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"Complex" Does Not Equal "Unlikeable" April 21, 2019

A while ago someone asked in a writing forum I visit occasionally, "What would you like to see more of in romance novels?" In reply I repeated, in summary, what I wrote here last January: I want to see more complex female characters. I'm tired of the same old gorgeous, angelic virgins with mile-long legs and no flaws other than "adorkable" clumsiness and low self-esteem.

I didn't imagine this would be a controversial opinion. Every writer would prefer interesting characters over boring archetypes, right?

Apparently not.

The problem with complex female characters is that they're too risky. Readers won't care about them enough to keep reading about them.

A heroine has to be beautiful to make it believable that the hero would be interested in her.

She has to be nice and generous so readers will root for her, and not just be jealous of her.

She has to be clumsy or insecure or something to give her dimension, but not so much that she's unlikeable.

My first reaction to this reply was disbelief. I couldn't believe that a fellow writer in the twenty-first century would say, in perfect seriousness, that a woman must be physically attractive or no man could possibly love her, and she must be super duper nice or other women will be "jealous" of her, and her personality must be as bland as a plain piece of Wonderbread or she'll be "unlikeable." That's the sort of attitude parodied on The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, not an attitude I was aware still existed in real life!

Once my brain reluctantly accepted the fact that the comment was real, I responded like this.

The assertion that a heroine must be a perfect model of lovely, inoffensive, childlike femininity to be "likeable" bothers me most of all, because nobody could make the same argument about male characters.

Mr. Rochester is the opposite of handsome. Does that mean it's unbelievable when Jane Eyre falls for him?

Sherlock Holmes is a Grade A Jerk without a generous bone in his body. Does that mean readers don't root for him?

Have you ever read a novel featuring a male protagonist whose biggest flaw is that he regularly trips over his own two feet and falls into the arms of beautiful women?

I can't dispute that protagonists must be likeable, or most people won't want to read about them. However, that Victorian definition of what makes a woman "likeable" is insulting. That commenter is basically arguing that likeable female characters are pretty dolls, not human beings.

Not only is the assertion insulting, it's factually incorrect. Readers love complex heroines, when they encounter them.

  • Betsy Taylor, heroine of the comedic Undead series by MaryJanice Davidson, is arrogant, flippant, and unapologetically superficial. The popular series has 14 titles to date.
  • Hermione Granger is a bossy know-it-all and a self-righteous tattle-tale. Her name regularly tops lists of "best female protagonists of all time" on the Internet.
  • Scarlet O'Hara is vain, spoiled, and manipulative. More than eighty years after the first publication of Gone with the Wind, the classic novel still enjoys strong sales today.

The list above contains only three bullet points because I couldn't come up with many more. When I think back on all of the stories I've read recently, not a single heroine makes the list.

In the last published novel I read, a contemporary romance that frankly should have been filed under pornography, the heroine was a buttoned-up workaholic in Silicon Valley who preferred math equations to her parents' country club parties. Though she believed she could never experience a romantic relationship because she wasn't "normal" like her confident cougar rivals, the escort she hired fell desperately in love with her luscious bottom and innocent charm because she's "not like the other girls."

In the one before that, a historical mystery, the heroine was an old-fashioned small-town girl in the Big Apple who preferred books over dinner parties. Though she believed she could never get married because she wasn't pretty like the glamorous models in her dorm, the cute chef at the jazz club fell desperately in love with her alluring eyes and innocent charm because she's "not like the other girls."

And in the Wattpad novel I finished before that, a contemporary teen drama, the heroine was a nerdy high-school senior who preferred studying over beach parties. Though she believed she could never get a boyfriend because she wasn't sexy like her scantily clad BFFs, the hot playboy next door fell desperately in love with her mile-long legs and innocent charm because she's "not like the other girls."

If I think far, far back, I can add Rachel from Girl on the Train, Amelia from The Black Hour, and Naledi from A Princess in Theory to the list of complex heroines. That's all. Every other heroine was a variation of a sweet, pretty doll whose shy modesty sends hunky men into mad frenzies of lust.

Readers want wish fulfillment. I get it. I too enjoy my escapist K-dramas with the same "good girl"/"cool guy" dynamic. But I also expect more from writers today. I expect heroines to be flawed people who grow and learn through the events of the plot.

If a heroine learns anything at all in most books, it's how to value herself and all her great qualities. This is a fine moral, but it seems to be the only moral you see in every novel aimed at women and girls.

Why? Do writers and publishers believe female readers can't handle any lesson more substantial than, "Believe in yourself, because you're perfect just the way you are"? That women only like pink, glittery, sugar-sweet Cinderella stories, and they'll throw tantrums if a book makes them think?

As shown by Scarlet O'Hara, this is not the case.


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