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.


  • Brilliant post. You’re right. It’s as if men are allowed to be jerks whereas women have to behave (or be termed a bitch). As soon as I started to read this post, I thought of John Constantine – complete jerk but ultimately, he saves the day. I’ve been watching the Constantine TV series and what started as a promising female character (who could have her jerk moments but cared) in Zed has been toned down to a follower role. Disappointing.

    • I immediately thought of Constantine too but because the bisexual antihero of the comics got turned into a straight guy in both the series and the movie.

    • I’ve started playing this game with myself, where I see a movie or something with a male lead, and then try to think of an example of that character/movie type with women. Paul Feig has been chipping away at that, but his movies are so often the sole mainstream example of a female-led version of the trope.

  • I am with you! I don’t see enough women in the books unless they are part of a stupid love triangle or need saving. I have made a deal with myself that all my lovely ladies will be bonafide badasses. Hell I have a dragon rider and a half wolven huntress.

    Also I think I shall pick up your book, I am due a love hate relationship with a character.

  • This is an amazing post!! Some of the male characters you’ve mentioned are among my favourites, but I really wish we could see more fictional women being allowed to behave in the same way. Women, even in fiction, are held up to much higher judgement and scrutiny than male characters.

    Some more awesome female characters to add to your list – Riley Jenson from Keri Arthur’s Guardian series, Gin Blanco from Jennifer Estep’s Elemental Assassin series, and Isobel Fisher from Simon R Green’s Hawk and Fisher books 🙂

  • I absolutely agree! I was thinking the same thing in 2013, so last year I wrote a book The Way of All Flesh – with not one, but two female leads Thumbs up on another fine post!

  • “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!”

    OMG, YES!

    (As a sidenote, this is a reflection of social expectations of women, and the extremely narrow slot of “acceptable femininity” which women are more-or-less forced to fit into.)

    I want asshole female protagonists, who can kick ass without being perfect. MOAR PLIZ!

    • (As a sidenote, this is a reflection of social expectations of women, and the extremely narrow slot of “acceptable femininity” which women are more-or-less forced to fit into.)

      Completely agreed!! (I actually had a few paragraphs about that in the initial rough draft of this post, but that draft was about a six hundred million words too long, so I had to cut stuff. But yeah, totally agree — there’s a dissertation that could be written on this stuff.)

    • I’m not sure that’s 100% the case, as I think you tend to see this with “nontraditional” leads (for lack of a better term). In addition to women – characters of color, gay or transsexual characters, etc. – I think it’s a powerful impulse to present them as positive role models, instead of as fallible human beings.

      • Yup. Agreed. I wish there were lots of good, awesome novels with such protagonists.

        Though, you know how it goes, just because there are (all?) minorities without proper, three-dimensional representation, doesn’t mean women in fiction have less of a representation problem.

        • Yeah, I agree — with both of you. There are BOOKS that could be written about the complexities with respect to representation in media, both specifically with regard to women and across the board. It’s complicated and messy, and I know I wasn’t able to fit everything I wanted into one blog post (and I’m sure there’s a lot more I haven’t even thought of!).

          I totally agree that there are similar problems with almost all underrepresented demographics. But I also think there are specific, nuanced ways this applies to depictions of women, and I think it’s useful to talk about those AND also to talk about the more general problem. 🙂

  • Here’s two books that have wonderfully crafted (yet flawed) female leads: Tears in Rain by Rosa Montero [http://www.amazon.com/Tears-Rain-Rosa-Montero-ebook/dp/B007TBXOMO] and Jennifer Government by Max Barry [http://www.amazon.com/Jennifer-Government-Max-Barry/dp/1400030927/]

  • So, The Hollow Series by Kim Harrison has two or three female heroes in it, but it also has about 5 male “heroes”. (and not perfect heroes. And two of three of the heroes were bad guys at one point in the series). I think most of them would probably fit in the “Unscrupulous Hero” category.

