Part of the process I went through with writing female protagonists in both novels was that they had to be made more ‘likeable’ through various drafts. Yep. Because the standard in commercial fiction is to create warm, likeable female leads… whaa?
I was recounting this to a male friend recently and suddenly felt embarrassed. Why the pressure to be so likeable and, well, soft around the edges? Especially when I don’t think we put men under the same scrutiny. Kathleen Turner says something similar in this excellent interview here, but it’s not uncommon: when a woman’s firm and knows what she wants, there’s a certain element of wariness surrounding her, an idea that she might be difficult. Words like ‘ambition’ are bandied about, and not positively. Whereas a man will be called decisive or powerful for exhibiting the same behaviour. Things are certainly changing, but we’re not there yet.
Maggie, my lead in Precious Things is a busy working mum juggling a multitude of balls in the air. Sometimes, that makes her more blunt than other characters who aren’t dealing with the same pressures, and less patient with her loved ones. And yet, I felt that need to soften her up and sway the readers’ empathy towards her at all times. Similarly, in my second novel, Dressing the Dearloves, Sylvie suffers a massive career failure and loss of confidence. It makes her self-absorbed and prickly at times, but I worried there was a danger that readers would turn against her, rather than feeling on her side if I let it happen too often. I was more comfortable this time making her irritable when the situation called for it.
My characters aren’t perfect people; they’re flawed. Of course they’re not, otherwise what would be the point of telling their stories and going on a journey with them for the duration of a novel? And besides, who’s ever really good 100% of the time? Perfect, polite characters would make for very boring reading indeed. Instead, these women are grappling with doubt and harsh, critical self-judgement. They’re still learning how to be in the world, in one way or another. They’re not Manic Pixie Dream Girls. They’re grown women with real problems that need to be fixed, and while one point of fiction is certainly escapism, these stories are rooted in the real world. I genuinely hope they speak to the women reading them, and writing overly sweet, unrealistic female characters would probably make real women feel frustrated and potentially even worse about themselves. So I walk that line.
Part of my own journey in life has been to gravitate towards the upbeat when I’m feeling sad or down. That’s not just me; it’s science. We know that harsh, jangly music puts us in a fractured state. And that watching the news or a particularly violent film can do more harm than good. What we feed ourselves with – in books or in film, in what we watch or listen to and the people we surround ourselves with – matters. But I don’t want to write shallow stories, or light and fluffy characters who are simply there to be enjoyed. I want complex narratives and characters that stay with you. Who sometime help readers come to a better understanding of themselves or the world. What do they say? You teach what you most need to learn, and I’m learning just as much as the reader is.
So I want to write women I can be proud of. Flawed and striving to be better and sometimes socially awkward or messy at times, but strong, potently powerful women who drive their own destiny rather than waiting for things to happen. Not perfect, but perfectly good role models.
Because to fail and fail again, and still keep trying – that’s true beauty, right? I think we need to allow people a little leeway as they make their way in life. Whether they’re overwhelmingly likeable or not.