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The Case of the Unlikeable Heroine


In reading reviews of Tessa Dare’s book, Goddess of the Hunt, and of Louisa Edwards‘, Can’t Stand the Heat, I noticed there were often comments about the female protagonists, or heroines, of the stories as not being very likeable. I know I struggled with Miranda, the heroine in Can’t Stand the Heat. I thought I would ask Tessa Dare and Louisa Edwards to help me jump start a conversation on the likeability of a heroine:

Tessa Dare:
0345506863.01.LZZZZZZZI will first say that I love Lucy, the heroine of Goddess of the Hunt. I never set out to write an “unlikeable” heroine–I set out to write a heroine who felt real to me, and whom I hoped would feel real to readers.

Lucy is young and brash and stubborn, and she makes a lot of mistakes. Many readers love that about her. Some really, really don’t. I’m okay with that. Of course, it’s nice when people love Lucy like I do, but I’m actually sort of proud of the fact that she’s inspired such a range of strong emotions.

Readers read romance for a wide range of reasons. Personally, I think I’ve always identified with heroines who make mistakes. I’ve made plenty of my own mistakes, and I gravitate toward stories where a flawed heroine gets her happy ending. My favorite Austen heroines, for example, Elizabeth Bennet and Emma Woodhouse, make very grave errors in their perceptions of themselves and others, with disastrous consequences. They do take steps to make things right. But earning their happy endings doesn’t mean altering the fundamentals of their characters, just arriving at a better understanding of their imperfect selves and displaying a willingness to grow and change. And they are rewarded with handsome, wealthy (imperfect) gentlemen who know and love them “just as they are.” (Mark Darcy/Bridget Jones, anyone?)

That, to me, is a powerful romantic trope, because I know perfection is well beyond my own reach. And that’s the kind of journey I’ve tried to give each of the heroines in my trilogy.

Louisa Edwards:

Tessa, I love this! I wish I could just say “Ditto.” Although I have to admit that I don’t love Miranda, the heroine of Can’t Stand the Heat, in quite the same way you obviously love Lucy. I knew Miranda was difficult–challenging, even, when I was writing her; she’s a bit controlled and controlling, and she can be abrasive in her self-confidence. She loves her brother deeply, but at the beginning of the book, she’s not prepared to see him as an adult in his own right, and all her misguided attempts at protection and caretaking stem from that.

To take it a step further, I didn’t always like Miranda–but I believed in her. As a writer, I never actively tried to make her likable; I was much more concerned with making her real. And on some level, I think I assumed they were the same thing. That if readers hooked into the parts of Miranda that echoed their own lives or experiences, they would understand her, and that understanding would lead to liking.

Clearly, that’s not the case with every reader, which is inevitable. But it was important to me that Miranda’s reactions flowed from her history and personality in a true and consistent way, and that she eventually reached a new understanding of the people around her, and her own feelings for them, which allowed her to dig deep and atone. In the end, I think I accomplished that, at least to my own satisfaction. And since I can never hope to universally satisfy each and every reader (although that’s the dream!) all I can really do is attempt to write a story that satisfies me.

Miranda won me over by the end of the book because she made mistakes, regretted them, and owned them. She made a journey of self-discovery as a character, and without her flaws and imperfections, there would have been no story. Or at least, not a very interesting one. Perfect people, it turns out, are pretty boring.

Can you have a flawed heroine who makes mistakes and is still generally likeable? Can a perfect heroine be interesting?

Tessa Dare:

Well, I think we need to define some terms here. What do you mean by “likable”? Does a heroine have to be universally liked to be “likable”? Because I consider Lucy to be a very likable heroine, and a lot of readers (I would venture to say the great majority, at least that I’ve heard from) have found her likable, too. It’s just that those who don’t like her, REALLY don’t like her.

Maybe what we’re talking about here is the completely inoffensive heroine. A heroine to whom hardly any readers will react negatively. Yeah, I guess I don’t write those! Though some authors do, and manage to do it brilliantly.

Can a heroine be both inoffensive and believable? I think so. Off the top of my head, can think of a few heroines who are interesting, strong, believable, and almost entirely inoffensive, and they star in some of the romance novels that are frequently named as all-time favorites.

But I think that’s verrry hard to pull off. An author runs the risk of making a heroine inoffensive to the point of being uninteresting. I guess thus far, I’ve preferred to err on the other side, and write heroines who have big flaws, but also big dreams and big hearts.

In the series I’m working on for 2010, though, my heroines are all a little older and have more responsibilities. Their struggles come less from growing into themselves and more from conflicting loyalties, as they are torn between obligations to family, work, community on one side and romantic love on the other. Again, I don’t know whether that makes them “likable” or not–but they feel real to me, and I hope readers will agree.

Louisa Edwards

I’m not saying likable heroines are too perfect–sort of the opposite, actually, because I think perfection is boring and intimidating enough that it’s really hard, for me, to like and relate to characters with no flaws. An inoffensive heroine seems like a different thing–not boringly perfect, but probably also not the driving force of the plot. Flaws are helpful from a storytelling standpoint, unless you want all the conflict in your book to be external.

It’s certainly possible for a flawed character to still be liked by many readers, and in fact, I’ve gotten a lot of fanmail about Miranda–as with Tessa’s heroine, the hatred is certainly not universal. But she does seem to evoke strong emotions, one way or the other, which I can only be glad about. Whatever else you can say about her, Miranda seems to be memorable and she gets discussion going.

Even so, I’ll admit it was a bit of a relief to write the second Recipe for Love novel, because the heroine of On the Steamy Side is a total love. Very different from Miranda, and in some ways, more fun to write. Of course, her hero isn’t the happy Alpha that Adam is–because it’s about balance, too.

What do you prefer in a book? The “inoffensive but likeable” character? The thoughtprovoking character? I know I want to root for characters and if I don’t like them, I can’t. But as Tessa and Louisa point out, “likeability” is hugely subjective. What makes you like or dislike a character?

Jane Litte is the founder of Dear Author, a lawyer, and a lover of pencil skirts. She self publishes NA and contemporaries (and publishes with Berkley and Montlake) and spends her downtime reading romances and writing about them. Her TBR pile is much larger than the one shown in the picture and not as pretty. You can reach Jane by email at jane @ dearauthor dot com


  1. Maria Geraci
    Oct 13, 2009 @ 04:40:42

    I think it’s kind of funny that we put so much pressure on our heroines and give our heroes a lot of slack in this department. Seems like the old adage that women are harder on their own sex, rings true.

