Female Protagonists: Do They Need to be Friend Material?

Photo by Send me adrift.

We’re thrilled to host today’s guest, Andrea Lochen. Although Andrea dreamed of being an author since the third grade, she didn’t realize creative writing was “an actual thing” until she stumbled upon the writing program at the University of Wisconsin. Andrea went on to receive her MFA from the University of Michigan. During that time, she was able to complete a rough draft of The Repeat Year, which received a Hopwood Award for the Novel. Andrea has taught writing at the University of Michigan and currently teaches at the University of Wisconsin-Waukesha. She lives in suburban Milwaukee with her husband and their adorably fluffy dog, Maddy. In her free time, she likes to bake cupcakes and cakes, spend time with her family, see musicals and plays, and read as much as humanly possible. The Repeat Year is her first novel.

What’s the book about?

Everyone has days, weeks, even months they wish they could do over—but what about an entire year? After living through the worst twelve months of her life, intensive care nurse Olive Watson is given a second chance to relive her past and attempt to discover where she went wrong.

After a year of hardships including a messy breakup with her longtime boyfriend Phil, the prospect of her mother’s remarriage, and heartbreaking patient losses at the hospital, Olive is ready to start fresh. But when she wakes up in her ex-boyfriend’s bed on New Year’s Day 2011—a day she has already lived—Olive’s world is turned upside down.

Shouldering a year of memories that no one else can recall, even Olive begins to question herself—until she discovers that she is not alone. Crossing paths with Sherry Witan, an experienced “repeater,” Olive learns that she has the chance to rewrite her future. Given the opportunity of a lifetime, Olive has to decide what she really wants. Should she make different choices, or accept her life as she knows it, flaws and all?

As a debut women’s fiction writer, Andrea has found that her characters are often judged by what she calls “the friend factor.”  We’re excited that she’s joined us today to explore the issue of likeability in female characters–how important is it? Do authors compromise the story they want to tell in order to create a protagonist with whom readers would like to have coffee? And do readers tend to be more accepting of unlikeable male characters?

Hear more about what Andrea has to say on her website or on Facebook.

Female Protagonists: Do They Need to be Friend Material?

Much has been written about the “likeability” quandary of literary characters.  The Publishers Weekly interview with Claire Messud about her new novel The Woman Upstairs resurrected this debate.  When the interviewer mentioned she wouldn’t want to be friends with Messud’s protagonist, Nora, Messud shot back, “For heaven’s sake, what kind of question is that? Would you want to be friends with Humbert Humbert? Would you want to be friends with Mickey Sabbath? Saleem Sinai? Hamlet? Krapp? Oedipus? Oscar Wao? Antigone? Raskolnikov? Any of the characters in The Corrections?…If you’re reading to find friends, you’re in deep trouble. We read to find life, in all its possibilities. The relevant question isn’t ‘is this a potential friend for me?’ but ‘is this character alive?’”

When I first read her response, I felt an inward divide between my perspectives as both a writer and a reader.  The writer in me thrilled.  Right on, Claire!  Tell it like it is!  As a debut author of a women’s fiction novel, The Repeat Year, I find my characters are often judged based on “the friend factor”—would the reader want to be friends with Olive, Kerrigan, Sherry, and the others?  Or as Tessa Hadley put it in The New Yorker, “If ever I go to talk to book groups when they’re reading my book, this likeability issue is always what comes up—‘Oh, I didn’t like her’, ‘she’s so selfish,’ or ‘I couldn’t find anyone to like.’ Or—more comforting for the author but, in the end, part of the same problem—‘I really liked your character.’”  Many readers review books based on how pleasant their time spent with the characters was and if they morally agree with the characters’ choices, and this can be a problematic disconnect between readers and writers.

