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?

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Comments — What do you think?

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Very interesting point. I’ve got a concept on the back burner that will be helpful with this. Of course in this one, the main female character IS the villain so it will help.

Davonne Burns

I think so much of this issue all boils down to internalized misogyny. I can’t say much though because I don’t have experience writing women. I will say that I rarely read books with female protagonists, not because they are unlikable but because I find them completely unrelatable. However, I loved all of your books Jami and had no issues with any of the protagonists. Mostly because they were strong, complex and amazing *people.*

Also, thank you for letting me have the pleasure of being a guest here. ^_^

Christina Hawthorne

The best of luck with your surgery, Jami, or break a leg, or whatever works for a positive outcome.


About a Boy by Nick Hornby is one of those books with a male protagonist who lies about having a son and uses the neighbor’s boy to get women. He’s also lazy and indolent. But somehow he’s also considered likeable, and you are right, I doubt a female protagonist would be considered likeable in similar circumstances.

Saralee Etter
Saralee Etter

I’ve been thinking a lot about this issue! I don’t have any answers, but still…
As a reader, I love Elizabeth Peters’ Amelia Peabody character, and I don’t care who knows it. If you don’t know who she is, she’s a Victorian-era archaeologist, loud, opinionated, funny, super-smart, skilled in her field and — not the best mother in the world. Also, she’s occasionally blind-sided by her own prejudices.
Maybe the problem is that female virtue is viewed as, well, “virtue” — chastity — while manly virtues are things like bravery and strength and honesty and kindness.
If women were recognized, REALLY recognized, for being principled, capable, strong, and intelligent, then they could be flawed without people disliking them. But unless and until people recognize the heroic qualities of a woman, then all they will see are her flaws — and she will seem unlikeable.


Interesting point. The Nordic lore is full of strong, brave, capable, principled, and flawed women who are seen in a positive light. Freyja, who is never a shrinking violet and is NOT known for her chastity, Queen Sigritha who first offered tolerance, and then went after revenge, and even Skadi, who threatened to kick in the doors of Asgard to claim the man price for her father. It just depends on where and how you look.


I researched and wrote a paper on early women’s prisons years ago in college. The notion of rehabilitation was new in the 19th century — but only for men. Female prisoners were not considered to be redeemable. So, no programs for them. It was a while before separate women prisons were set up. At first the few women prisoners were kept in a room on the premises of the men’s prison, and nothing was done for them.
Yes, women were considered to be upholders of virtue and family. Once virtue was lost, it could not be regained. The stability of society depended upon women being virtuous.
How much of this is backbrain? Different sexual strategies? You need a mother to have children. Children need a stable care giver to survive. I don’t know. But, these attitudes have been around a long time. I bet they cross cultural boundaries.

Anne R. Allen

This is something that drives me nuts. Women can be so sexist when it comes to reading. Characters they’d love on TV or in a movie they hate in a book. Because there’s this narcissistic thing that some women do when they’re reading. They have to imagine the character as a perfect version of themselves.

Which means the protag must be a Mary Sue, which is ridiculous and tedious. It also makes humor writing impossible. Comic heroines, like comic heroes, have to be full of flaws. Can you imagine “I Love Lucy” if Lucy was a perfectly satisfied little housewife who never lied to her husband or made bad decisions?

Most bestselling novels have “unlikable” heroines. From Richardson’s Pamela to Bronte’s Catherine Earnshaw to Thackeray’s Becky Sharp to Scarlett O’Hara, Bridget Jones and that “Gone Girl”. None of them are people you’d like as a BFF. But they’re wildly entertaining.

But these misogynist, narcissistic whiney-bots want nothing but Mary Sue, in every book. All the time. Nothing to be done but ignore them and write for people with more brains and self-esteem.

Kassandra Lamb

A very interesting topic, especially for me right now as I am starting a new mystery series. Out of naivete, I made the protagonist of my first series too good; she didn’t have enough flaws. This was a challenge as the series proceeded in terms of character arc (I had to throw crap at her to create a few neuroses).

While most readers love her and the other characters in the series, I have gotten a few reviews of that first book saying the characters are totally unlikeable. While most of these reviewers give no further details, a few indicate that the protagonist seems too goody-two shoes (and I was very careful not to imply in any way that she is stuck up; she thinks of herself as an average woman).

I’ve been annoyed with myself that I made her too good, but now I’m thinking I still wouldn’t have pleased everybody if I’d given her some bigger flaws.

Bottom line: people are fickle. They think they want one thing, but they really don’t. They want strong women, until she stands up for herself. They want sensitive men, until he cries.

We have to go back to Abe Lincoln: You can please some of the people all of the time and all of the people some of the time, but you can’t please all of the people all of the time.

