the unlikeable heroine ; the unanswerable question

Liz posted last week about why she stopped reading Jo Manning’s Seducing Mr Heyward. She points out how frustrating it is that the heroine is reacquainted with her sons and immediately becomes motherly, and loved.

This description fired up my writing brain. I particularly love tense, hurtful scenes in which family members misunderstand each other. I could imagine a different version of that scene, in which the mother was all nerves and defiance and insecurity, the boys all studied indifference, if not downright cruelty. That’s a world in which the characters would have to fight for their right to be – and let their feelings teach them to be humble.

When I ranted this at Liz, she said, “My feeling about the maternal thing was that a bad mother is seen as too unsympathetic for romance readers. I wondered if the author or editor was afraid to go there.”

This is pretty standard fare in Romancelandia – the discussion of what makes a likeable heroine, what’s acceptable, which lines can’t be crossed. Rosario made the excellent point that when Seducing Mr Heyward was published the character did push the boundaries – it’s just that we have so much more variety these days, we forget how far we’ve come.

Writers see a boundary, and something in the back of their brain goes, “What would it take to cross that?”

But then I started to wonder – what makes a heroine unlikeable? I’m sure every romance writer has asked herself this question hundreds of times, and gone about acquiring the techniques that’ll help her stretch those boundaries till they snap.

That’s not the question I’m asking, though.

I’m asking – what does that even mean, that a heroine’s unlikeable? What yardstick is she failing to measure up to? Is it a moral standard we hold her to – and if so, whose moral standard? Are there ideals of womanhood that can’t be contravened? Why? And whose ideals are they anyway? When writers and editors self-censor in anticipation of their market, does their caution actually meet reader expectations? How conservative is the romance readership?

Which all seems to point to: What do reader expectations of a heroine say about reader expectations of women?

Last week I read Jenny Crusie’s Crazy for you for the first time. Jenny Crusie’s vocal about the fact that she writes the kind of angry heroines she thought were missing from the romance genre – and that she sees romance as a powerful feminist instrument to show women what’s possible. What they can fight for, what they have a right to.

That they don’t have to be so impassive they fall into hundred-year comas.

But Crusie’s women – in this book – made me uncomfortable. They’re selfish and pushy and aggressive. I really don’t know whether I should leave it at “they crossed a line for me personally”, or whether it’s important for me to feel the discomfort of watching women act out “unfeminine” qualities.

When I strip out the generalizations, this is what I’m asking: What do my expectations of a heroine say about my expectations of myself?

I mentioned my interest in what makes a heroine unlikeable to Ruthie Knox, because everything that made me want to punch a particular heroine in the face endeared her to Ruthie. We both came to the conclusion that it’s a relationship to ourselves – not some vague moral value – that determines our reaction. Ruthie can’t bear heroines who she would envy in real life, or feel inadequate next to, or who have the kinds of obsessions that annoy her in real women. I can’t bear heroines whose flaws shine light on all the ways I convince myself I’m not – but know I am.

Of course, a relationship to myself doesn’t exclude “a vague moral value”. As Kyra Kramer says in her essay ‘Getting laid, getting old, and getting fed: the cultural resistance of Jennifer Crusie’s romance heroines’, “Since the body exists concurrently as both a natural and a cultural object, it is nearly impossible to examine the individual body independently of the social and political bodies. A person has a certain amount of autonomy, or agency, in regards to their individual body. However, the individual body is so closely intermeshed with the social/political body that it cannot help but represent cultural assumptions.”

It’s a huge question, “What does it mean when a heroine’s unlikeable?” and unanswerable in that annoying, artsy way, where everything’s subjective.

Here are some things I think about it:

Heroines aren’t heroic when they meet a moral expectation of good or bad. They’re heroic when they take on the whole world because they trust that internal definition of right.

And because that really told you nothing at all, here’s my definition of heroic in specific terms: Dan Savage, raised in the Catholic church, realised at fourteen that he was gay. He didn’t think, “There’s something wrong with me.” He knew what the church thought of homosexuality, and he thought, “That can’t be right.”

Can you imagine that? A fourteen-year-old boy with enough self-belief to declare one of the most powerful churches in the world wrong, because it disagreed with how he knew himself.

(You can listen to ‘Our man of perpetual sorrow’ here – it’s a moving piece of radio!)

Of course, if that had been a story about a fourteen-year-old boy believing absolutely in his right to own a gun, I probably wouldn’t see it as heroic. Remember the part about annoying artsy subjectivity? Yep.

However, it’s not always as simple as: What I agree with = good, what I disagree with = bad.

My favourite version of Draco in Harry Potter fanfic is the aristocratic boy who still believes in the racist notions his father drilled into him. The boy who believes in all the wrong things even when he’s coming to understand he’s fighting on the wrong side. He’s not ever going to be fully “reformed”, but there’s this quick mind that understands how his notions are received, and questions them, and believes in them anyway.

Comments 13 Responses

    1. anna cowan Post author

      the thing that’s transformed for me this year has been noticing what I like – and then thinking about what I want to like, and looking at the gap between the two. Which doesn’t answer any questions either. Not for the Type A brain!