At the same time, the avid reader in me asked, What’s so bad about likeable characters?  I LIKE likeable characters!  Readers tend to gravitate toward protagonists they can relate to, characters with sparkling personalities that they wish they could befriend in real life. (I would love to be best friends with Elizabeth Bennet, Jo March, Marisa de los Santos’ Cornelia Brown or any of the main characters from The Help.)  Jennifer Weiner maintained in Slate: “I will freely admit to reading books to find friends. I did it when I was young, and friendless; I do it now that I’m an adult…Sure, I’ll stick with a compelling villain, or a warts-and-all portrayal of a real person…but I won’t deny myself the pleasures of a funny, frank, intimate take on being a mother, a wife, a woman whose dreams have been thwarted by her real-world responsibilities.”  Weiner offers a vision where there is room for characters across the spectrum: “Ideally, our shelves, and even individual books, should contain the rainbow…for the lovable and the despicable, for Humbert Humbert and Hannibal Lecter, for Bridget Jones and even the poor, scorned Ya-Ya Sisterhood.”

But the problem is female novelists are getting boxed in and pressured to write characters who are more likeable in order to have their books sell.  And although writers of both genders can face the unlikeable character accusation, there does seem to be a strong double standard.  As Rivka Galchen suggested, “we are well-trained to like ‘unappealing’ male characters—so much so that I would imagine anyone who wanted their male character to be truly and deeply unlikeable would face quite a challenge. Conversely, we are not well-trained to like anyone other than the basically virtuous and proficient female protagonist.”  But how do we go about this “training,” especially if authors and their audience have different objectives?

As writers, we are taught that characters shouldn’t be perfect people.  In fact, they should be flawed human beings who come across as both realistic and believable.  If our characters are flawless, there is no conflict, nothing interesting is happening, and the reader is probably bored.  In the book I consider to be the Bible of writing, Janet Burroway and Elizabeth Stuckey-French’s Writing Fiction, (from which I was taught as an undergraduate at the University of Wisconsin and which I currently use to teach Creative Writing to my own college students), they make the distinction that “we must care about what happens to them [fictional characters].”  It’s one thing to like and care about a character because she is kind, generous, and selfless.  It is quite another thing to care about a character even when she is arrogant, petty, and irresponsible: to believe in characters so much that we are invested in what happens to them in spite of their flaws.

The Repeat Year is a clever meditation on time travel. In Lochen’s hands, it’s far more than a plot gimmick —it’s about the myriad ways we second-guess and sabotage ourselves in the name of finding happiness. Her characters must find ways to let go of regrets and cherish the small moments of love in life, right now. I enjoyed this a lot.”

– Margaret Dilloway, author of How to Be An American Housewife and The Care and Handling of Roses with Thorns

And this is the real challenge of fiction—rendering the most unlikable characters as lovable, flaws and all.  The more we read, the more empathetic we become because we feel momentarily that we have inhabited their skin and understand what it is like to be them.  When Vladimir Nabokov wrote Lolita, he knew what an uncomfortable and disturbing position he was putting his readers in, asking us to empathize with a child molester.  And even while we despise Humbert Humbert, we can’t help continuing to read the novel and wonder what will happen to both him and Lolita.

Of course, not all readers will appreciate these types of characters, and it is the reader’s prerogative and right to choose.  I think one of the reasons why J.K. Rowling’s adult novel The Casual Vacancy was met with such mixed reviews was because the characters in the Harry Potter series are some of the most beloved, likeable characters ever written.  Readers were therefore startled to encounter the residents of Pagford who seemed judgmental and self-absorbed.  But more importantly, their motives were always clear, and at times as I read it, I was moved to pity because I felt I understood the culmination of all their choices, mistakes, secret hopes and fears.  In my opinion, that is one of the most important gifts that good books offer us.

I read it as a sign of progress that writers like Claire Messud are pushing against these stereotypes.  Maybe in the future this notion of female characters needing to be agreeable will be dispelled.  Maybe their personalities will run the gamut, just like real-life women.  But until then, my advice is to focus less on making your characters likeable and more on making them interesting and believable.  And if you’re like me, and you love your characters, even the truly flawed ones, hopefully that love will come through to your readers and they will enjoy the lesson in empathy.