    But yeah, there do seem to be more male characters in most of the books I read. I’m assuming it has something to do with most of them having high levels of violence (you know sci-psi fantasy books)

    • Yeah, I’m mainly a SFF reader too, and the movies and TV I like are mostly action, which, a lot of the same biases. Interestingly, one of the friends who read over this post for me beforehand is a romance writer, and she started unpacking that genre for me in terms of what flaws are “allowed” and how heroines are expected to behave…..some similarities and some differences to SFF, it sounded like! I’m sure there’s a lot to unpack all over the culture.

      Also, will have to add Harrison to my reading list. Sounds great!

  • I do think there is a sense that, since there is such a dearth of strongly drawn female protagonists, all of them have to be strong and virtuous. I see this too with any sort of underrepresented type of person in fiction,too.

    • Totally agreed, Paul. It’s a very generalizable problem. And I think the intersection of it exacerbates why we get people saying they think it’s not just the male characters, but the white, male, straight, etc characters, who “just happen” to be the ones they find the most interesting. Yes, there’s probably some unconscious reader/writer bias in play at times as well, but it also makes sense to me that many of the characters who really are most interesting are the ones creators didn’t feel under pressure to make representative. 🙁

    • I just want to say that strongly drawn characters are not always STRONG characters. They can be weak, indecisive, vindictive, etc., but as long as they are vividly brought to life, it would be an improvement. Characters that are uniformly strong can be bland.

  • Agreed. Completely. Yes, this is what I’ve been discussing with my friends and family for years! – And actually, the whole time I was reading this post I was thinking, “this is exactly why I need to continue writing and work harder to get my work published; because, ALL of my protagonists are women who are both intelligent and snarky, violent yet tactical, sexual and confident in their sexuality; soft spoken, broken, a little cold yet emotional beyond words, etc.!”

    Course, I’m not saying I’m the “golden-child” for change in the literary world – I’m clearly not the only one who can create kick-ass ladies, nor am I the spear-head in that area – I’m just saying, I can (and will) damn well try.

    And thank you for the great read! I’ll have to order your books off Amazon. May I also suggest the duology: “Eon” and “Eona” by Allison Goodman? Excellent read, excellent female lead.

    • Hey, no need to be a golden child, just write them! We need more! No one writer can change the whole trend anyway, no matter how awesome — but enough of us together might be able to. 🙂

      Thanks for the kind words — and for the recs; my TBR list is very excited by the comments to this post.

    • Oh please, please get published. And come back here and tell us when you do so I can buy them. The more people who work on putting those kind of women forward, the better. And if you turn out to be the golden-child, so much the better 😉

  • Yes, yes, a thousand times yes. When I was around 10 years old, I saw a ridiculous movie on TV called ‘The Ice Pirates’. The lead at the time was one of those TV stars I liked a lot so I watched it despite its stupid dialogue and half-baked premise. What I took away from it was two things: piracy was still a thing in the modern day world and I wanted to write a story about a girl who had just as much fun kicking ass and taking names. I was struck by the idea that space opera was so often about the guy that gets the girl. I wanted it to be about a girl and her goals for a change.

    I still have the first few drafts of the horrible, cliched story I started writing. But I fell in love with the idea of a girl that made no apologies for who and what she was. I started thinking about that hard, and by the time my life took a difficult turn in my teen years, I was maturing enough to know that the goals I’d had before were immature and not worthy of the amazing women I grew up with in my matriarchal family. So I worked on it, and I changed and grew up, and my story and that girl grew up with me too.

    I’m happy to say I convinced a publisher to take that story on last year, and that unapologetic, violent, not particularly likable girl is out in the world, kicking ass and taking names. And I hope your post encourages more women to write about the wide world of women out there and not worry about who likes or doesn’t like them. In the end, we’re all human beings, and that’s the only story worth telling. The human one. Once they do that, they’ll always write great female characters. Better yet, they’ll tell stories worth telling.


      Oh, I thought you were trying to be pseudononymous and was about to beg you to email me the title, but then I realized your name is linked and you’re just being humble. 😉 I assume you mean this book, which looks amazing and I’ll leave here for everyone else: http://www.amazon.com/Lex-Talionis-R-S-Garcia/dp/1940076129

      (I’m so serious when I say that reading your comment I was like, “I’m going to tell this person this sounds awesome and they should rewrite it — oh, they DID — oh, it’s PUBLISHED?! Where can I buy it NOOOOOO oh wait name is linked WHERE IS BOOK!” Seriously, it looks awesome.)

