Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Unlikable Female Characters in YA Fiction: A Reading List

I love complicated characters, and I especially love a good unlikable female. It's something that fascinates me from the perspective of a reader and sometimes even more because of the reaction those characters elicit from other readers. When you read reviews of books that feature unlikable females or females who make choices which aren't always the prettiest, the nicest, or the most logical, people react with either surprise, disbelief or sometimes downright hatred for the character. 

This doesn't really happen with unlikable male characters, especially in YA. In my mind, it has to do with our perceptions of gender roles and our society's belief that all girls are good and make the right choices all the time. Whatever the "right" choices may be. Unlikable girls are not easy to read. If you've never spent time reading the reviews of books featuring these kinds of female characters, I highly recommend it. It's not as a means to belittle readers who are put off by unlikable characters. Instead, I think reading those reviews makes you a better reader and better able to assess character and character arcs. Not everyone is good, not everyone is nice, and not everyone makes the likable choices. 


Unlikable characters are realistic because they are reflections of us. We aren't always likable, no matter what face we like to put on. 


In thinking about the contemporary YA I've read, it was easy for me to draw together a number of books featuring an unlikable female character. But because I am always curious about other people's thoughts and reactions to less-than-pleasant females (or those who make the less-popular choices), I solicited the insight of a number of other librarians with whom I regularly communicate. 


Thus, a list was born.


All of these YA books were published within the last five or so years and feature female characters who are unlikable or who make choices which are easily classified as unlikable. I find often in the reviews I read that the criticism is launched at the whole character, rather than her choices, thus casting her choices as who she is -- unlikable. I've included descriptions from WorldCat, along with commentary, where possible, about what it is that makes that particular character unlikable. Some come from the wonderful librarians who played this thought game with me on the Code Name Awesome group.


I don't think there are any right or wrong definitions of unlikable. Sometimes what's unlikable to me is what's appealing and powerful to another reader and vice versa. So chime in with anyone you think fits your definition and share why. I'd love to have a nice thick resource of books featuring the unlikable female character. Also included at the end of this post are a couple of links to other pieces written on this topic that are absolutely worth reading for anyone who finds this topic as fascinating as I do.


Maybe worth noting as a general observation -- something maybe I'd love more insight from from readers -- is this: many of these characters who are unlikable come from privilege of some sort. Either they've had it all or they can get it all and they choose instead to not. I wonder how much that impacts our reading of these girls if it matters at all. 





Amplified by Tara Kelly: When privileged seventeen-year-old Jasmine Kiss gets kicked out of her house by her father, she takes what is left of her meager savings and flees to Santa Cruz, California, to pursue her dream of becoming a rock musician.


So what's not to like about Jasmine? She's a liar. And she's unapologetic about going after what it is she wants, even if it means defying her father and potentially hurting other people to get it. She doesn't make great choices.


Send Me A Sign by Tiffany Schmidt: Superstitious before being diagnosed with leukemia, high school senior Mia becomes irrationally dependent on horoscopes, good luck charms, and the like when her life shifts from cheerleading and parties to chemotherapy and platelets, while her parents obsess and lifelong friend Gyver worries.


The reason Mia can be an unlikable character is that she hides her leukemia diagnoses from her best friends. She also lies to them about why she's not around. At times, she's downright prickly and she doesn't always make popular choices. 






The Opposite of Hallelujah by Anna Jarzab: For eight of her sixteen years Carolina Mitchell's older sister Hannah has been a nun in a convent, almost completely out of touch with her family--so when she suddenly abandons her vocation and comes home, nobody knows quite how to handle the situation, or guesses what explosive secrets she is hiding.


Caro's grief about losing her independence and status as only child turns into being cold and mean toward her sister, who is battling a number of personal demons. In being that way, Caro's choices don't always put her in the best light.


Not That Kind of Girl by Siobhan Vivian: High school senior and student body president, Natalie likes to have everything under control, but when she becomes attracted to one of the senior boys and her best friend starts keeping secrets from her, Natalie does not know how to act.


Natalie knows how every girl should want to be, and she's not afraid to push her agenda, even if it means hurting other people. 






Cracked Up to Be by Courtney Summers: High school senior Parker Fadley has quit the cheerleading squad, broken up with her popular boyfriend, and is in danger of not graduating with her class, but she refuses to tell anyone what has precipitated this sudden change in her attitude and behavior, insisting that she only wants to be left alone.


Parker's bitchy. That's really the nicest way to put it. But it's her defense mechanism and her coping strategy with the things she's fighting inside for something that she may have been responsible for. 


Some Girls Are by Courtney Summers: Regina, a high school senior in the popular--and feared--crowd, suddenly falls out of favor and becomes the object of the same sort of vicious bullying that she used to inflict on others, until she finds solace with one of her former victims.


