his chronicles

The Importance of The Unlikable Heroine

I’ve always had this tendency to apologize for everything—even things that aren’t my fault, things that actually hurt me or were wrongs against me.

It’s become automatic, a compulsion I am constantly fighting. Even more disturbingly, I’ve discovered in conversations with my female friends that I’m not alone in feeling this impulse to be pleasant, to apologize needlessly, to resist showing anger.

After all, if you’re a woman and you demonstrate anger, you’re a bitch, a harpy, a shrew. You’re told to smile more because you will look prettier; you’re told to calm down even when whatever anger or otherwise “unseemly” emotion you’re experiencing is perfectly justified.

If you don’t, no one will like you, and certainly no one will love you.

I’m not sure when this apologetic tendency of mine emerged. Maybe it began during childhood; maybe the influence of social gender expectations had already begun to affect me on a subconscious level. But if I had to guess, I would assume it emerged later, when I became aware through advertisements, media, and various unquantifiable social pressures of what a girl should be—how to act, how to dress, what to say, what emotions are okay and what emotions are not.

Essentially, I became aware of what I should do, as a girl, to be liked, and of how desperate I should be to achieve that state.

Being liked would be the pinnacle of my personal achievement. I could accomplish things, sure—make good grades, go to a good school, have a stellar career. But would I be liked during all of this? That was the important thing.

It angers me that I still struggle with this. It angers me that even though I’m an intelligent, accomplished adult woman, I still experience automatic pangs of inadequacy and shame when I perceive myself to have somehow disappointed these unfair expectations. I can’t always seem to get my emotions under control, and yet I must—because sometimes those emotions are angry or unpleasant or, God forbid, unattractive, and therefore will inconvenience someone or make someone uncomfortable.

Maybe that’s why, in my fiction—both the stories I read and the stories I write—I’ve always gravitated toward what some might call “unlikable” heroines.

It’s difficult to define “unlikability”; the term itself is nebulous. If you asked ten different people to define unlikability, you would probably receive ten different answers. In fact, I hesitated to write this piece simply because art is not a thing that should be quantified, or shoved into “likable” and “unlikable” components.

But then there are those pangs of mine, that urge to apologize for not being the right kind of woman. Insidious expectations lurk out there for our girls—both real and fictional—to be demure and pleasant, to wilt instead of rally, to smile and apologize and hide their anger so they don’t upset the social construct—even when such anger would be expected, excused, even applauded, in their male counterparts.

So for my purposes here, I’ll define a “likable heroine” as one who is unobjectionable. She doesn’t provoke us or challenge our expectations. She is flawed, but not offensively. She doesn’t make us question whether or not we should like her, or what it says about us that we do.

Let me be clear: There is nothing wrong with these “likable” heroines. I can think of plenty such literary heroines whom I adore:

Fire in Kristin Cashore’s Fire. Karou in Laini Taylor’s Daughter of Smoke and Bone series. Jo March in Little Women. Lizzie Bennet in Pride and Prejudice. The Penderwick sisters in Jeanne Birdsall’s delightful Penderwicks series. Arya (at least, in the early books) in A Song of Ice and Fire. Sarah from A Little Princess. Meg Murry from A Wrinkle in Time. Matilda in Roald Dahl’s classic book of the same name.

These heroines are easy to love and root for. They have our loyalty on the first page, and that never wavers. We expect to like them, for them to be pleasant, and they are. Even their occasional unpleasantness, as in the case of temperamental Jo March, is endearing.

What, then, about the “unlikable” heroines?

These are the “difficult” characters. They demand our love but they won’t make it easy. The unlikable heroine provokes us. She is murky and muddled. We don’t always understand her. She may not flaunt her flaws but she won’t deny them. She experiences moral dilemmas, and most of the time recognizes when she has done something wrong, but in the meantime she will let herself be angry, and it isn’t endearing, cute, or fleeting. It is mighty and it is terrifying. It puts her at odds with her surroundings, and it isn’t always easy for readers to swallow.

She isn’t always courageous. She may not be conventionally strong; her strength may be difficult to see. She doesn’t always stand up for herself, or for what is right. She is not always nice. She is a hellion, a harpy, a bitch, a shrew, a whiner, a crybaby, a coward. She lies even to herself.

In other words, she fails to walk the fine line we have drawn for our heroines, the narrow parameters in which a heroine must exist to achieve that elusive “likability”:

Nice, but not too nice.

