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Loving the Unlikeable Heroine

In a genre full of nice, nurturing, morally upright, and unflinchingly kind heroines, I find myself drawn more and more to the somewhat unlikeable heroine. Not the "bad girl," per se, nor the hopelessly complicated and in need of rescue woman, but the female protagonist with an edge to her, the woman whose traits women in real life often find themselves trying not to be identified with or emulate.

You know the heroine I'm talking about: the women like Nora Roberts's Eve Dallas, who is famously intolerant of other people and terrified that someday people will stop calling her a bitch, or like Jane Morgan from Victoria Dahl's Lead Me On, a woman willing to use a kind, loyal man who doesn't fit her stereotypical mate and then ruthlessly cast him to the side.

Jane and I were recently talking about Alexia Tarabotti from Gail Carriger's Soulless, and we were both struck by how much we liked Alexia despite the fact that she has a propensity toward unlikeability: she's quite the snob, she's impatient and often overtly rude, and you're never sure if she's going to bash the besotted Connall Maccon over the head with her parasol or kiss him passionately. She’s even condescending to her best friend on a pretty regular basis. I realize that The Parasol Protectorate series is not properly Romance, but it does have a strong romantic storyline that I believe is applicable here, as well.

These are women who have the ability to exhibit kindness, generosity, gentleness, and love, but for whom those qualities are not always first in play. They are not necessarily the women who represent traditional male roles or qualities, either. Cybelline Caldwell, from Jo Goodman's One Forbidden Evening, is a proper widow who anonymously seduces a stranger at a party, only to reject and then resist his honorable intentions once he finds out who she is. She just doesn't seem to want the love that so clearly grows in Ferrin's heart for her, and every act of kindness burns her like a brand. Intense anger over her first husband's suicide animates her character like an aura.

So what is it? Are these simply the anti-heroines of the genre, the female equivalents of the Sebasian Verlaines and Sheridan Drakes?

It's not that I don't love the likeable heroines, too. I think, for example, of two of my favorite Kinsale heroines, Tess from Laura Kinsale's The Hidden Heart and Melanthe from For My Lady's Heart. On the surface, at least, Tess is kind and nurturing, while Melanthe appears cold and domineering. Both exude strength of character and vulnerability, but where Tess is softer and more open with her emotional attachments, Melanthe seems closed and defensive. Even at the end of For My Lady's Heart, after her safety has been secured and Ruck has proven his love, Melanthe is still pretty unyielding, fighting against him in bed, struggling to maintain a large share of the power in their relationship. Does that make her more or less “heroic” than Tess?

In a genre that idealizes its protagonists with the shorthand of "hero" and "heroine," where is the idealization in these heroines who are not always so likeable? Are they an aberration? Is the idealization in the love relationship itself?

Often it seems these women are paired with kinder heroes. Roarke, for example, takes care of Eve at an incredibly high level of maintenance as husband/personal shopper/nurse/nutritionist/masseuse. He dotes on her, anticipates her every need, and keeps her stocked in adequate chocolate and coffee. Ruck is pretty much the epitome of "honor" in keeping both his vows to his late wife and to his "lady" Melanthe. So is it merely a matter of maintaining a balance in the relationship, or are these less than perfect heroines intended to showcase a more heroic hero – to idealize the hero and his forever love for the heroine?

For some readers, these heroines may be more akin to the keepers of the irredeemable character trait, but I often like them immensely. I often find their heroism in the lack of compromise to their characters, their lack of subservience to the traditional fairy tale model of Cinderella, the ultimate "cinder girl," who humbly accepts social ostracism and the abusive attentions of the "wicked stepmother" (aka the Bad Mother). And it’s not just that I want to see these heroines “rewarded” with love. In fact, I appreciate that the genre can celebrate these women without changing them overmuch, even as I wonder sometimes if I am in the minority for liking them so much.

So tell me: what do you find heroic in the genre's heroines? What kind of heroine do you like most and where is your line of unlikeability in heroines?

isn't sure if she's an average Romance reader, or even an average reader, but a reader she is, enjoying everything from literary fiction to philosophy to history to poetry. Historical Romance was her first love within the genre, but she's fickle and easily seduced by the promise of a good read. She approaches every book with the same hope: that she will be filled from the inside out with something awesome that she didnʼt know, didnʼt think about, or didnʼt feel until that moment. And she's always looking for the next mind-blowing read, so feel free to share any suggestions!

57 Comments

  1. Edie
    Mar 16, 2010 @ 04:50:33

    My favourite heroines in romance are the majority of Shelly Laurenstons leads.
    I am not sure what this says about me, as half of them are borderline psychotic. But they just so gung ho about life, often slightly illegal, quick to kick butt and never take shit from their heroes. I also love the friendship groups SL presents amongst the women in her books.
    I find I have little patience for the heroines who are just so good, always do and say the right thing and see only in shades of black and white.

  2. Bronte
    Mar 16, 2010 @ 05:12:37

    Its a really fine line and some authors pull it off and some authors don’t. My favourite bad girl (who is not acutally in a book) is Starbuck from Battlestar Galactica. She’s not always easy to like but I appreciate her.
    I love Mercy Thompson (from Patricia Briggs), I love Eve Dallas, and yet I’ve started to read other “kickbutt” heroine books and ended up throwing said books against the wall. I think what I like about the books mentioned previously is that although the heroine is prickly she never walks all over the hero. He may be slightly more caring but the two are equal. The same with a soft, caring heroine. She must be equal to the hero.