As a reader, what do you expect from characters? Do you open a book hoping to find a friend within its pages, or is it more satisfying for you to discover flawed characters with whom you learn to empathize, despite themselves? As a writer, do you struggle with this dilemma? If so, how have you chosen to handle it?

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Comments

  1. Ruchi Vasudeva says

    Congratulations, Andrea, on the book release.
    A wonderful and thought evoking post. It particularly struck a chord with me because just recently I’ve written a heroine who had run off with her sister’s fiancé a week before the wedding, leaving the sister feeling hurt and betrayed. I write for Harlequin and in romantic fiction a heroine with negative shades is difficult to digest. It was a challenge going into her character and bringing out her reasons which I thoroughly enjoyed. We aren’t always perfect so why should our characters (or heroines) be? Great post. Thanks!

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  2. says

    Seems to me that if a reader doesn’t “like” a character, the author has succeeded in bringing the character to life, given it enough dimension someone can come to a conclusion. Nobody gets along with everybody and characters reflect that fact. If authors attempt to create “likeable” characters, they are bound to be cardboard and flat. Comes down to a richness of life kind of thing which is what fiction is all about.

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  3. says

    I love likable characters, and am fascinated by unlikable ones! Some twang your heart, some pinch your arm. Either way, I find that for me, wanting to know more, turn the page, finish the book, is not predicated on the likability but on the skill with which the author has imagined and written the character and the story.

    Thanks for a thoughtful post, Andrea! xo

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  4. JCoh says

    One of my favorite female protagonists (written by a male) is Dolores Price of “She’s Come Undone.” I hated her throughout the novel and then cried at the loss of her when the book was done. The key is your investment in the character’s decisions that make you keep reading.

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  5. says

    Well, said, Tony. I agree wholeheartedly.

    Thank you for your perspectives, Andrea. You hit the mark exactly. Making your characters so believable that one is caught up in their lives, warts and all, is the ultimate goal for the writer. Brava!

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  6. says

    When I visit book clubs many women judge Angie, the mother in ALICE BLISS, very harshly. I have learned that we give moms almost no “margin of error” and expect them to perform perfectly no matter what the situation. This, of course, is ridiculous.
    I would find myself talking about how much I love flawed characters as their eyes seemed to glaze over.
    Now thanks to you, I will ask readers, Do you have to like a character to care about her and be invested in the choices she makes? It should make for some interesting discussion.
    Thank you for teasing apart all of the strands of the “likability” issue.

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    • says

      Thanks for your comment, Laura! It certainly seems like mothers are judged the harshest, aren’t they? Good luck with your future book clubs!

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    • says

      Great insight, Laura–and helpful. In my experience, more “sophisticated” readers (for lack of a better word) have an easier time accepting “unlikeable” characters. It has to do with the motives for reading–whether for insight and understanding & to be challenged–to probe the world–or for the mental equivalent of a mall massage. I know that sounds judgmental–but I’m all for mall massages!

      Of course, if you want readers to like your character and they don’t, that bears investigating! (I know whereof I speak!)

      It’s really valuable to be able to adjust to your readers and to challenge them a bit (vis your question to book groups) and so deepen the dialogue.

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  7. says

    This is actually quite fascinating to me. My editor’s comments included a note which said that one of my characters should have more female friends because book clubs were by in large groups of women friends. I guess the comment went to making her relatable . I complied. Nevertheless I tend to like to isolate my characters. I’ll have to think on this for a while. Great post.

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  8. says

    I didn’t know this was a debate! As a reader, I don’t judge characters by how likable they are. I either care what happens to them, or I don’t. It’s that simple. Great article!!

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  9. Carmel says

    I don’t need to feel like kindred spirits with a character to enjoy a book, *but*… my very favorite books hold my very favorite friends.

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  10. says

    I do not believe characters need to be likable, but I am disappointed when there is not a single character I would enjoy having a cup of coffee with. Some characters can and should be reprehensible, but the friend factor is crucial in series where the protagonist has to get readers to buy the next book.

