Females in YA: Part 7 Unlikable Girls

Posted by Katie L. Carroll on May 7, 2014 in Books, Elixir Bound, Females in YA, Writing |

In my Internet trolling, I’ve come across so many articles recently related to females in YA or women in writing. They’ve inspired a lot of thoughts and I was going to do a quick round-up (with a few of those thoughts) today. But then I started writing about one article and came across some more related articles (as tends to happen in the wormhole of the Interweb) and it turned into enough material for an entire blog post. So I guess those other articles will have to wait until another day to have their moment on my blog.

This post in particular was inspired in part by the article “Why Talking About Girl Really Matters” on Stacked Books (http://www.stackedbooks.org/2014/03/why-talking-about-girl-reading-matters.html). The article begins with the thought that we need to talk about girls reading and ways to encourage them to read (not just focus on getting the so-called reluctant demographic of boys reading).

The part of the article that really struck me was this statement, “Girls are as complex as boys, but so often, we let girls be placed into one of two categories, based entirely on our preferences: likable or unlikable.These aren’t critiques of story nor are they critiques of character. They are preferences. There’s nothing wrong with preferring a likable or unlikable character, but there is something wrong when that becomes the means through which we critique a story and thus the way that we then present those stories to readers — especially to girl readers who may identify as unlikable or as likable vis a vis those books.”

I can look to my own character Katora in my YA fantasy Elixir Bound. In reader reviews, she has been called self-centered, couldn’t quite be liked by the reader, whiny, selfish, a bit of a pill, stubborn, and a control freak. Yikes! Based on those comments alone, I’d probably make some pretty harsh judgments on Katora.

Yet one reviewer said Katora was her favorite character because she was strong-willed and the novel benefited from Katora’s personality, another adored her, and a third was enchanted by her. She is also described as driven, hard working, likable, a great heroine, having a side of her that really cares for her siblings, self-dependent, strong, and brave. A bit of a different picture of the character of Katora.

(Please note that I appreciate all reviews written of my book, even the unfavorable ones. I’m not saying any of these reviewers are wrong—and many of them mentioned liking her even though they also used unfavorable descriptions, some of the positive and negative descriptions came from a single reviewer—just pointing out that my beloved character can be seen as unlikable by some standards.)

Given in many ways that Katora is a reflection of myself (in a weird fictional way), I could take that to mean that people see me as unlikable. Yikes again! Now what if a teenage girl saw something of herself in Katora and then read a review that described Katora as unlikable or selfish or something much worse. She might make the mistake of thinking herself unlikable or worse. Triple yikes!

I can think of many YA books in which I didn’t always “like” the female character at some point in the book (one in particular that comes to mind is Samantha in Lauren Oliver’s Before I Fall), but that didn’t mean I didn’t “like” her in general. Usually a “dislike” moment stemmed from some action she took. In the case of Samantha, she is a popular girl who doesn’t always treat people nicely, but there are many sides to her and part of her journey is learning to treat others better.

So just because Samantha had “unlikable” moments didn’t mean she wasn’t a good character lacking any redeemable qualities, and it certainly didn’t make for a bad book. In fact, Before I Fall was one of my favorite books that year and came highly recommended. Again, it comes back to the fact that so much of what is considered likable or unlikable is subjective and not necessarily a good means of evaluating a character or a book.

And if writing good characters is in part writing characters that are dynamic and realistic, then all characters should possess “unlikable” qualities. In fact, a character who is totally likable would probably be pretty boring to read and would ring untrue to life. The best characters have flaws. Maybe we need to rethink the terminology and stop pegging female characters in YA as “likable” or “unlikable” because those terms hardly encompass what a character’s (or person’s) true personality is.

What females in YA have you found to be either likable or unlikable (or both)?

For more reading on this topic, check out:

“The Girl Myth in YA (And Beyond)” on Book Riot (http://bookriot.com/2013/11/18/girl-myth-ya-fiction-beyond/)

“Unlikable Female Characters in YA Fiction: A Reading List” on Stacked Books (http://www.stackedbooks.org/2013/04/unlikable-female-characters-in-ya.html)

“Boys Will Be Boys, and Girls Will Be Accommodating” by Laurel Snyder (https://medium.com/open-ticket/24530a5a0dee)

“The 10 Most Annoying Teenagers From Books” on Huff Post Books, though these are not all girl characters and not all from YA books, still a worthy—and fun—read (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2014/03/18/annoying-teenagers-books-_n_4703343.html)


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  • I took a writing course last year and the main critique of my character was that she wasn’t likeable when in reality, she was really a very typical teenager. And like you, she was me. I couldn’t help but feel a tiny bit hurt. So I went back and took out the snark. I really liked Katora. Her faults are what made me like her. She wasn’t a super hero. She was human.

    • Oh, I feel for you, Suzanne. Thanks for saying nice things about Katora. It’s so hard to hear negative things about characters you create, and wonderful to hear positive things about them and their faults. 🙂

  • Loren says:

    This post is a great “conversation piece” for writers! There are some characteristics that have wide appeal, and protagonists that have them will be likable to many readers. But there is plenty of room for personal preferences, and Katora is a good example of a character that could go either way, depending on the reader. Yes, she is stubborn, but so am I, and I appreciate that quality in others (even if I end up knocking heads with those of my kids that take after me in that way — I’m still proud they’re stubborn).