  3. Cara McKenna
    Mar 16, 2010 @ 06:03:38

    Sing it, sister! Nothing sends me to sleep quicker than an unobjectionable heroine. Or, a heroine whose worst fault is her untameable hair. My own protagonists trend toward the unlikeable, so I guess maybe I should wait and find out how poorly they pay my bills before I get too cocky. If I go hungry I may revise my opinion about good-girl heroines.

    An unlikable heroine who came to mind for me when I read this post was Lee, the POV character from Curtis Sittenfeld’s Prep (also not a romance). She actually swings a little too far to the extreme on the unlikability spectrum, and finished the book almost too sad-sackish for me and lost a lot of my sympathy. It’s a tricky balance. Still, I couldn’t tear my eyes off the world filtered through her head. So much more interesting than a Pollyanna.

  4. DS
    Mar 16, 2010 @ 06:26:48

    Most of my favorite nontraditional heroines are not in romance. Carol O’Connell’s Mallory series where the main character is essentially a sociopath raised by a police detective after he finds her living on the street as a child. That is up to nine volumes.

    Morgaine from C. J. Cherryh’s Gates of Ivrel series who the reader sees mainly through the eyes of her reluctant companion Nhi Vanye i Chya. Driven by a purpose larger than her own personal wants, she is not honorable where honor conflicts with duty.

    I could name a bunch more, but just thinking about the overview of this particular set of characters I enjoy reading about, they usually have some over riding obligation or quest.

    From romance, the main character in Deana James Hot December comes to mind. The book opens with her father’s murder and she comes back from the big city determined to save the farm– except it’s a huge cotton farm and in the face of the combined disapproval and even active malice of the community and members of her own family, she enlists the aid of another outcast to provide the skill set she lacks. But it’s her own expertise at business that solves the mystery and gains the information that allows them to triumph over both disapproval and malice.

    While it was published in the 1980’s and has some of the non-consensual sex issues that plague many books of that era, I think James handled it very well.

  5. Mireya
    Mar 16, 2010 @ 07:45:56

    To me, the best heroines are those that I can actually relate to. What works for me? In historicals the wallflower type who has a lot of depth but few see past the quietness or shyness, and hence, is often underestimated. (i.e. Penelope in “Romancing Mr. Bridgerton” or Evie in “The Devil in Winter”). I “suffered” from wallflower syndrome in middle school and HS, and even through college. People were often surprised when they actually bothered to get closer and realized I had (a) brains and (b) some spine. LOL

    In contemporaries (I don’t read a lot of these) it has to be a strong female that is not the equivalent of a ball buster. I HATE with a passion heroines that come across as ball busters in any genre. Sadly, most “unlikeable” heroines I’ve encountered in contemps have sounded like that, and that along with a couple other peeves of mine, keeps me mostly away from contemporary romance. This applies to heroines in paranormals too.

    In paranormals, my favorite types of heroines are definitely not the kick-ass sorts. I like the mostly normal types or if they are kick-ass, at least they are not so much so that they end up sounding like they had a testosterone shot of some sort. There are to many around these days so I am careful whenever I get a new paranormal to read. A kick-ass heroine I’ve liked recently, Nalini Singh’s Elena in “Angel’s Blood”. Why? Because the author did a fantastic job in the characterization, we know of Elena’s fears off the bat, the way she is fascinated about angels and archangels, that endears Elena to the reader quickly, and she doesn’t come across as a ball buster or a wimp, she’s just a strong woman with an odd profession ;) Surprisingly enough, Christine Feehan’s Jax of “Dark Guardian” is another example. I say surprisingly because Christine Feehan is a “hit or miss” type of author for me, though I’ve read most of her Dark series. Oh and I HAVE to add Lynn Viehl’s heroines. Now this is an author who consistently writes heroines that appeal to me.

    Anyway, in short, I like to read about strong women who don’t come across as a caricature.

    I read “Soulless” and you know what, I didn’t think Alexia was unlikable at all! I actually thought she was pretty amusing and quite realistic in her reactions. Oh boy, was I relating to her in some way o.O (not in the being soulless part of course hehe) Anyway, enjoyable book, glad I read it after I found the review here.

  6. RStewie
    Mar 16, 2010 @ 08:14:18

    I like the “unlikeable” heroines so long as they are not petty in their actions. I am pretty laid back, but I relate to those women more than to the “goody-two-shoes” heroines.

    And god forbid the hero has family issues with his kids and the heroine (with no other experience with children) makes it all better. I can’t stand that. NO ONE immediately gets along with strange children, and strange children are NEVER compliant to a stranger. In my experience.

    Leaving kids out of it, though…I like the edgier heroines because they show that it’s OK to not be the Little Miss Perfect. I’m not perfect, and I like to know that there are heroines out there that are just like me (kind of).

  7. RStewie
    Mar 16, 2010 @ 08:16:25

    I had a thought-provoking and interesting response to this that got eaten, so you will have to take my word for that.

    I like these kinds of heroines because they are more like I am, more realistic and modern. Not Taking Shit is a character trait I aspire to, and seeing a heroine with that trait makes her that much more interesting to me to read about.

  8. dick
    Mar 16, 2010 @ 09:14:33

    I rarely think about whether a heroine is likeable or not, except in the case of Jessica in Chase’s Lord of Scoundrels. I thought her an arch-manipulator, contemptuously “managing” the hero in the name of and via affection. Low.

  9. Victoria Dahl
    Mar 16, 2010 @ 09:28:33

    “And it's not just that I want to see these heroines “rewarded” with love. In fact, I appreciate that the genre can celebrate these women without changing them overmuch,”

    Thank you for this. It’s one of my pet peeves…the idea that the heroine isn’t *good* enough to be rewarded with the hero’s awesome, studly presence. She hasn’t *earned* the love of a good man. Grrr.

