I didn’t want to tack my comments onto this post because it’s a thing of beauty all on its own and I totally agree, but I have a lot of thoughts on this and despite the fact that I’ve barely had coffee, I’m going to try and tackle them.
I haven’t read The Impossible Knife of Memory yet, but I did recently read Wintergirls by the same author, which is about a girl who suffers from a serious eating disorder. She’s been in and out of treatment and still lies to her family and friends about how much she’s eating, how much she weighs, how cured she is, while she gets up at 2 am to climb a hundred stories on a stairmaster and is constantly tallying calories in her head.
It’s such an accurate depiction of the thought process of someone in the midst of a disease like that. I don’t know if the protagonist is called unlikable by readers, but I can see why she would be: It’s easy to see someone in the midst of a disease like anorexia as selfish and deceitful, needlessly hurting themselves and making people’s lives around them miserable.
Obviously, this is because their motivations are mental illness and don’t make sense. She’s sick. Starving yourself to death is not a logical, pragmatic thing to do, but when you’re there, your brain is telling you that is it the only course of action.
It’s easy to go, “Ugh, she’s lying, she’s selfish, she doesn’t care… too unlikable for me.” But stories like these are so important, both for the people who have lived them and the people who can’t understand what it’s like to live them until they can get a glimpse into a character’s head like this.
1.) In this case, the point of the story is that she’s sick and trapped inside her mind, which is telling her wrong things. The point is that this is bad place to be stuck. It is a girl’s struggle against herself.
2.) Even if a character is selfish and deceitful, it doesn’t mean they don’t deserve happiness or are terrible people or shouldn’t have friends or love, and it certainly doesn’t mean their story isn’t worth telling. Substitute those two traits for any other two on your Unlikable Female Character Bingo Card (whiny, emotional, too proactive, not proactive enough, impulsive, stubborn, smart, not book smart) and the sentiment remains the same.
3.) Often these traits or wrong ideas are what the story is about or how the story happens.
3a.) Sometimes the wrong ideas the characters cling to are the whole point (which goes back to point 1). The story is about how those ideas are wrong. Like the protagonist in Looking for Alaska by John Green who wants Alaska—the girl—to be his salvation and adventure, are wrong and that is the point. It’s a deconstruction of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl myth. Ironically, in this case, I don’t see Miles/Pudge (the male MC) being called unlikable. The book is criticized for many reasons, and John Green is criticized for “promoting” this MPDG myth, but our starry-eyed dreamy male protagonist is not. Weird, huh? (Sorry, John Green, I love you and I’m not trying to pick on you. It’s just a good example.)
3b.) Sometimes the story can’t move forward without characters making stupid decisions. The key to determining if those stupid decisions work for you, as a reader, lies in asking yourself is the decisions feel true to the characters and situation up to that point. Not whether the characters making them identify as female. A male character can fling himself in front of a bullet, dive off a cliff, and stop at nothing to get what he wants/believes he has to do/win the quest/etc. But a girl who does the same things is restless, selfish, impatient, stupid, impulsive, deserves any repercussions she gets, etc.
Honestly, characters have to screw up and believe wrong things or all novels would be about people sitting in a room complimenting each other and figuring out World Peace and eating sustainable kale*. And while that’s all well and good, it would get old after a while.
I did a panel on Strong Female Characters in YA at Geek Girl Con last year, in the midst of the “no, no, no, no stop with this STRONG thing” outcry. It was a smart outcry and it had a very good point! But I think the problem is people conflate the idea of strong female characters with only one type of strength and that is incorrect. When I say “Strong” female characters I mean written so they’re real. So maybe that’s not the right term.
So I think the outcry should be, as people rightly pointed out, for “realistic but varied” female characters. More females who are good, bad, big, small, differently-abled, female characters of color, female characters of all sexualities and gender identities. More of everyone. Let’s see everyone on the page, and everyone on the screen. But we also want different personalities and situations. I love seeing female characters who cry, who feel deeply, who don’t let themselves feel, who never cry, who mouth-off, who would never mouth-off, who would burn down the world to get what they want or who would find it in the library or in another way. All the facets of human existence. Because women are all of those things.
If we try to limit female characters into a narrow scope of likability—which isn’t possible anyway, because the “unlikable” traits contradict each other and cover basically anyone who doesn’t stand in the corner like a Sexy Lamp—we all lose.
Meanwhile, we don’t just let male characters do all of the things that make female “unlikable,” we celebrate and applaud them for it.
So when you’re reading and you start to go “Ugh this girl is so whiny/bratty/selfish/self-concious/bitchy/confident/bossy/impulsive/idiotic/romantic/unfeeling/cold/dark/too happy/cheerful/loud/controlling/egotistical/powerful/etc.” Maybe take a minute to examine if that’s really making her unlikable, or just making her flawed or human or reacting in a way that makes sense for her, even if it wouldn’t for you.
Or at least, ‘Why do I have this gut reaction?’ And ‘Would I feel this way if this character was male or male-identifying?’
You don’t have to change your mind, obviously, or even keep reading. But it’s just a good thing to consider.
*If that is your definition of good. Which is totally subjective and brings things back to the first point, that good is not a specific thing and can be embodied in dozens of different ways.
Wow! I didn’t say to myself “I will wake up tomorrow and write an essay before I go to work” but there you go.