There’s been a really interesting conversation going around about “unlikeable” heroines. I think it started over at Dear Author, and just yesterday a great post by Tracy Grant went up at History Hoydens. There was a quote in that that got me thinking:
“But more seriously, I think it [why anti-heroines are so intriguing] is in large part that they often are characters who break rules and defy conventions. That’s part of the appeal of anti-heroes as well, but I think there’s something particularly interesting about women who defy conventions in an historical setting in which there are so many restrictions on a woman’s role.”
This conversation feels especially relevant to me because Serena, the heroine of my next book, Lily Among Thorns, could potentially be considered an “unlikeable heroine.” I like her a lot, of course, but she’s prickly and defensive and not always fair, because she’s had a hard life and been treated badly by a lot of people and she’s angry. It seems like fairly often, that’s what “unlikeable” boils down to–angry.
I’m a pretty angry person. I’m also a happy person, and I think a compassionate one, but the compassion is partly something I’ve worked on and developed because it’s important to me, not necessarily something that came naturally to me as a kid. My natural response to a lot of things is anger, and I’ve always felt guilty and ashamed of that, because girls aren’t supposed to be angry. Or at least, girls aren’t supposed to express anger. But there’s a William Blake poem my mom used to quote to me growing up:
“I was angry with my friend:
I told my wrath; my wrath did end.
I was angry with my foe:
I told it not; my wrath did grow.”
I’ve had this experience so many times–I’ll be angry at a friend of mine for something stupid, something little, but I won’t want to tell them for fear of being a bitch or hurting their feelings, I’ll think, “I shouldn’t care about this, I’ll just wait and it’ll pass.” Sometimes that works, but sometimes it doesn’t. When I was younger, I lost a couple of friendships that way, because I didn’t say anything and didn’t say anything until the anger turned into resentment and after a while, that was all I could feel about that person.
In recent years I’ve gotten better about bringing something up (as tactfully and kindly as I can figure out how to do!) if it continues to bother me after a few days, but it’s still hard for me. I’m still afraid to do it, and I still feel so guilty for wanting to, for being unable to simply close the door on my anger and make it go away.
But if you don’t express anger, it doesn’t magically go away. It grows until it consumes you. If you aren’t allowed to express it, well. So many unlikeable heroines, anti-heroines, and villainesses come down to that–they’re angry, and their anger has come, in some way, to define them.
That is Becky Sharp’s real crime, isn’t it? That she had a tough childhood, that no one ever protected her or took care of her, and her response to that is to put herself first, to become hard–in contrast to Amelia, who’s compared to a “flower that smells the sweeter for being crushed.”
Villainesses like Milady or Becky Sharp, it seems like, accept that they can’t openly express their anger, so they express it in disturbing, hidden ways, through manipulation, passive aggression, sugar-coated insults, lies, and in some cases, violence and murder. It’s not healthy or admirable, but I’ll admit to an instinctive sympathy. I like reading about it.
But what I love even more is the unlikeable heroine, because often she does express her anger. Like Tracy Grant says, she breaks the rules, defies convention, and accepts the consequences. She insists on being true to who she is, and not pretending to feel differently.
And what I love even more than that is the hero who responds to that, who genuinely respects and likes the heroine’s anger. Sure, it’s a transparent fantasy of love and acceptance, but isn’t that what romance novels are for sometimes?
Are you comfortable expressing anger? How do you feel about angry female characters? And do you have any flaws (or things that could be considered flaws, anyway) that you like to see mirrored in romance heroines?
(I’m working on Part 2 of this post right now, in the form of a list of my favorite angry heroines. I can’t wait to hear about yours!)
Edit: Part 2 is here.