  10. Moriah Jovan
    Mar 16, 2010 @ 09:32:28

    Re Alexia from Soulless:

    she's quite the snob, she's impatient and often overtly rude

    I didn’t think she was rude at all. As for impatient, the fact that she thinks faster than everyone else around her made her seem like a downright saint for holding her tongue as much as she did.

    Plus, if I had her family, I’d be a tad scathing. She never got anywhere close to how I’d react.

    , and you're never sure if she's going to bash the besotted Connall Maccon over the head with her parasol or kiss him passionately.

    Heh. That was kind of the point. I didn’t see anything different about that than, say, 100+ other hate-em-love-em romance books nor, say, Maddie and David in Moonlighting and its ilk.

    She may not have a soul, but she has a personality, and she’s somebody I’d definitely go shopping with.

    As for being snippy to the best friend, the best friend has her moments of verbal daggery, too. To me, the back-and-forth was just a game to them, albeit played half earnestly.

  11. Tamara Hogan
    Mar 16, 2010 @ 09:39:07

    I like to think that we’ve come to a point where heroines don’t have to be paragons of perfection to be likeable, but can instead be fictional representations of three-dimensional people – people who bitch, who curse, who make mistakes, who are not candidates for sainthood. Bo-ring!

    I feel the most interesting villains are not 100% “evil.” Similarly, I find the most interesting heroines are by no means 100% “good.”

  12. Meljean
    Mar 16, 2010 @ 09:58:19

    @Tamara Hogan:

    I like to think that we've come to a point where heroines don't have to be paragons of perfection to be likeable, but can instead be fictional representations of three-dimensional people – people who bitch, who curse, who make mistakes, who are not candidates for sainthood. Bo-ring!

    This, right here. I guess the term “unlikeable” is hitting me the wrong way — I *like* all of these heroines. And many of them, I’d probably get a kick of being around in real life.

    Unlikeable to me are the hero/ines who are just one-sided, whether that side is a goody-goody one or a bitch/asshole one, because there’s nothing there to like.

    @Victoria Dahl: Ditto on the GRRs when the heroine has to earn the love of a man, and if she has to undergo a personality overhaul to do it. I love character growth; I’m not really interested in brain transplants.

  13. Jane
    Mar 16, 2010 @ 10:01:40

    @Moriah Jovan One of the reasons I enjoy the series so much is that Alexia is so different and she is a snob. She refers to the French as low class, Americans as heathens. She observes strict class guidelines. Alexia clearly views herself as superior but I find that refreshing.

  14. Joy
    Mar 16, 2010 @ 10:02:12

    I don’t mind if a heroine is unlikeable so much if I can be fascinated by the character (like Scarlett O’Hara in _Gone With the Wind_ –what a wonderful character study) and/or I can (in a romance) buy the HEA.

    I do like flawed kick-ass heroines like Ky Vatta in Elizabeth Moon’s _Vatta’s War_series.

    The kind of unlikeable heroine I really can’t stand is the kind that is obnoxious, throws tantrums, etc. for no reason whatsoever. I have no patience for people like that in real life and don’t want to spend a few hours in a book with one either. This heroine can be redeemed, though, it just takes a skilled author to keep me with her.

    One thing I do like to see is a flawed/unlikeable heroine grow during the course of a book from a place where I wouldn’t buy the HEA to a place where I can, because she’s acquired enough experience or maturity or flat-out redemption to have what it takes to make a relationship work. I don’t buy HEAs where the h/h are still immature and their relationship problems are still basically unresolved despite their declarations of love.

  15. Gina Bernal
    Mar 16, 2010 @ 10:02:25

    Anna, the heroine of Alison Richardson’s Countess Trilogy, was a breath of fresh air for me. I liked her not in spite of her unlikableness but because of it. I loved that she, as a historical, upper-class heroine, was a snob and wasn’t running around befriending the household help and reforming society.

  16. Joy
    Mar 16, 2010 @ 10:16:45

    @Gina now that you mention it I should mention that I often find do-gooder/reformist heroines tiresome and unlikeable (and they are plentiful in historicals). The Lady Bountiful types don’t work for me as romance heroines, unless it is done very skillfully–they come across as either fake (take heroine, insert bland virtue) or annoyingly ignorant a lot of the time.

  17. Kalen Hughes
    Mar 16, 2010 @ 10:18:15

    Not being nurturing, morally upright, and unflinchingly kind myself, I tend to write and like heroines with a bit more edge to them . . . Dahl’s seriously fit the bill (but then she’s a friend of mine, so that’s not surprising, LOL!).

    As to where I draw the line? Hmmm. Scarlett O'Hara falls out for me. I always wanted Melanie to grow a spine and run her over with the carriage and I cheered when Rhett left her!

    And I’d totally call Soulless a romance. A nice one too.

  18. Kate Pearce
    Mar 16, 2010 @ 10:27:19

    But what is interesting is that, in my experience, the average reader generally doesn’t like this type of heroine. They find their behavior abrasive and unfeminine. Traits that they’ll happily overlook, or enjoy in a hero, are not seen as commendable in a heroine. Both my novels with strong heroines who can take care of themselves and fight for equal partnership with the hero, have very diverse ratings. I don’t get it myself. I love writing strong women characters.

  19. Joy
    Mar 16, 2010 @ 10:37:56

    See, I could buy Scarlett O’Hara as a romantic heroine if she was left with Rhett as of the beginning/middle of the book. The Rhett at the end had grown away from the possibility of being happy with her–but the couple they almost were in the middle? Oh, I could see that as great romance between two ambitious people who cared nothing for social conventions. It would be a totally different book, though.