Badass, but not too badass, because that’s threatening.

Strong, but ultimately pliable.

(And, I would add, these parameters seldom exist for heroes, who enjoy the limitless freedoms of full personhood, flaws and all, for which they are seldom deemed “unlikable” but rather lauded.)

Who is this “unlikable” heroine?

She is Amy March from Little Women. She is Briony from Ian McEwan’s Atonement. Katsa from Kristin Cashore’s Graceling. Jane Austen’s Emma Woodhouse. Sansa from A Song of Ice and Fire. Mary from The Secret Garden. She is Philip Pullman’s Lyra, and C. S. Lewis’s Susan, and Rowling’s first-year Hermione Granger. She is Katniss Everdeen. She is Scarlett O’Hara.

These characters fascinate me. They are arrogant and violent, reckless and selfish. They are liars and they are resentful and they are brash. They are shallow, not always kind. They may be aggressive, or not aggressive enough; the parameters in which a female character can acceptably display strength are broadening, but still dishearteningly narrow. I admire how the above characters embrace such “unbecoming” traits (traits, I must point out, that would not be noteworthy in a man; they would simply be accepted as part of who he is, no questions asked).

These characters learn from their mistakes, and they grow and change, but at the end of the day, they can look at themselves in the mirror and proclaim, “Here I am. This is me. You may not always like me—I may not always like me—but I will not be someone else because you say I should be. I will not lose myself to your expectations. I will not become someone else just to be liked.”

When I wrote my first novel, The Cavendish Home for Boys and Girls, I knew some readers would have a hard time stomaching the character of Victoria. She is selfish, arrogant, judgmental, rigid, and sometimes cruel. Even at the end of the novel, by which point she has evolved tremendously, she isn’t particularly likable, if we go with the above definition.

I had similar concerns about the heroine of my second novel, The Year of Shadows. Olivia Stellatella is a moody twelve-year-old who isolates herself from her peers at school, from her father, from everything that could hurt her. Her circumstances at the beginning of the novel are inarguably terrible: Her mother abandoned their family several months prior, with no explanation. Her father conducts the city orchestra, which is on the verge of bankruptcy. He neglects his daughter in favor of saving his livelihood. He sells their house and moves them into the symphony hall’s storage rooms, where Olivia sleeps on a cot and lives out of a suitcase. She calls him The Maestro, refusing to call him Dad. She hates him. She blames him for her mother leaving.

Olivia is angry and confused. She is sarcastic, disrespectful, and she tells her father exactly what she thinks of him. She lashes out at everyone, even the people who want to help her. Sometimes her anger blinds her, and she must learn how to recognize that.

I knew Olivia’s anger would be hard for some readers to understand, or that they would understand but still not like her.

This frightened me.

As a new author, the prospect of writing these heroines—these selfish, angry, difficult heroines—was a daunting one. What if no one liked them? What if, by extension, no one liked me?

But I’ve allowed the desire to be liked thwart me too many times. The fact that I nearly let my fear discourage me from telling the stories of these two “unlikable” girls showed me just how important it was to tell their stories.

I know my friends and I aren’t the only women who feel that constant urge to apologize, to demur, to rein in anger and mutate it into something more socially acceptable.

I know there are girls out there who, like me at age twelve—like Olivia, like Victoria—are angry or arrogant or confused, and don’t know how to handle it. They see likable girls everywhere—on the television, in movies, in books—and they accordingly paste on strained smiles and feel ashamed of their unladylike grumpiness and ambition, their unseemly aggression.

I want these girls to read about Victoria and Olivia—and Scarlett, Amy, Lyra, Briony—and realize there is more to being a girl than being liked. There is more to womanhood than smiling and apologizing and hiding those darker emotions.

I want them to sift through the vast sea of likable heroines in their libraries and find more heroines who are not always happy, not always pleasant, not always good. Heroines who make terrible decisions. Heroines who are hungry and ambitious, petty and vengeful, cowardly and callous and selfish and gullible and unabashedly sensual and hateful and cunning. Heroines who don’t always act particularly heroic, and don’t feel the need to, and still accept themselves at the end of the day regardless.

Maybe the more we write about heroines like this, the less susceptible our girl readers will be to the culture of apology that surrounds them.

Maybe they will grow up to be stronger than we are, more confident than we are. Maybe they will grow up in a world brimming with increasingly complex ideas about what it means to be a heroine, a woman, a person.

Maybe they will be “unlikable” and never even think of apologizing for it.