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  11. says

    When was growing up (I’m still growing up) I always wanted to be the main character, so if I didn’t like the main character, I didn’t like the book. Now that I’m older, I don’t have to be the main character, but I do want to like them on some level. If I sort of like the MC, then I need to have a valuable, supporting character to like. I want good supporting character regardless though.

    Male or female, it doesn’t matter for this guy. She can be a jackass, promiscuous, selfish, brutal bitch (Vi Savori), or an intelligent, manipulating, selfish, masterminding bitch (G. Kirena), but if the character (male or female) has a meniscal measure of self-sacrifice, love, or any heart wrenching admirable quality coupled with other traits, like sarcasm, or a funny naiveté, then I can still like’em. Watching the characters change to those awesome traits is even better. By the way, the two female characters I was just referring are frickin awesome DIVAS. I love them to pieces. The character I liked least in that same story involving the awesome women was one of the purest characters of the story. It didn’t make her very likeable for me.

    So…….. What makes a likeable character? What makes an unappealing character? Which readers are skewing the standards, males or females? Are those fair questions?
    I think Gillian Flynn’s characters are perfect examples for this post.
    I think?

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  12. says

    I think, as writers, we need to write our characters honestly and bravely, with, as you said, warts and all. “Friendly” characters do well in popular fiction and I think the writer must be aware of the potential for readers to dislike their characters, but this should not stop them from being true to their characters. Agents and editors may disagree and the writer may be required to soften some of the sharper edges of personality, but you have to identify the reason you needed to write the character in the way that you did, and be true to that intention.
    On a side note, I think the whole need for women writers and female characters to “be more likeable” stems from the underlying sexism still rampant in society (as well as the publishing industry). A powerful, no-nonsense businessman is rarrely called an asshole, even if he is one. A powerful, no-nonsense businesswoman is nearly always called a bitch, even if it’s only behind her back.
    Excellent post and great food for thought.

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  13. says

    Hi Andrea, a few readers of my WIP have not liked some of my protagonist’s behaviors and I’ve struggled with whether to change her. She’s a crusader with a big heart and bad social skills. My decision was to let her be herself. Thanks for the timely blog and everyone’s helpful comments. I feel better now.

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  14. says

    I love this subject. I don’t read to find friends. I love the statement “to find life” but I also read to be entertained. Some read to escape their own existence.

    I think as long as we can relate to the character, it doesn’t matter is we like her or not. I mean, look at Scarlet O’Hara. She was one selfish little brat. Yet … the whole world embraced her and championed her.

    I love to see a protagonist with some not-so-nice qualities too. It makes me feel better to know I’m not alone. :)

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  15. J says

    Exhibit A: Scarlett O’Hara, the anti-heroine.
    Though perhaps she is the exception?

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  16. says

    Congrats on the publication of your debut novel, Andrea! Thank you for sharing this great post. Excellent topic. One I often grouse about. As readers, we have a much higher tolerance for deeply-flawed or unlikeable male protagonists. However, the bar is much higher for female protagonists. We often force them to pass the BFF test.

    I love reading about flawed, broken characters. They are fascinating to me. Yet, as a writer, I sometimes find myself hesitant to make a character say or do a particular thing because I’m worried it will turn readers off.

    The character in my debut novel coming out next month does pass the BFF test. The heroine of my second novel slated for later this year is edgier. She’s often selfish and thoughtless. Says and does the wrong things. It will be interesting to see how readers respond to both characters.

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  17. says

    Jane Austen called Emma “a heroine whom no one but myself will much like.” But we love watching her progression from embarrassment to humiliation to true humility and finally root for her to get the man she loves (even though it’s clear she’ll never completely reform).

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  18. says

    And, of course, there’s Olive Kitteridge, whose bad temper, judgementalism , and treatment of her dear husband are so painful to read, and yet Elizabeth Strout makes us care about her, even pity her, and cheer the growth she achieves by the end of the book.