      • LOL! I didn’t want to use Chuck’s site for promoting my book, so I left it off. It means the world to me that you were moved by what I said enough to look it up.

        I seriously am going to buy Half Life though. I wish I was a math genius. Sadly, I’m barely math competent lol. But a story about math as a superpower? I’ll take that with a side of awesome please.

        • You’re too kind! And don’t worry, you only need to know about as much math to read my books as you need to know science to enjoy science fiction. 🙂 (One of my friends always says, “S.L. thinks the books are about math, but they’re really not.” LOL)

  • I needed this, so thank you. On a current WIP I’ve started to worry that the main protagonist has gone too far down the rabbit hole to the point that people won’t like her for various reasons. This is a good reminder that, when I set out to write this story, that was kind of the point. The protagonist becoming a monster is kind of needed in a story about a person becoming a monster.

    Also, Seanan Macguire (is that how you spell that?) ran into this with one of her books and formed what I believe is called the Harry Dresden test. She had a reader who didnt like how “bitchy” a female character had suddenly become re-read the draft with that charater renamed Harry Dresden (and she’s changed to he.) The reader found that suddenly “bitchy” became assertive and a whole bunch of other negatives turned into traits we all love about Harry Dresden but seem unwilling to accept in female characters.

    • Oh, yeah, I remember that article by McGuire! That was a really good one.

      I do trust my betas to tell me if I’m going too far over the asshole line — they’re allowed to tell me I’m making my characters unsympathetic, but only because I really, really trust my betas, and they all love this type of character too. 😉 Some people *will* hate on female characters who are intense, just because they’re women, but, well, fuck ’em. Write your awesome protag — I can’t wait to see her out there in the world. And if the comments here are anything to go by, there’s definitely an audience who will appreciate her.

  • I struggle with this myself. I wrote a female POV character who was motivated by revenge, and was kind of a jerk to people. I thought she had good reason for being hard and cold, but was told that readers would stop reading or skip over her chapters because she was just so unlikable.

    No one has mentioned throwing the book across the room when my male protagonist is a selfish, back-stabbing prick, or questioned the fact that someone managed to fall in love with him, but the same is a huge turn-off in a woman.

    I actually agreed with the assessment that my character wasn’t working on some levels, and am making changes (even though beta readers had no problem with her). We get deeper into her mind and emotions now. It’s now more obvious why she’s a jerk, that this is her armor, and she’s more “accessible” in some ways now because her motivations are clearer. I don’t think I tried too hard to make her likeable, certainly not more than I would any male character. Where else do you go with that? I don’t want to make her Susie Pleasant-Pants just because people can’t handle a woman being a dick, and I kind of resent the fact that I’ve had to justify her bad attitude.

    I mean, darn it, the story does work a lot better now, but I do wonder: Why do we consider the broken, dark, hate-filled and revenge-fueled male a sympathetic character, but a female with the same traits is just a bitch and not worth reading about?

    I’m guilty of making the same judgements as a reader. I found it hard to think of Katniss Everdeen as a sympathetic character, even though she had every reason to be closed-off (and I hate to admit it, but I’d have been all “poor baby” over a hot male lead with the same characteristics). Talking about it and challenging these attitudes helps. Thanks for posting this.

    • I so get everything you’re saying here. I too had a broken, dark, revenge-fueled female protag and since the book came out, one or two people have indicated they find her too dark or emotionless to connect to. But the vast majority really, really felt for her. Connected with her. Understood her what drove her. In the end, even the people who told me they couldn’t recommend the book because of how dark it was, admitted they were glad they read it and that they understood why I wrote it the way I did. That’s all you really need. Is for people to understand. They don’t have to like a person to get them, or to be moved by their story.

      I too had my problems with Katniss, but not so much in the beginning. I just got frustrated by her sudden lack of agency when it came to making a decision about her love life. I understood it, I think it was consistent with a certain kind of person, but it’s hard to feel love for someone so ambivalent toward the man that loves them at the end. Still, I understood that ending and appreciated it. Katniss is who she is, and she doesn’t ask for you to like her. But you do anyway, on some level. I find that to be important and moving. So screw your readers telling you how to write your own story. You keep at making your girl more clear so people can understand her. Like will take care of itself.

