I haven’t devoted a Friday Lounge post to an article I’ve read in a while, and today seemed like as good a day as any to do this. Once again, I’m using an article from my favorite online magazine, Slate.
The article is called “What’s So Bad About Likable Women?” It was written by Willa Paskin and posted on Friday, 01/10/2014.
If you’d like to read the article on your own, here is the link: http://www.slate.com/articles/double_x/doublex/2014/01/likeable_versus_unlikable_women_the_great_debate.html.
This particular article drew my attention because it’s something I’ve been noticing more and more in TV, movies, and literature. There are often “good guy” male characters, the type that come with some flaws (though nothing too noteworthy) … And then there are the female characters who we want to like but can’t because they’re too brash, too crazy, too cruel, too something.
I’m currently reading Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl (yeah, I know I’m late to the game on this one!), and Amy Dunne, one of the main characters, was specifically mentioned in this article. I’ll be writing a more in-depth review of my thoughts on the book once I’m finished, but she’s a character that I find really interesting. She starts off as incredibly likable. I was literally thinking, “Wow, I can really relate to a lot of the things she says, does, and thinks,” as I was reading. And then … She changes. She isn’t really this likable woman at all, but someone who wants to appear likable. I’ve read so many reviews (minus spoilers, of course) of the book in which people mention that they really didn’t like any of the characters. But here’s the thing … I still do kind of like Amy. (Granted, I still have about 80 or 90 pages left to read so I guess I could change my mind.)
I found it interesting that Willa Paskin points out at the end of this article that some people are actually drawn to unlikable characters. And there’s nothing wrong with that. In fact, I’m one of those people.
When I was a kid, I often seemed to like the bad guys. I wanted, just once, to see a kid’s TV show, movie, or book in which the bad guy (or girl!) won. Of course, in the world of “happily ever after,” that generally didn’t happen.
As an adult, I’m still not really a fan of “happily ever after” endings. That’s not real life (at least not most of the time). And while I don’t always need my entertainment to be super realistic, I like that the option is there. The good guy might not triumph over all.
The thing that bothers me about female characters in particular, though, is something Paskin also discusses in her article. On the one hand, you may have a likable female character. Unfortunately, she’s likable for all the wrong reasons. She’s either a poorly developed cardboard cutout of a “good” woman without any “real” flaws or, if the character actually has some depth, she’s perfect in every possible way. She may have had to work hard to get to that level of perfection, but dammit, she’s perfect! On the other hand, we have the blatantly awful female characters, the psychotic bitches, the smug know-it-alls, the brash women who will say and do whatever they like, no matter the cost. These characters are usually well developed, but unfortunately many audiences can’t connect with them. It’s as though a woman can only be one of two types: she can have no personality and be likable or have depth and be unlikable … There isn’t a lot in-between (at least not in much of what is produced these days).
As someone who loves to write, it’s definitely something to consider when creating female characters. Yes, there are some awesome female characters out there that are strong, intelligent, and likable (Katniss Everdeen is an example Paskin used that I have to agree with) … But too often writers want to make likable characters without having to think much about why they should be likable. Sure, she’s pretty, likes to have fun, and doesn’t have any real flaws to speak of (except that maybe she’s a disaster in the kitchen or some other easily overlooked issue) … But why should I, as a reader/viewer, like this woman?
Since I’m often a fan of the unlikable characters, I may not have to place too much emphasis on finding the balance in creating a likable female character with real depth in my own work. But still … I don’t want any audience I may have to dislike each and every character (female or male). The thing is, sometimes a character doesn’t have to be obviously likable for you to like them. You may like them because they do the things you know you could never do. You may like them because, even though they’re obviously mean, they always say exactly what they think no matter the consequence. Or you may even like them because you see a glimmer of yourself inside them, which may be both thrilling and terrifying. Whatever the case, I think that in general female characters just need to be more developed. Real women have depth. And real women want to read about and watch TV shows and movies about women with depth.
At least I do.