I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve gotten the note: “Make your character less difficult. She’s not likable enough.” I didn’t do it on purpose; it’s just that my female characters tend to be complex, like the women I know. It happened when the female leads were opinionated. They had standards and held fast to them. They want. They railed against those who got in their way.
They were not compliant.
There aren’t that many female characters in literature or TV that can be considered difficult. Check out this list of unlikable characters from literature. There are female characters on there, yes, but the only female on it is Bella Swan of Twilight (a box I’d rather not open on this particular post).
Male characters with those difficult attributes are generally embraced by the public. Think Sherlock Holmes. A Man Called Ove. House. Sheldon Cooper. Nobody would ever call them compliant, yet they are beloved. Even those who may not be beloved (Dexter, Don Draper, Walter White) are still pretty darn popular.
What’s the Explanation?
Unlikable female main characters only seem to inhabit a limited number of genres. If you’re writing women’s fiction and not a thriller or literary fiction, you’re likely to find resistance with an unlikable female lead. Why is that? An editor might tell you that an unlikable female character won’t engage the average reader, and therefore not sell books. Upmarket fiction is a blend of literary and commercial: think generally the type of novel with a theme meaty enough for book clubs and enough plot to keep the average reader engaged. In this genre, I would bet that most female characters are likable.
Non-compliant women threaten to overturn our social norms. My guess is because although American society has made great inroads since women got the vote, it still hasn’t been all that long since women were considered property. Even those who consider themselves feminists are not always completely able to shake free of sexism. We don’t like it when women defy social norms. Celeste Ng’s terrific Little Fires Everywhere explores in part how the bourgeoise take down those women who defy unwritten cultural rules, fearing that their own lives will be called into question.
Also think of Elizabeth Strout’s character Olive Kitteridge. Nobody could call Olive likable. She’s thorny, with standards that others find it impossible to live up to. She messes up her relationships. And she doesn’t care what others think. Essays have been written about her unlikability. Same with Claire Messud’s Nora in The Woman Upstairs. Messud told Publisher’s Weekly, “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?'”
Should Your Main Character Be Likable?
That’s up to you. Perhaps an unlikable narrator is just not right for your story. Or perhaps you’ve written a deliciously non-compliant difficult woman for a thriller, and you want to keep her that way. Whether or not your character is likable in the traditional sense, their actions must be borne out of a grounded place. And of course, even if your character’s unlikable, they must still be interesting.
But if it’s important to your story that the reader identify with your character and it’s bothering you that your main character is labeled difficult, then there are a few ways you could amend that.
What Makes a Difficult Character Likable?
Here are two TV examples of difficult women. Sophia in The Golden Girls is pretty crotchety, but hey, we can excuse her because she’s super old. And she loves her daughter, and her daughter’s devoted to her.
April Ludgate from Parks and Rec is also difficult. But she loves the resident doofus, Andy. And she secretly loves everyone. And by the end of the series, April has softened considerably.
Perhaps that’s the key—audiences like to see those difficult females actually do love certain people and transform. We know that Sophia’s not going to change because she’s too old, and her blunt snarkiness is key. But someone like April could change.
And this could be true with some of the male main characters I cited. Sherlock Holmes doesn’t really love anyone deeply, except maybe Watson—and he still abuses the poor guy quite a bit. But we forgive him because he’s a GENIUS! And in the newer BBC series, we do see a little character development with him.
In A Man Called Ove, Ove’s backstory slowly unspools. We learn of his despair since he lost his wife, and how important she was to him. There’s a warm cast of characters who believe in him despite his gruffness. He changes, too. He also saves and then cares for a stray cat.
So if you want readers to like your difficult character:
• Make someone else see the good in them.
• Give them something to love. A plant, a pet, a sibling she saves from death (Katniss!), a lost love.
• Add humor. A difficult character with biting wit is more fun to read than one who’s not only difficult but humorless.
Has anyone told you to make your female main character more likable? Do you think the “likability factor” holds true for gender non-binary characters as well? Do you think an upmarket women’s fiction book market would support an unlikable female main character? What are your favorite books, films, and TV shows featuring unlikable main characters?
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