  • Is there any protagonist hotter right now (especially in television) than the incredibly-talented-yet-total-jerkstore-guy? (And is anybody else getting as tired of the trope as I am?)

    Women can be jerks, too. Or rather, they should be allowed to be. I heartily approve this post (and, more importantly, will keep it in mind in future writing).

  • I’m with you 100% here, but I also think readers in general are harder on female protagonists. It’s harder to create a female protagonist with these characteristics (or one who is more sexually active for that matter) without the derogatory terms ‘bitch’ and ‘slut’ being bandied about.

    I love the idea of the “Harry Dresden” test. We could call it the Sherlock Holmes or Rodney McKay test for that matter: the characteristics that often get a free pass in an arrogant-but-extremely-competent man that get a woman with the same traits shot down.

    But you know what? We need to do it anyway. We need to write the female characters that buck the trend. That aren’t necessarily likeable. That don’t all have blonde hair and lavender-colored eyes, and can eat like a lumberjack without gaining an ounce, and never realize how beautiful they are. We need to write unlikeable heroines and make people like them anyway. Because only by representing the full range of female characters will we eventually start accepting women as having other roles than being perfect. And maybe if fictional women are allowed to be both awesome and realistically flawed, then real women have a chance, too.

    • I agree with you. I find that readers tend to really pounce on female protagonists who do bad things or even make mistakes. Either she’s a bitch or she’s “TSTL.” I would like to write more out-of-the-box female characters, but I fear it will lead to an onslaught of 1-star “hated the heroine” reviews. With male characters, I find I can get away with a lot more.

      One tactic I use to get around my own challenges in writing this sort of character is to draft a character as male and then, in the editing phase, change the character to female. I’ve done this many times for supporting characters–in fact, I just did this in a scene I wrote a few days ago. I find that readers are more willing to accept an “unlikeable” female character if she’s not the protagonist. I’ve had readers point to these supporting characters as their favorites, which is encouraging. Someday I’m going to have to try it with a protagonist.

      • I confess, Amy, fear of the one-star “I hated the heroine” review is partly what has held me back for so long in getting bolder with my own heroines. You can definitely get away with a lot more with male characters, but I’m starting to thing it’s because we’re more used to seeing them–they’ve been around for so long now. So, in my quest to create a heroine I don’t want to bitch-slap 20 pages into the story, I think I’m going to have to be bold before my heroine can do the same. 😉

        • Yeah. Worrying about reader perceptions that may be influenced by greater cultural sexism is a totally legit concern, and it’s complicated. Ultimately, I totally agree with this:

          We need to write unlikeable heroines and make people like them anyway.


          If it helps, I haven’t gotten any 1-star “hated the heroine” reviews on my books yet. I’m sure they’ll end up happening eventually, but there IS an audience, if you can ignore the haters — and I totally agree that the only way to change it is to do it.

          • January 29, 2015 at 3:04 PM //

            Awesome. Thanks for the encouragement. Now I need to get off my duff and write the bloody story. I’ve been sitting on it for years, working on other things because I was too afraid to give it a shot. Not just about reader reaction, but about getting it *wrong* too.

            But as I like to say, I have to get it on paper before I worry about editing it. 😉

  • Great post! I predominantly write and read romance, a genre that could tell stories about what makes women lovable despite their flaws . . . but rarely does. Writers change up appearances, names, backgrounds, but in the end, whether the female protagonist can take down vamps like Buffy or care for children like Mary Poppins, she generally has to have a “nice” personality. Female protagonists are rarely allowed to make stupid mistakes or be selfish. Acting without consideration of others makes her a bitch. Conversely, there’s the TSTL (too stupid to live) acronym that gets flung at any female character who makes poor choices. It sends the message that only women who are always smart, selfless, nurturing and kind are worthy of love. If any genre could use a shake-up regarding this issue, it’s romance.

    • Oh geez, wow. That’s really interesting.

      I’d love to read more on other genres and how it all overlaps / contrasts — I’m sure someone could write a PhD thesis on this stuff!

