Thursday, July 10, 2014

9 Unlikeable Characters and Mary Sues: Do We Give More Leeway to Male Characters than Female Characters?

Creating a character readers with whom readers connect is tricky. It takes more than creating a heroic or sexy character. It takes more than creating a well-rounded character with quirks and flaws. There are plenty of deep, fascinating characters with whom readers don't connect. Just as we take an instinctive like or dislike to real people, we also engage more with certain protagonists on the page.

Caricature by J.J., SVG file by Gustavb
What is it that makes a character likable? Some of the common denominators in likable characters include making sure that she (or he):

  • has something she loves.
  • has something she fights for.
  • is willing to sacrifice for something.
  • has some special skill or ability.
  • has some handicap or hardship that makes her an underdog.
  • has a flaw that readers can relate to and forgive.
  • operates from motivation the readers can see and understand.
  • has wit, spunk, or a sense of humor.

But that's not the end of the story. Just sprinkling one or two of the above items into a story can make the plot and character feel cardboard and a bit cliche. Most of those "fixes" have been used so often they've led to a whole class of character called a Mary Sue, a figure so romanticized or perfect he or she doesn't come across as believable. Here, by the way, is THE definitive quiz on Mary Sues:

But okay, say a character isn't a Mary Sue. Say she (or he) has one or more of the traits that should make her likeable. She's flawed and complex, and better yet, her flaws and strengths directly drive the plot and make the outcome of the story unpredictable. But still the 'unlikeable' word rears it's ugly head.

Time for tougher questions.

Especially when it comes to the strong female protagonist that so many of us are trying to do justice to lately, how tough is too tough? How much vulnerability do we need to show? How much emotion does a character need to express, and how often? How many hard, confusing, or unlikeable decisions can she make?

As a point of discussion, let's take Katniss Everdeen. There is no question that the whole HUNGER GAMES trilogy is beyond successful, and Katniss is an unforgetable character. But she is one of the recent characters I've seen most often described as "unlikeable." Do you agree? Disagree?

THE HUNGER GAMES is dark and the books get progressively darker. It's tough to be inside that world, and even tougher to be inside Katniss's head. I know for me, I fell in love with Katniss when I saw her willingness to sacrifice for Prim, and she had me hooked with her tenderness to Rue. Her concern for Rue's family, too, made me love her, as did her self-doubt, her willingness to acknowledge and dislike her own questionable motives. I believed in Katniss, hook, line and bow string. In CATCHING FIRE, Katniss was just as real. But Prim was stronger. There was no Rue character. Her situation was much harder, more ambiguous. She was tougher. Did that make her less likeable? I've certainly read that people believe that was the case. What about her depression in MOCKINGJAY? Was that too much?

And here's a better question. Would we be having the same conversation about likeability if Katniss had been a male protagonist?

At the NoVA Teen Book Festival this year, Meagan Spooner mentioned that she got all kinds of hate mail about Lilac, the main female character in THESE BROKEN STARS. That book is wonderful. And Lilac is a terrific character with a huge character ARC. She begins as a spoiled and bitchy rich girl--but even in the darkest early moments of bitchiness, Meagan and her co-author, Amie Kaufman, were careful to lay the foundations that let readers see that there was more going on than met the eye. That was one of the the things that drew me into the book so quickly. Why was Lilac behaving the way she was toward Tarver? Why was she making herself behave that way toward him? Finding out kept me turning pages until I discovered the reason, and by that time, Lilac had already started her transformation into a character I could love.

I can't help wondering if there would have been any complaints at all if the shoe had been on the other foot. Had Tarver been the pampered, beautiful playboy and Lilac the intelligent and hardworking hero, would there have been any hate mail at all? I kind of doubt it, given that that's the cast of the majority of commercial fiction.

I'd love to hear your thoughts. Have you read THESE BROKEN STARS and THE HUNGER GAMES? Would character likeability have been a question at all if the genders of Lilac and Katniss had been reversed?


  1. haven't read Hunger Games, just watched the movie. Didn't like Katniss at all. Sounds like her character is handled differently in the books though.
    My main character starts out unlikeable in my first book. Some reviewers even said too unlikeable. So even male characters can get some flack.

    1. That's a good point, Alex. I think they do get flack, I just wonder if it's as much flack as the female characters get.

  2. I've read both of them. I didn't like Katniss that much, but I didn't like the premise of the story so it was difficult to get past that. I liked Lilac. Her character arc was so much better than the one the writer put Katniss through. She changed for the better. I had no problem with either of these characters as far as gender concerns. But I do see your point. I find it difficult to write girls myself because I tend to write them cold.

    1. I loved Lilac too, and I agree about the upward versus downward trajectories. Although I did love Katniss--I just hated the ARC in her third book. And I think that coldness is where we the gender issue most comes in. Do you find that you can write the same character as a boy and not have readers complain about coldness or lack of connection?

  3. I read the Hunger Games trilogy. I had no complaints about Katniss. I found myself rooting for her. I haven't read These Broken Stars, but I will look for it. I think male characters get a pass in ways female characters don't. Interesting discussion.

  4. Do male characters have it easier? Ask Iron Man:

    Take the suit away and what are you?

    Genius, billionaire, playboy philanthropist. (Then add: selfish, vain, arrogant, reckless, hot tempered and often immature.)

    And that's pretty much Batman, too.

    Now, take away the Y chromosome, and guess who you've got.

    The name's Sue. Mary Sue.

  5. I really disliked Katniss in the Hunger Games, but I also don't like Peeta or Gale, and enjoyed reading about Rue and Johanna, so I don't think it's a gender thing. I have to say, however, I do get really annoyed when Katniss gets called a "Mary Sue", in the same way that I get annoyed when people call Harry Potter or Arya Stark "sue-ish."

    Because if they're Mary Sue's, what exactly do we want? Super unlikable, unremarkable people doing nothing and failing at most things?

    We want to read about remarkable people in interesting situations. And it really bothers me when people talk about characters they dislike and immediately jump to the Mary Sue label--especially against women. There's a large number of people who dislike the women of A Song of Ice and Fire for their flaws or incredible accomplishments then promptly label them as Sue's, but I almost never hear a protest raise for the flawed or super accomplished male characters.

  6. It was interesting traveling through both stories puzzling out why Lilac and Katniss kept making choices against their own best interests.

  7. You make a great point here that I often make in such conversations which is, would we be having this convo if the protag was male. When I think of characters like Bruce Wayne and HP (or any male superheros), characters that would likely be called a Mary Sue, if they were female, I don't see them as particularly likable. However, they all have some major sadness, with Batman & Harry it's the loss of their parents, that makes us ignore that for them. But, not for female characters.


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