Book Discussion: Intentionally Unlikeable Female Protagonists

If there’s one thing I love, it’s an unlikeable character. Bonus points if that character is a girl/woman. There’s something so refreshing and freeing about seeing fictional women get to just be kind of sucky people.

But there’s a balancing act to getting it right, especially when writing an unlikeable female protagonist is your goal. There are two kinds of unlikeable characters: characters that are unlikeable and you like them because of that and characters that are unlikeable and therefore you don’t like them. When said character is the protagonist, you generally want them to be the former. This, as I said, requires balance.

I’ve noticed a trend recently in books where the author intentionally creates an unlikeable female protagonist (and, in this case, I’m using the term female because I’ve mainly come across this with cis characters), but the character isn’t unlikeable in a fun way. They just plain suck.

The most recent example of this I’ve come across is Emanuela Ragno from Beyond the Ruby Veil by Mara Fitzgerald.

In Fitzgerald’s author bio, it specifically states she writes unlikeable girls. In fact, it’s part of what drew me to the book. Unfortunately, Fitzgerald failed in execution.

Emanuela is basically the classic mean girl archetype. She believes she’s better than everyone else, her ambition knows no bounds, and she’s unnecessarily cruel. She frequently humiliates her so-called rivals and bullies her supposed best friend, Ale. Seriously, there is not one single interaction the two have where Emanuela isn’t treating him like a doormat.

Moreover, Emanuela is thoughtless and impulsive. She murders someone (accidentally, but still) and barely gives it a second thought. Her inner monologue is all about how amazing and beautiful and clever she is, though I never saw any evidence of this. She’s vain and bitchy. All in all, a poor excuse for a hero.

“But Ren,” I hear you thinking. “She’s supposed to be unlikeable. Of course she’s all those things!” And you’re right… except that’s all she is. There’s no substance to her. In trying to make Emanuela unlikeable, Fitzgerald forgot to give her any depth.

Let me, for a moment, take you away from Beyond the Ruby Veil to talk about another book: The Young Elites by Marie Lu.

The protagonist of this series, Adelina Amouteru, is literally the villain of the story. She’s ambitious and vengeful and merciless. She murders without regret. She drives people away, believing you’re either with her or against her.

And yet, she’s also desperate for love and acceptance. She wants to be valued for all she is, not in spite of her flaws. She can be selfish, but she can also be selfless. She can be deceptive, but she can also be unflinchingly honest. Adelina is a complex character, sometimes frustrating but always fun to follow.

What is the difference between Emanuela and Adelina? Fitzgerald set out to write an unlikeable female protagonist; Lu set out to write a well-rounded one. Fitzgerald narrowed her focus; Lu explored every facet of her character. If all your character is just unlikeable, you’ve written a weak character indeed.

I was inspired to write this post because Emanuela reminded me of another unlikeable female protagonist I’d read recently: Alessandra Stathos from The Shadows Between Us by Tricia Levenseller.

Both protagonists were going to be examples of how not to write an unlikeable character. And yet, Alessandra has much more depth than Emanuela. So why was Emanuela reminding me so much of Alessandra?

And then it hit me— both Fitzgerald and Levenseller commit the cardinal sin of writing: telling and not showing. Now, Levenseller is a bit better about this than Fitzgerald. As much as Alessandra tells us about how cunning and ambitious she is, she does back it up with her actions. Emanuela, however, is all talk and no walk. Where is the proof that she is a bad bitch and not just a bitch?

Look, there’s a reason the number one writing tip is “show don’t tell.” Showing the reader who your character is lends credence to who you say they are. If the only thing you show you’re unlikeable character doing is being mean, then the reader will not believe said character is anything more than that.

So what’s the conclusion to all this? It’s okay and even wonderful to write female characters who are unlikeable. Just remember to make them feel real too. It’s not just character development that matters but creating a character who feels like they have an off-page life. What else are these girls aside from their negative traits? If you as the writer don’t know, then your readers certainly don’t.

There’s a real “girl power” air to characters like Emanuela. The very fact that she’s a woman who’s unlikeable is supposed to be badass in and of itself. But a character being demanding and loud in personality doesn’t make her a strong female character. Being well-developed does that. And I’d rather have a well-written female protagonist than one who’s unlikeable just for the sake of being unlikeable.

What do you think of intentionally unlikeable female protagonists? Have you noticed what I have or do you have a different take? How come all these characters— Emanuela, Adelina, and Alessandra— have similar names? Is it just a coincidence? Yes. Do you have a favorite unlikeable female character? Let’s discuss in the comments!

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