  • YES! I’ve felt that media still, deep down, believes that women are either “maidens, mothers, or crones.” And if they aren’t one of those three. they’re a whore that will die sometime in the show. I have tried to write anti-hero women for a long time, and ironically it was only when I wrote stories with female leads that I’ve been asked why I always write female leads (the few times I’ve wrote male leads, I’ve never been asked, “Why a man as the main character? Why not a woman?”). In fact, once I had a [thankfully ex-]boyfriend go as far as to comment that all my women characters were basically acting like men. Because apparently only men could be selfish assholes? In fact, for the longest time, I had the “in love, pregnant, or dead” theory, where if a woman in a movie/show did something truly badass and/or imperfect, that meant by the end of the story she would either be in love (and gives it all up for love), pregnant, or dead. Actually, this is still often the case.

    Also, one good example I have to point out of an imperfect female heroine is Tank Girl. She still is one of my favorite examples. 🙂

    • TANK GIRRRRRRL! Omg, I forgot about her. Awesomeness.

      In fact, for the longest time, I had the “in love, pregnant, or dead” theory, where if a woman in a movie/show did something truly badass and/or imperfect, that meant by the end of the story she would either be in love (and gives it all up for love), pregnant, or dead. Actually, this is still often the case.

      Oh my god. Wow. I’ve never thought about that but now I am and wow.

      And yeah, why is it always writing a woman that needs to be justified? The “male[/white/straight/cis/etc] as the default” thing is something I wish would die forever.

      • You know, I only ever saw the tank girl movie. But I really loved it, silly as it was. Wanted to be tank girl. And I made a pact with myself when I started writing my novel that my girl was never going to give up anything she wanted because she was in love. Not because it’s a bad thing to compromise for love, but because my girl just wasn’t that type and to make her do that would be a betrayal of all she was. So yeah. Death to the Default!

        • The Tank Girl Movie got a bad rap, but I thought it was amusing enough. However, the comic book series was the real magic. The things Tank Girl does! I highly recommend it. There’s a novel, too, but I haven’t read it yet.

  • Huh, I never thought about that before. I wonder if that’s why I love Annalise Keating and Sloan Sabbith so hard. I mean, I knew I loved them despite their flaws, but it never occurred to me that it might be partly due to a deficit of flawed but sympathetic female characters. Of course the queen in this area is and always will be (according to me, anyway), Scarlett O’Hara.

  • I am so with you!!! You may just made a new reader and fan, because I so want to read about your female antiheroine. Thanks for this article and the book!

  • S.L. has SUCH a good way with words, and I’m glad to see her appearing more often on some of my favourite blogs. This post is SO true.

  • I’m new here, but oh, I needed this today, thank you! I was thinking last night about why my latest longer-fiction protagonist was a man, and decided she needed a sex change, among other changes. I’ve always felt the weight of a judgmental world when writing women, which would surprise my friends, because I’m more like that kind of asshole you describe myself. Time to work on evening up those stats.

  • My tastes in protagonists have changed somewhat over the years. I still love the “loveable rogue” archetype to bits, but I find I’m utterly tired of the “sociopathic hero” (Don’t like the new Sherlock much, for example, even though I think Cumberbatch plays him flawlessly) and whenever I run across the jerkass heroes in stories I keep wondering why nobody calls them on their shit. The stories where they DO get called out on their shit are actually pretty fun, but one of the more common tropes in stories where the hero is an ass is “…and gets away with it all the time” and that just makes me headdesk.

    (What’s interesting is that once upon a time the jerkass protagonist was my second favorite character type of all time, because I saw the attitude as “YEAH, FIGHT THE POWER” — but not so much any more. I think it’s because I’ve run into too many people actually trying to fight the power who have obviously adopted the jerkass protagonist as their spiritual guide in real life.)

    Thinking about that, and ditching the archetypes I don’t care for (because basically while I agree they should get better representation across genders I’ll probably never read them) I realized that I couldn’t think of ONE book with a “Loveable Rogue” female protagonist. And in the chart above there is only one that S.L. could think of.

    So… can anyone point me toward any? Because I’d love to read them. Loveable Rogue protagonists are basically a surefire way to get me to read anything.

