Confession time: one of the first comments I got from several beta readers on my MS was how unlikable my characters were. Not only in one MS, but in 3 different ones. For a while, I was worried I was doing something wrong, until it hit me that not ALL the characters have to be likable.
This is a big struggle in lots of literature and not only in YA. We have characters that have too much power, and who are awesome and who kick ass and have no big apparent flaws. They’re automatically dubbed Mary-Sues. (This happened to Rey in Star Wars and I was like WTF?! Rey is so awesome. SO AWESOME.) Or we have someone with too many flaws, so many flaws that they are completely relatable, also a Mary Sue.
Or they are someone who has too many flaws and still manages to overcome them. Or someone who has a mental breakdown after facing horrible things. Or a smart, strong and capacitated heroine who still hasn’t overcome her past traumas and hides behind her arrogance. Or someone who is smart but not physically strong so can’t fight the bad guys. Or someone who isn’t sure her set of skills is going to be enough to save the kingdom.
We’ve seen them all before, and I bet you can even name a couple of them just by these statements. And what do they have in common?
All of them have been deemed unlikable by different people.
I follow a lot of bloggers and read a lot of reviews, mostly online. And while some people love some characters, they HATE some of the others. That’s all right — it’s human to like and dislike different things. But the amount of hate we see for female characters for having the same flaws as male characters… whew, it’s a huge difference, let me tell you.
Yes, this has been said a hundred or a THOUSAND times already. Internalized mysoginy makes it easier to forgive a man for his flaws than a woman with the exact same flaw. When a man doesn’t feel regret for an action, he’s a baddass and sure of himself. When a woman doesn’t have regret, she’s a cold and cruel bitch.
[IT IS KNOWN]
So we’ve come around to the trope of the ‘likable lead’. A lead has to be likable. She can have flaws, but not too many. She has to be pretty, but not too much. She has to be smart enough to save her skin, but she can’t be super-smart because that’s unreal. She has to be well-liked, but she can’t be popular. She has to be good at sports, but not too much. Remind you of Chimanda Adiche’s TED talk, much?
I’ve come across this SO MANY times. “Tris is so annoying, she rises out of her Abnegation rearing so fast it’s unbelievable” and “Ugh, Tris is so weak and annoying, she just should adjust to her situation. Or “Katniss is so annoying, she has no mind for Peeta’s or anyone else’s feelings,” and “Katniss has so many feelings, she should just stop moping and DO something”. Or “Celaena is super annoying, she thinks she’s the best in the world and does nothing” and “This is so unreal that she can be a cool-ass assassin and still care about her appearance” and “Celaena’s arrogance is so annoying ugh she’s the worst.” And yet we have beloved arrogant male characters (a-hem, the Herondales) who are pretty much never cricticized for that.
I love all those characters mentioned. I love that they’re so different and strong and have flaws at the same time and that they all work towards becoming better people by the end of their respective stories. But mostly, they are also good people in general, people who have kind hearts.
You want to know another of my most recent favorite characters? Amy Dunn, from Gone Girl. Amy is psycopathic, vengeful and full of hatred. She’s flawed and arrogant, and I simply LOVE the way she is, because we’re not given enough crazy women on fiction. No, all women must be kind and loving and forgiving, even when they got their asses beaten. Even in YA I can’t name a lot of this characters – they may comit some horrible actions, but in the end, they still have big hearts. (Please let me know if you’ve got recs for me in that department — I desperately want to read YA where the MC isn’t loving at all.) One of the most interesting traits of Red Queen by Victoria Aveyard for me by FAR was the fact that Mare Barrow, the protagonist, is completely selfish. I loved it — she didn’t try to defend herself and other people, and even her attempt to help her sister was half-hearted. She likes people, sure, but she puts herself first. AND I LOVE THAT.
There are kind and loving people out there. There are loads of women like that. We’ve got women like Katniss who fights for her sister and feels terrible at the Hunger Games but still fights for her life and to return home. We’ve got women like Cinderella, who are kind and brave and forgiving. I love those women, but I also love the other “hidden” side. The crazy, unhinged side as an MC or even as antagonist. (The problem with women antagonists is that 99% of the time they’re made to be jealous or petty. Where are the power hungry and vengeful women?) The thing is, most of these women don’t happen because it’s not traditional. Because they’re not likable enough.
Likable, in society’s standard terms, means being the perfect girl. It means you are expected to make sacrifices, put other people first, forgive people always no matter their mistakes. It means being quiet, it means always making the ‘right’ decision, even when that decision hurts you deeply. Those are all expectations from a sexist society, which always asks for women to sacrifice themselves and who they are and to be shaped in that meek and kind girl people expect to see. The ‘perfect wife’ trope, if you will. But if we’re to be honest, those girls aren’t real. They are, yes, by standard, “likable”, but they end up being bland and boring at best. Because for what it takes, they aren’t very real. And women, no matter what, if they make decisions to put themselves first, are always seen as selfish, and ultimately, as a character ‘unlikable’. Because of a simple mistake, or a personality trait.
When I set out to write my MS, I wasn’t thinking of making my MC likable. I was thinking of making her real. I particularly think ‘likable’ is pretty overrated, and some of my favorite characters are the ones people hate (see: Amy Dunn above). I love that we can bring more Amy-like characters, characters who are on edge, or dark or twisted or crazy or unhinged, characters who don’t feel remorse or who are arrogant. They don’t have to be all qualities – let them have flaws, and by flaws I mean HUGE ONES. Gaps in their personalities and in their character as a whole. Let us experience more of the other side of those character.
Let me see girls who are vicious, who are fighters, who are selfish and brave and ruthless. Let me see girls who are willing to do anything, girls with a thirst for revenge, for taking back what’s theirs. Let me see girls who build things out of nothing and aren’t afraid to come out as unlikable or ‘bitchy’. Let me see those real, flawed girls everywhere. Let me see those who don’t care that society wants to see them quiet, kind, forgiving and meek. Give me girls with their hearts out for blood and for taking what they want, no matter what.
I want that. Please just give me more ‘unlikable female characters’.