    I’ve read both “Can’t Stand the Heat” and “Goddess of the Hunt” (loved them both) and can truly say I didn’t have a problem with either heroine. I think Louisa is right when she says that Miranda feels “real”. A real person makes mistakes, errors in judgment, etc. A perfect person is boring and not someone I particularly want to read about.

    I remember having this discussion a few years ago with a friend after I’d given her my copy of Julia Ross’s “The Seduction”. I LOVED that book. But she hated Juliet, the heroine. Found her too “harsh” and said that ruined the romance for her. Juliet’s character had some very sad baggage (that you learn about bit by bit as the book progresses) and I found her reactions to be true.

    So for me, it’s not so much the “likeability” factor, as the reality factor. Make your characters real, and make their reactions believable, and if the writing is good, I’ll keep flipping the pages.

  2. ag
    Oct 13, 2009 @ 05:15:31

    I agree with Maria. It isn’t so much about likeability as about being real. With flaws. The heroine can be a total biatch at the beginning, but as Ms Dare pointed out, so long as there is a self discovery element, the story becomes relevant. Even if the transformation at the ending isn’t a complete metamorphosis, thie process, their journey can serve as inspiration to us all.

    I find that more compelling,

  3. A
    Oct 13, 2009 @ 05:31:22

    I think there is a difference between an unlikeable character and unlikeable characteristics.

    I, for one, can’t stand Little-Miss-Perfect-Can-Do-No-Wrong characters. Flaws make characters human and real. They also provide or contribute to conflict and give the character something to overcome (or at least discover.)

    When I think “unlikeable heroine,” I’m sorry to say the first name springs to mind is LKH’s Anita Blake. I was a loyal fan of the series up to “Obsidian Butterfly.” After that, I sometimes wonder what I ever saw in Anita. She has few if any redeeming traits and her motives are inevitably narcisistic. I quit bothering with the series after “Cerulean Sins.”

  4. Ros
    Oct 13, 2009 @ 05:35:04

    I like my heroines to be likeable (I like my heroes that way too). The most important thing to keep me reading is to make me care about the characters. And if I don’t like them, I won’t care what happens to them. That doesn’t mean they have to be perfect. In fact, perfect characters can be even more irritating and unlikeable than imperfect ones. But if the character is smug, selfish, self-centred and rude, for instance, especially if they show no signs of wit, humour, or self-awareness to leaven their personality, I am very unlikely to keep reading.

  5. Tara Marie
    Oct 13, 2009 @ 05:53:30

    Curious topic. I have not read either of these books, so I can’t speak to my feeling about them in particular. I will say I love Austen’s Elizabeth Bennet and Emma Woodhouse. Based on that I have to think Ms. Dare and I are on the same page.

    There is a line between “flawed”, real, even unlikable and stupid. I can’t abide a stupid heroine. They need to learn from their mistakes and not repeat them over and over again. Each reader has their own “stupid” threshhold, maybe that’s why some may like/love Lucy and Miranda and other hate them.

  6. joanne
    Oct 13, 2009 @ 06:21:47

    It’s a different experience for the author than it is for the reader.

    The author knows her heroine and where her heroine is ‘going’. The author wants to know about the character and about her journey. The author and heroine live together, if you will.

    The reader comes in cold and decides fairly quickly whether or not to join in that characters’ journey. The only heroine Julia Quinn wrote in her Bridgerton series that I didn’t ‘like’ was one who left, without telling her family and friends where she was going, to seek out her chance at love. Very romantic, I suppose, but I thought it was incredibly selfish and self-centered and I wouldn’t have read past the ‘fleeing’ scene if I hadn’t trusted Ms Quinn to make the story and the heroine worth my time.

    I don’t make room in ‘real life’ for unlikeable people so I’m not going to waste my leisure time reading about someone I want to slap. Who you want to slap is, of course, subjective but a selfish, whiny or rude heroine will be the end of the read for me.

    Ditto heroes. Although there is the eternal hope that all men can be changed by love. (said tongue in cheek in case there is doubt!)

  7. Maggie Robinson/Margaret Rowe
    Oct 13, 2009 @ 06:30:18

    I admire you both for taking a risk in going for tart rather than sweet. You won’t please everyone’s palate, but that’s okay. As a reader I want to see some kind of growth for the protagonists; as a writer, sometimes I fear I’ve made that learning curve too steep for some readers to swallow. But I guess I’d rather be wrong than boring, LOL.

  8. A
    Oct 13, 2009 @ 06:40:36


    Ditto heroes. Although there is the eternal hope that all men can be changed by love. (said tongue in cheek in case there is doubt!)

    LOL…I LOATHE, absolutely LOATHE….Heathcliff and Cathy (“Wuthering Heights”) I can’t find one single redeeming factor in either of them.

  9. jmc
    Oct 13, 2009 @ 06:46:41

    Generally speaking, a heroine doesn’t have to be inoffensive in order to be likeable for me. In fact, inoffensive to the point of blandness would probably be a reason for me to put the book down. Most qualities that could be perceived as negative (bitchiness, anger, bitterness, whatever) don’t bother me, but immature behavior (outside of YA books) will. Immaturity and/or the inability to think beyond herself is one of my pet peeves in heroines.

    I haven’t read Can’t Stand the Heat yet, although it is TBR. I did read Goddess of the Hunt, and Lucy was a problem for me. She came across as spoiled, self-centered, and petulant. By the time she began thinking of others, her redemption was too late: I didn’t believe in it. Ms. Dare’s writing was fabulous, and she obviously did an excellent job with characterization. It just happened that the flaw that others love in Lucy is one that I have a hard time with.

  10. RStewie
    Oct 13, 2009 @ 06:58:14

    This is a hard one. “Likable” is SO subjective. I read “likable” as inoffensive, so I have to say I don’t insist on a “likable” heroine, because for me the most important part is what she brings to the table.

    I prefer heroines to be strong, and self confident in their strengths, which can lead to mistakes (which I can completely relate to, because I am that way…to a fault sometimes). And usually, unfortunately, those mistakes can be big with big consequences. I’m good with that IRL so I am also good with that in the heroine’s life.

