Trope Tuesday is a weekly meme hosted by A.J. @ Lacy Literacy. The goal is to discuss a trope you are indifferent to, love, hate, or think is problematic.
This week, I’m going to be discussing the oft-cited trope of the “unlikable” main character.
First off, I think it’s important to get an idea of what qualifies a character as “unlikeable.” What traits do these characters have in common? Is it their voice on the page, or their actions and behaviors?
I don’t know that there’s a simple answer to this. Obviously, different readers are annoyed by different things—one of the reasons Trope Tuesday is so much fun. I’ve notice some common themes in reviewers’ descriptions of characters as unlikeable: the reader engages in behaviors or attitudes deemed inappropriate; the character is standoffish, anti-social, or blunt; the character makes bad choices. While opinions vary, it seems to come down to how a reader judges the character’s behavior—and whether or not it seems justified.
Sexual morals are a gray area for a lot of people, particularly when it comes to teenagers. I’m sure there are plenty of adults who read YA and believe that teenagers don’t (or shouldn’t) have sex. The fact is, kids do have sex, but they’re often only armed with misinformation, and they’re highly vulnerable to problematic ideologies.
In This Lullaby (Sarah Dessen, 2004), protagonist Remy has a reputation for having sex, and a calculated method of ending relationships before they get emotionally serious. While the book isn’t perfect, by any means, it’s worth noting the nuanced discussion of the emotional meaning of sex and how it can change from person to person, from relationship to relationship.
In Firsts (Laurie Elizabeth Flynn), Mercedes sleeps with virgin boys to teach them how to give their girlfriends an amazing. Obviously the morals are incredibly gray here: I don’t think anyone would say you should sleep with other girls’ boyfriends. Still, I think it’s important that we have books actively addressing slut-shaming as it functions in high schools, and this book also does a good job addressing the emotional consequences of having casual sex. That’s not to say that it’s impossible to have sex without emotions, but sex is always complex, especially when you’re young.
I’ve also seen a lot of Goodreads reviewers who berate protagonists for their blunt, antisocial behavior, which often leads other characters to label the MC a bitch. Two recent examples in my reading life include Julia, the main character of You’re Welcome, Universe (Whitney Gardner, 2017), and Parker, the main character in Not If I See You First (Eric Lindstrom, 2015).
Both Julia and Parker have good reason for being mistrustful of their peers: Julia is Deaf and Parker is blind, and both have been taken advantage of in the past. A big part of Julia’s journey is dealing with her mistrust of “Hearies” and opening up to a new friend in spite of communication difficulties. In Parker’s case, her tendency to bluntly speak her mind leads people to view her as a bitch. A big part of her character growth is recognizing the ways that she’s been self-centered, but some readers might find her bitter narration reason to label her “unlikeable.”
Anyone who’s been a teenager can attest that it’s all about figuring yourself out, making some mistakes along the way. Often, though, the line between character growth and bad decisions gets blurred.
A great example of this is Molly, the protagonist of 99 Days by Katie Cotugno. The reviews on Goodreads show that this is very much a love it or hate it book. The book follows Molly’s last summer in town, infamous as the girl who slept with her boyfriend’s brother. Everyone in town pretty much hates her now, so she spends most of the book waiting to escape while reflecting on her past behavior. Cheating isn’t a gray area to me, but I also recognize that teenagers make mistakes. As much as we all hate the love triangle trope, it exists for a reason, and 99 Days is a great depiction of Molly’s struggle to figure out what she wants and whom she loves.
In Don’t Ever Change, main character Eva spends her last summer before college making plenty of mistakes. She hopes to be a great writer someday, yet she doesn’t really observe the world around her very well. She ends up with the wrong guys multiple times in search of a great story, only to discover that the right one was there all along, unappreciated and unrecognized. Although it’s frustrating to read, particularly when you recognize the value of the “right guy” all along, I found this book very realistic to my experiences both as a young woman and as a writer.
why do these characters get a bad rap?
Although these three different tropes seem pretty different, there’s a connection. What’s interesting about each of these girls is that they’re each engaging in some kind of behavior that’s deemed unacceptable by society at large, whether it’s having casual sex, speaking her mind regardless of the feelings of others, refusing to participate in social life, or making out with the wrong guys. A reader doesn’t have to be actively slut-shaming to feel uncomfortable reading about a girl who has sex without emotions. A reader doesn’t have to be sweet as candy to everyone to recognize a character’s behavior as “bitchy.” Why? Because ideologies of how girls should behave are ingrained in our culture.
This is why I, personally, love reading snarky, bitchy, sex-loving, mistake-making characters. Not just because they’re going against the patriarchy in their own small ways, but because I was an unlikeable teenage girl. I spent most of my teen years being extremely bitter, depressed, socially awkward, irritable—and I kept making teenage-like mistakes into my early twenties. I like reading these girls because it makes me feel that my experience wasn’t an anomaly. They make me smile and laugh with their mistakes because they remind me of my own journey and just how far I’ve come.
For girls currently struggling to figure themselves out, it’s so important for them to see these representations and realize that it’s okay to not have everything figured out. You can fuck up without being a fuck-up. It’s important for girls to read about other girls making mistakes, because maybe they’ll learn from those mistakes—it’s certainly how I learned a lot of things. Maybe they’ll learn something about themselves. Maybe they’ll gain a more nuanced perspective on sex, socializing, and making mistakes.
The older I get, the more I come to believe that reading isn’t supposed to be a comfortable experience. Sure, sometimes you just want to curl up with a cute romance and escape from your own head for a while. But the most important part of reading for me is encountering characters who make me question my perceptions, who show me experiences I haven’t had, who remind me that different is beautiful. This is the big reason I’m working to read more diverse books this year, but it’s also the reason I want more angsty, snarky, “unlikeable” narrators: because we all need to challenge our perceptions of what it means to be human.
What do you think makes a character unlikeable? Do you have any snarky lady characters you think I should read? Let me know in the comments!