Genre Talk

In Praise of Unlikable Heroines

The Doomsday BookA few weeks ago in my “What I’m reading” post, I mentioned I had just begun reading Doomsday Book, by Connie Willis. I’ve finished it since then and it’s the best book I’ve read in a long, long time. It’s paranormal/time travel, but not a romance at all. I rarely read things with zero romance, but it is very much about love and I could sing its praises for a week.

The novel especially got me thinking about heroines. The female main character in this book is a naïve graduate student, strong and smart but kind of annoying in the beginning, until she began to emerge as an incredible, admirable heroine. Her emotional depth and courage taught me about being human.

Unlike a lot of readers, I rarely put down a book if I don’t like a character. Usually it’s the prose or the plot that does me in. But I do see a lot of reviews based on the likability of characters, and that’s gotten me thinking.

First off, statistics tell us that women read more than men, and that romance readers are primarily women. So, I wonder if we aren’t especially hard on heroines? True or not, it’s certainly the common wisdom that women are harder on other women than we are on men. And romance readers do seem willing to tolerate flaws, boorishness, and bad behavior from male characters, because we like to witness them redeemed by love and their own heroism.

I’ve heard some of my dearest writing friends say they prefer heroines who are kind of blank so they can project themselves onto her and enter into the fantasy of the romance. And I myself have enjoyed reading books with thoroughly unmemorable heroines. They seem to possess an innocuous mixture of strength and vulnerability that a reader can thoroughly relate to, but nothing distinct. Even if not every romance reader prefers the bland or unmemorable heroine, it seems to me a female lead is held to higher standards: she can’t be a wimp, but she has to be both more sympathetic and more charming than we expect male characters to be. Or she should be the kind of woman we might want to be friends with in real life.

There are exceptions to this blankness, of course, and A.J. and I brainstormed a list of truly kick ass heroines from urban fantasy and paranormal doadw-lrgromance in a Friday Conversation a while back. I mentioned Kresley Cole’s heroines in that conversation, because I think she does a great job writing quirky, complicated, ambivalent females–QueenBeeotches that could hold their own with any Alphahole. I can’t get enough of her Valkyries, especially Regin and Nix!

The more I hear criticism of unlikable heroines, the more I want to read books about them. I don’t mean wimpy heroines, and I don’t mean senselessly snarky ones. But I do want heroines who are contradictory, larger than life, and as wounded, and morally complicated as the heroes I love to read about.

In the end, unless our heroines start out as flawed as our heroes, we aren’t really writing stories about their redemption and empowerment, and it’s still all about the men. Maybe that’s what readers want, but just like in real life, when both lovers find redemption, the passion is that much more powerful and I think perhaps the very best books are the ones like that.

Do you have a favorite story where the heroine gets redeemed?

Which traits in a heroine make you hate her?

Which heroines stand out as the strongest and most memorable to you?

25 thoughts on “In Praise of Unlikable Heroines

  1. I like strong heroines. I hate when stories with a strong female central character suddenly get hijacked by some awesome alpha male. Don’t get me wrong – I have nothing against romance or alpha males. My problem is that one moment I am enjoying a story about a strong heroine, the next I’m faced suddenly with a character who is obsessed with some improbably gorgeous etc. man. It is possible to write strong heroines who don’t go to pieces emotionally as soon as there’s a possibility of love.

    I love reading Kate Elliott and Kristen Cashore, for example. My favourite heroine, however, must be Smilla Jasperson from Smilla’s Sense of Snow.

    • Frank–What a delightful comment! I bet male readers like you notice the phenomenon more often!

      And yes, I think it IS possible. In romance, she has to be affected by the love-interest, but she doesn’t have to go to pieces.

      Of course, the problem is, we wouldn’t really want to read books about perfectly sane, sensible characters. Female heroines have to have their tragic flaws in order to be heroic, just like men.

      Maybe we are observing that their flaws are often unsympathetic or downright annoying. The gorgeous and powerful woman who wonders “am I lovable” is not especially compelling. Neither is the one who irrationally resists love for no good reason.

  2. I can’t think of a redeemed heroine Amber. Not sure I would even like that. But for me, the heroine must grow in the book, I have to like her. What I hate, just like Frank says, is when you have a capable heroine, kick ass even, the hero comes across, and she changes into this helpless female when he kisses her, and does whatever he wants. I also hates those women who are too stupid to live, who do the most stupid things, and have to saved again and again by the hero.
    My heroine is smart, she does not need to be gorgeous, self reliant, and I love it when she saves him instead. Of course, the best books are where the main characters are equal partners in their relationship and the adventure.

    • Great comments Xaurianx! I totally agree with you about the equal partnership thing. Well said!

      I’m curious. Do you have the same preference that your male characters not be in need of redemption, or just female?

      • I do like it when she kinds of heals him from his emotional wounds, and make him believe in love (again). But I really hate the heroes that are total a$$holes, their redemption is totally unbelievable. If he treats the heroine or other women like dirt, he is not going to change. Perhaps he will try for a day or two, but it is just not inside him to respect women. Some heroes really straddle that line, and I just cannot believe in them.
        I like my hero to see more than the good looks of the heroine, but to fall in love with her good character. Sure he will be attracted to the package at first, but he has to fall for the inside.
        What I like most in my heroes: honorouble, respectful of women, but all alphamale. He will cherish and protect his woman, but not smother her or put her in a glass case or on a pedestal.