    What I can’t stand is a stupid heroine, or one that doesn’t grow, adapt, and change to her new circumstances. The heroines I’ve disliked the most, recently, are disingenious at best and too naive to live (TNTL??) at worst. I guess I’ve outgrown the 17YO virgin bride so many historicals threw my way until recently, and the older, smarter, stronger heroines of today have won me over.

  11. Moriah Jovan
    Oct 13, 2009 @ 07:12:38

    I have a heroine whom one reader described as a “bad-tempered bitch.” She’s not likable, but then, I didn’t intend her to be. What I intended was for her to be sort of an anti-heroine. I’ve been told she’s compelling, and surprise! Men like her A LOT, straight out of the gate (go figure).

    I have no problem with unlikable heroines, but they better be interesting.

  12. Dani
    Oct 13, 2009 @ 07:26:16

    I was actually just thinking about this. There are stories that I love where I know I would never want to spend time with the heroine, where she’s just too…something for me to like her. But the story of her journey with the hero to their HEA is just so incredible that I get over my dislike of her, ala Flowers In the Storm.

    Then there are other stories where the heroine pisses me off so much that I want her to end up miserable and I want the hero to find someone else to love ala Shanna (I still get rage when I think about her and I can’t believe I actually finished that book).

    That said, I know I’m not going to like every heroine, or every hero for that matter, but the quality of their story can go a long way into making me see past their flaws. And if a story is done the right way, the flaws of the characters make the story move, make it more interesting and keep the readers engrossed because they wonder just how these two people are going to get past their issues. I don’t want to read anything about two perfect people getting together (with a villain thrown in for conflict) and then living their perfect little life together. I like things messy, angsty and occasionally humorous.

  13. Kristen Painter
    Oct 13, 2009 @ 07:40:49

    Maria’s opening paragraph sums up my feelings pretty well. Why do we accept difficult heroes, but not difficult heroines? I’ve read Can’t Stand The Heat but not Goddess Of The Hunt, so I can only comment on Edwards book, but Miranda was a great character because she was real. She had issues to work through and that’s life – we all have issues. It was refreshing to read a heroine whose problems went beyond what shoes to wear with what dress. And Edwards did a stellar job of redeeming her in the end.

  14. Lisa Paitz Spindler
    Oct 13, 2009 @ 08:13:19

    I think the idea that a heroine must be likable relates to the notion that women in general must be likable and our societal status has for generations depended almost solely on that attribute. So, to generalize, we want to be liked because society tells us our status depends on it and we often identify with the heroine, so we want her to be likable too.

    I think this influences the dearth of Paranormal heroines as compared to heroes. We allow men in general a lot more behavioral latitude than we do women. Case in point, in Romance the hero can be a huge PITA and yet still be considered redeemable and ultimately likable. While there are certainly many more anti-heroines of late than there used to be, we still don’t allow heroines the same latitude we do heroes. Because Paranormal Romance takes everyday ideas and examines them by blowing them up to incredible proportions, we have far more heroes than heroines who are literally monsters. The remaining double-standard for women in the real world is reflected in the fictional world as well.

  15. AnimeJune
    Oct 13, 2009 @ 08:28:26

    I thought I preferred “likeable” heroines – but really, I discovered I prefer characters I can emphathize with, which I think is a wider distinction. Even if the characters make a lot of mistakes, as long as I can understand their reasonings behind their errors and can understand, I can empathize with them and enjoy them.

    For characters who don’t start out likeable but are very empathetic, I put out Freyja from Balogh’s “Slightly Scandalous,” and Melanthe from Kinsale’s “For My Lady’s Heart.” Both characters are pretty nasty at the beginning, but their characters were well-rounded and real so even their nastiness is understandable – it also makes the moments when they are kinder and more loving that much more powerful.

    Another character to think about – how about Wikus from the movie “District 9”! He’s not likeable AT ALL, but I loved him as a character because he was well-developed and understandable.

    That’s what I think I prefer in characters. Characters that are more likeable then developed are Mary Sues – because there is no real motivation or reason for why they are so nice, to everyone, ALL THE TIME. On the other end of the spectrum, we have villains who are nasty and spiteful and evil (and often perverted) for no reason other than the fact that they’re the villain.

    Right now, I’m writing a romance where the heroine is a gently-bred lady and the hero’s a footman. She’s rather aloof and perfunctory with him at first and a bit spoiled, but I hope that while she’s not likeable at novel’s start, readers will understand why she acts that way (because the hero is a servant).

  16. Heather Howard
    Oct 13, 2009 @ 08:37:54

    I really think this is more about who readers can relate to, rather than like. We all like falling in love, and the romance genre allows us to do so in a safe way, without messy strings like incompatibility in bed or money problems or arguing over who keeps stealing the covers (although I like those touches in stories, so I might be weird). If we can’t relate to the heroine, how can we ever jump into her shoes and fall in love with the hero?

    For me, a relatable heroine all depends on the writing. I can relate to anyone if the author puts in the effort. Some of my very favorite characters can be awful at times, but then again so can I, and I don’t always have to like them, because I don’t always like myself. However, as long as I understand and can feel a connection to why Character X is selfish, or foolhardy, or walled-off, I’ll be able to relate to her, and want her to win the day, because I want to win the day some day, even if I’m not perfect.

  17. Janga
    Oct 13, 2009 @ 08:45:03

    The people in my life that I care about most all have qualities that I don’t find likeable, but I forgive the things that irritate me because their strengths outweigh their flaws and because I can see them struggling to grow. I feel the same way about the fictional characters that engage me most fully. I don’t have to like everything about a character to believe in her and want to see her achieve her goals.

    All Tessa’s heroines in her first trilogy are young and immature. Lucy’s impetuousness, Sophia’s self-centeredness, and Bel’s naive idealism are qualities I find credible and forgivable in the young in RL and in fiction. They change, they grow, they come to understand the consequences of wrong choices.

    I liked Can’t Stand the Heat a lot and adored Adam, but I admit I struggled with Miranda, particularly some of her responses to her brother. She’s a good example of a heroine whom I disliked at times but never enough to make me forget all the things I did like about the book.

