Tag Archives: writing unlikeable characters

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.