One of the more common writing tips I’ve heard throughout the years is to make sure the protagonist in my books is likable. This is particularly applicable to female protagonists. The consensus was that if readers don’t like her, they’re going to put the book down. So, I’ve worked hard to create at least somewhat likable characters over the years, albeit still flawed.
I’ve come to realize, though, that likability is a matter of reader taste, and to some degree, genre. I write mysteries, which offers a diverse spectrum from light cozies to noir thrillers. Generally, (and of course there are exceptions) cozy readers prefer a likable protagonist who isn’t an alcoholic or drug user. Thriller fans prefer a protagonist who doesn’t spend her afternoons drinking tea with a cat on her lap.
I write amateur sleuth mysteries, which incorporates dark and light worlds, so it can be a bit of a risk, as I might not please either group. Still, I feel compelled to write books and create character that are meaningful to me. All readers bring their experiences, biases, and preferences to the table when it comes to books, and that’s fine. The truth is that no writer will please everyone.
As a writer and a reader, a likeable character isn’t as important to me as a compelling and complex character with a an obstacle to climb or a mission to accomplish. It can be small or global, but it has to matter to the protagonist.
I came across an interesting a piece in Bookriot a few days ago, called ‘100 Must-Read Books With Unlikable Women’. The author argues that female characters are given short shrift by being labeled annoying, among other things. They aren’t allowed the same leeway that male protagonists are, and receive more complaints from readers for their un-likability. Hmm. She might have something there.
I browsed the list to see if there were any mysteries and sure enough, I found Gone Girl and Dark Places by Gillian Flynn. There were also quite a number of mainstream novels. I have to admit, I didn’t browse through the entire list, so I’m not sure if there are any fantasy or romance titles there.
But the author makes a good point: there are plenty of great novels featuring unlikable characters in terrific novels. Really, did you find Scarlett O’Hara likable? I sure didn’t, but this didn’t stop me from enjoying the story. In fact, Scarlett’s unlikability was crucial to the story’s success. So go ahead, write unlikable female characters, despite what some of those writing instructors tell you. Just ensure that you’ve got a memorable, compelling story to tell.