On Likeable and Unlikeable Female Characters

Victoria Woodhull drawn as Mrs. Satan in Harper’s Weekly. Thomas Nast, 1872 [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Occasionally I come across a review of Madame Presidentess that characterizes Victoria Woodhull as an “unlikeable” character. Usually, I shrug and think “whatever,” because you certainly can’t please everyone, and I know, even if the reader didn’t get it, that Victoria is the way she is because the historical woman was that way. I can’t change her without failing in my duty as a biographical historical fiction writer.

However, as I was listening to Roxane Gay’s Bad Feminist on audio, one of her points made me stop and think a bit harder. She mentioned, that due to some inexplicable literary construct, our characters can’t be human or they risk being termed “unlikable,” especially if they are female. She also points out that unlikeable male characters are called “anti-heroes,” while unlikable female characters are, well, just unlikable. (There are some female anti-heroes, like Miriam Black in Chuck Wendig’s series of the same name. But on the whole, her point stands.)

As Roxane puts it, these unlikable women “are merely expressing a wider cultural malaise with all thing unpleasant, all things that dare to breach the norm of social respectability.” This is certainly true of Victoria, who is at turns brash, self-centered, self-serving, outspoken and sometimes mean. Or in other words, she was human, and dared to not follow the social construct of what it means to be a “good” or “proper” woman.

At some point, we’ve all been fed a line that characters need to be perfect or at least, what I call “stage perfect,” that Truman-show-esque scrubbed clean near-perfection that we’ve come to associate with the heroes of stage, film and fiction. You know, the typical “good” character. I get that many are idealized versions of ourselves, but when you write biographical historical fiction like I do, you are dealing with real people who make mistakes and do things that are sometimes hard to understand. People just like me and you. So just as you both like and hate your friends and relatives, you are going to like and hate them, too.

One great point Roxane makes is that we use the term “likability” as though we read books to make friends with the characters. Which, you know, when you think about it, really is beyond the bounds of what characters are supposed to do. If the story is well-written, they “should serve a greater purpose in the narrative” than that, which is sometimes why the characters we love to hate are so great. Personally, as I writer, I find the characters with more flaws are more fun to write, i.e Mia in Been Searching for You, and Morgan in my Guinevere series. Granted, you could call both of them the antagonists of their respective books, but they are also the heroines of their own stories, which is perhaps why I want to give them their own books. They deserve the chance to tell why they are the way they are and show who they are in all their unlikeability, unfiltered through the gaze of Annabeth and Guinevere, the POV characters of those other books.

But I don’t think unlikeability is such a bad thing. It’s totally different from a character being poorly developed or drawn. A well-developed unlikable character makes you feel, pisses you off, makes you frustrated, etc. And if done well, she still keeps you reading, even if just to find out what that crazy woman will do next or why she just did what she did.

Victoria may be my first “unlikable” character, but she certainly won’t be my last. I refuse to cover up the flaws and foibles of my historical characters to make some readers happy. To do so would be disrespectful to the memories of the actual women, and disingenuous to all women. After all, if all we see in literature is “likable” women, how will we ever begin to accept our flawed selves, much less accept one another? And how boring would those stories be? I say bring on the unlikable characters – let them challenge us, our views of femininity and of what is socially acceptable. It’s the only way we will ever change.

Who are some of your favorite “unlikable” characters in fiction?