  20. Robin/Janet
    Mar 16, 2010 @ 10:41:53

    @Meljean: I was kind of hoping that writing a piece about how much I like these heroines is evidence that they are not truly “unlikeable.”

    But I stand by my belief that these qualities we’re talking about here are often criticized in women by a pretty diverse swath of women (often directed as self-criticism like, “I should be more…;” “I should be less…”).

    Which simply amplifies my appreciation for the prevalence of women in the genre whose “heroism” or idealization isn’t synonymous with ‘feminine mildness.’ Or whose suitability for love doesn’t coincide with their “taming.” I tend to dislike that whole “love softens” trope but have seen it over and over again in Romance, particularly in SEP’s novels.

  21. Amber
    Mar 16, 2010 @ 11:13:36

    I admit I couldn’t stand Dahl’s Jane. Not because she was ‘unfeminine.’ I think she was very feminine. I just didn’t happen to like the type of woman she represented to me. Where some saw an emotionally damaged woman, I saw someone so obsessed with status and appearances that she lets life and love almost pass her by.

    I don’t mind characters who are a little unlikeable. Rude, abrasive, pushy…But Jane I considered an anti-heroine. Not because I have those character traits myself, but because I know others who do. And I can’t stand the chaos and hurt they inevitably leave in their wake.

    I don’t think I’d have enjoyed a book where the hero acted as Jane does, either, though, so I doubt it’s a double standard at play for me.

    And I disagree with the notion that it has to be either/or in the romance genre. A weak, shy heroine who conforms or a bitchy heroine that no one can stand. Most of us are somewhere in between, and those are the type of heroines I prefer to read about.

  22. Jane
    Mar 16, 2010 @ 11:24:30

    I use the term “unlikeable” in my reviews and it stems from my personal reaction to those characters. Now the traits that you refer to aren’t offputting for me but I do know that it appears from sales that the alpha female is not a popular trope with mass appeal.

  23. Susan/DC
    Mar 16, 2010 @ 11:37:15

    I have to like the heroine but my liking may have nothing to do with whether I want to be BFF. One of my favorite heroines was Marian in Gayle Feyrer’s “The Thief’s Mistress”. She’s smart, self-reliant, at times cold and frighteningly focused. She is aware of danger and experiences fear but she moves forward anyway, even if she has to go over or around whatever roadblocks are in her path. These are not traditional femine virtues in Romancelandia, but I love Marian nonetheless. I also loved Melanthe, who exhibits some of the same characteristics as Marian. These characteristics are usually virtues when assigned to the hero but often seen as flaws when exhibited by the heroine.

    I’ve also loved heroines who were throughly good. Rachel in P. Williamson’s “The Outsider” is beautiful and a faithful member of her religious community. She’s one of the few heroines where I could actually understand why all the men fell in love with her because we were shown why, not simply told that it was so. She’s also lonely at times and misses both the companionship and physical closeness of marriage. IOW, she’s 3-dimensional, but she’s undoubtedly good in ways that Marian and Melanthe are not. Both kinds of heroine can be “likeable”, but in very different ways and for different reasons. OTOH, I’ve definitely stopped reading books where I found the characters unlikeable and did not want to waste valuable reading time with them (Jonathan Franzen’s “The Corrections” comes to mind here for all the characters, male and female).

  24. Heather Massey
    Mar 16, 2010 @ 11:47:46

    Thanks for this post!

    I lurve me the so-called unlikeable heroine because I find them so exotic. I'd love to encounter them more often.

    I HAVE to add Lynn Viehl's heroines

    I second that. I recently finished Viehl's BLADE DANCER (more romantic SF) and OMG the heroine, Jory, was so fun. I especially enjoyed her acerbic personality. The way the author executed her made her hella funny. Yet she was very sympathetic at the same time.

    I also loved Catherine Asaro's heroine Alpha from the book of the same name. Alpha puts the hero through the wringer even as he falls head over heels for her. The reason the romance works so well for me is that the author took the time to craft a believable redemption and growth for the character.

    My feeling is that if there's a lack of a good character arc, readers will have difficulty engaging with these heroines.

    As long as authors are creating sympathetic “unlikeable” heroines, I hope more readers will give them the chance they deserve.

  25. Meljean
    Mar 16, 2010 @ 12:08:59

    @Robin/Janet:

    I was kind of hoping that writing a piece about how much I like these heroines is evidence that they are not truly “unlikeable.”

    Oh, no no — I get that. And I recognize that the term is used as a label to describe that widely-held view of certain types of heroines, not your view of these heroines.

    I think I’m reacting to the term because ‘liking’ is so personal, whereas I wouldn’t blink at something like, “loving the bitchy heroine.” Unlikeable assumes something about a readership (of which I am one), whereas bitchy focuses on the character. So I can’t approach this as someone who dislikes a certain type of character (even if sales and reviews suggest that, statistically, I probably should fall into that category) and so my first reaction is: But, but! they aren’t unlikeable!

    So I think we’re saying the same thing; I’m just doing it badly.

  26. Aja
    Mar 16, 2010 @ 12:19:52

    I really second the first post about Shelly Laurenston’s heroines. Personally I love Gwen from the Mane Squeeze. Gwen received criticism about being indecisive regarding family pressure and having basically the perfect hero “ish” in Lock. However, Gwen doesn’t have many friends, she is okay with who she is and has the audacity to pull her personality off. As long as the heroine is satisfied with herself overall, that is a heroine I like to see.