Mean girl Regina loses her spot on the social ladder after her friends think she's slept with one of their boyfriends (not the case). But who is to believe her when she's the kind of girl who likes to make other people's lives hell? 


Pairing these two books together it's interesting to consider how Parker's unlikability compares to Regina's. Where Parker's struggles are more internal and she chooses to pull away, Regina's are more external and she chooses to lash out. 





The Girls of No Return by Erin Saldin: A troubled sixteen-year-old girl attending a wilderness school in the Idaho mountains must finally face the consequences of her complicated friendships with two of the other girls at the school.

None of these girls are good girls. That's why they're at Alice Marshall in the first place. But it might be Gia who takes the cake of most unlikable. 


How to Save a Life by Sara Zarr: Told from their own viewpoints, seventeen-year-old Jill, in grief over the loss of her father, and Mandy, nearly nineteen, are thrown together when Jill's mother agrees to adopt Mandy's unborn child but nothing turns out as they had anticipated.


Jill is so hard to like, even though it's understandable why she is the way she is and why she behaves as she does. She's grieving both the loss of her father and she's not entirely eager to have a new baby join the family as a replacement. 






The Disenchantments by Nina LaCour: Colby's post-high school plans have long been that he and his best friend Bev would tour with her band, then spend a year in Europe, but when she announces that she will start college just after the tour, Colby struggles to understand why she changed her mind and what losing her means for his future.


Bev is pretty terrible in what she does to Colby. What's interesting about this book, though, is that one wonders whether she's really unlikable or whether Colby is partially to blame for not reading her the right way. 


The Children and the Wolves by Adam Rapp: Abducted by teen genius Bounce and her drifter friends Wiggins and Orange, three-year-old Frog seems content to eat cereal and play a video game about wolves all day--a game that parallels the reality around her--until Wiggins is overcome by guilt and tension and takes action.


Bounce is arguably one of the most vile characters -- not just female characters -- in YA lit. She is out for revenge by playing one nasty game of life and death and she doesn't care who she's going to take down with her. 





Me, Him, Them, and It by Caela Carter: Playing the "bad girl" at school to get back at her feuding parents, sixteen-year-old Evelyn becomes pregnant and faces a difficult decision.


Evelyn's game of playing bad girl might end up showing that she really is unlikable in how she chooses to handle her accidental (or maybe purposeful) pregnancy. She is an up and down character through and through who makes a lot of choices which aren't easy to like. 


Uses for Boys by Erica Lorraine Scheidt: Anna remembers a time before boys, when she was little and everything made sense. When she and her mom were a family, it was just the two of them against the world. But now her mom's gone most of the time, chasing the next marriage, the next stepfather. Anna gets used to being alone, until she discovers that she can make boys her family, from Desmond to Joey to Todd. But filling the void comes at a price.


I liked Anna a whole lot and found her quite sympathetic. However, so many other people have cited her as unlikable, I'm including her. She's unlikable because she drops out of high school and spends her days sleeping with boys -- which is her way of trying to make a life for herself, much like her mother. Her choices aren't smart, nor are they easy to like. Anna is an incredibly complicated character. 





The DUFF by Kody Keplinger: Seventeen-year-old Bianca Piper starts sleeping with Wesley Rush, a notorious womanizer who disgusts her, in order to distract her from her personal problems, and to her surprise, the two of them find they have a lot in common and are able to help each other find more productive ways to deal with their difficulties.

Baggage! Bianca's gotta work through it somehow, and her attitude isn't always pretty. 

The Princesses of Iowa by M Molly Backes: After being involved in a drunk driving accident in the spring, Paige Sheridan spends the summer in Paris as an au-pair and then returns to her suburban Iowa existence for her senior year of high school, where she begins to wonder if she wants more out life than being popular, having a handsome boyfriend and all the latest clothes, and being a member of the social elite.

Paige is really a princess type, but more than that, Paige begins a rumor that has some pretty terrible consequences for one of her teachers. Not to mention the fact Paige played a role in a drunk driving accident that hurt her friends and gets out of having to face the consequences by working overseas for the summer. But even though she wants her friends back, she's not going to apologize because, well, it's beneath her. 




Everything Beautiful by Simmone Howell: When sixteen-year-old Riley unwillingly attends a religious summer camp, she forms a deep bond with another camper who happens to be wheelchair bound.

Riley is judgmental! She is unapologetic in her attitude! And she definitely doesn't want to hang out with these nerdy religious weird kids all summer. 

The Difference Between You and Me by Madeline George: School outsider Jesse, a lesbian, is having secret trysts with Emily, the popular student council vice president, but when they find themselves on opposite sides of a major issue and Jesse becomes more involved with a student activist, they are forced to make a difficult decision.

This is one I haven't read, but it was suggested to me because Emily can be quite unlikable. 