  18. Diana
    Oct 13, 2009 @ 08:52:39

    @Lisa Paitz Spindler: I agree, partly, but I really don’t think we can attribute people wanting to read about flawed, yet likable women to sexism and social values. That may be part of it, maybe, but I think a large part of the draw of the illusory likable heroine is probably…people not wanting to read about whiny, selfish, dull characters.

    I think you are interpreting “likable” as what society traditionally interprets likability for women as: docile, pleasant, kind, eager to please, etc. I don’t think that’s what likability means here, in regards to modern-day romance heroines. It means, to you, what is likability and I mean – would you want to read about a TSTL blonde virgin who’s personal motto is “me, me, me and me some more!”

    And I guess I didn’t get the memo about people being more lax about heroes. I am especially hard on heroes who are abusive whackjobs, and I know a lot of readers who are. A casual glance at Amazon reviews (scant evidence as this may be), also, shows that people are pretty equally hard about both heroine and hero for pretty much any perceived slight.

    I’m not saying there’s no societal pressure for women to be nice, both in RL and in fiction, but I don’t think that people who want likable characters are necessarily feeding the machine of double standards and sexism. Sometimes “likable” just means not being a self-absorbed asshat all the time, end of story.

  19. Keishon
    Oct 13, 2009 @ 09:10:07

    I have no problem with unlikable heroines, but they better be interesting

    Damn. That just about sums it up for me! Besides, the heroes make or break a book for me moreso than the unlikeable or likable heroine.

  20. Lori
    Oct 13, 2009 @ 09:46:04

    I never found Lucy unlikeable, just naive. Funny how perceptions work.

    I once heard someone describe me as “really bitchy but damned funny.” And since I’m the heroine in this story I’m living… I guess likeable isn’t that important to me.

    Although I have to take a little exception to the term likeable. Abrasive, naive, bitchy, tart … these aren’t traits to my way of thinking that negate likeability. I liked Lucy. I didn’t relate to Miranda. I didn’t like Isabel in Lady of Persuasion by Tessa Dare and yet I related to her dilemma.

    My issue tends to come from when the hero or heroine is written in such a way that I can’t see why someone is finding them attractive. A truly surly hero who is accusatory or demeaning to the heroine is a wall-banger in a much bigger way than a heroine who makes dumb choices.

    But good writing trumps all. Louisa Edward’s Miranda wasn’t a heroine I especially liked or related to but the writing was riveting and kept me reading.

  21. Toni Blake
    Oct 13, 2009 @ 10:03:23

    I’m glad to see this topic here as it’s an issue that’s been bothering me lately.

    When I first started reading and writing romance in the early/mid 90s, it was the hero who writers had to be careful with, meaning readers tended to hold the heroes to higher standards than now and they were more accepting, in my opinion, of heroines who weren’t perfect.

    And frankly, I liked things better that way. For one thing, in a good romance novel, the characters will grow and change, and that includes the heroine. If she’s not a little flawed to begin with, she has no room to grow. I am stunned at some of the heroine behavior I see criticized at many blogs these days – heroines that feel, to me, flawed but likable and real, are frequently bashed and called “Too Stupid to Live,” a phrase I personally think is tossed around WAY too liberally. For what it’s worth, does anyone ever describe a hero this way?

    Meanwhile, I see heroes being held to practically no standards at all. They can do pretty much anything they want, but if the reader still finds them sexy, it’s all okay.

    To me, this sends a bad message to women – implying that a guy can cross any boundary as long as he’s hot and has some redeeming traits. At the same time, seems like women are very eager and comfortable coming down hard on their own gender.

    I’m painting with a broad brush here, of course, but these are trends I’ve slowly watched evolving over the past few years, and again, I thought it made a lot more sense back when female readers tried a little harder to relate to the heroines and demanded their heroes display some truly heroic qualities. Just my 2 cents …

  22. Teresa Medeiros
    Oct 13, 2009 @ 10:16:06

    I like heroines with flaws. Heroines who live large and make grand mistakes and sometimes have to atone for those mistakes, growing in the process. To me, character growth has always been the essence of compelling fiction.

    The most important thing to me is that the characters (both male and female) are three-dimensional. Everyone I know personally has a gazillion different facets to their personalities. So realistic characters can pretty much be anything they want as long as you’re telling me a compelling story.

    Scarlett O’Hara is the perfect example. Vain, selfish, frequently unlikeable yet I am still in awe of her strength and her drive to survive. Almost everyone she knew (her family, Melanie and Ashley, etc.) wouldn’t have survived the war if it hadn’t been for her willingness to fight for what she wanted–including Tara. Unlikeable? Yes, frequently. Unforgettable? Always!

  23. Jill Sorenson
    Oct 13, 2009 @ 10:39:53

    Likeability is a factor for me, but I’m a generous reader, and I can sympathize with many, many flaws. I want my heroines to be good people on the inside–or at least on the road to becoming a better person. There is a difference between having a good heart and being universally appealing. For me, the former is so much more important.

    I don’t agree that standards for heroines are higher now. Men have always been able to get away with more bad behavior, and probably always will! I think we see a wider range of heroine personalities these days, whereas the innocent martyr used to be the norm. I prefer a heroine I can relate to, flaws and all.

  24. Janine
    Oct 13, 2009 @ 11:27:31

    @Toni Blake:

    When I first started reading romance in the early to mid eighties, a good number of the heroes in historical romance raped or forcibly seduced the heroines. To say they were allowed a lot of bad behavior is an understatement.

    OTOH, many of the heroines from that era were pretty strong and often flawed women — there was a kind of “battle of the sexes” flavor to a lot of the books, such as for example one of Robin’s favorites, Rangoon by Christine Monson, or the first genre romance I ever read, Heart of Thunder by Johanna Lindsey.

    My feeling as a reader who has been reading romance for a looong time (I started at a very young age) is that in the late nineties and early 2000s, the protagonists, both male and female, became a lot more well behaved.

    There was a backlash against the forced seductions and the “I hate you! Let’s have sex!” feel of some of those earlier books, which was understandable, but the result IMO was that the pendulum swung to far in the other direction, and we saw a lot of perfect, flawless characters, a lot of heroines who were kind to servants and ministered to the poor, a lot of heroes who never made a mistake. Many of the books became a little bit too bland IMO.

