“I love them.”
I write unlikeable girl narrators,* and neither of these previous sentences trouble me. But I can’t help thinking every time this comes up (which is a lot) that there is no phrase for unlikeable boy narrators. This is a gender bias, plain and simple. I’m therefore tempted to punt the phrase out the window, but something holds me back, and here’s why.
There is a THREATENING POWER in the unlikeable girl narrator [UGN]. She wears a crown that’s been sharpened into a blade. She even has the potential to change the way readers view a whole group of people. And although UGNs appear in every genre and in a variety of forms, every single one of them has something in common:
She doesn’t give a damn what you think about her.
So let’s look at these characters that rub us the wrong way or steal our hearts, and then decide whether or not your UGN is making your story stronger or less appealing. Because—and I speak from experience—some UGNs will make readers throw the book across the room. Like I said, she’s powerful, ain’t she?
She swears. She probably does the things that the boys do or she kisses said boys and doesn’t call them back (the nerve!). She might put herself before her mom, sister, best friend, dog, etc. She might care more about her own problems than the problems of others. She probably has a bleeding heart that she works HARD to hide, and she undoubtedly flicks off everyone, crying in secret when they’re gone (plus some more cursing—and possibly NO crying. Some girls don’t cry. Seriously.). In short, she is the girl that gets labeled a Tomboy or Feminazi or the Mean Girl or the Type A nightmare. She punches first and asks questions later. Or she doesn’t ask those questions at all, and instead hides her regret within deliberate layers of crafted callousness.
Now, two things might have happened while I described the UGN. Either you pictured one girl. One very specific girl/character. Or you pictured just about every girl you’ve ever met. Because let’s be honest, we’re not talking about one type of girl. We’re talking about GIRLS. Stuffed into corsets and high heels and marriages and babies and gender expectations for the length of history, the UGN is a reaction to the fact that girls are demanded to be likeable. To grin and bear it, no matter what.
Boys are not required to be likeable. In fact, we’re so damn pro-Bad Boy that that has probably scarred them in equally debilitating ways. But whatever. I only care about girls at the moment. *UGN fist bump*
So if girls MUST be appealing in order to succeed, the UGN is a girl who does well while simultaneously not appealing to the sympathies and opinions of others. How dare she? Oh, she dares. She does.
She is Katniss Everdeen who cares about survival. She’s not in it for the beauty contest, the attention, the love story, or the hero worship. In fact, she hates all of those things sincerely. (Let’s not forget how many delightful jokes there are in The Hunger Games movies about how no one actually likes Katniss…)
She’s also Gilly Hopkins. Katsa from Graceling. Mary Lennox. Ada from The War That Saved My Life. Leah from Walk on Earth A Stranger. Lisa Praytor from Highly Illogical Behavior. I’ll add three of my girls: Chase (Breaking Sky),and Jaycee & Natalie from You Were Here—That’s right; you get two sass-attacks in my new book! And you know who else has got two intensely wonderful UGNs? The Walls All Around Us. And how about my all-time favorite novel and favorite heroine? Taylor from Jellicoe Road.**
Who is she NOT?
A girl who cares about nothing. I mean, she can say that she cares about nothing but that can’t be true. No one cares about nothing.*** If this is a problem you’re running into with your UGN, I highly suggest checking out discussions on internal and external motivation.
So You’ve Been Told You Have A UGN in Your Manuscript. Now what?
Well, it’s important to figure out whether or not you really do have a UGN or if the reader told you this because your protagonist is not crafted thoroughly. It’s important to remember that the UGN is NEVER an underdeveloped character, i.e. her likeability issue is not the writer’s fault. Her likeability issue is the reader’s fault. Hands down. How dare I say that, you ask? Well, I’ll put my ovaries to the wall and use an example from one of my worst reviews of Breaking Sky.**** The reviewer nailed my UGN, Chase, for being a “paint-by-numbers Military Maverick archetype” and then followed up by thinking about Chase’s role a little more closely:
“It made me realize two things: 1) that we very rarely see female characters take on a true Maverick role (Starbuck in the BSG reboot is one of the few), and 2) that when female characters DO take on that role, we often criticize them for exhibiting the very self-absorbed, dangerous, costly behavior that we expect from male Mavericks, the very behavior that, in male Mavericks, is so often lauded as ‘independent.’
I’m a proud feminist, and I had an extremely uncomfortable moment when I realized I was holding Chase to a higher moral standard than I ever had James Bond, John McClane, or Martin Riggs. Breaking Sky may not break any new ground literarily, but it made me consider my own hidden assumptions and deep-seated sexism.”
BOOM. That there is the power of the UGN. To re-think the established order and gender expectations. Don’t knock it. Just know that it often comes with scathing reviews (re-read the first sentence of this article). But as my favorite writer, Amy Rose Capetta, just told me, “One of the prime things literature does is push at people’s boundaries. That’s going to cause some discomfort, but that discomfort is important.”
The term “unlikeable girl” is bound to get some people’s backs up for great reason. It’s sexist. It’s ridiculous. It’s infuriating. But if we’re paving new ground for character tropes, this is one that I’m going to embrace and never apologize for. And I’ll end with one more quote:
“I really liked your book,” my brother said. “But I hated Chase.”
“Thanks,” I said. “And don’t worry. She doesn’t care if you like her. That’s not her story.”
*Yeah, I know. You use “unlikable” instead of “unlikeable”. I get in a lot of trouble for using British spellings from my copyeditor, but I’m not going to change. Also, I’m using narrator and protagonist fairly interchangeably here, which isn’t exact, but again, I’m the boss. 🙂
**Thank you to Tirzah Price and Amy Rose Capetta for helping me nail down this list of delightful give-no-fucks ladies! If you’d like to add a lady that I missed, please leave her name in the comments!
***I knew a boy in college who professed to care about nothing so profusely that he ended up caring deeply about the fact that people knew him as such. See? It’s impossible. Everyone cares.
**** You can read the rest of the well-written article here, but I’ll warn you; she hated Breaking Sky. She did like The Color of Rain though! Huzzah!
Cori McCarthy is the author of The Color of Rain, Breaking Sky, and You Were Here. She’s also an editor with Yellow Bird Editors. You can reach her on Twitter @CoriMcCarthy or check out her website CoriMcCarthy.com