S.L. Huang: On The Subject Of Unlikable Women Protagonists

S.L. Huang said she wanted to talk about asshole protagonists, and why they always had to be men. I told her that I am the audience for that post and, I think, so are you guys. As such, here she is to talk about the subject — with a bonus table included! Also, check out her newest — Half-Life, which features high-octane math as a powerful superpower.

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I love asshole protagonists.

Or rather, I love a particular breed of them: protagonists who are brusque and violent, egotistical and snarky, but when the chips are down and the friends they’d never admit they care about are in danger, they’ll break the world to save them. Characters like Tony Stark, Sherlock Holmes, the Doctor, Rodney McKay, Spike, Wolverine, Artemis Fowl, Dean Winchester…

You might notice it’s a lot, lot easier to think of male characters who embody this archetype. And, in contrast to the many sympathetic asshole men who lead their own stories, the awesome ladies who are both jerks and heroes often aren’t the main protagonists: Faith and Anya from Buffy, H.G. Wells from Warehouse 13, Starbuck from Battlestar Galactica, Hermione from Harry Potter. We’ve got a few great leads and co-leads in genre — Maree from Deep Secret, Katniss from The Hunger Games, Miriam Black from Blackbirds, just for example. But for every woman who fits this mold, I can think of many more men: Bones and Body of Proof go up against Monk/Psych/Sherlock/The Mentalist/Endgame/Elementary/House, The Heat is one film outstripped in numbers by every other buddy cop movie ever made, and so on.

In fact, I did some math! Narrowing solely to written fiction for the moment, since that’s what I’m about to talk about, I looked at the “literature” section of a bunch of the TV Tropes pages that match the asshole hero archetype I’m talking about:

Character Trope Male Examples Female Examples Genderqueer Examples Percentage Female
“Jerk with a Heart of Gold” 63 12 0 12/75 = 16%
“Sociopathic Hero” 16 2 0 2/18 = 10%
“Loveable Rogue” 47 1 0 1/48 = 2%
“Unscrupulous Hero” 8 0 0 0/8 = 0%
“Good Is Not Nice” 58 13 0 13/71 = 18%

Notes: Literature section only, accessed 1/15/2015. I did a search on any name that didn’t have a pronoun attached. And this is not counting who is a lead character and who is supporting — I’m willing to bet that number would go down if we narrowed to only protagonists.

Thirteen. Percent!

Certainly part of the problem is that we don’t have enough women in media, period. After all, only about 30 percent of speaking roles in movies go to women, and I’m not hopeful the written word is eons ahead. But 13 percent is way way way lower than that, and also lower than other, more positive TV Tropes categories, even those we might expect to be gendered — “Minored in Ass Kicking,” for example, is more than 1/3 female.

This disparity in such magnificent assholery disturbs me greatly. It disturbs me enough that when I started writing what would eventually become Zero Sum Game, I purposely made my asshole antihero protagonist a woman, and it disturbs me enough that I haven’t been able to stop thinking about it when interacting with other writers since then.

And I have a conjecture.

You see, as I’ve meandered through the depths of the Internet Writer Community, I see one question asked time and again: “How do I write good female characters?” I see people so worried — worried their fictional ladies will come off as bitches or whores or mean girls or ditzes or doormats or damsels or Mary Sues. And I see people carefully constructing their fictional women to be sexy but not slutty, confident but not arrogant, smart but not insufferable, flawed but not too flawed.

Because good representation, amirite?

But this desire to make fictional women somehow unobjectionable can flatten out everything that makes characters the most compelling. After all, stories are not built on unobjectionable people! There’s an excellent essay by Rose Lemberg that makes the point better than I could: I want female characters, particularly main characters, who are allowed not to be good. I don’t mean that just in a moral sense, although yeah, that, too — but I also want women who are bad at things, or just fucking terrible at being human. Women who are not nice. Who fail. Who make disastrous mistakes. Women who are unstoppable in combat but a disgrace at basic human interaction, or women who are fantastic diplomats but can’t hit the broad side of a planet with a weapon.

And yes, I want more women who are assholes.