  27. Mireya
    Mar 16, 2010 @ 12:55:29

    P.S. I just remembered that in Kresley Cole’s books (most if not all of them) I find myself not exactly liking the heroines. A good number of them exhibited traits that made me want to kick them … however, I was glad that even despite the flaws in their character traits (some of them are outright obnoxious and even mean, at least in my eyes), they found their happy endings.

  28. Moriah Jovan
    Mar 16, 2010 @ 13:08:56

    Re alpha female:

    I wrote two like that. The first was referred to as a “bad-tempered bitch.” I don’t know how readers will react to the second one when she makes her appearance—and she is VERY much a snob.

    As a reader, I don’t really care about where they are personality-wise, but I do care that they’re drawn with depth, interests, opinions, flaws, and (hopefully) a hobby.

    Re anti-hero/ine:

    I was taught that a hero/ine has one fatal flaw and an anti-hero/ine has one redeeming quality, and I do love the anti-hero/ine as long as the redeeming quality does, in fact, redeem all other flaws.

  29. Ridley
    Mar 16, 2010 @ 13:11:06

    My favorite protagonists, male or female, are flawed.

    Many of the oft-cited “unlikeable” heroines are simply flawed people. Maddy in Flowers From the Storm, pretty much every Victoria Dahl heroine, Alexia in the Parasol Protectorate books, Eve Dallas, Anna from the Countess Trilogy and so on. Rather than dislike these women, I immediately liked them, because they were so unabashedly human but completely benign. No one is perfect, so I like heroines to have a few weak spots, but still be good people.

    Maddy is so zealously religious she can’t see how untrue to herself she’s being, but it’s a forgivable mistake, imo, since she honestly believes she’s doing the right thing. Alexia is just compensating for her alienation by adopting superior airs. I still felt she’d prefer to like and be liked, but rejection’s far easier to take if you consider the rejectors to be inferior, yes? And Eve just knows better than to waste time on bullshit. She’s not mean, abusive or rude, just efficient. I read the series for her, as I find Roarke too perfect to be interesting.

    It is, naturally, a fine line between flawed but sympathetic and oh god, could the bitch be more annoying, like that line between confident alpha man and someone get a restraining order, stat. Too perfect and it feels like the morality plays in my Catholic school workbooks, too flawed and I start rooting against the characters.

  30. CrankyOtter
    Mar 16, 2010 @ 13:17:25

    (not a frequent poster or lurker, but what the heck)

    Another example is Amelia Peabody in the Elizabeth Peters series. Would be a trial to just about anyone but has found someone who has decided her irredeemable traits are charming.

    I do like heroines who aren’t perfectly nice, probably because I’m not perfectly nice either and find it hard to wrap my head around how people can be. Of course, that’s using nice/kind in a somewhat pejorative sense because I do think one can be kind but assertive at the same time, it’s just awfully hard to do. And I think “assertive” easily edges into “aggression” for a lot of women determined to live life on their own terms, so they might come off as flawed and unloveable. But I love them anyway and don’t want them to change some of those flaws.

    However, sometimes I do want the flaws to change, or be moderated, or expressed differently. For instance, I was re-reading a J.Crusie recently (Strange Bedpersons) and about halfway through, I realized the heroine had gone too far and was getting unlikeable. Just at that point, the hero pointed out to her that she was being a patoot, she agreed, and figured out what she could do differently to be a more reasonable, likeable, fair person without losing her sense of self. It worked for me – mostly because the timing was set up so that both the heroine and I decided she needed to change at the same time. But her change made her a more fair person.

    And I think that’s the essential thing – if a character is a bit of a pain, but is generally fair in her treatment of others, I like them, but when they get mean, I don’t. Interesting topic. Thanks for writing about it so well.

  31. Faye
    Mar 16, 2010 @ 13:51:54

    I just finished The Betrayal of the Blood Lilly (in Willig’s Pink Carnation series) and was reflecting that Penelope and Mary Alsworthy (The Seduction of the Crimson Rose) have been by far my favorite heroines of the series. They’re not “nice”, and they’re not very happy or nurturing, and they can treat others badly. They do have spine, and cynicism, and a tendency to de-romanticize the Regency period. All said, they’re more relatable, more realistic, and their hard edges make for a more developed and ultimately more lovable character.

  32. Jane O
    Mar 16, 2010 @ 14:04:39

    The problem is that one person’s “nice” is another person’s “insipid,” and one person’s “courageous” is another person’s “moronic.”

    The characters I dislike are the ones who are stupid, who seem blind to the obvious problems and dangers ahead and who think “I meant well” solves all problems. But then, my all-time favorite heroine was Becky Sharp, and I wish someone would rewrite Vanity Fair and give her a happy ending.

  33. votermom
    Mar 16, 2010 @ 14:18:45

    Another example is Amelia Peabody in the Elizabeth Peters series. Would be a trial to just about anyone but has found someone who has decided her irredeemable traits are charming.

    I love Amelia Peabody! Reading Seeing a Large Cat right now.

    Another imperfect but fascinating heroine is Makepeace from Diana Norman’s 1776 trilogy that starts with A Catch of Consequence. It’s historical fiction, not romance, and almost gut-wrenchingly cruel to its characters. Makepeace is an admitted not-good mother, and vidictive to an extreme, but she is so remarkable in other ways.

    Faye, The Seduction of the Crimson Rose is my favorite also — actually I have only read until that book. I got tired of the framing story. I like Mary & Vaugn. I dislike the previous book (Deception of the Emerald Ring) because Letty was so goody-too-sweet and I realized that I was finding it hard to distinguish between her and the modern day narrator.