    I think that now we are seeing the pendulum swing back again (though NOT all the way) in the direction of more flawed characters, and I for one am glad because personally, I find it easier to relate to flawed characters; I find they feel more real to me and I get more invested in them. I understand if this doesn’t work for every reader, though.

    My personal preference is for flawed characters, but ones who have to suffer the consequences of their actions. I don’t mind an imperfect character, but I do mind a character who can get away with too many things without facing any consequences.

  25. RKCharron
    Oct 13, 2009 @ 11:40:40

    Hi :)
    Thank you for having Tessa & Louisa here today.
    What an excellent thoughtful post.
    All the best,

  26. Likari
    Oct 13, 2009 @ 12:19:24


    I think you’re supposed to loathe Cathy and Heathcliff. Their love is so selfish it destroys not only themselves but the people around them. The redemptive part of Wuthering Heights is in the second generation. Both Hareton and Catherine have a giving sort of love rather than a consuming love.

    The reason I can enjoy Cathy and Heathcliff — even as I do not admire them — is because the author doesn’t hold them out as being right or justified in their selfishness.

    And that (I hate to say this because I really, truly like Tessa Dare’s writing) was my problem with Lucy. She was an airhead, completely oblivious to other people’s feelings — in my reading — which is fine in one so young. BUT in reading, I always had the feeling that the author had no problem at all with Lucy’s selfishness. As if we are supposed to think her immaturity is a feature instead of a flaw.

    When Scarlett O’Hara hires convict labor, Mitchell explains why she does it without ever condoning the behavior. In fact, it is a sign of Scarlett’s going down the wrong path.

    I love flawed heroines — and heroes. Probably because I identify with them, and I’m so flawed! I think for me my liking or not liking an “unlikable” character is based on whether I sense that the author and I are in agreement as to what constitutes a character’s flaws — and virtues, for that matter.

  27. willaful
    Oct 13, 2009 @ 12:33:13

    I’ve only read Seduction of a Siren but I loved it and am continually surprised at seeing critiques of the heroine. Honestly, I didn’t even notice anything unlikeable about her or if I did, it didn’t make much of an impression. Though I don’t think I expect to “like” romance characters as a general rule, since so many of them behave in ways far beyond the bounds of normal likeable behavior. Seriously, the Old Skool heroes and the modern category heroines? We might enjoy their stories, but it has nothing to do with liking them as people.

  28. SonomaLass
    Oct 13, 2009 @ 12:41:32

    Great comments so far! I agree with many of them. For me, the first issue is believability — I don’t like characters who don’t ring true. That means that I need to understand why they are the way they are. Their flaws need to make sense, not just be random personality traits. People IRL make mistakes, but they have reasons for their choices, and that’s what I want to see in fiction, too.

    I want to be able to cheer for both the main characters; I want to WANT them to get together. And sometimes that means wanting them to get smacked upside the head in order to see what I can see easily as a reader! If I believe that the main characters will be good for each other, then I can handle each of them having some lessons to learn in order to get there. I need to see them coming to terms with each other’s imperfections and making choices that respect the other’s needs and identity, so that I can believe they will be happy together.

    I don’t like doormat heroines, and I don’t like characters who get away with too much. As Janine says, I want consequences. I like characters who own their mistakes; in literature as in life, I dislike people who find others to blame for everything and refuse to take ownership of their own bad choices.

  29. Jessica Scott
    Oct 13, 2009 @ 12:46:17

    I think we’re too hard on female characters, just like in the army, we’re harder on female soldiers than we are on the males. Men get away with being tough and strict whereas women are simply a bitch. And you know who are the hardest on female soldiers? Other females. We have the same thing in the romance genre. I don’t have to like a heroine but I have to be able to understand her motivation. For me, I don’t have unlikeable heroines, I read heroines that I can’t respect because of weakness or some other flaw that I find abhorent. I have a problem when female soldiers are allowed to get away with more and I don’t like it when we allow our characters to be weak because they’re girls.
    Great discussion! Thanks so much for bringing up a relevant and very real discussion in our genre.

  30. Stephanie Draven
    Oct 13, 2009 @ 12:50:53

    I personally found Tessa Dare’s Lucy to be one of the most refreshing historical heroine’s that I’ve read in years. Instead of a self-effacing spinster or seduced ingenue, Lucy is a brash little tart! I couldn’t have been more delighted with her.

    I have to wonder how many heroines in fiction we “like” because we’ve been taught that we ought to like them by literary convention. How many of these butter-wouldn’t-melt-in-her-mouth heroines would we really be friends with in real life?

  31. GrowlyCub
    Oct 13, 2009 @ 13:36:14

    As somebody else said, for me it’s not about whether I like a character, male or female, but whether I can care about what happens to them. They do not need to be perfect, they can make mistakes, but the author must be able to make me care about what happens to them.

    I *hated* (darn already forgot her name and I read the book yesterday) Bel; with a passion, almost put down the book, she was such a self-righteous prig, but ended up sticking it out because I really liked Toby. I ended the book thinking she hadn’t grown at all and that the hero, Toby, didn’t deserve to be stuck with her and that I had no idea why he was in love with or loved her as they had absolutely nothing in common.

    Lucy didn’t bother me as much, but Sophia I abandoned half-way through because neither she nor Gray did a thing for me. I didn’t care about them. Which in my world is the worst you can say about a story.

    It’s not about heroines being docile or relatable or nice. It’s about them coming to acknowledge they were wrong, noticing it’s not all about them and growing as persons and with both Sophia and Bel I did not see that growth at all. So consequently, I didn’t like them, but not because they were immature and flawed, but because they didn’t learn or care about anybody but their own agendas.

  32. Elyssa Papa
    Oct 13, 2009 @ 13:50:43

    @Toni Blake I so agree. This happens in “real life” too where men are more readily excused for bad behavior than women are. Or just the simple fact that a man can be overweight and still successful in Hollywood while if a woman’s fat, she becomes the spokeswoman for Nutrisystem, Jenny Craig, or Weight Watcher’s.

    I love imperfect heroines. I love imperfect heroes. I don’t like reading books where people don’t make mistakes and grow from them. So give me problematic people—it just depends on how the author handles it, I guess. I think Sherry Thomas writes some of the most diversified and conflicted heroines I’ve read to date—they are by no means unselfish, and they go after what they want in life, with sometimes to the detriment to their happiness. But it’s why I read her books.

