You Like Me…You Really, Really Like Me

By Liz, absolutely loving the spring weather of late here in CT!

If you’ve been following the blog this month, you know we’re talking about strong women and the impact they’ve had not only on us individually, but on our world as a whole. Strong women make the world go round, right? And here’s the thing: Strong women aren’t always going to be seen as likable. Nor should they be.

I’ve been thinking about this concept a lot lately as it pertains to not just every-day life, especially in the corporate world where I spend a lot of my days, but also in fiction writing. I’ve seen firsthand women who are brilliant, talented, assertive and unwilling to take any crap get labeled as “uncollaborative” or “not good partners” or, in plain English, “unlikable.” And we know that men who demonstrate the same tendencies don’t get the same labels. We’ve been having this conversation for a while now, right?

And guess what? Our female protagonists get stuck with the same labels. And ladies, I think it’s time to fight back.

When I was writing my Pawsitively Organic series featuring Stan Connor, I worried A LOT about making Stan “likeable,” whatever that means. I distinctly remember creating her best friend Nikki’s character out of a need to be able to have opinions on animal rescue topics that might have seemed too strong to come from Stan as my main character. Looking back now, I do love Nikki, but really? Stan had every right to her opinions, even if they may have been harsh every now and then. That’s the reality when you work in rescue. Sometimes people make you very angry, and you have not-so-nice thoughts about them. (And seriously – that’s the reality in all areas of life, not just rescue, am I right?)

So, moving on to the Cat Cafe series. I started writing about Maddie and her world when I was in a very different place than when I created Stan. I personally didn’t worry so much about everyone liking me all the time, and that carried over into my writing. Maddie is a lot more confident and unapologetic than Stan. She knows what she wants and she goes after it. She’s deeply caring, but she’s also really human.

And Maddie got some feedback in one of my early drafts about having too many angry feelings, not being as likeable as one might expect in a cozy, etc. I went back and adjusted the scenes, but I remember thinking, of course she’s angry, something terrible just happened! Is she supposed to squash her feelings and just smile?

In Whisker of a Doubt, Maddie is struggling with her relationship during most of the book. She’s upset about it and uses typical coping mechanisms like throwing herself into work and acting out in certain instances. She’s certainly not happy about what’s going on, and it takes a toll on her mood. And shortly after the book came out, I got an email from a reader who chastised me about Maddie’s attitude and warned me that she should really be “nicer.” And as I watched women around me every day hear the same types of things from a colleague or boss, or get penalized for speaking up and voicing concerns or displeasures, and in some cases really convinced that something was wrong with them, I knew I had to write this blog.

We need to stop demanding that women – fictional and not – be so nice. Of course, we should be kind. We should be caring. We should be human. But that goes for everyone, not just women. And we ARE human, so we’re not going to feel like singing and dancing with joy every second of the day. I mean, who complains that Harry Bosch isn’t nice enough? Harry does what he’s gotta do, and we all cheer him on. When he has dark thoughts, we sympathize with all he’s been through. We respect his moods and his approach because he’s earned it.

So why isn’t it the same for our female characters?

Readers, what do you think? Do you judge female characters differently than male characters? Leave a comment below – let’s have a conversation about this.

33 Thoughts

  1. I am usually a pretty upbeat person, but I have to confess to occasionally becoming pretty surly if I am in pain or surrounded by people acting IMHO like idiots. In my usual nice mode, I just listen, but if I am under stress otherwise, about ten minutes becomes a breaking point for me. I like characters that are authentic, which means they have good days and bad days just like IRL people. If anyone, it is the guys I tend to be judgemental about.

  2. Most of the books I read have female protagonist and they are who they are. The books with male protagonist are most of the times in law enforcement and I expect them to be a bit on the “surly” side, due to their occupation of choice.

  3. It’s odd, isn’t it, that people claim they want a “kick-ass” female protagonist but then complain about likeability?

    I think you’re right, Liz, about how as we grow stronger, our growth is reflected in our characters. I had a “growth” moment myself yesterday in a phone call over a lost order I’d been waiting for. Last week, I’d made the first call on the matter and tried to be nice. Nothing was accomplished. An email and a second phone call yesterday when I was still polite but refused to accept their sit-back-and-wait attitude, finally produced an admission that the order was indeed lost and would be reissued. Sometimes NICE doesn’t cut it.

    But I confess, I still feel bad for the poor sales rep on the phone who had to deal with me in kick-ass mode. 😀

  4. I like a kickass female character, and if she’s not always nice, so be it. I think that kind of review comment you got, Liz, is like any other – say thank you and move on.

    1. Totally, Edith – it just struck me as something that we haven’t talked about much related to our characters, especially in cozies.