  1. sarah mayberry (@MayberrySarah)

    My IQ went up 50 points after reading this. Great questions, Anna. Great musings and ponderings, too. I think I fall in to both your and Ruthie’s camps on this – I dislike heroine’s who would make me feel like chopped liver in real life, and I really dislike heroines who have characteristics I am terrified I possess. I’m far, far tougher on fictional women than I am my women friends, who I adore for their flaws, humor, humanity and poo jokes. I can actually be pretty damned judgement of heroines, even. Is this the avatar thing, do you think, where we are being asked to walk a book in their shoes and if those shoes pinch we get all tetchy? I am not sure…

    1. anna cowan Post author

      ha, I got a kick out of quoting that essay all intellectual like. I love your point about your real-life friends versus a fictional woman. I guess we invest the women we write with absolute qualities? We ask them to figure out what’s all fog to us. I’ve been thinking quite a bit about how absolute fictional characters are. Heroines always have some overriding motivation: I WILL save my family home, I WILL avoid love, etc. But even conquerors eat. And think about, I dunno, how ugly their new armour is. I think about myself: my overriding motivation is to become published, but I do other things too. I go to the movies, and worry about my greying hair, then love my greying hair, then wonder whether it would really be the wrong time to get pregnant, then think about what to make for dinner. Maybe it’s those in between bits that make us love our friends?

      1. sarah mayberry (@MayberrySarah)

        Try writing a book with a heroine (or hero) who doesn’t have a goal.I dare ya. It’s a sure road to insanity. But in real life, absolutely, no one focusses on that one thing all the time. Hell, I spend an inordinate amount of time rolling around on the carpet playing with my puppy. No one wants to read about that in a book (do they? let me know and I am THERE). BTW, I always planned to be a brunette until they pried my cold, dead 95 year old hands from my keyboard, but the frequent trips to the salon have got me thinking “Judy Dench has a fine head of stylish grey hair” and suchlike. I am far too lazy for fashion and beauty.

        1. anna cowan Post author

          LOL- no, I don’t think the answer is no goal. (I tried reading Banville’s The Sea. Never again.) But I do like feeling that just off the page – just off there where we can’t see it – she takes her shoes off at the end of the day and stretches her toes and thinks about other things.

          Silver hair is the best!

  2. Amber Lin (@AuthorAmberLin)

    Great post – very thoughtful! I think you’re absolutely right about the likability of heroines reflecting our personal views on strength and weakness.

    Regarding this: “I wondered if the author or editor was afraid to go there.”
    Yes, sometimes that does happen, but I think more often it is not fear that the reader won’t like it but the author or editor’s own personal dislike. That is, the author and editor are readers, and if they don’t find the heroine likeable (enough) then they’ll change it.

    Other writers may or may not agree with this, but I tend to think that a single author only a handfull of stories to tell. Think about the authors you love, where you’ve glommed all 30 of their books. For me, those authors always have the same overarching themes, the same character tropes. And I’m not bashing this! It’s not good or bad, it just is. And by the way, that is true of all genres, not just romance. That’s probably a whole discussion unto itself but if you subscribe to that notion, then it is less about an author being afraid to go someplace as that place not being the right one for them.

    In my case, I have written a heroine who would be called unlikeable by many standards. And yet, I like her, I have a lot of respect for her, and actually I can’t write another type of heroine. By can’t, I mean that I could of course put the words to the page, but that character wouldn’t feel real, she wouldn’t pop or feel three dimensional. I wouldn’t be able to write a deep POV for more perfect character. Because, well, the more perfect she would get, the farther away she would be from me!

    1. anna cowan Post author

      I agree absolutely. And I think far from being a bad thing it can be a real strength to recognise the tropes that ping for you. My crit partner and I spend hours chasing those vague feelings of right and trying to coalesce them into solid ideas – personal trends that we can follow.

      Writing isn’t therapy, but inspiration does spring from some personal, mostly subconscious process. It makes sense to try and understand what you’re exploring, and then push further in that direction than you would have gone unconsciously.

  3. Brie (RAroundCorner) (@racblog)

    I think you said it all. Reading is a very personal experience so you can’t predict how the reader will feel towards a particular heroine. I could make a list of character traits that I find unlikeable, but I can’t say that any heroine with those traits will automatically become unlikeable (unless she puts kittens in the microwave, I draw the line there). There’s no way to be objective about it.

    I don’t think romance authors plan on writing unlikeable heroines unless they’re also planning on redeeming them at one point in the novel as part of that character’s arc and journey. However, even in this case, I bet there are readers that won’t find those heroines unlikeable at any point during the book, or that won’t like her after her redemption.

    1. anna cowan Post author

      the question of redemption is a good one – and too big for me to attempt. As soon as you start asking, “Why do we like to see characters redeemed?” you get into questions of morality, and good, and evil. All things that I believe to be subjective. In which case you also get into questions of biology and anthropology. And I suppose theology, if that’s your thing. Because that’s not my thing, I would have to start thinking about what the inherent goodness of human beings is all about, and as I said – that question is still way beyond me!

  4. Pingback: Guest Post: Difficult Heroines by Molly O’Keefe

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