Beautiful by Amy Reed: Haunted by serious problems in her recent past, thirteen-year-old Cassie makes a fresh start at a Seattle school but is drawn by dangerous new friends into a world of sex, drugs, and violence, while her parents remain oblivious.

Cassie has so much potential, but she makes a lot of seriously poor decisions throughout the story. The worst part is because she's so strung out and her mind so altered, she doesn't even care what happens.


Over You by Amy Reed (out in June 2013): A novel about two girls on the run from their problems, their pasts, and themselves. Max and Sadie are escaping to Nebraska, but they'll soon learn they can't escape the truth. 


Sadie is an awfully unlikable character. But it's interesting because the story is told through Max's point of view, and it is Max who comes to realize this as the story progresses. As readers, we see how unlikable Sadie is, but as Max realizes it, she begins to wonder if she needs to dump her all together or find a way to keep Sadie part of her life but at a distance she that her unlikability doesn't rub off any more than it already has. (For what it is worth, Max may be one of my favorite characters in a long time, too).






The Mockingbirds by Daisy Whitney: When Alex, a junior at an elite preparatory school, realizes that she may have been the victim of date rape, she confides in her roommates and sister who convince her to seek help from a secret society, the Mockingbirds.

The Rivals by Daisy Whitney: Alex's role in the Mockingbirds, an underground student justice system at her elite boarding school, is challenged when she tries to stop a group of students using prescription drugs to help other students cheat, as school officials turn a blind eye to the wrongdoing.

I find it really interesting the number of reviews that call Alex unlikable because that thought never crossed my mind about her. I realize there's a difference between being likable and being sympathetic, but I wonder how much those two things intertwine in these books. The books start following Alex's rape, and she's out for vigilante justice for herself in book one and then for others in book two. That she wants a world that's just and fair and wants to fight for it anyway she can? I see where people find that unlikable (she's hardheaded and goal-oriented and not always making great decisions to get there) but I liked Alex a lot. 





Confessions of an Angry Girl by Louise Rozett: After the death of her father, Rose Zarelli struggles to contol her feelings and manage her life as a freshman in high school.

Dead Girl Moon by Charlie Price: Grace, a scheming runaway, JJ, her fostercare sister, and Mick, the son of a petty thief, become entangled in the investigation of a teen prostitute's murder in a small, corrupt Montana town.

I haven't read either of these titles, but both were recommended to me. A quick browse of Goodreads reviews suggests that they both fit the charge. Readers do not find either Rose nor Grace to be likable in the least. 

***

If you haven't read Sarah's fantastic post on challenging female characters, do so. Not only does she talk about some of the books above, but she offers up a few great adult genre examples, as well. There's also a nice list of further reading at the end of her post. 

I know I've linked to this post before, but I'm relinking so you read Courtney Summers's post on why it is she writes unlikable female characters. This wasn't her first post on the topic, either

Melissa Walker has a nice blog post, too, on realistic characters, which touches on the notion of likability.

Care to add any other contemporary titles to the list where the main character or a significant secondary character are unlikable females? Agree or disagree with any of the ones above? Can you think of anything coming out later this year that might also fit the charge? I'd love your thoughts. 

21 comments:

  1. My own sister told me that the protagonist in Audacious (Orca Fall 2013) is unlikable so there's that.

    I like unlikable girls better when they're unpopular and/or unprivileged, that's for sure.

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    1. I don't have a preference whether the unlikable girls come from a place of privilege or popularity, but I thought it was interesting to note how many did.

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  2. As soon as I saw this post's title, I thought, "Courtney Summers' characters! So good!" - and then I was so glad that you included them.

    Not That Kind of Girl by Siobhan Vivian - YES. Such a great story. Such a great author, always.

    The Difference Between You and Me by Madeline George is fantastic. Let me know what you think after you've read it!

    The Disenchantments is great. You've read Hold Still too, yes?

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    1. I have read Hold Still, though I definitely think LaCour nails unlikable much more with Bev in Disenchantments.

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    2. Oh, definitely - I just wanted to make sure you'd read that one, too! :)

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  3. Wait... people consider Alex from The Mockingbirds unlikable? That... what? Some of these are so great. It's interesting how many of these actually have characters I love simply because they're unlikable. Alex threw me, though.

    Hannah Harrington has two books out with two girls who are super unlikable. SPEECHLESS has gossip-crazy Chelsea, and SAVING JUNE has self-important hipster Harper.

    Cat Clarke's UNDONE and Jem Halliday is a great, super unlikable character. I was sympathetic to her motives up to a point, but she walked over it and kept going.

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    1. The Harrington and Clarke titles are great additions and I agree with all three.

      As far as Alex being unlikable, YES. I won't post specific reviews but spend a little time looking through Goodreads. It's interesting to see what makes a character unlikable to some readers. It's allllll subjective.

