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The debate about unsympathetic female characters began, in my opinion, in 2013, when Annasue McCleave Wilson, who writes for Publishers Weekly, asked Claire Messud if she would like to be friends with the “unsympathetic” protagonist of her latest book. The woman upstairs.

“I don’t want to be friends with Nora, do I?” Asks Wilson. “Your prospects are almost unbearably bleak.”

Messud seemed to have a sharp answer ready. “For God’s sake,” she said. “What kind of question is that? Would you like to be friends with Humbert Humbert? Would you like to be friends with Mickey Sabbath? Saleem-Sinai? Hamlet? Krapp? Oedipus? Oscar Wao? Antigone? Raskolnikow? One of the characters in The Corrections? One of the Characters in Infinite Jest? One of the characters in everything Pynchon has ever written? Or Martin Amis? Or Orhan Pamuk? Or Alice Munro for that matter?

“If you read to make friends,” she said, “you are in great trouble. We read to find life in all its possibilities. The relevant question is not “is this a potential friend for me?” but ‘Is this character alive?’ “

And damn it. But I have to admit that I could have been on Wilson’s side before. Back then, I chose a lot of what I read based on how much I related to the characters in it. I needed someone with redeeming qualities. Someone to root for. If a character was unsympathetic, how did I empathize with their struggle? And if I couldn’t understand their struggle, why should I read on?

Then I read Love and Trouble, a memoir by Claire Dederer. In her memoir, Dederer reconciles the young woman she once was with the woman she has become in the middle of life. When I read it, I was impressed how Dederer casually reveals the worst of herself to the reader, as if she had no more fuck to give. In the end, I found that I connected strongly with the lessons she had learned about sexuality and power, and about her deep desire to be wanted.

Finding the darkest parts of ourselves in literature

Why did I connect so deeply to Dederer’s memoir? For me, Dederer’s approach – including her cheeky honesty – has allowed me to discern and acknowledge the darkest parts of myself. In her wandering eye, in her growing carnal hunger, in the motivations she finds behind that hunger, I saw myself.

And I appreciated that. I appreciated the fact that she gave a voice to all of the ugly and uncomfortable thoughts and emotions that I never wanted to admit to anyone else.

What is often lost in the debate about unsympathetic female characters is the discomfort these characters create in us. But we should question this discomfort. What bothers us about a character’s cruelty? Why are we so frustrated with their bad life choices? Why do we hate their selfishness? Why do we disapprove of their unbridled sexuality?

Do we feel uncomfortable because we see something of ourselves in them?

When Courtney Summers wrote Cracked Up to Be, she set out to write an unsympathetic female protagonist, especially because she looked for those parts of herself in YA literature and couldn’t find them.

“I just wanted to write a book in which I can see how these parts of me reflect back on me,” she tells Hayley Krischer for Lit Hub. “Because I was so sure that other people felt the same way. That they weren’t always happy. That they were angry. And I knew it was okay to have all these ugly emotions. “

That’s an urge that I can understand. That need for confirmation in the depictions of femininity we see and read.

For example, in Kanae Minato’s confessions, I understood Yuko Moriguchi’s desire for revenge after her little daughter’s death because I knew I would feel the same … wanted to destroy those responsible. In Megan Abbott’s Give Me Your Hand, I understood the ruthless ambition of the two protagonists. What would one of us do if we were so close to a dream and suddenly something or someone got in the way? In Celeste Ngs Everything I Never Told You and Little Fires Everything I understood the characters’ need for perfection, their maternal intensity, their preoccupation with the perception of others. I felt all of these things myself.

Often these characters go further than I would ever dare myself. In this way, I dare say they are ambitious, even if those aspirations are inconsistent with what we are told what we should want.

As Roxane Gay wrote for BuzzFeed back in 2014, “I want characters to do the things I’m afraid of for fear of making myself more unpopular than I already am. I want the characters to be the most honest of all things – human. ”

Is it any surprise that Gay has a collection of short stories that is literally called Difficult Women?

The gendered nature of the unsympathetic female character debate

And then there is the gender nature of this debate. As women, we are socialized to be comfortable. Nice. Polite. To be friendly and approachable. As I have written elsewhere, “[w]We are taught to respond to the needs of others. We do this at our own expense. “

Those of us who don’t live up to these expectations? We are branded as difficult. Unruly. Unsympathetic.

This is the case in life and in literature. Is that why I enjoy books like Nightbitch and Bad Marie so much? Because they spit in the face of social expectations? Because they’re breaking us out of the tight box we’re crammed into?

And are these characters really “unsympathetic”?

Or are they just behaving in a way that society perceives as distasteful?

(Spoiler alert: the latter.)

The balancing act when writing ‘unsympathetic’ female characters

Of course, authors walk a tightrope when writing unsympathetic female characters. Yes, these characters embody the parts of us that tend to remain hidden, and in this way they affirm those hidden parts of us.

But at the same time, I think it’s important that the authors point out their weaknesses when creating these characters. That they present them in all their chaotic complexity. Only if they succeed in this can we really understand and empathize with these characters.

For example, I got more and more angry with Margot, the protagonist of Nicole Dennis-Benn’s Here Comes the Sun. In this novel, she not only trades her own sexuality, but also that of other vulnerable women so that she can eventually have a better life.

But how can I grant her this desire, especially since it is also part of the desire to protect her younger sister from the same fate? And what about Margot’s mother, who Margot took this route when she was a child?

But isn’t that humanity? Aren’t these the amounts we all contain? Can I make a bid to change “unsympathetic female figure” to “complex female figure”? (I mean, I already own the shirt.)

Complex female characters are here to stay

Fortunately, the writers seem to have already received the memo that, by God, we need these characters. Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl is often cited as a catalyst for the trend for books with such characters, and her book was quickly followed by similar thrillers such as The Girl on the Train and Luckiest Girl Alive.

Lately I’ve been enjoying the wild femmes of Tampa, My Sister, The Serial Killer, and The Turnout.

Who knows what else my TBR will bring me (or who else?)?

Whoever it is, I can’t wait.

What is it? Do you want an unsympathetic reading list for women? Don’t say anything anymore! Here’s something YA for you too.