As writers and critical readers, we talk a lot about the conundrum of the unlikeable female protagonist (those unlikeable male protagonists never seem to cause worry). Reviewers are quick to mention if and why the protagonist isn’t someone they’d “like to be friends with,” and even established writers sometimes get the note to make their heroine nicer somehow.
Strangely enough, readers don’t seem to mind them – at least not as the stars of thrillers like Gone Girl and The Girl on the Train.
Lately, though, in my reading – and even my TV-watching – I find myself grappling with the opposite problem: heroines that are just so darn likeable, they’re perfect. These are women who honestly seem to exist without flaws. They never lose their tempers. They never have an unkind thought toward anyone. They always do the right thing. I spend my reading time with them wondering when the hell they are finally going to blow up, or at least do something interesting.
Last week, I was having dinner with a good friend and fellow fan of the TV show Nashville. We agreed that while we still liked her, the character of Rayna – and the show itself – was a lot more interesting when Rayna had flaws. Now she is absolutely perfect, always making the right decisions, never getting too angry, and always being right in the end. (This last point reminded me a little of Kate Walsh’s Addison Montgomery in Private Practice, but at least Addison’s infallible medical judgment was tempered by the fact that her personal life was a constant mess.)
I won’t name the guilty books, but this point hit me as I read Laura Lippman’s Wilde Lake over the weekend. Lippman’s protagonist, a prosecutor named Lu, is very smart and hard-working. She is also extremely competitive, to a point where it has cost her friends and gotten her into trouble. This flaw (which may not have been a flaw if Lu were a guy) made the character so much more interesting than she would have been if she were perfect. It made her human to me. It also illustrated for me how closely a character’s strengths and flaws are related. Of course a smart person is going to be competitive, or smug, or arrogant. It’s the opposite side of the same coin.
Fan fiction writers have long had a term for that perfect character – a “Mary Sue.” (Legend has it that she first appeared in Star Trek fan fiction, as the daughter of Jim Kirk, lover of Spock, amazing space pilot, etc. So, yes, fan fiction is older than the internet. Way older.) “Mary Sue” has outgrown the fan fiction world, and is a shorthand for any character (mostly female) that is too good to be true. And yet, even with the pejorative, more writers are falling into this trap with their female protagonists. (At least the ones I read this past week are.)
Sometimes our protagonists are an extension of ourselves, and sometimes we are blind to our own flaws. I know that I don’t have any, for instance. Okay, sometimes I care too much. (If you don’t know what your flaws are, ask one of your siblings.) But our flaws draw people to us just as much as our strengths do. Use them to develop a well-rounded protagonist.
Then maybe she’ll be called “unlikeable.”