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  19. says

    “I would imagine anyone who wanted their male character to be truly and deeply unlikeable would face quite a challenge…”

    I’d have to quite disagree with this quote. It may apply in some sense to bad boys in so-called chick lit, but what about Duddy Kravitz? Holden Caufield? The main male characters in On The Road and Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas?

    Granted, the authors probably didn’t set out to make their characters “truly and deeply unlikeable,” as evidenced by the great numbers of readers who find something sympathetic about them. But I’m sure there are others besides myself who just couldn’t find enough redeeming qualities to forgive the characters’ failings.

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  20. says

    As someone who is writing an ensemble female cast, female character variety is a must; I want a whole spectrum here! It makes for better interactions for one thing. For me, the real issue is not likability, but whether you elicit an emotional response, regardless of what that is. It draws you in. “The character you love to hate,” yes? The likable characters you want to root for; the darker/unlikable characters you want to root for their demise or their reform when it’s done right, in my opinion.

    I also think there is a lot of cultural pressure to be the “good girl” and so when we write, that lens colors our writing (or we struggle against it) and then when reading, that same lens colors our impression. Maybe we are subconsciously looking for a character we can imitate? There was definitely an element of wanting friends when I read when I was child, and there are definitely characters I wish were real so we could be friends, (or characters I just wanted to “be” and who wants to be the bad guy?) but that’s a side effect for me: my number one reason to read is to be entertained and/or taken in, taken away. Everyone’s going to have their preference on what literary vehicle is taking them away (and who’s driving it!) ;)

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  21. says

    Great subject, Andrea! So glad you addressed it. I love Tony Vanderwarker’s comments. Maybe I needed the validation. I don’t strive to make my characters likeable, I want them to be real.

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  22. says

    Perhaps, just perhaps, the “requirement” to write a nice, friendly protagonist, with an obligatory happy ending, is part of what creates the ghetto of Women’s Fiction. If you like the ghetto, no worries. If you aspire to break out and grab for the gold ring of literary respect, consider Claire Messud’s advice carefully.

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  23. says

    Oh dear, I recently wrote a post on this. I completely agree, I think female characters have it a hundred times tougher than male characters, who can be likeable both as villains or “bad boys,” but “bad girls” are simply those that sleep around, in the the stereotypical sense. I have absolutely no issues with girls that speak their mind, curse, or happen to be rude because that’s who they are. I want to see them live, as Messud said. I also hope that this changes and drifts to readers having different expectations of female characters, or just enjoying them for who they are. Yes, I love loveable characters but I don’t befriend every character I read. It’s a rare and special event. If it happens, great, if not, I can still enjoy the story. If anything, I’m curious to see how and if they will grow and change their ways. Thanks for the epic post!

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  24. says

    When I decided to create a female assassin, I knew I was treading on thin ice – my readers wouldn’t be able to relate to her on a personal lever (I hoped!), but I had to give them enough about her to be willing to root for her as the novel progressed.

    It was less about trying to create a “BFF” and more about creating someone who was a real person, with her own set of strengths and weaknesses, and situations in her past that had made her the woman she is. The feedback and reviews I’ve gotten suggest that it worked.

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  25. says

    It’s a tough call for sure.

    I recently wrote an entry about the fact I have so few female protagonists in my writing. Which is weird because I AM female… it’s a little harder for me because I don’t have a lot of female friends and those I do have are like me in that we don’t fit into the box of what girls are typically like.
    We’re not into make-up, dressing up or jewlery. I’m more of a nerd and a tomboy. And when I do write about female characters, I feel self-conscious that those reading my work will look beyond them and judge me because they’re either selfish or too self-centered or a “take no prisoners” type of person.

    As for writing likable characters, that’s even harder to manage because finding the right balance is so difficult. How much should certain flaws be exploited for the sake of storytelling? Can their actions be forgiven if they’re not quite what the story needs?
    In TV and movies, unlikeable characters have won people over, but it’s a little more difficult, I think. If you’re writing for a mass audience for the first time, it might be easier to establish that trust with likeable characters unless you’re REALLY good at making unlikeable characters as well as Don Draper or Gregory House have.

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