I read this post recently on unlikable female characters. The article discusses how the reader (or viewer) will generally forgive unpleasant traits in a male character while not being so kind to a female character who displays similar characteristics.
“…male protagonists, are expected to be flawed and complex, but reader expectations for women writers and their characters tend to be far more rigid. Women may stray, but only so far. If they go on deep, alcoholic benders, they’d best repent and sober up at the end. If they abandon their spouses and children, they’d best end tragically, or make good. Women must, above all, show kindness. Women may be strong—but they must also, importantly, be vulnerable. If they are not, readers are more likely to push back and label them unlikable.”
I recently had the opportunity of attending an interview with Paula Hawkins at the Auckland Readers Festival. One of the first questions asked on the subject of The Girl on the Train was about how unlikable the three female characters are, and especially Rachel and why did she (the author) write such unlikable characters.
I was pleased that Paula Hawkins didn’t agree (although she didn’t completely disagree) but said that Rachel was true to her character of a woman with problems, trying to overcome them and failing abysmally more often than not.
I initially bought the book simply because it had raised a lot of heated opinions as to whether it was brilliant or awful. Rachel is sad (more in the context of being a loser than unhappy, although she is also deeply unhappy with her life). The author captures well the voice of a woman who considers she has lost everything that’s important to her and who thinks she cannot change. Rachel is frustrating and not particularly likeable, but the author has created a character that inspires emotion in the reader, even if that emotion is dislike or irritation.
Ultimately, writers want to give the reader an emotional experience and we read for that experience. The emotion we’re looking for depends on the genre we select — perhaps fear, terror, other worldliness, a splash of romance in our lives, a mystery to solve or to laugh and forget how awful work was for a while.
This post interested me because a while ago I had a review of Still Death where the reviewer, while agreeing that the book was well-written and interesting, said they disliked Lexie and thought her too flawed to be likeable. They also said that while she changed and worked on her less than perfect traits, they didn’t think the change would last.
Lexie inspired emotion in the reader, and so to some extent I succeeded, though not quite in the way I’d like. I am in the early stages of developing the plot of another book for Lexie, and these comments have spurred me on so that I can show the changes Lexie made are permanent ones.