    • Yup, I have a similar complicated relationship with jerkass protagonists myself. I love ’em still….but. But. And I completely agree that part of the reason the shine has come off is having met too many people who for some reason think those characters are appropriate role models, instead of fun characters to read about. (Sigh.)

      In the end, I still love them, I just end up wanting better ones, who aren’t all white and male and get called out on their shit. 😉 But I definitely feel you here (and I would also be interested in more Loveable Rogue recs!).

  • In my latest novel, the protag and her foil are both women. I’ll admit that the foil is the asshole, but she was an absolute blast to write. I am thinking of making her the protag in the next novel. We definitely need more. Great post!

  • It comes down to letting characters be people–full people. Not all good, all bad, all sweet, all sour, all anything, but a mix of it all like people are.

  • Pft, women belong in two places, the bedroom and the kitchen. Sometimes the kitchen is the bedroom if y’know what I’m sayin’.

    OBVIOUS sarcasm aside, deeply flawed women are my go-to for short stories and novellas. My current WIP novel’s main character is not quite the ass-kicking jerkface but she is very angry and caustic with most of the cast.

  • Right on. I had a few characters come to mind right away. Just let everyone be human. How great would that be!

    Raymond A. Feist and Janny Wurts Empire Trilogy – Mara of the Acoma
    Ripley – Aliens etc.
    Sarah Conner – Terminator 2
    Meryl Streep character in Out of Africa

  • Loved reading this, definitely a great discussion!
    In RL women are *very* competitive with each other… have you noticed? 🙂 This carries over to their judgements about female protags, I think. If your books are mostly bought and read by women (isn’t everyone’s?) you can expect your readers to be harsh in skewering flawed characters, I think. But don’t write for everyone, write for that one reader who wants what your character wants and needs, whatever it is. I love a kickass heroine. May have to try to write a kick-ass-hole one! Thanks for the ideas…

  • The lead character in my Tracking Jane series is certainly making no efforts to be likeable. The key to evoke reader sympathy, IMO, comes through showing how her life circumstances and struggles have led her to that attitude, rather than presenting her as a jerk and telling the reader to deal with it.

  • Thank you for this. In my current WIP, a romance, the heroine cheats on her fiance with the hero. I was somewhat plagued by fear that this will alienate readers but eff it. It’s what the story is, who she is, and there are consequences. That’s life!

  • Hey Kate, I hear you! I was told too that my feminist, independent, beautiful, murderer (because she had to) protagonist was “unlikable” too! That comment came from a very strong female POV. Well guess what? It’s a compliment because I am in the process of changing the world one book at a time!

  • Thank you – your piece today reminds me why Im writing. You see, Im actually a Timber Cruiser, and I have been working in forestry for decades. Its a very mentally & physically demanding career, and you have to be prepared for anything when you are off trail and miles away from the truck i.e. animals, weather, fire, meth labs, suicides, falling trees etc. Its somewhat of a “man’s game”, so I have had to adjust over the years. And working in law enforcement prior really did help with that. Now, having spending enough time in the woods – “I hear muses in the woods!”- those college courses that had nothing to do with my major are being finally put to use…well, except for the English prof who had us study/listen to Joni Mitchell songs…for six weeks straight. Still to this day I unconsciously cringe when i hear her music overhead at a store. Anyhow-

    I have created a female protagonist who works in Forestry. Basically an Outdoor mysteries series – Not only is she a Forester, but shes able to say and do some things Ive wanted to for a long time, and then some *big grin* . Thank you for the encouragement to bring her to life 🙂

  • ***THANK YOU*** for including Dean Winchester. Jensen plays such an uncaring asshole who will go to Hell to rescue you and then be like “Whatever, fuck off, you dick.” perfectly.

  • I love you for mentioning Olivia Pope. I’m a black woman, and I understand why a lot of other black women are uncomfortable with how she’s portrayed, especially in her personal life. It seems like she reenforces a lot of negative stereotypes about black women’s sexuality. I get it.

    Me, I love her to death (as much as I want to shake her sometimes), because she steps out of the ‘extremely saintly black woman’ trope. If you go according to the media, we’re not allowed to have any flaws whatsoever. And that’s dehumanizing because it’s unrealistic. Every human has flaws. Another of my favorite TV characters is Lemond Bishop from The Good Wife. He’s the ruthless drug dealer (though no one can actually *prove* anything) who is a very loving and attentive father. He’s extremely well written and well acted.

