Your heroine is unlikable.
I’d heard this more than a couple of times, in contest feedback and critique groups, back when I was still seeking representation for my manuscript. See, in the opening pages, the main character, Sophie, is sitting in a food stall at Hong Kong’s bustling Temple Street Night Market. It is the first night of a girls’ vacation with her best friend, Elena, and she’s excited to review the itinerary for the rest of their week abroad. But as soon as Sophie whips out her guidebook, Elena announces that she’s going home. She’s changed her return flight to tomorrow morning, because she can’t stand to be away from her boyfriend for one moment more. Sophie’s being abandoned, abruptly, eight thousand miles from home, by someone who’s supposed to be her best friend.
How do you think you might react in a situation like this? Would you be instantly understanding? Forgiving? Pleasant and smiley? If you said “yes,” then you’re a better person than I am, because I actually was in a situation like this, and I can assure you, in the moment, I wasn’t feeling particularly benevolent. (More on that later…) Yet time and again, I was told by critiquers that maybe Sophie shouldn’t react quite so angrily. Maybe she should cry instead; show herself as sympathetic instead of combative. Or perhaps she should be more compassionate, and try to put herself in Elena’s shoes. But she definitely should not fantasize about sticking a fork in her friend’s eye, because that would make her unlikable.
Spoiler alert: that’s exactly what she did. (She only fantasized about it. There was no actual fork-to-eye contact.)
The Human Experience
Raise your hand if you’ve ever fantasized about sticking a fork in someone’s eye. If you’re not raising your hand, again, you’re a better person than I. Because in my life, I’ve experienced moments of anger and fear and embarrassment that have led me to having less-than-sympathetic emotional reactions like that. I’ve never acted on them (well, at least not on the fork-in-the-eye fantasy), but I still can’t help the way I feel, and I think we all have had those feelings we wish we hadn’t felt.
Sometimes, I think a heroine is deemed unlikable because she exposes a truth about ourselves that we don’t want to acknowledge. Maybe you’ve had a crush on your best friend’s fiancé, like Rachel in Something Borrowed, by Emily Giffin. Maybe you want to sleep with people other than your fiancé, like Lily in I Take You, by Eliza Kennedy. Maybe you cursed out a friend because she decided to abandon you in a foreign country. Or maybe you were the one doing the abandoning.
It’d be understandable if you were ashamed of yourself. No one wants or likes to betray a friend or hurt someone’s feelings. But the fact is, whether we want to admit them or not, things like this happen. Regularly. They’re part of the human experience. Being human and flawed shouldn’t automatically translate to “unlikable.”
But I think this is tied to a greater societal issue, which is how we define acceptable feminine norms. We all know (don’t we?) that women are frequently held to different standards than men, especially when it comes to determining “likability.” An oft-cited study featured in Lean In, by Sheryl Sandberg, negatively correlates women’s success with their likability. Qualities that help people succeed in business, such as being direct and decisive, aren’t compatible with the image of the sweet, kind, compassionate caregivers that women are expected to be. Likable women aren’t supposed to behave like bitches.
What about men, though? They’re expected to be domineering and strong-willed, and for some reason, anger is more palatable if it’s coming from a man. If a guy had a momentary fantasy involving a fork and an eye, would he be considered unlikable? Or would this be something we’d be willing to forgive him for, because this is more stereotypically masculine behavior?
Liking the Unlikable
I really like unlikable heroines. Characters like Rachel and Lily and Sophie don’t always act honorably, and they sometimes challenge our vision of how a woman (or a man) might ideally react in a given situation. But I don’t relate to idealistic characters; I relate to characters who are flawed, who are placed in situations that aren’t straightforward or clear-cut, and who sometimes make the “unlikable” choice.
What about you? What’s your take on the unlikable heroine? If you find a main character is doing something distasteful, does it make you want to put the book down? Do you have different expectations for your male characters than you do for your female characters?