I always kind of laugh when people get into the “Susan’s treatment is proof that C.S. Lewis was a misogynist” thing, because:

Polly and Digory. Peter and Susan. Edmund and Lucy. Eustace and Jill. 

Out of the eight “Friends of Narnia” who enter from our world, the male-to-female character ratio is exactly 1/1. Not one of these female characters serves as a love interest at any time. 

The Horse and His Boy, the only book set entirely in Narnia, maintains this ratio with Shasta and Aravis, who, we are told in a postscript, eventually marry. Yet even here, the story itself is concerned only with the friendship between them. Lewis focuses on Aravis’ value as a brave friend and a worthy ally rather than as a potential girlfriend–and ultimately, we realize that it’s these qualities that make her a good companion for Shasta. They are worthy of each other, equals. 

In the 1950s, there was no particularly loud cry for female representation in children’s literature. As far as pure plot goes, there’s no pressing need for all these girls. A little boy could have opened the wardrobe (and in the fragmentary initial draft, did). Given that we already know Eustace well by The Silver Chair, it would not seem strictly necessary for a patently ordinary schoolgirl to follow him on his return trip to Narnia, yet follow she does–and her role in the story is pivotal. Why does the humble cab-driver whom Aslan crowns the first King of Narnia immediately ask for his equally humble wife, who is promptly spirited over, her hands full of washing, and crowned queen by his side? Well, because nothing could be more natural than to have her there. 

None of these women are here to fill a quota. They’re here because Lewis wanted them there. 

Show me the contemporary fantasy series with this level of equality. It doesn’t exist. 

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the chronicles of narnia by c.s lewis

“I wrote this story for you, but when I began it I had not realized that girls grow quicker than books. As a result you are already too old for fairy tales, and by the time it is printed and bound you will be older still. But some day you will be old enough to start reading fairy tales again. You can then take it down from some upper shelf, dust it, and tell me what you think of it. I shall probably be too deaf to hear, and too old to understand a word you say, but I shall still be. ― your affectionate Godfather, C. S. Lewis.”

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                                                             “Child,’
                                                        said the Lion,
                                      ‘I am telling you your story, not hers.
                                   No one is told any story but their own.” 

  • Kit: What's your favourite fast food restaurant?
  • Ty: Um Julian doesn't really let us eat fast food...
  • Kit: Say McDonalds
  • Ty: McDonalds?
  • Kit: Did you get your body from there? Cause I'm lovin' it
Why the shows treatment of Yin Fen bothers me

*spoilers for if you are not up to date with either the show or infernal devices*

In the show you are introduced to yin fen as if it were any other recreational drug. Izzy gets hooked on it and displays the typical drug addict symptoms: cravings, fever, jitteriness, ect.  She is shown to be addicted to it, she is willing to do anything to get more of it; she is shown to be a very typical, unflatteringly painted, drug addict.

This completely destroys and undermines Jem Carstairs’ entire character arc.

It is immediately established in Clockwork Angel that Jem is not a drug addict in the common sense. Yin fen is not a metaphor for meth or cocaine or any other recreational drug. It is a metaphor for the wasting, cureless diseases of the day, such as consumption or typhoid or something:

A hero […] who was condemned to die young of a fatal demonic illness, no matter how desperate the efforts were to save him, just as in reality victims of consumption sickened and died without penicillin(Forward of Clockwork Princess, pg. 4) 

Clare states it clearly herself, yin fen is not a recreational drug like the show made it to be.

By giving Izzy this plotline, they have ruined any chance of Jem’s arc making any sense at all. People would see that Jem is addicted to yin fen and not be able to understand why he can’t just kick the habit. It wouldn’t make any sense that the drug is killing him, turning his hair and eyes silver and paling his skin, because this very obviously not what happens to Izzy. Izzy isn’t dying, she just feels like she is. 

It is made very clear that Jem hates what yin fen has done to him. He hates that he must rely on it, he despises how it has stolen his life from him. And while he compares it to the Opium in China and himself to the addicts(thus offering a compelling metaphor about colonialism and racism):

The British bring opium into China by the ton. They have made a nation of addicts out of us. In Chinese we call it ‘foreign mud’ or ‘black smoke’. In some ways Shanghai, my city, is built on opium. It wouldn’t exist as it does without it. The city is full of dens where hollow-eyed men starve to death because all they want is the drug, more of the drug. They’ll give anything for it. I used to despise men like that. I couldn’t understand how they were so weak.