    In literature and real life, when minorities are represented (ie: anyone other than the straight white male), there tends to be a heavy handed portrayal of their goodness and virtue. As if their worthiness to have their stories told are tied up in how ‘good’ they are. Meanwhile, we’re constantly flooded with stories of the morally corrupt SWM. And we cheer them on. I don’t have a problem with that (because I love many of the characters that you’ve mentioned) but it needs to be balanced across the board.

    • Yeah, Paul Weimer was mentioning up thread how this extends to all underrepresented demographics, and I agree with both of you. I suspect it’s particularly hard on intersectionality. And god, yes, I love Olivia. Brilliant and powerful and can run rings around anyone in Washington. (Did you read that the real-life person she’s based on is also a black woman? I’m so, so grateful they didn’t whitewash/malewash her. It sounds like a terrible thing to say, that I’m grateful for that, but how many times does this happen, where Hollywood can’t stand that there are brilliant and powerful people in real life who aren’t straight white men? Extraordinary Measures, Argo, Enigma, 21….)

      Anyway, yes, I totally agree with you — these things can be complicated, but ultimately, we need more well-drawn, well-acted, well-written characters in general.

  • I once proposed a character such as the one you are yearning for. I got eaten alive by my female friends just for proposing such a thing. I never did write her

  • Thanks to Adam Troy-Castro you’re new SF female asshole protag, Counselor Andrea Court, has sitting sitting on the shelf for more than six years now.

    Branded a war criminal as child for purely politically reasons, she now solves awkward crimes that humanity’s Diplomatic Corp wish would go away. She hates the government, despises her species and loathes herself.

    Then there’s the one case that takes it all too far. She’s ordered to find a human scapegoat so no entity in the mysterious AI species can be accused of murder. She may hate her own, but she hates murderers even more.


    Besides, Castro has been nominated for about the Hugos and Nebs almost every time he writes, but he hasn’t one either one yet. It’s a shame that he’s not better known among the community. You owe to yourself to check him out if you like the asshole female hero. Besides, you’ll be helping a great guy.

  • I agree but you forgot to mention Laurel Hamilton’s Anita Blake. She’s really fucked up. I have a love/hate relationship with her. Sometimes she just makes me cringe.

    • Ha, yeah, I’ve heard people say that! I thought of her but I was reluctant to mention her because I haven’t read the books myself — vampires aren’t as much my bag. 😉

  • Absolutely! Women are not all one-size-fits-all; I can understand where a lot of writers who are unsure of how they want to portray their female protagonists are coming from, though. I’ve always strived for interesting women–and usually my protagonists tend to be female–whether they are weak or strong or wholesome or damaged or sarcastic or hurt. Or, yes, assholes. Because having a gamut of female protagonists is what’ll make female representation in literature more well-rounded.

    • 100 percent agreed. And yeah, there is the outside pressure — it’s all a complicated thing, isn’t it? But I agree, more women of more types is the only way forward.

  • Loved the post. I’m working on a female protagonist, drunk psychic, who can’t connect with people on a basic level. She can stop world ending deities, but can’t talk to her mother without a curse word or two. Her moral compass doesn’t point north either as she uses her skills to punish those who have done the pettiest of things to her such as none payment, and at the same time works jobs no one hired her to do. She drinks, she cusses, she gets into drunken bar brawls and wins using stools and beer bottles and it’s that ruthlessness that stops the end of the world. Good doesn’t mean nice describes my character. I would love to see more articles on the strong, but not morally sound female protagonist.

  • I think Joe Abercrombie does this type of character very well. His female protagonists in Best Served Cold and Red Country are every bit as messed up, complex and dangerous as the main characters of his male lead books. Monza Murcato, Best Served Cold’s main PoV character I even rate among my favourite characters ever. And that woman has some serious issues.

  • Rachel Bach’s Paradox series has a deeply-flawed, kickass protagonist, Devi Morris.

    (the books have a bit of romance in them, which you can skip over — as I do — if that’s not your thing.)

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