  34. bizou
    Mar 16, 2010 @ 15:05:24

    I love the outrageous fortune hunter Cynthia from Like No Other Lover by Julie Anne Long. She does’nt fit in with the regular nice heroines of historical novels. She is quite calculating, a mesmerizing, self-sufficient heroine who is both capable of and used to fixing her own problems. Cynthia was written with a very realist touch for a young women of her time trying to find financial security.

  35. Mfred
    Mar 16, 2010 @ 15:46:07

    I was just thinking about unlikeable heroines too! I recently read Jill Sorenson’s Crash Into Me and Dahl’s Lead Me On and had two very different reactions to two “unlikeable” heroines.

    Both sort of stiff-arm the hero throughout the book, pushing him away with the “i like you but I don’t like you liking me!” kinda stuff. But Dahl’s Jane rubbed me the wrong way, and I felt like the HEA rang false because I kind of wanted Chase to dump her on her pity-partying ass. Whereas I sympathized and empathized and all around just ized with Sorenson’s Sonny. Sonny is a serious Alpha heroine, she kicks ass and takes names, and I could not get enough of her!

    I also have just started reading Brockmann’s Troubleshooters series and is it just me, or is Brockmann kinda terrible to her heroines? Either they are unbearably beeeautiful (Sophia, Tess, uh, whatsername in the first book) or they are constantly being referred to not skinny enough, with faces and/or lips that are too wide for conventional beauty, etc. I get that Brockmann does it to show up the romantic feelings for the hero, who sees beyond the standard Cosmo look, but sometimes it just starts to feel mean.

  36. Kalen Hughes
    Mar 16, 2010 @ 16:09:22

    @Jane O:

    The problem is that one person's “nice” is another person's “insipid,” and one person's “courageous” is another person's “moronic.”

    Ain’t that the truth!

  37. Tracy Grant
    Mar 16, 2010 @ 16:14:28

    I like flawed characters, and a lot of my favorite heroines fall in potentially not likable category (such as Barbara Childe in Heyer’s “An Infamous Army,” which I’m currently rereading. I tend like characters who are rule-breakers, particularly in an historical setting, where the rules can be quite restrictive.

    Like Susan DC I can find myself empathizing either with flawed characters or with characters who are more overtly “good.” I love Rachel in “The Outsider”–though I probably prefer Remy in “Mortal Sins” and “Wages of Sin.” I just finished Robert Goolrick’s “A Reliable Wife” in which all the major characters are definitely flawed and do morally ambiguous things, but I found myself empathizing with all of them.

    Like Faye, Mary and Penelope are my favorite heroines in Lauren Willig’s Pink Carnation series. I hadn’t thought of it before, but in light of this discussion it’s interesting that Mary is paired with the equally cynical Lord Vaughn, whereas Penelope’s hero is much “nicer.” Both love stories worked very well for me.

    I’ve also always liked the write flawed heroines. When my mom and I were first writing Regencies, a lot of our friends thought I was like Philippa, the rather shy novelist who was the heroine of our second book. But I actually identified much more with the rebellious, rather snarky Nicola in “The Counterfeit Heart.”

  38. SonomaLass
    Mar 16, 2010 @ 16:39:17

    I can enjoy heroines in a wide variety of types, but I have a soft spot for the bitchy ones. No one in my family is surprised by that. My favorites are the ones who come off as rude because they are smarter than people around them and don’t try to hide it, like Alexia in Soulless. Especially if they have been treated as inferior, odd or strange for being intelligent and/or for other “oddities.”

    But I also really enjoy the heroines who are prickly because they are damaged somehow, who hide their vulnerability behind a facade that comes across sometimes as bitchy. That’s where I’d put Jane from Lead Me On, and I really liked how she grew in some ways, so that she could accept a great guy, but didn’t have to change completely to “deserve” him.

  39. Robin/Janet
    Mar 16, 2010 @ 16:55:20

    Thank you to everyone for all the great responses and book suggestions. I have read some of them (Kresley Cole and Shelly Laurenston’s paranormals, for example), and want to give a special shout out to Cynthia from Long’s Like No Other Lover, for convincing me that if the equally ambitious Miles had not come along and mucked her plans up that she absolutely would have married — and married with loyalty to her husband — for financial security.

    Still, many of these books are new picks for me. I am especially curious to read the Amelia Peabody books since a review of Carriger’s Soulless at Booksmugglers articulated strong similarities to the Peabody series. And I have the Feyrer book but have not yet read it. Others I’m going to be tracking down soon (like Catherine Asaro, whose name I’ve heard so many times but whose books I have not yet read).

    @CrankyOtter: re. your comments about Strange Bedfellows, I think that book is a good example of character development that does not change the essence of the character but simply helps her grow in a way that makes her complete as a person (as opposed to completion through mating, for example).

    @Meljean: When I started writing this piece, I struggled with how to characterize these characters and came up with the likeability quotient precisely because it seemed to resolve as much toward the reader as to the character. And because I think there might be a somewhat stark divide among Romance readers on precisely those terms, and inclusive of a recurring list of character traits, from so-called “bitchy” to “selfish” and the like.

    I know there are more than a few fans of the Robb/Roberts In Death books, for example, who adore Roarke but find Eve selfish in her prioritization of work as almost always supreme. While I love that Roarke often has to play the “wife” in certain ways, many readers don’t like Eve’s persistent focus on work, sometimes in neglect of her personal relationships. I don’t know if it’s so much that Eve is seen as a good or bad character in those terms, but I do think readers sometimes respond in terms of like/dislike to certain character traits (just like some readers dislike overly-nice or nurturing characters).