    And yes, there are things that touch my hot button that make me think: yeah this woman is imperfect but I still hate her. (Same goes with the guy.)

  33. Heike M.
    Oct 13, 2009 @ 14:25:57

    First and foremost, I want to see some of growth in the heroines (and heroes).

    But in pondering some of the examples, I realized how very subjective “likability” is: I love Elizabeth Bennet and loathe Emma Woodhouse, at least until she comes to her senses, which is quite late in the book, then I sort of like her;
    I liked Lucy very much in Goddess of the Hunt and I loathed Sophia in Surrender of a Siren.
    I like some of the inoffensive heroines and some of the self-effacing spinsters/elder sisters… I’m bored by cardboard characters, may they be perfectly perfect or perfectly evil…

    I agree with Stephanie Draven that we might “like” many heroines in fiction because we've been taught that we ought to like them by literary convention, and/or because of cultural stereotypes, etc. Which makes changes in conventions very interesting to me.

  34. MB
    Oct 13, 2009 @ 14:27:47

    I like imperfect, I like real heroines!

    BUT! My pet peeves are TSTL women who shouldn’t be allowed to breed, selfish women who purposefully hurt those around them, too unselfish women who don’t have brains enough to stand up for themselves, women who stay with abusive men and/or don’t protect their children, women who don’t work, whether at home or not in contemporaries and women who don’t try to improve themselves and their surroundings in historicals, and whininess.

    All of these character traits can be ignored if the characterization is strong enough and I come to care about the character and if the quality of writing is good. But if not, the book becomes a wall-banger for me.

  35. Angelia Sparrow
    Oct 13, 2009 @ 15:54:13

    I like a challenging heroine. TSTL will grate on me every time. Self-absorbed is not necessarily challenging.

    You ladies are lucky your pubs took a chance. I had one story go through seven houses before anyone was willing to take a chance on my western. Everyone called her unlikeable, hard to sympathize with and a murderer. (Well, she is a gunfighter, but so is the hero)

  36. Christine Wells
    Oct 13, 2009 @ 15:55:11

    This is a topic that always interests me, because I love flawed heroines. I think when some readers have strong negative reactions to a heroine, it might have something to do with who out of the hero and heroine has the longer arc or more obstacles to overcome on the path to love.

    I think it’s difficult to have a universally liked heroine when she has an arc which doesn’t relate to her evolving sexuality. When she struggles against some internal obstacle that stops her loving the hero and repeatedly fails to make that leap, some readers (who hopefully are already in love with the hero) get frustrated. They want her to get over it, already and can’t she see what a great guy this hero is? I’d be interested to know what percentage of universally loved heroines realize their love for the hero long before the hero admits to his. I’d be willing to bet it’s pretty high.

    My last heroine, Sarah, in Wicked Little Game, provoked strong reactions in readers. I heard a lot of “I wanted to slap her sometimes, but I understood how hard it was for her to trust again.” I don’t think it’s possible for me to write a heroine with a view to making her likeable. They just come out on the page as they live in my head.

  37. Stephanie Draven
    Oct 13, 2009 @ 16:59:30

    @Heike M.: You might want to check out Philippa Gregory’s WIDEACRE for a “heroine” who totally flies in the face of literary convention. She’s so hateful she actually wraps around to becoming fascinating. Reading that book made me start to think about how we’ve been trained, as readers, to react to certain characters and I think I’m more aware of it now as someone who wants to see women freed from the social constraints that still bind us.

  38. library addict
    Oct 13, 2009 @ 17:30:37

    I love reading about flawed heroines and heroes. Flaws are what make characters multi-dimensional. So I don't think flaws in-and-of-themselves make a character unlikable. It really depends upon the flaw and the reader's own personal hot buttons.

    I agree with others who have said it's not about whether I like a character, but whether I can care about what happens. There have been numerous times when I like the hero of the book, but not the heroine (Nora Roberts' Key of Valor for example, I adored Brad but couldn't stand Zoe) and vice versa where I like the heroine, but not the hero. And there are books when I like both the hero and heroine, but their story just doesn't engage me for some reason.

    And as Jane said, likable is so subjective. I did not like Claire in Outlander, but to others she's one of the best heroines ever. Whereas, I love Eve's contradictory nature in the In Death series, but others feel she's too brash.

    I dislike heroines who act TSTL. I read a lot of romantic suspense and do not like it when the author has the heroine do something stupid just to move the plot along (and it's almost always the heroine who does, rarely the hero). I don't like it when characters spend the whole book dealing with a big misunderstanding which they could easily solve by having a two-minute conversation.

    But it is difficult to say I don't like a book because of an “unlikable” heroine. There are plenty of books on my keeper shelf with heroines who wouldn't make my personal favorites list, but where I liked the hero and the story enough to make up for that fact. Just as there are plenty of books where I started off not liking the heroine, but change my mind about her by the end of the book. For me, I don't have to necessarily identify with the heroine or think I would make the same choices if I were in her shoes. I'm not a fan of “Mary Sue” heroines and don't read books trying to put myself in the heroine's place.

    The bottom line is I want the same basic thing in a heroine as I do a hero: a character with some depth whom I will want to turn the page to keep reading about.

  39. Christine Wells
    Oct 13, 2009 @ 17:31:39

    Stephanie, yes, wasn’t Wideacre superb?–I always describe the heroine as Scarlett O’Hara on crack. She is hateful but utterly compelling.

  40. Amber
    Oct 13, 2009 @ 17:54:19

    I think it says a lot about an author’s skill that they can create a character so believable that we get to debate whether we like them or not.

    The worst sin from my standpoint as a reader is to write a character that I find unbelievable. They have to be genuine. They have to behave in ways that seem true to who they are. They do not have to be nice, but there has to be something redeeming about them (some way I can identify with them)…otherwise I’m not that interested in finding out what happens to them.

    For me, a perfect character is inherently unbelievable. Everyone has flaws. No one is perfect. Some are more flawed than others.

  41. Jennie
    Oct 13, 2009 @ 17:56:58

    As someone who has in the past decried how hard romance readers are on heroines and how easy on heroes, I am always chagrined when I don’t like a heroine. I do think it comes down to being able to empathize with the heroine, though (that certainly helps in my tolerance for unlikable heroes, too).