When we don’t let women live the whole range of fucked-up humanity, we miss out. Just look at the list of male characters I started with at the beginning — every one of them can be a horrible jerk, but every one of them has an intense fanbase of people who love and connect with them. Hell, if you tried to take those characters away, Tumblr would melt the entire internet in rage. And I’m one of those fans! But I want me more lady antiheroes as well — and that can’t happen unless we let female characters be jerks too.

Let’s have more Starbucks and Marees and Olivia Popes. Let’s populate fiction with women who are every type of humanity — assholes and all.

Who’s with me?

S.L. Huang is the author of Zero Sum Game and its sequel Half Life, the first two books in a series starring an asshole female protagonist. You can find her online at www.slhuang.com or on Twitter as @sl_huang.

149 responses to “S.L. Huang: On The Subject Of Unlikable Women Protagonists”

  1. Agreed. I liked Abercrombie’s female characters … except “like” is inaccurate because none of his character, male or female, are very likeable. They’re pretty universally miserable screw-ups. But they’re READABLE, very much so.

  2. (That comment above was supposed to be a reply to Kevin B’s post, but apparently I am unable to make the technology do my bidding.)

  3. The best example I can think of was the lead character (can’t recall her name) from ZERO DARK THIRTY. She was driven, and wouldn’t stop or take any crap, but she wasn’t “bitchy” in that her actions weren’t from spite or dislike. But she was gonna get the job done and you’d better get out of the way. And based on a real person, too. (No idea how much was fictionalized.)

  4. Excellent post! One female protagonist who stands out as somewhat of an asshole is Libby from Gillian Flynn’s novel, Dark Places. She was incredibly crass, a kleptomaniac, and downright rude, but because of her screwed up childhood, and the fact that she eventually wanted to do the right thing, you rooted for her.

  5. I read the article and then I had to go read all the free pages for both books. I Love the heroine! I love your word flow! You hooked me in the second or third sentence. My books to buy ASAP grew by two today! I don’t think Cas is an asshole! Her moral compass (at some early stage) was clearly stepped on, shot at a few times, spit on and for good measure kicked into a gutter, but that doesn’t mean she’s evil or bad. She’s not heartless. I felt empathy for her from the first few pages and it’s clear she has a heart. I love her mathematical talent. Mathematically I’m an imbecile (I can add and subtract most days), but I’ve always admired mathematical talent – what a brilliant heroine!).

    As for creating female characters who are more negative or morally ambivalent – as a writer I don’t try to make my characters more or less of anything. They unfold and are who they are. I’ve had all sorts show up on the page. As other commenters have pointed out, I think what many stories lack are “rounded or real” women who are going to have days/situations when they’re nice and days/situation when they’re bitchy…moments of strength, moments of weakness (depending on their individual characters, backgrounds etc), but all the parts of who they are have to fit together (like a puzzle). They have to make sense!

    At the end of the day the characters that we create ought to be autonomous individuals and free to be whoever they want to be regardless of our own morals or what we think is right or wrong. Without freedom to be who they are, characters wilt into cardboard cutouts. They end up playing out the author’s fantasies like slaves to the plot (which unsurprisingly also tends to end up feeling forced and wrong).

    I can’t wait to read your stories to find out what happens!

    • Wow, thank you so much! I’m so glad you’re enjoying the books. 😀

      Yes, I agree about letting characters unfold organically, at least to a large degree. This sort of thinkiness is more about not letting my own unconscious stereotypes and expectations sneak in — kind of like how it’s really easy for cliched phrases to sneak into my writing if I’m not on my guard against them. 😉 I find sometimes if I don’t question and challenge the way a character is unfolding, they fall into the most “comfortable” characterization, whereas if I challenge myself a bit and add characteristics I wouldn’t otherwise have thought of, it jump starts the way the character *can* unfold, if that makes sense. YMMV, of course — that’s just what I’ve found works well for my character process. 😉

      • I find it so fascinating how each person has their own way of crafting their stories. I’m the opposite to you in that if I try to think about plot or characters the story either freezes up or the characters let me run off a cliff (all the while shouting obscenities at me because I dared to think I knew who they were or what they wanted to do – bloody minded lot – I think they only put up with me because the alternative authors available are shortly scheduled for the after life or all locked up in mental institutions).