    Although as you and others note, this is still a very subjective and “personal” way of talking about these heroines, even if we might discern distinct patterns in personal responses across the Romance readership.

  40. Angie
    Mar 16, 2010 @ 17:07:11

    I’m notoriously fond of stubborn heroines. The ones many readers find “unlikable” or abrasive. I don’t read a ton of straight romances and so I can’t speak to the women you mention (though I do find myself wondering from time to time if I should give Eve & Roarke a shot), but what I love about such characters is their sheer strength of will and personality. I don’t want them to change because I admire them so much. I want them to learn and to grow, but not to alter who they are for the sake of….well, anything. Their bravery and determination combined with their many flaws endear them to me. I see bits of myself in them, bits of where they’re wrong, and bits of the way I would like to be.

    A couple of my favorites: Kate from Ilona Andrews’ Kate Daniels series, Rachel from Sharon Shinn’s ARCHANGEL, Lee from Moira J. Moore’s Heroes series, and Rebecca from Ellen Emerson White’s THE ROAD HOME.

  41. Tr
    Mar 16, 2010 @ 17:09:42

    @Robin/Janet

    It’s so subjective in terms of readers. Some readers love Mélanie in my current series, others find her unforgivable (I think some only put up with her because they like Charles and he loves her). I also think when it comes to anti-heroines and anti-heroes there’s a difference between characters who act out of purely selfish motives and characters who do morally ambiguous things to achieve a goal (though the goal itself may be morally ambiguous).

  42. Kalen Hughes
    Mar 16, 2010 @ 18:07:24

    I adore Melanie! She’s got depth and a spine . . . and serious issues.

  43. readerdiane
    Mar 16, 2010 @ 18:32:46

    I disagree that these are unlikeable heroines. I think they are uncommon but strong woman. Each of these women have vulnerabilities which make them more human & likeable. The other 2 characters that come to mind from tv is Bones and Beckett.They do not let anyone or anything get in the way of what they think is correct.But these characters do not act without knowing there are consequences to be paid. They aren’t heedless or stupid. Actually these are becoming my favorite characters by far.

  44. Kaetrin
    Mar 16, 2010 @ 18:52:34

    I like this type of heroine because, like me, she’s not perfect. When the super studly hero really “sees” her and loves her (in Mark Darcy/Bridget Jones’ words “just as she is”), when he sees her “damage” and wants to help without wrapping her up in cotton wool (Roarke, Ruck), I find that very, er, comforting I guess. Plus, awesome.

    I’m lucky enough to be married to someone who’s a bit like that – sadly he’s not a multibillionaire who owns half the world, but he sees me as I am and loves me with it, through it, because of it, beyond it.

    That’s the type of hero I like to read about and that hero doesn’t work unless the heroine is a bit damaged.

  45. Tracy Grant
    Mar 16, 2010 @ 19:16:40

    @Kalen Hughes – Thanks, Kalen! I love writing about Mel, for all those reasons. I think another thing that makes “unlikable” heroines interesting to read and write about is “serious issues” make for good dramatic conflict.

    @readerdiane – I agree, I don’t find these heroines unlikeable either. I definitely don’t find either Bones or Beckett unlikable (two of my favorite tv heroines in two of my current favorite shows). But I guess they aren’t warm and fuzzy. Going to @Kaetrin’s point, they’re both damaged. Kaetrin, I also love the idea of someone loving someone flaws and all. There’s a line I love from Barbara Hambly’s “The Mother of Winter,” where the heroine thinks, “Ingold, to her ever-renewed surprise, evidently really did love her, exactly as she was. She still didn’t know why.”

  46. Eva_baby
    Mar 16, 2010 @ 19:18:14

    I have to third the Shelly Laurenston love. ‘Psychotic’ is the perfect word for so many of them. And yet you can help but be drawn in by their sheer wackadoo. But you really know they are awesome because they have strong and abiding friendships with other women.

    I don’t have a type I find unlikable. It really depends how the author positions the character within the plot and amongst the other characters. In one book I can truly love a Mary Sue while in another she can be the biggest prig who makes me want to hurl the book across the room.

  47. Liza Lester
    Mar 17, 2010 @ 01:09:13

    I love Dahl’s heroines, and also liked Alexia, little thee-thou Maddy, the angry Rachel from Archangel, and Dorothy Sayers’s stubborn Harriet. They are all a bit abrasive, and determined to be themselves. They feel more real. I think it’s true that heroes are allowed more latitude to be difficult or imperfectly sympathetic. I’m going to check out some of the other unlikeable women yall have mentioned.

  48. Janine
    Mar 17, 2010 @ 01:23:10

    I was away from the computer for much of the day today and I’m sorry to realize I missed such a great discussion!

    I absolutely adore flawed characters (since no one has mentioned her yet I’ll throw out Darcy from Emily Giffin’s Something Borrowed and Something Blue) and flawed heroines are a special treat because they seem to be harder to come by.

    I understand the use of the term “unlikable,” although I frequently like those “unlikable” heroines much better than the ones who feed the poor, nurse the sick, and sacrifice for their younger siblings. Alison Richardson’s Countess Trilogy was such a breath of fresh air to me because of Anna’s unapologetic snobbery but I remember Wendy the Superlibrarian, I think it was, was really turned off by Anna’s character flaws.

    When I started reading romantic books and romances, flawed heroines were actually more commonplace than they are today. I don’t know if that’s because it was the heyday of old skool heroes and heroines needed to have more of a spine to stand up to them, or what, but I actually sometimes miss those 1980s take-no-prisoner heroines, even though in many ways I feel the genre has gotten stronger and better since those days.