  3. Great post! 🙂

    I have a really hard time with the super snarky heroines. I’m not drawn to people like that in life and reading about it in fiction usually has me scratching my head wondering why these other characters keep hanging around her.

    That said, I also don’t like heroines who are so wimpy that you want to shake the hero and yell “Stop saving her!” LOL

    It’s definitely a tough balance, because female readers need to relate to her, but if they hate her, it might be tough to get them to finish the book… It’s a tightrope walk for sure!

    Lisa 🙂

    • LOL. It’s definitely a bad sign when the reader thinks the wimpy heroine should get what she deserves!

      It is such a tough balance, Lisa! I guess if I were trying to make an argument here, rather than just state my own opinion, I’d like to ask readers to give more complicated female characters a chance to win them over, and maybe reflect on their own reactions to those strong heroines.

      At the same time, as an author, it’s my job to write the best characters I can–engaging and fascinating and as sympathetic as they are conflicted. And for some reason that’s a harder task with heroines!

      • I agree! I think it’s much harder with the heroines because if a reader can’t relate to her, or she finds the heroine annoying, they’ll often lose interest in the book. A reader stops caring if she gets her Happily Ever After if she hates the character, right?

        Very tough juggling act for a writer! LOL


  4. For me, a heroine is unlikeable if she is too bitchy or too slutty (if a non-erotic romance). Strong is great. Vulnerable and naive are fine. But I will put a book down if the heroine callously uses others.

    • OOH, interesting, Lyla! I bet you feel the same way about a hero that uses others callously. Do you feel the same way about a hero who “gets around”?

      You raise some points here that make me think about the question about art reflecting life and life reflecting art. The truth is, like it or not, women are held to different standards than men IRL, and fiction can’t really pretend otherwise, although characters can chose to defy norms. I think this is one of the reasons I like historical fiction, and paranormal with complex world building, where the gender and power differences are clear and explicit (BDSM too, I guess, LOL).

      • I do feel the same way about the hero being too callous or too slutty, LOL. I prefer the hero and heroine to have only one partner at a time (and only WANT that one partner), unless the book is specifically erotic with a menage. But previous experience for either hero/heroine is a-okay. Hope that clarifies. Although I get sick of books where HE has been around the block more times than he can count, and SHE is an innocent virgin. Ugh. I’d love to see more books where she is experienced and is helping him learn the ropes!

  5. I had also wondered recently if we aren’t less tolerant with the behavior of female protagonists and I was dismayed to realized I have a bit of a bias in this area. One example is Jennifer Estep’s Elemental Assassin series. She is just so calculating, especially in her seduction of a cop early in the series that I couldn’t enjoy it. Another example is the first book in Karen Marie Moning’s Fever series. I could not stand Mackayla until almost the end of the first book because she was so naive, self-centered, and… frilly. (shudder). However, it ended up being my all time favorite series because of the massive changes in her character through the series (well, in part anyway.)

    On the other hand, I have really liked some really broken and flawed female protagonists (think Downside Ghosts series by Stacia Kane). I think much of it is in how the author portrays the character. With the right amount of rationalization, I can buy what seem to be stupid decisions and choices. The writer just has to really put me in that character’s mindset and make me believe the character believes this is what has to be done and some authors are better at this than others.

    • Kira, thanks so much for these thoughtful comments! Mackayla was one of the heroines I discussed with friends before writing this post. She was difficult to like for me too, and I kept reading for JZB. But in the end, they way Moning reveals his feelings about “Rainbow Girl” Mackayla is astonishingly tender. To me, the books were better because I didn’t like her at first, and I’ve warned readers its worth it to stick with it. It’s one of my favorite series too!

      You said: “The writer just has to really put me in the character’s head.” Agreed! Some people ARE better at this than others. I’m thankful for my great beta readers who point out the scenes where I haven’t done this well, because I know the characters so well that I can’t always tell when its not obvious 🙂

      I’ll check out Downside Ghosts–this is one of several times Stacia Kane has been recommended on Paranormal Unbound. In fact, as of this post, I’ve realized I need a new shelf on Goodreads called “TBR-Paranormal Unbound Recs!)

      • Oh lord, yes. Who would think JZB could melt hearts like that?

        I have a serious penchant for majorly flawed characters and love when authors can make me root for someone I’d probably detest in real life. Downside Ghosts is the perfect example of such a series.

    • I’ll echo Kira on the Stacia Kane rec. That was my first thought, Amber, when you asked the question about flawed heroines. I read “Unholy Ghosts” a while back and her others in the series are on my massive TBR list.

  6. Great, thought-provoking post, Amber. I’m with you — I love Cole’s badass, snarky yet vulnerable Valkyrie. Regin and Nix also among my favs. Another heroine that comes to mind in terms of needing a little redemption = Larissa Ione’s Sin in the Demonica Series.

  7. Excellent post, Amber. I want characters with shades of grey, who have likability and vulnerabilities (or to me are likable BECAUSE of their vulnerabilities). That goes for the hero and the heroine. But I do need some emotional connection to the characters, however that happens. “Alphaholes” hee hee.

    • Jennifer–thanks for dropping by! You’re right on that vulnerabilities are what makes a character likable, which is something I find fascinating as a priest–that the flaws and weaknesses MAKE the character! Just like in real life, unless we sense someone is human (or human-like in paranormal), readers just won’t care. I bet your day job influences how you write characters too 🙂

  8. Pingback: Reclaiming Fantasy Part 7, Hero or Heroine | Adventures in Fantasy

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