My novel began as two stories: a young woman grieving for her late grandfather and the grandfather’s fable about a wizard battling an angel. In the beginning, my head was full of the grandfather, the protagonist Marjorie’s connection to him, and the mythology I was slowly, circuitously building around the magician and angel. I didn’t have any conscious intentions for the kind of woman Marjorie would be. I thought about the plot and let Marjorie emerge on her own.
And, oh, did she.
The female protagonists I’d written before, still hibernating in unpublished stories, are all young and good-hearted and fumbling toward adulthood. Not Marjorie. She is, as Beyoncé would say, a grown-ass woman.
Anything goes in a first draft. I like to write fast and messy, knowing that for tens of thousands of words, and for several months on end, the story belongs to me and me alone. I let Marjorie indulge every bad instinct: freezing out her sister, abandoning her boyfriend, interpreting everything as a personal offense, and spitting out every nasty quip that came into her head.
It was glorious.
By the end of the first draft, I felt like I really had something—a great story and a great protagonist. I handed it over to my husband for a first round of feedback.
He agreed with me—the novel could really be something. He thought the story, though it didn’t yet cohere, was gripping and resonant. But there was one major problem.
“Marjorie,” he said, “is kind of a bitch.”
“I know,” I answered. “Isn’t it awesome?”
No, it turns out. It was not awesome. My grown-ass woman—smart, unafraid, angry—was a bitch, and nobody liked her.
Of course, I didn’t write that draft in a cocoon, even if it felt that way at times. I was very much aware of how we consume narratives about women, both real and fictional.
I began writing this novel before Claire Messud rejected an interviewer’s question of whether she would be friends with the “angry” woman, Nora Eldridge, whom she had created in The Woman Upstairs. (Angry and middle-aged—but save age for another time.) It was before Anna Gunn’s op-ed in the New York Times about the vitriol her character received—not for selling meth or committing murder, like that stubbornly lovable Walter White, but for being a buzzkill. It was before Sheryl Sandberg “banned bossy.” Before I found myself reading page after page of commentary on Girls, convinced they comprised the (perhaps unintentionally) richest text on the state of contemporary American thought on gender.
But any woman can tell you that the parameters for likability are much more narrow for women than for men, and—insult to injury—men and women are both far less forgiving of women. As a reader and a viewer of film and TV, and as a feminist, my response comes easily: give me your Nora Eldridges, your Skyler Whites, your Hillary Clintons.
As a writer, though, I found the question of likability far more challenging to navigate. I trusted early drafts of my novel to friends (many of them women) because I knew them to be smart about fiction, smart about people, and if not free of prejudice, at least as self-aware as one could be. No one, however, is untouched by misogyny. (Or racism, or classism, etc.) I struggled with whether to trust my readers as skilled editors, or doubt them as people with an inevitable degree of ingrained sexism.
I did want people to like Marjorie. Part of my desire was sentimental, an attachment to the woman I created. Part of it was mercenary. Marjorie narrates the majority of the story, and I couldn’t bear the idea of sacrificing the novel—the work I had done, the story I loved, the possibility of my manuscript becoming a published book—to make a point.
And what point would I be making, anyway? That I was a confident artist, committed to my vision, or that I didn’t have the mental flexibility to bridge the gulf between my intention and my readers’ perceptions?
I wrote more drafts and shared them with more friends. I did see moments where Marjorie went too far, moments of cruelty that didn’t represent how I understood her, and so it felt honest to cut those lines and revise those scenes. Other times I wasn’t so sure. I “toned it down” and “pulled back,” but still I heard that Marjorie was “unlikable,” and, just as often, a “bitch.”
I told my writer friends that people wouldn’t criticize my narrator if she was a man, and they nodded sympathetically. (These were writer friends who hadn’t read the novel.) I’m not giving in! I silently promised the sisterhood as I stared at print-outs marked in red. (“Harsh.” “Ouch.” “What does he see in her?”)
Something had to give. In the end, that something was my relationship with her.
I wanted to be fearless in my writing, the way Marjorie is fearless in life. She takes stands. She says what she thinks. But Marjorie isn’t fearless. She’s terrified—of being alone, of being consumed by her own feelings, of being wrong. I was afraid of all of those things too, and I was letting her rage across the novel while, in my life, I remained careful to say the right thing and compromise and be “unlikable”‘s bedeviling twin: nice. I was living vicariously through her. I realized I couldn’t let my worst instincts run her life—and my book—into the ground.
I rewrote again, this time letting her share her vulnerability, generosity, and sensitivity with the reader—if not always with the other characters.
Claire Messud said it’s ridiculous to ask whether she would be friends with her character. And, as an implicit criticism, it is. But I often wonder if I would be friends with mine. Marjorie is quick to anger and inclined to isolation, but she also loves fiercely and feels deeply. She’s brave. She says the wrong thing a lot, but she usually doesn’t mean to. She may have more flaws than I would be willing to tolerate in a friend, at least at the beginning of the story, but the flaws are what made me love her so much as a writer, and what I hope will make readers love her too.
As a writer, I don’t feel as if I’ve solved the problem of knowing when the “unlikable female character” results from a shortcoming in the text or the prejudices of our culture at large. Perhaps the only solution is the universal one: write more. Listen, and push back, and listen again.
Writing more is also my method for coping with my current problem: saying goodbye to Marjorie. I’m working on a new novel now, and the main character is a man. He’s an absolute nightmare, but he is so damn likable.