Kassandra Lamb

Adding an addendum to my comment. As a psychologist I know that people’s conscious beliefs change before their unconscious prejudices are truly shifted.

But in my 63 years of living, I’ve seen society change quite a bit, and fiction often plays a role in that change.

So let’s keep writing about strong but human women (i.e. ones with realistic flaws) and about men who are brave enough to let their vulnerability show at times. We are forging the path for change and eventually people’s internal, unconscious prejudices will shift.

Scarlett West

Thank you for another excellent article. The second protagonist in my paranormal, vampire, romance series is unlikable so I needed this information. Many of the points you covered were things I thought of as well. Your advice on vulnerability and hinting at their “good side” as females is very valuable.

Laura Knodel
Laura Knodel

I’ll be agreeing with you, Jami, that your surgery goes well and you have a speedy recovery.

I’m unpublished, but in reading other authors’ book reviews I’ve also noticed readers posting about unlikable characters and being very unhappy with an unlikable protagonist. I was so unsettled about my determined female protagonist that I was contemplating switching roles with another character. This post was exactly what I needed to hear. Your post came at the perfect time, saving me from a rewrite that would have altered the story more than I would have liked. Thank you so much!

Emma Burcart

Thank you, thank you, thank you! This topic is something very important to me, too, and I am so glad you brought it up! You are right that likability is something female characters are held to that male characters don’t have to worry about. When I get feedback that a female character is unlikable (it usually also includes “too complex” in the description), it really means the character is fully fleshed out and strong. I think someone said it above, but much of this is probably not a conscious decision, but something that comes from societal expectations. We, as women, are supposed to be likable– to the point where strangers will tell us to smile! So some people, women especially, hold our characters up to those unrealistic/unnecessary/sexist standards. I think part of what we can do as writers is to help shatter those unconscious beliefs by writing more strong/powerful/dangerous female characters. It is starting to be a trend, with the Girl books, so I say we keep it going. 🙂

Liz Crowe

Great stuff! This post was pointed out to me by one of my most trusted editors during the Wild Wild West Experience that was Self Publishing for me over the last year and a half. I am “notorious” for writing females as strong, realistic and flawed enough to match their male counterparts and have made plenty of, shall we call them “non fans” as a result. However, I’ve also made plenty of fans out of readers who were intrigued by all the bitching that gets done over your average “Liz Book.” My fans tend to skew older, less wide-eyed and less inclined to want to read a total Mary Sue style fantasy. There are hardly legion but they are loyal. Thank you for the post


Interesting post and made me think about a short story I wrote about a female hacker who essentially turns into a lone wolf cyber terrorist because she was fed up with people being more caught up in the virtual world rather than connecting with each other in the real world. The feedback I got from my writers group was I needed to “soften” her and make her motivation be about losing someone close to her like a boyfriend (that was an honest to goodness suggestion) due to someone’s inattention. I pondered if I would have gotten the same suggestions if the character had been male. There’s a double-standard out there and we see it with how many female authors being accused of having Mary Sues in their stories yet rarely do we hear about Marty Sues even though perhaps the argument could be made that a male protagonist who is great with weapons, gets the girl, and saves the world could be “wish fulfillment” by the author?

Personally, I want the character, regardless of gender, to have flaws and not fit the norm of whatever society they are in. As long as it is staying true to the character, bring on the so-called “unlikeables.” I think the more we see characters that are deeply flawed, especially female, the more I think it can help reassure some of us who don’t think like everyone else.

Jami's Tech Guy (Jay)

For the record, I didn’t find either Elaina or Kira to be unlikable. :p

But then again, you know TechWife, so you know I go for strong, intelligent, kick ass women. 🙂


Julie Glover

One of the most eye-opening experiences for me was getting judge feedback from a contest in which I’d enter my YA novel. The story has two POVs, girl best friends. Judge #1 called one of my heroines a “bitch” and loved the other girl, while Judge #2 said that “bitch” heroine was awesome, and the other girl was “milquetoast.” That was the moment I realized how much readers bring of themselves to the reading experience.

If I’d changed either character, I’d make one reader happy and one unhappy. What I did instead, like you, was to try strengthen the motivation and relatability of both. Crossing my fingers that I succeeded!

Great points, Jami. Thanks.


Mm, food for thought. (As someone who writes with predominantly female charas, I’ll bear this in mind–and has a very unlikeable-looking OC right now anyway)

It reminds me of a Tumblr blog called “fyeahcontroversialcharacters”, where people submit characters who are really disliked in the fandom (aside from villains, unless they did something in particular aside from the villainry to deserve hate) and 9 times out of 10, the girls get bigger slack off the fanbase than the boys do. (And 9 times out of 10, get called a “Mary-Sue” or something like that) You get frustrated after a while…

Rhoda Baxter

Really interesting post, Jami. Thank you! Also, very interesting comments – especially Anne’s and Kassandra’s!