    So tell me: what do you find heroic in the genre's heroines?

    What I find heroic can vary depending on the character. I like for a heroine to have backbone, yet I think I can also like a heroine whose arc is in the discovery of her backbone. I have a strong preference for characters who go through some kind of self-discovery or growth process. I like heroines with intelligence and courage, but intelligence to me doesn’t mean not making mistakes, and courage to me doesn’t mean never being afraid. I think the process of facing up to mistakes or overcoming fears can be quite heroic.

    I also often love the heroines who resist and sometimes even reject the hero. I’m not sure that is heroic, but those books can be very satisfying.

    What kind of heroine do you like most and where is your line of unlikeability in heroines?

    I think that Lessa from Anne McCaffrey’s Dragonflight, who was openly ambitious, cynical and capable of crossing moral lines was one of my favorite heroines early on and set a hard standard to follow. A lot of readers, even today, consider this character bitchy and unlikeable. But I loved her from very early on in the book, and I think it was because on the first or second page, the author established that Lessa had to be as she was to have survived at all (a feat in itself), and that even though she was cold and vindictive toward most people, she had a loyal heart when it came to other creatures.

    So basically, what I would say is that there is no line of unlikeability for me. It all depends on the full picture and on how well drawn a character is. Characters I love are more than the sum of their parts.

  49. readerdiane
    Mar 17, 2010 @ 07:26:43

    @Janine, I forgot about Lessa, she is one of my favorite characters. I have read that book so many times. I was disappointed that she did not come more front & center in other books in the series. I think strong female characters is why I was drawn to Mercedes Lackey’s Arrow series & Sword & Sorcery.
    So whether they are called strong-willed or flawed, I don’t find them “unlikable”. In fact give me more…….

  50. Eve Paludan
    Mar 17, 2010 @ 10:21:07

    Emily Giffin’s Darcy Rhone in Something Blue is the heroine who believably transformed from unlikeable (selfish, manipulative, egotistical) to a heroine I loved to love. I’ve read the entire series so far and recommend it.

  51. MB
    Mar 17, 2010 @ 10:58:33

    One of the most problematic heroines for me that comes to mind is Megan Whalen Turners’ “Thief” series. The Queen of Attolia is an unbelievably complicated character, and her romance with Gen is one of the MOST unusual ones I have ever come across. And their HEA over the series is one of the hardest and most appalling. But the payoff is amazing! I can’t wait for the new book to see what she does next with her characters.

    Also, has anyone mentioned Dorothy Sayers ‘Harriet Vane’ yet? She’s annoying at first, but Wow! does she turn out to be a perfect match for Peter Wimsey.

  52. Robin/Janet
    Mar 17, 2010 @ 11:15:40

    @Tr:

    I also think when it comes to anti-heroines and anti-heroes there's a difference between characters who act out of purely selfish motives and characters who do morally ambiguous things to achieve a goal (though the goal itself may be morally ambiguous).

    My knee-jerk response to this comment was that the genre hasn’t accommodated moral ambiguity very well, especially on the part of heroines.

    But I don’t really think this is true, because so many older books in the genre I’ve read and love have a fair amount of moral ambiguity on both the hero and heroine’s parts.

    I wonder, though, if in the past ten years or so, whether the genre has been less welcoming to moral ambiguity from its protagonists. Hmm, have to give that some thought.

  53. Janine
    Mar 17, 2010 @ 13:38:02

    @readerdiane: Agreed — I was terribly disappointed that Lessa was relegated to the sidelines in the later books in the series as well. I read that at one point Ron Moore who was the producer and head writer behind “Battlestar Galactica” was hired to adapt Pern for television. The plan fell through, but while Moore was working on it, he was going to center the series on Lessa. A shame it didn’t happen but Moore’s take on Battlestar did give us a lot of strong female characters.

  54. Janine
    Mar 17, 2010 @ 13:43:07

    @Eve Paludan: Agree on Darcy, I mentioned her briefly in my post above.

    @MB: Oh yeah, Attolia, how could I forget her! She reminds me a lot of Melanthe from Kinsale’s For My Lady’s Heart, so if you like her you might like Melanthe a lot too. Of course, the Megan Whalen Turner series is YA rather than romance, but the Attolia/Gen pairing is one for the ages. SPOILERS The scene where he steals her and the way that situation resolves is made of awesome.

  55. Janine
    Mar 17, 2010 @ 13:51:50

    @Robin/Janet:

    I wonder, though, if in the past ten years or so, whether the genre has been less welcoming to moral ambiguity from its protagonists. Hmm, have to give that some thought.

    I remember that from roughly 2000 to 2005, I felt there was a real dearth of morally ambiguous characters. Fewer historicals were published then, too. It was a tough time for me as a romance reader. As I recall, I turned to books outside the genre like those by Emily Giffin and Sharon Shinn.

    But I think things have begun to change in the latter half of this decade. Perhaps because of the success of e-publishers, or that of darker paranormals, it seems to me that NY publishers had begun to take more risks than they were taking in the first half of the decade. I’m not sure yet how the financial crisis is affecting that.

  56. Unlikeable Characters « Tracy Grant – Novelist
    Mar 27, 2010 @ 21:38:23

    […] follow-up discussions on Dear Author in the last couple of weeks. The first was a post by Robin on Loving the Unlikeable Heroine, particularly interesting to me as I love to write and read about characters who are at least […]

  57. Angry heroines, part 1/2
    Apr 01, 2010 @ 13:41:57

    […] conversation going around about “unlikeable” heroines. I think it started over at Dear Author, and just yesterday a great post by Tracy Grant went up at History Hoydens. There was a quote in […]

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