Wherein I share random stuff that tickles my interest.
“If you want your children to be intelligent, read them fairy tales. If you want them to be more intelligent, read them more fairy tales.”
― Albert Einstein
“Fairy tales do not tell children the dragons exist. Children already know that dragons exist. Fairy tales tell children the dragons can be killed.”
― G.K. Chesterton
“Fear isn’t so difficult to understand. After all, weren’t we all frightened as children? Nothing has changed since Little Red Riding Hood faced the big bad wolf. What frightens us today is exactly the same sort of thing that frightened us yesterday. It’s just a different wolf.”
― Alfred Hitchcock
“Deeper meaning resides in the fairy tales told to me in my childhood than in the truth that is taught by life.”
― Friedrich von Schiller
I think what a lot of people fail to realize is that fairy tales are about emotional truths. No one reads a fairy tale and thinks that they may literally have to slay an ogre, or steal the golden goose, or wear out seven pairs of iron shoes and dress in a thousand furs to find the prince, but some people criticize them, saying this is unrealistic, this is all there is to the tale. Put a little thought into it. In your life, you may not have to climb mountains to find the home of the north wind, but you might have to ask someone intimidating for help. You may never have to trick the wicked prince into looking into the glass-filled barrel, or the witch into peering into the oven, but you might have to sacrifice someone else’s comfort for your own wellbeing. Your mother might not be wicked, but sometimes you’ll be angry with her. You might not be turned into a Beast, but sometimes it feels like there’s nothing about you worth loving. Fairy tales remind you of that. They remind you that there are troubles and trials, and that this is normal. It is the way of things, and you’ll come through it. (via agreyeyedgirl)
That Chesterton quote doe.
I love this. I’m not even capable of expressing how much.
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!
DANGER, WILL ROBINSON. THIS QUESTION IS A TRAP.
I mean, look, it’s not your fault that it’s a trap; don’t feel bad. You didn’t build the trap. You may not even know you’re in there — god knows I didn’t, in the years I spent asking myself and others this question and questions like it. It’s a good trap. It’s tricky. It gets almost everyone, at some point or another. There are a lot of people who never actually find their way out.
But, hey, don’t take my word for it. A trap is easiest to identify in action, after all. Let me show you how it works.
You should write strong women — but not too strong, because then you’re saying that only strong women are valuable, and that’s wrong, and you’re writing women wrong. So you should write weak women — but not too weak, because then you’re saying that all women are weak, and that’s wrong, and you’re writing women wrong. So you should write women who are both strong and weak — but only in the right ways, of course, because if you write women who show strength and weakness in the wrong ways then you’re only enforcing the idea that women can’t handle themselves, which is wrong, and you’re writing women wrong. Make sure you write women with flaws, because that’s how you develop interesting characters — but not too many flaws, and definitely not the wrong ones, because then you’re saying that all women are inherently flawed, and that’s wrong, and you’re writing women wrong. But don’t write them without flaws, because then they’re too perfect, and that makes them a Mary Sue, and that’s wrong, and you’re writing women wrong. HOW DARE YOU WRITE WOMEN WRONG. Don’t you think it would be better not to write women at all?
See? It’s a trap. And it’s not even a trap in the way you think, either, because the issue here isn’t that you can nitpick out in any direction and then yell HERE IS AN ARBITRARY REASON YOU ARE DOING WOMEN WRONG — that’s a problem, don’t get me wrong, and its own trap to boot, but it’s not what we’re talking about right now. Like, it definitely sucks, but that happens all the time about all kinds of things (Women shouldn’t sleep with too many people, BUT ALSO NOT TOO FEW; women shouldn’t compromise themselves for their spouses, BUT HOW DARE THEY NOT DO THAT; I could go on but, like, why), and it doesn’t have shit to do with how you tell a story unless you let it.
Naw, friend, the trap here is the idea that you are writing women. You’re not. You’re writing a woman. One person. Every time you write a female character, that’s what you’re writing — just that one. She’s not an archetype, she’s not a statement on All Women Ever, she’s just a person. Singular. Solo. The same way (I hope?) you don’t think, “What is this male character saying about every single dude who has ever walked this earth?” whenever you write guys, so you should avoid thinking that when you write ladies. They’re just people. They don’t have to Be Everything — the idea that women have to Be Everything is enough of a drag in day to day life, you know? It doesn’t need to be given any room to strut around in your writing.
Build her, and not who you think she’s supposed to be: that’s how I do it. What’s she afraid of? What does she believe in? What’s the most embarrassing thing to ever happen to her? The best meal she’s ever had? How would she describe herself if she had only five words to do it? What makes her laugh? What makes her cry? What does she think people want her to be, and what does she want to be, and is there a space between those things, and how does she fill it, if there is?
Nadia, one of the main characters in my novel — she’s a chef, because she likes the simplicity of food, the fact that it’s incredibly difficult to disappoint it, that its nuance is in physical construction as opposed to conceptual tone. She’s spent so much of her life desperately trying and cataclysmically failing to be the person her parents want her to be that she projects a certain amount of hostility towards everyone else, almost daring them to demand anything of her at all. She is hesitant to trust, because she has regretted trusting in the past, and she’s the sort of person who takes regret as a sign that she, herself, has done something wrong, something she should resist repeating in the future. She sneers because she’s used to being sneered at. She smiles when she feels someone has earned it, because that’s more or less the only way she’s ever received that reaction herself. And the thing is, for all I know this now? When I first thought about her, all I knew was her name and her profession. But I built her out out from that, thinking about how she, personally, came to be where she was, as opposed to how women, in general, might come to be in that place. It’s a much more effective strategy, in my experience. Less anxiety-producing, too.
Whoever your female character is, the more you know about her as a person — the more real she feels to you — the less you will feel like that other shit, the what-if-I’m-writing-women-wrong-shit, matters. Because it doesn’t; the truth is the trick, the really important thing to remember in writing women, is to write them one at a time. To write them into individuals, as opposed to into boxes. I hope that helps <3
I LOVE this answer.
Best answer I’ve seen on “how to write female characters”.