I totally agree that readers expect their heroines to be more perfect than their heroes. Heroes with big flaws who can be redeemed – great. Heroines… not so much.

I too get comments about the heroines being too ‘unlikable’ and have to tone things down in edits. Weirdly, if that same character is a secondary character, people don’t seem to mind. (These characters are in a loosely linked series).

I’ve just written a book about a ‘ladette’ heroine who doesn’t want children.
The story was good enough to get past the publisher’s reader panel. I haven’t had the edits yet – which are based on the reader comments. I’m bracing myself for another ‘can you make the heroine more likable’ conversation with my editor.

Still, I believe that women can be strong and men can be sensitive as well as the other way round. I shall keep writing them.

I’m off to read the articles you’ve linked to now.


Interesting question. My usual reason for not liking heroines is their questionable taste in men–if the “hero” does something I think should annoy or irritate the heroine and she pursues him regardless, it’s going to make me think less of her.

My other reason for not liking heroines is when they are stupid. I get that fiction needs conflict, but there is a difference between suspense drawn from genuine conflict and suspense drawn from lack of common sense (like going into the dark basement when they think they hear an intruder, or going outside with their abuser so they don’t disturb the party going on inside). I’m sure male characters also say or do dumb things, but twenty years of marriage has taught me that’s normal.


[…] advises writers to grab readers with a multi-faceted characteristic moment and Jami Gold considers why an “unlikable” protagonist is often a deal-breaker for readers. Darcy Pattison illuminates direct and indirect character monologues and Deena Nataf explores […]


This article was EXCELLENT, and so were the articles you link to in it. Thank you very much! Lots of food for thought and possibly a concept I want to explore in a couple of my books, especially since based on what you’ve said, my reactions are pretty much opposite the majority.

It’s possible I give male characters more leeway, but then again, I often find their unlikability to be a deal-breaker, or at least a serious dent in my enjoyment of a story. Meanwhile I find chick-lit heroines (who are presumably supposed to be “likable” to the majority of women) illogical, hysterical, clueless, dishonest, lacking in any sort of skill or value etc etc and generally unbearable. If making my female characters the opposite of that makes them “unlikeable,” well, then, that is a badge they and I will wear with pride.

Good luck with your surgery and I hope you are feeling better soon!


[…] Progress: not much; this past week was our anniversary week and I took some time off from goals; read some at the Writers in the Storm and Jami Gold’s neat set of posts on Unlikable Characters […]

Earl Tower

Thank you for an excellent article. I am trying to write two sisters in conflict in a historical fantasy, and this is excellent advice for me to keep my eyes on how I present the protagonists.

Serena Yung
Serena Yung

Wow, wow. Sorry for not commenting till now, haha. I was rushing some last minute assignments for an online course, and I was deliberately avoiding the comp and my phone as much as I could because my eyes were suffering from some serious fatigue…They’re a lot better now. Anyway, omg that people can’t like a flawed heroine but they can like a flawed hero? :O That is so weird! I can like flawed characters of any gender, lol. But a close writer friend of mine once mentioned that it’s harder to make a female protagonist likable…and I always found that odd, because I don’t find it any harder to like a girl than to like a boy in fiction… Though most of my character crushes are male, some are female, but I guess that’s an irrelevant point, haha. And I didn’t have any trouble liking Elaina or Kira at all. You might remember that I liked Elaina almost instantly when I first read your blurb for Treasured Claim, and liked her instantly when I read the first paragraph of TC. If anything, I think I’m more forgiving towards female characters than to male characters…I think I might actually hold fictional boys to higher standards than I do for girls. That point about most romance readers being female is interesting. Well, though my birth gender (and gender of my body, I guess) is female, my gender identity is “gender neutral with a slight male bent.” I also learned that my gender…  — Read More »

Serena Yung
Serena Yung

Sorry I forgot to say two more things: People might find this shocking, but in Gone Girl, I actually liked Amy more than Nick. I didn’t like Amy, but I thought Nick was much worse, lol. Just hated him full stop. Whereas I could sympathize with Amy.

And if a protagonist cheats, I’m always more able to forgive a cheating woman than a cheating man. I don’t think I can ever forgive a cheating male character, though. So I’m kind of sexist in the reverse way? Haha.

One more thing: After this year, I found out that I’m actually capable of being attracted to females too (I think I’m bi in a way; it’s complicated). So maybe my not being straight has something to do with how I don’t judge female leads more harshly? (And that I even judge girls more leniently? LOL) I don’t know, I’m still speculating.

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