  5. Maybe it’s the stage in life I’m in, but I’m going to be ME regardless of who it irritates. I think if more people were honest about their feelings instead of putting on the happy face, we would get to really know people. Plus I think people would be less apt to explode after holding things in for so long behind that happy face. It’s like a tea pot. It doesn’t wait until it boils to let out any signs that it’s gotten hot. It steams and has little bubbles around the edge before a full out boil. As for me, I want my characters, regardless of the sex, to be human which means have and feel ALL emotions. Yes there are ways to handle them that is socially accepted, but show them and then work through them. That way we can relate to them, sympathize with them, hurt for them because maybe we have been through something similar. As for me give me a strong female characters who has emotions – not only swoon worthy events, can face danger in the face and solve mysteries but also who can get ticked and show it, work through it and make it work in their advantage if possible.
    2clowns at arkansas dot net

  6. As you say, Liz there’s no need to be rude or unkind or unpleasant. But if standing up for yourself, others, and your beliefs, and saying what’s on your mind makes you “not nice,” well, I’m not very nice and neither are my characters.

    1. Liz, I’ve been feeling that way too – I’ve actually said that very thing quite a bit lately. I am definitely not considered “nice” by certain standards!

  7. It’s important that our characters experience and express the full range of human emotions to write them as well-rounded. I would suspect (am hopeful) that the overall behavior of the character throughout the book is taken into account by the reader. If the character’s reaction or actions are “in character” then it adds to the realism. Kick ass and unlikable should not be synonymous.

  8. It’s funny you would write this now, since Shucked Apart, the Maine Clambake Mystery that came out February 23, has generated a LOT of mail. It’s about evenly split, but yesterday I got an absolute screed about the main character Julia’s behavior in the book, and not just the ending. However, this reaction as been a real outlier. Most of the reviews have been positive. One person’s likable is another person’s unlikable. You’re never going to be able to thread that needle, in life or in fiction, so why try?

    I’ve always said that main characters can be unlikable, but they can’t be uninteresting. If you don’t care what happens to them why would you read the book?

  9. Here is my frustration when this comes up. I get told this all the time myself. If I have the nerve to let my feelings show, I’m told I was rude “probably ruder than you intended to be” and I need to behave in a different manner.

    Actually, if you want the truth, I deleted the 25 versions of the email that were much much ruder. Consider yourself lucky I didn’t tell you to figure it out for yourself.

    Here’s the other thing – women might be told to their face that they unlikable, but we all know about the men who are unlikeable. We may not say anything to their faces, however, but we try our best to avoid them. Should we be treating both genders the same? Yes. But do we view the same characteristics the same in both genders? Also yes.

    It is a fine line with fictional characters. I want to see understandable, real emotions from a characters. I want them to be relatable. But I do want to like them. If they are screaming at people every third page, I’m going to stop reading the book (or finish the book, give it a negative review, and move on to a different author). I don’t enjoy spending my time around those type of people in real life, so why would I do it in my fiction? They are unlikable.

    1. Mark – that’s so funny and I totally sympathize on the deleting of the first 25 versions. Basically my life every day at work…

  10. I think there’s a difference between a character who’s strong and sure of themselves and one who’s just plain unlikeable. I don’t enjoy reading about characters who are just plain nasty, male or female. But I also don’t like reading about female characters who are afraid to stand up for themselves. I think authors need to write strong female characters with the realization that not everyone will like it but if it becomes the norm than people will expect it.

  11. I personally have no objections to a strong female characters it makes the story more believable. So don’t worry about it.

  12. I’m with Mark. I won’t read books about people that I don’t like. I have to like some of the characters but I think that I like strong women and men characters. I don’t like being rude but when some telemarketer was calling me several times a day, I was pretty rude. There are times when being nice and polite don’t work. Stay safe and well.

  13. This is a very good question. I try not to but I think I do, to a certain degree. I grew up in a particular time period, with a Mother who, while being the strongest women I knew, was also very passive. Mom had the courage to pursue her desire to be a nurse. She went to nursing school in the big city, never having left her very small town before. While she hated “The Doctors White Carpet ” mentality, she was always very subtle in her defiance of it. I’ve never forgotten her telling me as a child that in every relationship there is one partner that has to “give” (give in, give up, ect) and it is usually the woman. That advise informed my relationships to a great degree. From my 65 yr old perspective, I don’t think it is the best approach. She hated confrontation and I do as well. Which I believe comes down to the “you should be nice” requirement demanded of woman. I think, well hope, that is changing. The “nevertheless she persisted ” is a step in the right direction.
    Keep writing women who are human, which means they have, feel and express the full range of emotions.

  14. You hit on something very important, Liz. I got similar feedback about a character as “not being very nice,” and “drinking too much.” The setting was a college campus, 20-something protagonist who is “discovering” feminism. Drinking is going to be her ongoing issue through the series–a place for character development. In addition, they didn’t like her “snarky” attitude and convinced me to take it from 1st P POV to 3rd P POV. Can I admit that ms has been sitting in the dark for more than three years? No wonder! When I resurrect it–and I will–she will continue to be snarky, drink too much, and her 1st P POV will help me express that. She’s still a good person and is likeable in many ways. But she’s not going to be a doormat!

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