[…]

There was one thing they couldn’t fix, though. I had become addicted to the substance the demon had poisoned me with. My body was dependent on it the way an opium addict’s body is dependent on the drug.

(Clockwork Angel, ch. 15, pg. 339-340)

He also makes it very clear that the drug is more of an bastardized medicine:

After weeks of experimentation they decided that nothing could be done: I could not live without the drug. The drug itself meant a slow death, but to take me off it would mean a very quick one.

The yin fen is what keeps Jem alive, and he despises that. He wants to burn bright like Will does, he wants to live to grow old with Tessa(though not for her but that’s another rant). This why he throws it in the fire in Clockwork Princess, why he was taking less of it. He loathes relying on it. 

This is not the case with Izzy. Izzy, like most drug addicts, craves how good the yin fen makes her feel. She actively wants more of it. It is not a unavoidable and cruel medicine, it is a recreational drug. 

But the worst aspect of this is that it plays right into the negative and degrading view the other Shadowhunters have of Jem and further causes and creates Jem’s greatest fear. 

The books works extremely hard to make it very clear that Jem Carstairs is not a drug addict. It is consistently referred to as his illness, the other characters work hard to combat this kind of thinking in the novels themselves. This plays into the vilification of the Lightwoods especially, with Gabriel constantly saying awful and derogatory things about Jem:

“You’re a decent Shadowhunter, James,” [Gabriel] said, “and a gentleman. You have your–disability, but no one blames you for that.”

(Clockwork Angel, ch. 9, pg. 206)

“I think,” Gabriel said, “that perhaps you might consider whether jokes about opium are either amusing or tasteful, given the…situation of your friend Carstairs.”

Will froze. Still in the same tone of voice, he said, “You mean his disability?

Gabriel blinked. “What?”

“That’s what you called it. Back at the Institute. His ‘disability’.” Will tossed the bloody cloth aside. “And you wonder why we aren’t friends.”

(Clockwork Angel, Ch. 11, pg. 269)

Not only this, but the scenes during and after Jem retrieves Will from the Drug Den, are extremely telling.

When Jem drags Will out of the den, the reader sees him lose his temper for the first time:

“You did not have to come and fetch me like some child. I was having quite a pleasant time.” 

Jem looked back at him. “God damn you,” he said, and hit Will across the face, sending him spinning. Will didn’t lose his footing, but fetched up against the side of the carriage, his hand to his cheek. His mouth was bleeding. He looked at Jem with total astonishment.

(Clockwork Prince, ch. 9, pg. 195)

In this moment, Jem is so blindingly angry at Will, even Tessa observes herself how this was so utterly unlike him, because he feels as if Will is mocking Jem and his addiction by going and getting high on a drug when Jem is literally dependent and dying because of the yin fen.

“There’s no cure,” […] “I will die, and you know it, Tess. Probably within the next year. I am dying, and I have no family in the world, and the one person I trusted more than any other made sport of what is killing me.”

[…]

“He knows what it means to me,” he said. “To see him even toy with what has destroyed my life–”

(Clockwork Angel, ch. 9, pg. 200)

Because Jem has to battle against the label of a drug addict everyday, and his biggest fear is that he is just a addict, that that’s all anyone sees. He hates that label. Which, as seen, is openly talked about in the books. This is such a big deal that Will actually apologizes for it:

“I went to that den because I could not stop thinking about my family, and I wanted–I needed–to stop thinking,” said Will. “It did not cross my mind that it would look like I was making a mockery out of your sickness. I suppose I am asking your forgiveness for my lack of consideration.”

(Clockwork Prince, ch. 11, pg. 247)

Even though Will makes a point to never apologize about anything so that others will hate him. He apologizes to Jem for this thoughtlessness because he realizes how royally he messed up. 

All of this is totally disregarded in Izzy’s storyline. People entering into TID after watching the show will be confused and not understand how Jem is sick and dying and is not really a drug addict at all. In short, they will enter into the novels with a prejudice and misunderstanding of Jem, and see him just like the other Shadowhunter’s do: a weak drug addict.

tl;dr: the show totally ruins and misconstrues and mocks Jem’s character arc by giving Izzy such a typical(and utterly incorrect) recreational drug addict storyline and I am furious about it.

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The Chronicles Of Narnia  [x]

“One day, you will be old enough to start reading fairytales again.”

hardships often prepare ordinary people for an extraordinary destiny
-cs lewis