July 9, 2013

Heroine Week, Day 2 – The Appeal of the Unlikable Heroine or Why I'd totally Root for Scarlet to Beat Up Melanie by Nicole Helm

Unlikable heroines seem to be really appealing (unsurprising, once you think about it). Nicole Helm has been one of their fiercest champions and I’m glad she’s here today to tell us why.


The Appeal of the Unlikable Heroine or Why I'd totally root for Scarlet to beat up Melanie by Nicole Helm

The unlikable heroine. She saunters onto the pages of a book and takes no prisoners. She might be mean. She might be arrogant. She might find a way to get what she wants no matter what.

These are characteristics that make many romance readers swoon...if we're talking about the hero, but more often than not they are the characteristics that make a heroine totally polarizing and labeled "unlikable". You love her or hate her, and there's very little in between.

So, why would a reader enjoy a character who is, by label, unlikable? Why would we want to spend two hundred some pages reading about someone who has flaws, who makes mistakes, and who isn't always nice?

I can't speak for all readers. I don't want to speak for all readers, but I've spent a lot of time loving "unlikable heroines", and wondering why others don't. So, I volunteered myself to write a guest post on the unlikable heroine, and why there are a camp of romance readers who love her, flaws and all.

As readers, we're drawn to romance for a variety of reasons. Yes, we all love a happy ending, but we still expect different things. Some readers want high drama and angst, some want gritty reality. Some want to be swept away by a prince to a tropical island, some want to be backed into a corner by a dirty construction worker. Some want an uber alpha man and some prefer the sweet beta hero. Some want the heroine to be their placeholder, some want the heroine to be the type of person they could befriend.

Regardless of what we want in the story lines and characters, romance readers want to believe that love has the power to overcome a lot of obstacles. We want three dimensional characters we can believe in or fall in love with or root for.

The flawed heroine is real. A well-written "unlikable" heroine jumps off the page like people we know in real life. She's three-dimensional, and we root for her when she makes mistakes, when she's mean or rude because that is what people are.

When she's with the hero, she doesn't do or say all the right things (and, hopefully, neither does he), but despite this they find each other. They love each other, and they realize life together is better than life without.

They don't "cure" each other or change each other, they simply are good together.

And that's life. That's reality. We can't cure or change the people we love. We can't get through a marriage or relationship without making mistakes, without hurting each other. But, because love is wonderful and strong and powerful, we get through the mistakes and hurts and keep working together, because it makes life so much better.

Can't Buy Me Love by Molly O'KeefeCan't Hurry Love by Molly O'KeefeCrazy Thing Called Love by Molly O'Keefe

 Molly O'Keefe's Crooked Creek Ranch Series (Can't Buy Me Love, Can't Hurry Love, and Crazy Thing Called Love) includes some of the most three-dimensional, real and flawed heroines in contemporary romance today.

They aren't just the bad girl gone good, the weak girl gone strong, the ambitious girl gone family. They're complex--multi-faceted--real, and their heroes don't swoop in and magically make them different people. They find each other through a road of mistakes and troubles, learning to understand themselves better as they learn to love better.

The flawed heroine is also strong. More often than not the polarizing heroines aren't the weak wallflowers hiding in the shadows. They're women who have cloaked themselves in strength, assertiveness, and bold behavior.

Personally, I wish I had more of that. I like reading about these women who aren't afraid to go toe-to-toe with anyone, let alone some bulldozing man. I like reading about a woman who doesn't hide away from the world, but faces it.

I want my hero and heroine to stand on equal ground, to help each other, stand up to each other, challenge each other, and that's exactly what a good "unlikable" heroine does.

Birthright by Nora Roberts
One of my favorite heroines ever is Callie from Nora Roberts' Birthright. She's an archaeologist and basically the boss of this dig (of course she has to share bossing duties with her ex-husband--guess what happens!). But Callie is strong in the face of a lot of really nasty stuff that happens. She's not always nice. But she speaks her mind, is proud and comfortable in her accomplishments, and doesn't take shit from much of anyone. I respect people who don't let others treat them badly, and I like to read about those type of women because those are the women--real or fictional--who I want to root for.

The flawed heroine is interesting. I'll admit it, people who are nice all the time no matter what...are kind of boring. I don't want a perfect heroine who makes all the right decisions and says all the right things and is only marred or scarred by some terrible childhood tragedy. That's... just not interesting.