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  4. It's funny when I read posts like this I think...is this a thing? I guess because the idea of "likeability" is so subjective, that I don't equate it with expectations based on gender norms/ideals. I mean, sure, I read books with characters I don't like -- someone who I don't connect with, or don't want to be friends with, or who I think behaves pretty appallingly. And I think it's okay to not like a character. Sometimes this causes me to put down a book, but sometimes the author manages to make me care anyway. Because I do love a complicated, realistic, flawed character. Maybe it's naive of me to assume that everyone else feels the same way. I mean, in real life my friends are messy, complicated, and don't always make the best choices. They don't always conform to society's expectations, and I still like them. Why should my fiction be any different?

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    1. My point exactly: it is entirely subjective. I'm with you in that I LOVE a complicated, realistic, flawed character.

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  5. This is a great list -- going to have to read those on it I haven't seen yet. I rewrote and rewrote Diana in my contemporary YA novel THE OBVIOUS GAME because people kept telling me she was unlikable. Well, she's anorexic and her mom has cancer, and she's pretty pissed about it. But I had to find a way to get her some sympathy, and I went with dry humor. The reviewers seemed to connect with her, and I breathed a sigh of relief, but I personally did not want to write an unlikable female protagonist because I thought it would make it too hard for readers to care about her.

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  6. Huh. I LOVE Courtney Summers' books, but haven't read many of these others. Might be a good place to start!

    Incidentally, I'm currently reading C. J. Harper's THE DISAPPEARED, which just came out in the UK, and features an unlikable, privileged male main character. I've seen a number of reviews complaining about him. It would be interesting to compare responses to unlikable female characters... may have to go do that as soon as I'm finished!

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  7. BEFORE I FALL by Lauren Oliver has a very unlikeable main character, Samantha. She definitely grows as the book progresses, but she starts out pretty reprehensible.

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    1. YES. Such a cool book. Notable characters changes. Wow.

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  8. I wish there was a better term for it than unlikable. I have no idea what term I'm even searching for but all of these characters are complex and layered. Unlikable seems like such a cheap way of characterizing them. And given how many readers use that term (myself included), it seems like a default label that readers (often, not always) use when they do not agree with or condone the way a character behaves.

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  9. I find it fascinating that so many characters are unlikable because their decisions go against our societal norms.

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  10. I don't mind "unlikeable" girl characters. As a matter of fact, Some Girls Are is one of my favorite books ever. And it's not that I dislike Regina so much, in fact, I really liked the fact that she didn't take any crap. Yeah, she was bitchy and mean, but she was strong and brave and I admired that so much.

    I think it bothers me more when characters do such stupid stuff that I get frustrated. I feel like some authors give the girl something stupid to do to advance the plot or introduce a plot and it's things they DEFINITELY should know better about... that frustrates me more than someone being "unlikeable."

    But it takes a special skill to cultivate the right balance. You still want people to care about the character and what happens to her, even if they don't like what she's doing, her personality, or what she stands for.

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  11. I LOVED Eleanor and Park because Eleanor is so complicated. I've talked to many readers who can't finish the book, though, because she's so unlikable. What did you think of her?

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  12. Right now, I'm having a hard time with Samantha from Before I Fall. She's privileged, she has a strong sense of entitlement, she's mean (or at least apathetic when others are mean)... As I read, I'm thinking, "God, I would have hated her and her friends in high school!" But I also have the sense that she's going to change in the course of the book. It's enough of a page-turner that I'll bear with it.

    Another female protagonist I had trouble warming up to was Elisa from The Girl of Fire and Thorns. She was the opposite of Samantha in some ways -- so insecure and whiny that I wanted to shake her. But she, too, ended up growing greatly as a character.

    There's a great book on writing called Save the Cat!. The title refers to the author's idea that you can have a difficult character, but you still have to make the viewer (he was talking screenwriting, but obviously it applies to novels, too) empathize with them in order to stay with the story. And one of the best ways is to, early in the work, show them in a softer, redeeming moment -- e.g., saving a cat. But you can't wait too long to save the cat, or people will have made up their minds for good.

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    1. FWIW -- I do think I'd have the same problems with these narrators if the characters were male. But it's hard to know. I remember having a hard time with Depressed Will Grayson, because he was always so down in the dumps. (Yes, I realize that he was depressed. It was still hard to bear with.)

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  13. Hmm...I didn't think of Caro as unlikable. And I never thought of Alex in Mockingbirds as unlikable either. So funny how people have different thoughts on characters!

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  14. I actually do like unlikable protagonists. They have a lot less of a chance of being turned into a stereotypical or Mary Sue type character. I also feel like they make the reading experience in general much fresher and more exciting. Thanks for this list - I haven't actually read any yet, but I definitely need to look into some of these now! Particularly Courtney Summers' backlog since I did love This is Not a Test.

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