Hi! Thank you so much. I appreciate that.
The MG marketplace is not my forte, unfortunately, but I can try to offer some advice that might help re: unlikable female main characters. If any MG writers want to weigh in with more, please do!
One thing about my books is however mean my girls end up—they always start out much, MUCH meaner and if not meaner, more detached (largely due to the crippling emotional problems I like to saddle them with cough). This does not mean I have to soften them for publication at all, but it does often mean I have to take a good hard look at my execution… so I don’t have to resort to something like making them nicer. Not that there’s anything wrong with nice characters.
Writing an unlikable female protagonist is a tough job. You’re always going to come up against people who just refuse to accept them because if the character is a girl, she can’t be unlikable. This is not a reason to shelve a story with this kind of female protagonist. It’s a reason to write more.
That said, sometimes readers aren’t connecting because of something that’s missing in the text. You said something interesting to me besides the fact agents aren’t connecting with your MC: a lot of my critique partners have said they ended up falling in love with… your MC.
That’s reasonable—I don’t think most readers connect with a main character RIGHT AWAY and it’s even more difficult when that character is not-so-nice. I feel an emotional connection is something that happens throughout the course of the narrative. You become invested in the character the more you read. So a reader’s emotional connection pending, what does that leave you with? What do you need from them, and what do they need from you right at the START to get to that point in the novel where they are attached to your character?
You have to make sure your readers can understand or at least have a foothold in understanding why your characters are the way they are, even if they don’t exactly like them (yet). Even if they NEVER like or really relate to your character, if a reader can understand why that character does what they do, they can still have a rewarding reading experience with your book.
As an author, you understand your character better than anyone else. You know—or you should know—what motivates them and how and why they respond to certain situations. You know why they’re at their worst and you know what needs to happen to get them to their best (or not). You can see your characters through anything because you made their hearts. It’s not that hard for you to visualize sticking with them from page one because you wrote that page. Your readers, on the other hand, did not. They weren’t there for the development, they don’t know what’s going to happen and why they should stick it out. If you toss them into this ocean of unlikability, you still have to give them a lifesaver so they can float along with it until they start swimming on their own, you know?
No one would want to hang out or be friends with my protagonists from page one. At all. And my protagonists probably wouldn’t want to hang out and be friends with the people reading about them either. I write characters with walls around them, who are often actively working against those walls coming down. So there’s my first hurdle in getting people to want to invest their time with my main character. My main character doesn’t want to communicate directly with them.
Worse, my first drafts tend to emphasize the most negative traits of my protagonists to the point that my earliest readers, and even my editor, have felt overwhelmed by them, which means it’s overwhelming the rest of the text. Environment and supporting characters get drowned out, which gives those unlikable traits less context, which makes it harder for the reader to get a foothold in the story and eventually understand and then connect with my MC.
This could be what is happening with you. You might be focusing too much on your main character and her unlikability (which is understandable—she’s your main character, after all!) and not giving enough depth to her surrounding environment and the people within that environment, and how they inform the way that she is.
Using my own work as an example, Parker, in CRACKED UP TO BE, is determined to present herself one way to the world. She’s in such angry, guilty denial, she won’t even admit her weaknesses to herself. It’s through the people (and one animal) she interacts with that we see her vulnerability.
In first person, sometimes you have to be tricky in the way a character reveals the other, more subtle facets of themselves, or their reasons for acting the way they do. Parker’s voice is over the top, her humor crude, because she needs to distract people. I opened with her somewhat nasty voice and then I chose to juxtapose that against a guidance counselor’s office so hopefully there’s a contrast between this girl whose voice is so utterly in control of her introduction… and the fact that she’s in academic trouble for something serious that happened the previous year—which suggests she’s not as in control as she thinks. That was my foothold for the reader to encourage them to read on.
Also look at what your character’s body language and/or quirks, say about them. Physical tells can be a great way to give a character more emotional context. Again, using CRACKED UP TO BE as an example, readers find Parker snapping her fingers when she feels out of control. She doesn’t explicitly state this initially, but the action, who she’s with and what they’re doing at the time says it all for her. These are little things but they can make a big difference when it comes to someone connecting with your character.
So just look at your manuscript again and look for ways that you can use and/or expand on setting and secondary characters NOT to take away your character’s unlikability, but to give that unlikability more depth, more context, because that is what helps make your character and their actions to be understood, which paves the way for that emotional connection.
Making your female character nicer/more likable is probably not the answer because even a likable character can run into this problem too. All characters need to be understood. Their actions, reactions, interactions and environment inform this understanding. Look a little outside of your main character and see what you find. Give your readers a foothold.
Also, getting readers, particularly those within the industry (agents, editors), to embrace an unlikable female MC can be hard but not impossible. Before you dive into Unlikable Protagonist Troubleshooting in your manuscript, take into consideration you might not have queried the right person yet. If you feel confident in your work and that—despite some agents’ misgivings—the story is the best you can make it, query more agents. Some people are just not going to be able to connect with a character for whatever reason, no matter what. Fiction is subjective.
I hope this helps! Good luck!