    For another example, I’ll mention Katniss (The Hunger Games). I admire her, but I don’t like her. I don’t think I’d go out of my way to befriend her, though I admit I might be loosing out at the end of the day (especially anywhere where a bow and arrow would come in handy.)

    • Katniss is a good example, Loren. Definitely not an easy person to befriend. Look what happened to poor Peeta throughout the series. I wonder what Katniss would have been like if she hadn’t grown up Panem, if she would have been more “likable”.

      We should start a stubborn anonymous group or something. 🙂

  • Mirka Breen says:

    The test for a writer is to come up with an exquisite balance between a character having an edge and an imperfection (or two-three-ten imperfections…) and crossing the line to where no one wants to spend time with them. There is no formula or how-to for this.

    • Yes, Mirka! And such a fine line on which to balance. I definitely feel like I fell over the line at times with Katora in particular. I think there isn’t a formula because so much of likability comes to personal taste, and it’s hard to know where another person’s sensibilities will be. As a writer, you just try to win over as many people as you can.

  • When I started reading your post, I immediately thought of Before I Fall, too! It’s the perfect example of a real girl with real flaws who’s sympathetic even if she’s not likable.

    I’ve heard my characters are whiny but I’ve also heard they’re totally relatable. Haha. I guess all we can do is try to write real people and hope readers get it.

    • Great minds think alike, Anna! I agree we can try to write characters that are like real people and hope the readers get them. And know that not every reader will get every character…sigh.

  • Great post. I’ve only received a few reviews so far for my recent release School of Deaths, but I’ve been told that the character is too weak at the beginning (one of the points of the book is that she’s weak until she finds her strength), even that her name was too common (really). It’s hard to guess what each reader will like or not like, but I think few amateur reviewers remember to look at the writing style as a whole- if there’s anything they didn’t like, they’ll mention it in a review.

    • Thanks, Christopher! I always say I’m not going to read reviews, but then I always do. I think everyone has a right to review a book as they want to, but at the same time I want them to be nice to my book and my characters…or at least understand where my characters are coming from. Also, I think it’s important for readers to realize that maybe the author didn’t intend for them to love every action every character takes.

  • Such a good post! It bothers me when people expect female characters (and characters in general) to be completely likable. Aren’t they supposed to have flaws? But, only flaws that make them more likable? Um, doesn’t make sense. I really liked Luce from the Fallen series, but read lots of reviews of how people hated her and her actions, which just baffled me. I like watching a character grow, and like you said, a perfect character would be supremely boring!

    • Thanks, Meradeth! Character growth is so important in a story, and even then who wants a character to be perfect at the end of a story. I think what really bothers me is that it seems (in my experience) that female characters are held to such a different standard than male ones. It feels like more often than not a male character’s “bad behavior” is seen as justifiable, explainable, or even sexy. But not so much for females. The double standard is so irritating!

  • Vijaya says:

    Good post. I like real girls … good, bad, ugly. It’s how they deal with situations that makes me turn the pages. Nothing turns me off faster than stupidity though.

    • Yes, Vijaya! The good, bad, and ugly…bring it on! Stupidity is annoying, one reason I find horror movies soooo annoying. How stupid can those characters be?

  • Kai says:

    My most polarizing character is Natalie from Save the Lemmings. She is a total priss. A Miss Mary Sunshine. Some people love her and some hate her, but I wrote her like that intentionally as I’m sure most authors do. If your characters didn’t have faults to overcome, mold, shape, hone – the story would be wooden.

    I’ve never thought about readers feeling hurt if they’d seen a bit of themselves in the character. That’s a big WOW!

    • I love a character that is polarizing. And, yes, it was a big revelation for me when I had the thought of a reader’s feelings being hurt from relating to an unlikable character. I think this is especially relevant in children’s lit because teens and kids are so passionate about what they read and can even come to care for a character like a real person.

  • Mary says:

    Great food for thought, Katie. I think sometimes having an unlikable character is important to the story you’re trying to tell. Especially if you are trying to show the growth of the character throughout the story.

    I think it’s funny that people found Katora unlikable. I found Zelinka (I’m sure I spelled her name wrong) to be more unlikable, but for me, that just added to her character and made me root for her to grow.

    • Hi, Mary! That’s funny that you found Zelenka unlikable because I kind of didn’t like her either in some ways. Though I think she’s getting some redemption in the next Elixir book, in part because the reader gets a little more insight into her motivations. We’ll see!

      Your Princess Arabella from Quest of the Hart is a great “unlikable” character for the way she acts most of the book. She’s evil in a way, but also has such a vulnerable side. I love that about her!

  • J.Q. Rose says:

    Likable and unlikable. I think each reader makes a determination based on his/her life experience, so the same character could be likable to one person and unlikable to another unless there is some really really despicable traits of evil and there’s no question. Thought provoking post. Thanks for sharing. I will link this to my Girls Succeed blog for my readers to mull it over.

    • Awesome, J.Q. Thanks for sharing the link and chiming in. I agree that likable and unlikable is very subjective, which is why it’s such a slippery slope when judging books and characters. Sure, share you’re opinions, but maybe don’t hold the female characters to a higher or different standard than the male ones.

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