Unlikable Heroines

I've seen some chatter lately about unlikable heroines--in particular, that heroines are accused of being 'unlikable' more than heroes, that heroines must be likable for a book helmed by a woman to be commercially successful, and that 'likability' is an unreasonable standard, full stop. 

These discussions always inspire a certain cognitive dissonance in me. I want to like the protagonist of whatever book I'm reading. I want to be invested in the protagonist's success or failure. In order to feel anticipation, worry, fear on the protagonist's behalf, I have to care what comes next.

When I dislike the protagonist, I do not care. And, before too long, I do not want to read.

But that doesn't mean the protagonist has to be a good person. 'Likability' has no strict connection to any virtue or vice, any personality trait. Pull a random assortment of qualities from a grab-bag and whatever the result is, a character possessing them all could be likable. By the same token, assemble all the most sterling qualities and breathe them into being, and the resulting paragon could be very difficult to like. 

What bothers me is that a lot of the discussions about 'unlikable' heroines assume that 'likable' means 'virtuous' or 'socially adept' or, sometimes, 'traditionally and unthreateningly feminine'. 

I could accept this argument if it were, say, "Many readers only like heroines of this type." And then the argument could continue more or less as usual: heroines of what type, why this is problematic. 

At that point, the discussion has nothing to do with me. Or, at least, I don't feel irked or misunderstood by it. I can even climb aboard the bandwagon: "Yes, let's find a way to make difficult, prickly, unfeminine heroines more popular! Hooray for complex, fully realized characters who inspire a wide range of emotional reactions over the course of a novel or series!"

But often, when I hear people insisting that likability is a terrible standard, my reaction is this: "If I am reading a book with a heroine, I want to like her. If you are writing a difficult heroine, it is your job to make me like her." 

Not to change her. Not to file down her sharp edges or water down her strong personality. Not even, or necessarily, to make me admire her--although a heroine I admire can do a lot of things I dislike without losing my affection. 

Odd or eccentric protagonists are divisive. Every time you take a fork in the road (Do you like Vanilla or chocolate ice cream? Vanilla with brandied cherries or vanilla with toffee chunks? Vanilla with brandied cherries and rosemary or vanilla with brandied cherries and licorice?), the trail gets narrower. Eventually, if you make enough choices, you won't see much foot traffic anymore. 

I think that is more or less inevitable. The essential nature of choice is closing out one opportunity in order to embrace another. Lose one consumer (of ice cream or books) in order to entice another.

A protagonist who is ambitious, science-minded, violent, and impulsive will shed potential readers the same way as a protagonist who is unambitious, poetic, pacific, and prone to over-prepare for every occasion. 

Of course, 'more or less' is not a small caveat. It's a huge one. That's where the author's talent, or her publisher's marketing department, or the existing preferences of the audience she's writing to make a difference. 

So all choices are not equal. 

On the other hand, there's not much I can't like. Can't be made to like. There's nothing I love more than being brought around. Convinced, despite my initial inclination or rash judgment. And I don't think I'm unusual in that respect. 

What is 'likable' about Peggy in Mad Men? She's awkward, stubborn, and ambitious. She starts out reading social cues poorly, wearing hideous clothes, and sleeping with the most loathsome character on the show. She makes terrible sexual choices in general, actually, and has an awful relationship with her family. I love Peggy. I root for Peggy. Every good thing that happens to Peggy makes me crow with glee.

By the same token: Joan on Mad Men can do no wrong in my mind. She gets ahead on sheer competence, Machiavellian strategy, and sex appeal. I don't care. I love her.

What about Brienne in Game of Thrones? Brienne is an awkward, galumphing anachronism with no political savvy and a one-track-mind. I love Brienne with every tender fiber of my being. If I could, I would whisk her out of Westeros and put her...I don't know where. At Hogwarts, maybe. She could hang out with Nearly Headless Nick. 

Or--also Game of Thrones--I'll be quick about it--Cersei. I don't much like Cersei in the books but I adore her on the TV show. Something about the way Lena Headey plays Cersei makes me love Cersei, even though she's doing the same things as the book character, for more or less the same reasons. There is magic in the execution.

Who else? Attolia in Megan Whelan Turner's Thief series. Kristin Cashore's Katsa. Cecilia Grant's Martha, Hermione at her most smug....I could go on and on. If I really started combing through my library, I could name hundreds of heroines who are 'unlikable' who I adore. Who lots of people adore. 

So here are my conclusions: 

(1) Likability is not a distinct, definable quality. We should stop talking about it as though it is.

(2) Trends can change tastes, and sometimes tastes need to change. But some books will only ever reach a small audience, and that's okay. It's even good--that's one aspect of variety, and variety is the spice of life.

(3) Sometimes, the fault really does lie in the execution. That, also, is inevitable.