    I have liked many an “unlikable” heroine – Zenia, from The Dream Hunter, for instance. But I still feel bad when I don’t like a heroine. I think that I may be guilty of being harder on heroines in some situations, if only because as a romance reader I’ve been basically conditioned to expect a certain amount of jerkiness from a hero. Though I have seen a change in the past decade in the character of the “typical” hero, and I think it’s generally been a positive one. In the past, I sometimes felt that “alpha” (read “jerk”) heroes were so ubiquitous that I pretty much had to put up with them, or I wouldn’t have had anything to read.

    I pretty much find that a good writer employing good characterization can make any character at least a little sympathetic to me, if they are so inclined. That’s one reason that I don’t have hot-button topic no-nos like adultery – it really all depends on how its presented.

  42. Stephanie Draven
    Oct 13, 2009 @ 18:08:58

    @Christine Wells: You’re right! Miss Scarlett has nothing on Beatrice Lacey. I hated that witch, but found myself actually weeping by the end of the book. Maybe we all have an internal bad girl that we wish would be redeemed.

  43. Meljean
    Oct 13, 2009 @ 18:24:51

    I don’t mind flaws, as long as the heroine owns them. And I won’t dislike a heroine just for being snarky, selfish, shallow, whatever.

    Stupidity is something else. I hate stupid heroines. A little naive, okay. Makes mistakes, fine. Runs downstairs into the basement when she should be running out the front door … it depends on her reasons. But out-and-out stupid? See book hit wall.

    ETA: @GrowlyCub:

    As somebody else said, for me it's not about whether I like a character, male or female, but whether I can care about what happens to them. They do not need to be perfect, they can make mistakes, but the author must be able to make me care about what happens to them.

    This is it for me, too. I don’t want to be the heroine, and I don’t want to be her friend. It’s not whether I like her as a person (although that doesn’t hurt) but whether I care about what happens to her.

  44. A
    Oct 13, 2009 @ 18:49:41

    @Stephanie Draven:

    You're right! Miss Scarlett has nothing on Beatrice Lacey. I hated that witch, but found myself actually weeping by the end of the book. Maybe we all have an internal bad girl that we wish would be redeemed.

    This is such an interesting comment. I loved “Wideacre.” Beatrice Lacey “reached” me because, though her actions were quite horrible, her motives and drives were understandable to me. Don’t get me wrong, I’m convinced she was absolutely antisocial. But I liked her story.

    As for the ending…I liked it. It made sense.

  45. Likari
    Oct 13, 2009 @ 18:53:11

    I should add — just in case Ms. Dare is watching, ha — that this post reminded me to bop on over to the Sony store and buy the second and third books in the series.

    Point? I want to see how things turn out for everyone — and that’s my definition of good storytelling!

  46. A
    Oct 13, 2009 @ 18:58:15



    I think you're supposed to loathe Cathy and Heathcliff. Their love is so selfish it destroys not only themselves but the people around them. The redemptive part of Wuthering Heights is in the second generation. Both Hareton and Catherine have a giving sort of love rather than a consuming love.

    The reason I can enjoy Cathy and Heathcliff -‘ even as I do not admire them -‘ is because the author doesn't hold them out as being right or justified in their selfishness.

    Likari, I agree with your perspective, but I have had knock-down arguments with C/H “groupies” about their love. Sorry, if Heathcliff were my husband, relative, or neighbor, he would not fascinate me; I’d be filing criminal charges against him and persuading his close kin to have him interdicted.

  47. Gina
    Oct 13, 2009 @ 18:59:49

    For the most part, I like to read about women to whom I can relate. That doesn’t mean likeable, per say. Many of my dearest friends are outspoken, sarcastic, slightly rude, leap-first ask-later women who make mistakes and keep on chuggin’. Perfect is boring. I don’t want to read perfection.

    But I also avoid immature, selfish women in my social circle because there is really only so much eye-rolling I can do before the headache sets in. I don’t want to read about heroines like that, either. I can’t root for them in real life, and I can’t root for them in a book. It’s subjective, though. One woman’s immaturity is another woman’s naivety.

    Some of my favorite prickly heroines are Min from Bet Me, Lilith from Demon Angel, and Miki from Go Fetch. I wouldn’t define any of them as traditionally “likeable” characters. Big personalities, big issues, and big mouths; I rooted for them all the way to their happy endings. My absolute favorite thing about those books and those heroines is that they didn’t have to become “likeable” to get their happy endings. Their heroes love them because of their flaws, not despite them.

    I experience heroes differently. I’ll admit to loving a good alpha hero, but what I want from a hero is the best, most interesting compliment to my heroine. I love Kleypas’s St Vincent because he really pops against Evie as a heroine. I didn’t find him that interesting in Lilian’s book, but hubba hubba in Evie’s book. Ultimately the hero has to root for the heroine as much as I do, so in some ways I hold the hero to a higher standard.

  48. Tracy Grant
    Oct 13, 2009 @ 19:01:04

    Wonderful topic! Like Christine Wells, I loved flawed heroines. I love flawed heroes too, but I think in general heroes are more likely to be flawed. One of my favorite Georgette Heyer novels is An Infamous Army, with a heroine who in some ways is a female rake. She does some not very nice things, but she also grows and changes in the course of the book. The resolution is quite touching, despite an interesting conversation between the hero’s brother and sister-in-law about whether or not the change in the heroine will last.

    I’m not sure what it says about me, but I tend to identify with flawed heroines (my own and other writers) more than sweet, virtuous ones. When I started writing traditional Regencies with my mom years ago, a lot of friends said I was like Philippa, the quiet, novelist heroine of our second book, The Courting of Philippa. But actually I identified a lot more with the sharp-tongued Nicola in our fourth book, The Counterfeit Heart. I’m always fascinated by readers’ reactions to Mélanie in my current series. I had some friends tell me I had to soften her when I was writing Secrets of a Lady/Daughter of the Game (I didn’t). Some readers have written to me that they find it hard to forgive her, even though they enjoy the books. Others get frustrated with the hero, Charles, for not forgiving her sooner. To me, that’s what makes her interesting to write about.

  49. library addict
    Oct 13, 2009 @ 22:41:22

    Sadly, my earlier, much more coherent post disappeared.