        I bought the first book today. I suspect I’ll buy the second one tomorrow. However you write, keep doing it! 🙂

  6. I really liked this article. Asshole characters are the best. I love to hate Cersei Lannister. She’s power tripping and murderous but she would do anything for her children.

    • Also Catelyn Stark. Lady is a badass, and an asshole, and that’s BEFORE the Lady Stoneheart parts…Actually, almost every character in Game of Thrones/ASOIF is such a spectacular asshat of a person that that series is pretty much even gender-wise in the asshole department…

  7. Agreed! Remarkable how females are conditioned to be “good little girls.” The first 2 books you have published in the Russell’s Attic series are amazing, and Cas Russell has been growing on me by leaps and bounds. Rio is as badass as it gets, but he is wildly popular. Would people love Rio as much if “he” were a “she” instead? Would people be surprised at that level of bad assery from a female?

    • Thank you for the kind words! And yeah, I HAVE wondered that about Rio. I’ll just have to write another character of that archetype in the future who isn’t male and see what happens. 😉

      • Is it a coincidence that I see male character named Rio and I think Jem and the Holograms?

        I might need to push your book higher up my reading list. Chuck’s blog makes my “buying finger ” go nuts, but once I own it the reading impulse goes down. I own almost all of Chuck ‘s books, have read only three.

  8. Agreed 🙂 When I wrote my novel, Otherworlders, I knew that one of my main characters was going to be a jerk. For most of the book she has one truth: she looks out for herself. For her, that means sleeping with a married man, leaving him for dead (not her fault that he died), stealing a car, punching another chick in the face, sassing cops, seducing soldiers, even going so far as to dupe her double (a woman who is essentially the herself, but brought up under different circumstances). She’s pretty tough and not always likable.

  9. I could not agree with this post more.

    I *adore* asshole protagonists and the Good Is Not Nice trope, and the few women who fit descriptions like the one in the trope chart above that I’ve encountered (who don’t get punished or “fixed” for being that way) tend to be my enduring favorites.

    I think my favorite protagonist of that sort is Kamala from CS Friedman’s Magister trilogy – I wouldn’t call her an asshole, precisely, but she’s… an umaliciously amoral antihero, and she gets to stay that way and it’s wonderful.

  10. Eve Dallas, from J D Robb’s In Death series. Totally messed up childhood, she’s a give no quarter detective. With a good heart, but don’t let anyone know!
    In real like I know and admire women like this. Some in politics, some in professional lives, and some just living their own lives the way they want to live.

  11. this post kind of gives me solace. because right now i am writing an asshole female MC who isn’t good at everything. she doesn’t know how to fight and would probably be the one everybody laughs at for trying to shoot with the safety on if she ever picked up a gun. she’s terribly inconsiderate and bad at listening or being a good friend. she’s closed-minded, is singularly focused on her goal, and can’t see why anyone might have a problem with that.
    and part of me wondered as i wrote the first few chapters: should i make her into a fighter, as well? but that just felt really inauthentic and convenient. like, trying to find the time when she supposedly learned to fight amidst learning her other skills seemed ludicrous. it didn’t seem likely and i couldn’t justify it.
    so it’s reassuring to see a post like this, basically saying it’s GOOD that she’s not a good/strong-in-everything character. i personally adore her and she has her redeeming qualities, but she’s an asshole. and i’m glad that’s ok.

  12. I love numbers. Hearmeout! Life. Is one big ratio, EVERYTHINGS A NUMBER. For instance, mine is 607-20-7-4-I-would- be-an-idiot-to-put-my-number-on-line. Wink. withya

  13. Great article, thanks, thanks and again thanks for writing it, S.L.!
    As a writer, the character I wrote the most about is the one I dislike the most. She’s an almost 90 years old WASP who still has the body of a 50-something lady; she’s selfrighteous, super snob, acid, judgemental, dismissive of anybody and everybody; she is closed minded, she’s prone to great mood swings and can get violent to the point of breaking a co-worker’s nose beacause of what she perceives as a sign of disrespect.
    Her co-protagonist regularly thinks of her as “the old hag”, and an old hag she is.
    Yet, she’s a lonely, hardened person who can’t let go of the past and will do all she needs to in order to defend what she considers hers, be it mere objects or people.
    I have a really conflicted relationship with her because even if I dislike her as a human being (and I’d keep away from a person like her, in real life), I like to write her. All in all, one of the reasons I like to write her is because she’s flawed and despicable; and I like to think that those who read her stories and liked them, liked old Eleanore just because of all her flaws. Because she was not a cookie cutter character, and even when she tried to be more likeable (and failed), she did it for very selfish purposes.

