One of the first lessons we’re taught as writers is that our main character has to be likeable in order for the audience to sympathize with him. In a traditionally structured work of fiction, in which the protagonist has a goal, possibly involving a journey, one of the first steps a writer must take before putting the character on the journey is to establish why he’s likeable. Such a scene involves the character being exceptionally good at his job, being in an especially sad state of affairs (recently widowed, for example), or, as Blake Snyder named his series of screenwriting books, saving a cat.
Recently, though, certain television shows – mostly found on cable – have started moving away from the likeable rule and have introduced characters who can best be described as off-putting. Be it a chemistry teacher turned meth cooker, a bi-polar government agent, or a whiny 20something writer living in New York, these characters bring viewers to their shows even as entertainment reporters, bloggers and fans complain about their behavior and plotlines.
Authors have always had more latitude than writers for the big and small screens, and unlikeable main characters can be disguised more easily through the use of first person narration. It’s much easier to justify rooting for a woman to get away with killing her lover’s wife, for instance, when all her reasons and justifications are coming straight to your brain through the use of the “I” pronoun.
However, there are some genres in literature where a likeable main character is more important than in others. Mystery and suspense can get away with main characters acting like jerks a lot easier than literary fiction, chick lit, comic novels and women fiction can. In fact, I’d say that a female character has a heavier burden to be likeable in any genre. Just as in life, male characters can get away with things that female characters cannot. Men take charge; women are bossy. If you don’t know the rest of the argument, read Sheryl Sandberg’s “Lean In.” It’s the latest book on how women are punished for the same behavior men receive rewards (among other things.)
Of course, every main character needs to have flaws, and by the end of the book, she needs to resolve one major flaw that’s keeping her from getting what she wants. But it’s the other flaws that make her human, someone worth relating to. As readers, are we more likely to smile and say, “Of course, I do that too,” about a woman who eats two pieces of cake in order to deal with her problems, or the woman who goes for the five mile run? (I already hate that second woman.)
The reason this is coming up for me is because last week I received notes from a freelance editor I hired on how to improve my novel, “Keeping Score.” One of the things he said was that my main character, Shannon, was the prototype for the self-help book, “Smart Women, Foolish Choices” and she needed to be strong and confident at all times. I’m not sure about that one. On one hand, I truly believe a character’s weakness is what makes them worth rooting for. On the other hand, am I falling into the “Lean In” trap, seeing behavior that is practically required in a male character as being off-putting in a female character? Simply put, I don’t want to write about a strong and confident woman. Strong and confident women tend to be the villains in women’s fiction and chick lit; not the heroines. Our heroines are Bridget Jones and her sisters; constantly worrying about her weight, dating men who can’t commit, and dealing with their children’s issues with friends, homework, etc. And while these behaviors are endearing in a first person novel, in real life, they would be exasperating.
So where does this leave those of us who write fiction for and about women? Can we break out of the “Bridget Jones” mode and deliver a female heroine who is strong, confident and relatable? Or is the only way we can identify with her is if she’s stuffing her face with that second piece of cake?