What's interesting is someone who has made mistakes, not always for moral reasons, and keeps pushing through life anyway. Because we all do that. Very few people are really a Melanie Wilkes, perfect and morally upright and sweet--only doing something wrong for all the right reasons. We're all more likely to have a bit of Scarlet in us--vindictive and driven and selfish.

The Rebound Girl by Tamara Morgan
This is why I loved Whitney from Tamara Morgan's Rebound Girl. Whitney is not nice. Really. She does some kind of horrible things. There were times I *almost* got to the point of hating Whitney, but she was so fascinating in the choices she made, in the way she kept getting back up and moving forward. She wasn't perfect. I certainly didn't want to be her or her friend, but, man, she was fascinating to read about.

One Final Step by Stephanie Doyle
The same can be said for Stephanie Doyle's Madeleine in One Final Step. The thing I absolutely loved about this flawed heroine was that her past mistakes were not for any noble or forced reasons. She made some mistakes for bad reasons and YES we all do that and THAT is way more interesting than being excused by circumstance.

All readers are going to react differently to the "unlikable" or "difficult" heroine. We all have different reasons for liking or disliking her, but I think there's one thing most of us can agree on--she's always interesting.

Connect with Nicole:


  1. There is a distinction between flawed and unlikable. I find flaws very likable, but only certain kinds of flaws. I find perfection and wholeness very uninteresting.

    Some of this, as you say, depends on our personality. If I'm at a party (and I try not to be at one), but if I am, I'm likely to hang out with the snarky loners rather than the sweet, polite, fit-er-in-ers. The second type is more "likable" than the snarky loners, but I value humor and commiseration, and intelligence and am less likely to find those qualities in "likable."

    Also, I'm not very likable, so there is that. I like to see myself--or some remote, long-lost or future-possible version of myself in the heroes & heroines, and flawed is where I find that.

    1. I think this unlikable versus flawed is an important distinction, and I struggled with how to label what I was talking about. We all find different flaws likable or unlikable. We all relate to people differently. I'm all with you in the snarky corner, but we all know plenty of people who are uncomfortable with that.

      And, I agree, I like to see some piece of myself in there.

      So, it's a very personal thing--flaws and "unlikableness".

  2. Great post! I love reading about less-than-perfect heroines. I love it when they're different from the run-of-the-mill heroines. BUT at the same time, for me, they have to at least be either likable OR interesting (or at least entertaining, if they can't quite manage either of the others). I don't have to like my main characters, but they can't be boring or over-the-top obnoxious. They have to have some redeeming quality, or I won't enjoy reading the book. Which most of them do.

    1. Likable or interesting or entertaining--exactly. There are plenty of unlikable characters I hate or don't want to read about, but the best writers can make terrible people interesting or entertaining, and even if I don't like them--I'm all in.

  3. I never really understand this, to be honest.

    If I find a character unlikeable then I don't like them. And if I don't like them, I probably don't want to spend hours reading about them and I probably won't be invested in them finding a happy ending. I don't care if they have flaws - and indeed, if a character doesn't have any flaws, I'll find them tough to like - but I've got to have some reason to want to hang out with them.

    If they just do awful things and think that's fine, then no. If they screw up because they're not perfect people, that's different.

    1. I understand that viewpoint, but I wonder if we're getting caught up in the word "unlikable" here. Like Cherri pointed out, there's a difference between flawed and unlikable, and I think I was more getting at heroines who have monster flaws or mess up, but keep going. Some people see those flaws and screw ups as unlikable, and some people find them something to relate to.

      But I think a really skillful writer can make a person who does awful things engaging and worth reading about--even if I don't like them. Rebecca's post goes into this so well. I don't need characters I'd want to be friends with in real life. Like Sharon says, if they're not likable they can still be interesting or entertaining.

      At the end of the day though, readers are looking for different things, and there's nothing wrong with not wanting to read about people who do bad things for bad reasons. There are so many books out there, we'll all find the ones that strike the right chords with us.

  4. I guess one could say I enjoy reading about and writing "unlikable" heroines, but when I open a book or start my own novel, I don't fix labels to either protagonist--they are who they are. What's funny is that I'm usually baffled when someone says they are put off by my heroine, or if readers hate the heroine of someone else's book whom I loved! If anything, I hold the heroes to higher standards than my heroines; a book is ruined when I want to punch the hero in the face, LOL.

    1. I am SO with you here. And I was reticent to use the label unlikable, but I'm not sure if there's a better word out there for what I was trying to get at. However, if I think the hero is an asshole who treats the heroine badly (even if there are REASONS) I have a hard time getting over that. Mistakes are one thing, being an ass all the time is a whole other ballgame.

