Why Are “Unlikeable” Female Characters In Books Such a Turn-Off, But Unlikable Males Acceptable?

Sarah Jessica Parker in HBO’s ‘Divorce’

By Sayde Scarlett

The first reviews of my debut novel, ‘Clouds and Earth’, are starting to come in. It seems everyone agrees: my main character, Sandy Attiyeh – whom I love dearly, is thoroughly unlikeable. You aren’t meant to like my protagonist. I designed her to be unlikeable and I consider this critique of her a sign of my competency as a writer. She is a harsh person who has had to survive in harsh circumstances. I appreciate her, though I know that many readers may find her a turn-off. I hope that some readers will come to appreciate her in the end. 

But since the reviews came in I’ve begun to wonder if I’ve made a bad choice by making my protagonist so unlikeable. Or at least, I did, until a friend I’d given an advanced reader copy (ARC) to pointed out that there are so many damaged but competent male characters it’s reached the point of cliché. The rough, alcoholic but brilliant detective. The surgeon with a drug problem. The chemistry teacher who starts making meth for money. Male anti-heroes go about their fictional lives unchallenged, uncriticized and even admired.

Men who are in pain but still trying to do their jobs are looked upon sympathetically. I can’t help feeling that female characters aren’t granted the liberty. When I look at female characters from successful books, I often find they all often have the same ‘acceptable’ imperfections. They’re messy, clumsy, they’re nerdy but in a benign way. These are cute-sy, girly attributes. These are not flaws. These are quirks and legitimate, valid, harmless personality traits. Where are the big glaring flaws and vices? Where are the women in pain?

Is there a female protagonist as messed up as Humbert from ‘Lolita’? I have been hard-pressed to find a female protagonist who fetishizes and objectifies young boys to that extent. I have never read a book about a female pedophile. But the story of a female pedophile might be fascinating, valuable and insightful. When researching articles about these types of women I did manage to find one, and now I can’t wait to read it. I don’t think I’ll “like” the main character, but women like that exist and we often don’t hear their stories for the wrong reasons.

Charlize Theron in ‘Young Adult’

Egregious flaws and violence are not just tolerated in male characters — some even find them endearing. Serial killers like Ted Bundy have ardent fans. Violence seems to make men manly and violence in the name of justice or for a just cause even more so. Violent, flawed women aren’t viewed so sympathetically. The further fictional female characters stray from the feminine mystique — the more they are disliked. We, female writers, should tell their stories anyway. Human frailty must be explored in women as well as men.

One of my male friends was a heroin addict and toward the end of his life we all hated him. He stole from us almost constantly and on more than one occasion I had to buy my phone back off one of the local drug dealers. But then he overdosed, and died before he was twenty-five years old, and we were devastated. He died with his friends hating him. That’s because heroin addicts are unlikeable people. I could never write a likable heroin addict now. If you only allow likable people to be represented authentically in art then there is a host of humanity you can’t write about. That’s an imposition that shouldn’t be placed on writers.

I could sugar-coat my characters for you, but I would have to sacrifice authenticity to do that. People who consume fiction in all its forms have to appreciate that storytelling can’t only involve likable people. We don’t live in that world.

Author Sayde Scarlett | Photo by Alex Winn Photography | alexwinn.com

Sayde Scarlett was born and raised in Dubai, UAE, but relocated to the United Kingdom to read Politics and International Relations at Royal Holloway, University of London. After university, Sayde worked in the performing arts sector alongside being a political and antiwar activist. Sayde moved back to the Middle East in 2015 and now works as a financial crime investigator. The Peace Outside trilogy is Sayde’s debut work, and you can find out more at www.sayde-scarlett.com.

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