Now that we're clear on what an unlikable female character looks like in the wild, why don't we dive into that a little bit further and talk about why we need unlikable characters? Today, Justina Ireland -- who has had her own girl characters called unlikable -- talks about this label, what it means, and she offers a reading list of unlikable girls you should be reading.
Justina Ireland lives in a house made of books. At least that’s the excuse she gives when people trip over one. When she isn’t accidentally killing house guests with her TBR pile she writes books. She is the author of Vengeance Bound and Promise of Shadows, both available from Simon and Schuster Books for Young Readers. When she isn’t reading she enjoys eating, sleeping, and watching Judge Judy on her DVR. You can usually find her on Twitter @tehawesomersace or at her website justinaireland.com.
There’s been a lot of talk lately of what people are calling “unlikeable”* main characters. If you haven’t heard any of the great discussion around unlikeable characters let me go ahead and break it down for you: unlikeable characters in YA (and beyond!) are female characters** that are flawed, usually unrepentantly. They have some seriously bad shortcomings, or sometimes just “unladylike” behaviors, and there is little motivation to change their conduct within the course of the novel. That isn’t to say that they don’t change by the end of the story, only that any sort of redemption and improvement of their character flaws is usually secondary to the overall plot.
Unlikeable characters aren’t perfect and they don’t try to be. They know they have faults and they’re okay with it because they have more important things to deal with.
And that is awesome.
I love “unlikeable” characters. I write “unlikeable” characters (or at least I try). And to be honest, I am an “unlikeable” character. I don’t sit quietly in a group. I won’t back down in an argument. I’m ambitious and arrogant and maybe a little bitchy just because I happen to feel like it. I will always suggest we do something I like and I will always have an opinion. I won’t stay quiet for the benefit of group harmony. If I get irritated I will tell you so and leave.
In other words, I am a real person with all of the complex emotions and feelings that being a humans have. And I’m not the only woman that happens to be that way.
The “unlikeable” character isn’t unlikeable because they aren’t funny or charismatic or, really, likeable. Let’s be honest, there has to be some degree of interest on the part of the reader to want to stick it out with a character for three hundred plus pages. The characters are unlikeable because they don’t conform to an established societal ideal of what it means to be female. Boys are allowed to be loud and disgusting and ambitious. They can disagree and forge ahead and be considered trailblazers and pioneers. They are allowed a full range of feelings and behaviors that women are not.
Women are supposed to be polite, smile, be harmonious. A woman that objects too loudly and too often is a bitch (there is even a verb form of the word meaning to complain). A woman who is ambitious is selfish, a woman that expresses fear is whiny and a woman that is too bold is irritating. A woman that doesn’t conform to some ephemeral ideal of femininity and doesn’t want to change her failings to conform to what is expected of her by society (and by extension, the reader) is a terrible character.
This double standard even extends to YA, where most rules of grown up books usually don’t apply. A girl that spends an entire book following around the boy she likes is psycho or pathetic. A boy that does the same thing is insightful. And that’s problematic. Is that really what we want to girls to learn, to teach them that their own impulses and thoughts are somehow less valid, less worthy, than a boy’s?
Female characters that are unlikeable are the best characters. They show us that our bad bits, as well as our good bits, are important to who we are. For too long women in literature have either been cardboard cutouts, scenery for the important doings of men, or non-existent. I want to read women who are angry, who are scared, who are ambitious and smug and all of the other things that make women real. Women who argue and speak up, or keep their thoughts to themselves and quietly fume while planning some nasty revenge. I want to read about women that aren’t simply put there as objects of attraction for the male main character or as smart sidekicks to help out the hero. I don’t want women who are there to be saved. I want women who save themselves with or without the help of others.
And I want to read these same characters in YA, where the leap from girlhood to womanhood is messy and fraught with danger and heartbreak and disappointment. I want to read about girls who are bitches and skanks and every other insult that can be hurled at a woman. I want the girls that survive, the ones that break in a million messy ways, the ones who turn their backs on everything they’ve known and forge their own paths, whether for better or worse. I want to read about bad decisions and worse decisions, about pride and arrogance and the drive for more. I want books that teach girls to be true to themselves, even if the person they are is more Disney villain and less Disney princess.
I want girls who are here to tell you their story, not be your friend or feature as a placeholder for reader romance. I want real girls.
So here are three of my favorite “unlikeable” main characters in YA, for your reading pleasure:
Parker Fadley, Cracked Up to Be: You knew I couldn’t make a list of unlikeable characters and not include a book by Courtney Summers. Her books are some of my favorites, and I picked Parker because she is the Summers character that I found to be the most unapologetic about her behavior. Parker knows that she’s being terrible, but she doesn’t care enough to stop. Sure, she has reasons for acting the way she does (but I won’t spoil the book for you) but instead of feeling bad and asking for help she feels bad and takes it out on everyone around her. And that is a completely valid response that many reviews took issue with. Why can’t Parker be nicer? Because she doesn’t have to be.
June Costa, The Summer Prince: June is ambitious and unapologetic. She knows she comes from a life of privilege and that she is spoiled, but it doesn’t stop her from using that privilege to get ahead. A number of reviews reacted negatively to this and a scene in which June is caught masturbating by her love interest, Enki. Rather than feel ashamed, June uses the moment as a sort of challenge to Enki, embracing her sexuality in a way rarely seen by girls in YA.
Micah, Liar: Micah is probably the first truly unlikeable main character that I read in YA. She’s a liar, and we know this because she tells the reader that. For the rest of the book she contradicts herself constantly and makes up facts that the reader will either believe or doubt. Either way, reviews absolutely hated Micah both as a person but also as an unreliable narrator.***
Feel like spending some time with a few more messy characters? Here are a bunch of other books with “unlikeable” main characters you should check out:
This is Not a Test
Some Girls Are
The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau Banks
Uses for Boys
Since You Asked
A Midsummer’s Nightmare
Vengeance Bound and Promise of Shadows (you knew I had to mention my books)
*the definition of unlikeable is, as always, a matter of opinion. For me it refers to female characters that do not conform to prescribed social behaviors of decency for women and in turn draw a considerable amount of reader ire. I have yet to see anyone refer to characters like Bella Swan as unlikeable. Weak, yes, but never unlikeable.
**The characters deemed “unlikeable” are always female. Always. I have never seen this term thrown about when men are the jerky main characters of the story, but I would love to be proven wrong.
***The fact that female characters of color in YA get slapped with the unlikeable label more often than their white counterparts could probably be its own discussion, but that is a post for another day.
Justina Ireland is the author of Vengeance Bound, as well as Promise of Shadows, which published this week.