  14. That basically describes my MC. Most of the feedback I got in my critique circle was, “She’s way too harsh and full of herself.” And I’m all, “Yeah, that’s the point. It totally has consequences later, and other characters call her out on it, but yeah, she’s arrogant.” She’s a badass and she knows it and if that means her people skills kind of suck, well, that’s the price you pay for greatness, amirite?

  15. I have a story for a female Han Solo meets the Bandit that I’ve been trying to make happen for years, and she’s always pulling the long con.

    Problem is that it’s a comedy and I’ve spent many years pretending that you had to write drama to write badasses. So it’s taking more work.

  16. I have a question…is it possible that when a female gets the “asshole hero” characterization, people just write off the “hero” part and categorize her as an asshole? Because of this idea that women are supposed to be nice, likeable, and not bitchy, maybe people are more willing to write women who are assholes but not heroes or heroes but not assholes, but *not* women who are asshole heroes. Or even if the intent is that a woman is an asshole hero, she may be read as and reduced to just an asshole, because women aren’t supposed to be like that and still be likeable. Just a thought.

    I had this work in progress about some assassins, not because I was interested in the assassins, but because I wanted to write the kind of terrible person who would actually hire assassins. Ended up with a female protag who is bisexual. She’s kind of awful.

    • I completely agree with this. There is no such thing as a likable woman asshole. Women are not allowed to be assholes unless they are the antagonist.

      I wrote a 1st person POV novel and had it rejected because the heroine was unlikable. I tried to figure out what specifically made her unlikable (’cause, you know, I liked her). She was arrogant, ambitious, sexually confident and just a bit slutty. She didn’t suffer fools gladly. But she loved her sister and nephews ferociously, and when the chips were down, did the right thing. If she were a man, she’d be acceptable, but because she’s not “nice” and “good”, she’s unlikable.

  17. Yessss. All of this. I’ve just marathoned all the Russell’s Attic books (actually, why do we call nonstop watching/reading a marathon? It’s more of a sprint, since marathons don’t you, like, pause and take breaks?) and short stories and augh so good and I often love it when the main character is not the Best, Most Decent human in the room and sometimes needs other people to be her moral compass, so having that happen with Cas was great.

    That’s actually another reason I really enjoy both YA stuff and kids’ stuff—it seems to me that the women characters in those fictions tend to run a fuller gamut than more respectable novels, so to speak.

  18. […] S.L. Huang: On the Subject of Unlikeable Women Protagonists (Terrible Minds) – Be aware this article is pretty coarse and has some offensive language.  But it deals with how female protagonists are often not “allowed” to be as realistic as male protagonists; writers are overly worried about making them perfect so they can represent women well.  This writer calls for more realistically flawed female characters. […]

  19. My first female protagonist has turned out to be rather a whiny ass, perfect girl. And I’ll be happy to complete the trilogy.

    Now planning the next protagonist, and working as much out-of-the-box actions/reactions as I (being a whiny ass, goody-two-shoes) can. Note to self: practice being a bitch (at least in my head).


  20. Sara Paretsky’s protagonist, V.I. Warshawski, has been an often-unlikeable, unapologetic female private detective for twenty-plus years. I’m reading the series in order (personal quirk) and have gotten up to book 11, set in the immediate-post-911 years. Though some of her trappings have changed to reflect the social and political differences of a truly “modern” woman, her core has not. She’s argumentative, sexually independent, fond of good scotch, stubborn as a mule, and perfectly willing to lie or subvert the law when she thinks it necessary (i.e., at least once per novel). I don’t always like her, but I do like reading her. The books are written in the first-person, with all the immediacy that implies. Highly recommended as a character, with the caveat that the first few books in the series are quite dated and might have elements that are easier to take if approached as socio-historical artifacts.

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