    2. Yes, it is difficult to think of a better word for a heroine who isn't a Melanie Wilkes. My love for a heroine boils down to understanding what makes her tick. I might not "like" her or relate to her, but if she works for the story and for the hero, I'm satisfied.

    3. I think that's a good way of putting it--I don't have to agree with what a character does, if I understand why they do it. That doesn't mean I automatically like every "unlikable" heroine whose motivations I understand, but I'm more likely to get there if I understand the motivation.

  5. I like the distinction Cherri brings up - flawed vs. unlikable. I've read unlikable heroines I didn't like (at all) because the author failed (at least for me) to convey her flaws. If I believe in her flaws, in her emotional baggage, I'm not going to find her "unlikable" even if she may be a "challenging" character. Like a lot of things in genre fiction, it boils down to execution for me. I'll swallow just about anything if the author makes me believe.

    Gah - and now totally bookmarking this post so I can check out some of these titles. I've read some of O'Keefe's Superromances (and really enjoyed them!) but the single titles are languishing in the TBR because I suck like that.

    1. And I really like the distinction between a heroine who is unlikable because of the things they do and a heroine who is unlikable because the author failed (for whichever reader) to make the heroine likable or relatable. There have definitely been books where I was supposed to like a character, but couldn't because the author did not give me (personally) enough information to get there. It is definitely about execution, because some kick ass, prickly, mistake-making heroines don't work for me even though that's by hot zone. The author missed something I needed to get there.

      I did not love O'Keefe's Superromances that I've read, but it was one of those--this story doesn't work for me but I am going to keep reading this author because I can sense she's going somewhere that's going to work (if that makes sense). Her single titles though are some of my favorite romances though. Layered, nuanced, complex.

    2. I didn't love The Rebound Girl, but I loved what the author did (or tried to do) with the heroine, who, BTW, would feel at home in Molly's post.

  6. I love the title of this post. I so completely fall on the Scarlet side rather than the Melanie side.

    1. I'm not sure I could trust someone's judgment if they thought otherwise.

  7. What a great post! Have you seen this? I like the discussion about seeing every character, even the villain-ish ones, as the hero of his or her own story. http://www.onstory.tv/watch/309-heroes-and-anti-heroes-loving-the-villain/#

    1. I sat down this morning and watched that and YES! I think the most important word I heard in that segment was COMPELLING. Why I can like a character who does bad things for bad reasons: they are compelling. I don't have to like what they do, I only have to see that they have conviction in what they are doing. It's why I root for Scarlet even though she's, pretty much, a terrible human being. She is not letting life happen to her, even as she does all these not-so-nice things. She is full of conviction to do what (she thinks) needs to be done, and I can read that and root for that endlessly, even if the characters are not morally right.

      But, that's also a personal thing, because I value conviction, so it's something I will attach to in people. Other people who do not see that as important as something else like being good or being nice won't be able to relate to that in the same way.

      Thank you for sharing that!

  8. Great post! But all this talk of what distinguishes flawed heroines from unlikeable heroines has got me thinking about the other end of the spectrum. The wicked.

    Unlikeable protagonists are difficult for some readers to digest, but wickedness in a lead character is like crack. Seeing Richard III performed when I was a high school student marks the first time I truly felt for a villain. The scene where he seduces Lady Anne is made all the more chill-inducing because of the monologue he delivers just prior to it wherein he tells us exactly what he will do & why it will work.

    How is being wicked different from being unlikeable?

    Unlikeable characters are mean to others. They hurt others. Wicked characters are the same, except usually they inflict pain on a bigger and/or deeper scale. Unlikeable characters behave in ways that push people away. Wicked characters (like Richard III) bring people in, and then delight in crushing them. The wicked aren't closed off emotionally, the way the unlikeable character is. The wicked are scarred or stunted, but so are the unlikeable. Is it a quality of self-awareness about their own flaws that distinguishes these two? It is their ability/interest in changing their ways?

    1. I think this is a really interesting distinction and something Rebecca touched a little bit on in her post. And I think you hit the nail on the head with the idea that self-awareness is a piece of what distinguishes them. I think most readers are much more drawn in by characters who are after something, who are active in their choices and their life--not just letting things happen to them. Wicked characters are hurting people on purpose and we're drawn to that because it is their passion, so to speak. I think people acting our their passion (no matter how screwy that passion is) is compelling.

  9. I like those kinds of heroines too although I wouldn't root for Scarlet to beat up Melanie as I like both too much for that.


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