    I enjoy flawed heroines. Flaws make characters realistic, so I don't believe that flaws in-and-of-themselves make characters unlikable. As Jane said, “unlikable” is very subjective. It has more to do with the reader's personal hot-buttons.

    I think Claire from the Outlander series is unlikable, but to many she's one of the best heroines ever. I love the way Eve Dallas is so contrary in the In Death series, but I know others think she is too brash. One reader's trash is another's treasure.

    And just because I find a heroine unlikable doesn't mean I won't enjoy her book. For example, I dislike Zoe from Nora Roberts' Key of Valor a lot, but I am partial to Brad and like the book overall. My keeper shelf has many books where the heroines would never make my personal favorites list. And like Meljean said, I don't want to be the heroine, and I don't want to be her friend. I have never understood the attraction to the whole “Mary Sue” heroine thing.

    My keeper shelf also has books where I like the heroine and not the hero. And books where I start off not liking the heroine, but by the end of the book I have changed my mind.

    The one thing that consistently makes a heroine unlikable to me is when she is TSTL. I read a lot of romantic suspense and a big pet peeve of mine is when the author has the otherwise intelligent heroine do something stupid just to move the story along. Unfortunately, it is almost always the heroine and rarely the hero.

    The bottom line is that I want the same thing from a heroine as I do a hero: a multi-layered character who will keep me turning the page to discover more about them and follow on their journey.

  50. Magnolia88
    Oct 14, 2009 @ 12:09:01

    I’m surprised so many people consider Lucy “unlikable” in Goddess of the Hunt. I thought she was naive and sheltered, certainly, but I thought she was fun and I liked that she went after what she wanted instead of being a passive martyr, like so many romance heroines. And she did grow and change during the book I thought.

    In fact, I liked Lucy better than either Sophia (oh, I’m so beautiful and so very rich! Woe is me! ugh) or Bel, neither of whom I found very appealing or relatable. But I enjoy Tessa Dare’s writing and she made me like the books anyway.

    Sometimes I enjoy the story even when I don’t particularly like or relate to the characters, and that includes both heroines and heroes (although I loved Gray, and that helped). In fact, some of my favorite romance novels have characters I really don’t like at all — To Have and to Hold by Patricia Gaffney comes to mind. Absolutely appalling “hero,” but that is still one fabulous book. Give me an “unlikable” character who is interesting over one who is “likable” but bland and boring any day.

  51. orannia
    Oct 14, 2009 @ 15:32:34

    Fascinating post and comments! I too like flawed heroines. I think the most important thing for me is the motivation behind the action – the heroine has to have a reason for acting the way she does and she has to grow and develop as the book progresses. Actually, I don’t mind the inoffensive heroine (maybe because I can relate :) but I do think the reader needs to understand why she is that way. It has to make sense IMO.

    Louisa said:

    …because I think perfection is boring and intimidating enough that it's really hard, for me, to like and relate to characters with no flaws.

    I so agree! And extrapolating, what about the physical perfection or not of a character? Is the odd physical ‘flaw’ not acceptable? Is it wrong for a heroine to be attractive rather than drop-dead gorgeous?

  52. kaigou
    Oct 14, 2009 @ 20:16:10


    it's not about whether I like a character, male or female, but whether I can care about what happens to them

    Exactly, but that highlights what I think is the subtle confusion in the post/thread. It’s conflating “likeable” with “sympathetic”. One can be one, and not the other. It’s not that common, granted; most stories I can think of off the top of my head, much of the character’s sympathetic traits are related to, and/or draw power from, the fact that I genuinely like the character. That is, if you like a character, you tend to go a bit easier on them, or at least give them more time before ditching them for their unsympathetic actions.

    Actually, the first time I can recall reading a story with my thinking-cap on and really seeing the contrast was in a fantasy novel, The Cipher (Diana Francis) — it’s fantasy, with undertone/side-plot of romance, but what made it stand out is that the heroine is sympathetic but not very likeable, while the hero is charming and definitely likeable… and (until he atones) not sympathetic at all. It makes for a strange if wonderful and rare tension in the storyline, but I recall Francis mentioning on her blog the number of reviews she got where readers either loved or hated one (or both) lead protags. Reading those reviews myself, it seemed as though readers were doing the same there, as here: confusing “empathizing” with “sympathizing”, to some degree.

    Me, I don’t mind if a character is unlikeable. Being pretty much unlikeable myself, I appreciate a story where the heroine (or hero) is unlikeable and yet still ends up happy. What I can’t stand is when a character is unsympathetic; if I can’t empathize with his/her motivations, then it doesn’t matter how charming the character is, the story’s still headed for a DNF.

  53. blabla
    Oct 15, 2009 @ 04:43:00

    Am I the only one who feels like rolling their eyes every time any author mentions how they love, adore. cherish, etc, those mean heroines that grates on everyone else’s nerves???

  54. Jane
    Oct 15, 2009 @ 12:10:07

    @blabla I would love to do a reverse article. I need to try to contact some authors. I really really appreciate Tessa and Louisa replying to my emails and participating in this conversation.

  55. Teresa
    Dec 02, 2009 @ 02:28:56

    I loved all of those In death books. I think Eve is the female version of the guy no one understands except the person that loves them. I also liked Min from Bet me. I did agree about Wuthering heights I enjoy the story but always felt that Heathcliff and Cathy were a bit too selfish most of the time. I’m in the minority but I wasn’t that crazy about Claire in Outlander. She would never listen and always got into many dumb fixes. A great read despite that.

  56. Mark
    Feb 25, 2013 @ 00:07:13


    For me it wasn’t Scarlett hiring convict labour as much as the way that she allowed them to be completely abused like a Jew in a concentration camp. Overworked, constantly in chains, starved to the point of emaciation, whipped, isolated from ever seeing any friends or family, their spirits completely broken, some of them even died as they dedicated the rest of their lives to making the engineer of their misery rich beyond need. In return she allowed the cruel overseer to abuse them in any way he saw fit, and offered them no protection whatsoever.

    Maybe it’s just me, but how someone could still admire her after that?

    Well – let’s just say they have a very different moral code to mine.

  57. Mark
    Feb 25, 2013 @ 00:20:21


    Hahaha – yes indeed!

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