Is there more pressure on female characters to be likeable?

This post made me think about how expectations of women in our society bleed over into the literature we write.
Also, I wonder if I could write a story with a strong female lead while not conforming to an ingrained sense of what makes a female character likeable?


Do characters have to be likeable? Is there more pressure on female characters to be likeable, and more pressure on female writers to write likeable characters? Is this an issue of genre, of high and low culture, of literature versus popular fiction?

In an interview about her new book, The Woman Upstairs, Claire Messud was asked about the fact that her female protagonist is not very likeable. Here’s her response:

For heaven’s sake, what kind of question is that? Would you want to be friends with Humbert Humbert? Would you want to be friends with Mickey Sabbath? Saleem Sinai? Hamlet? Krapp? Oedipus? Oscar Wao? Antigone? Raskolnikov? Any of the characters in The Corrections? Any of the characters in Infinite Jest? Any of the characters in anything Pynchon has ever written? Or Martin Amis? Or Orhan Pamuk? Or Alice Munro, for that matter? If you’re reading to find…

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4 thoughts on “Is there more pressure on female characters to be likeable?

  1. Characters who are kind and empathetic are likeable. Characters who are not, are not likeable. What does it have to do with men or women? People can get better at being likeable during a book and become more interesting to the reader. If they show no signs of empathy after a quarter of the book, I quit reading. Women being bossy and competent are not unlikeable, as long as they like some people and/or show empathy during the book. No one likes everybody. It’s okay to only like smart people. And generally more women than men in a company or bureaucracy are smart, because to get promoted women have to be better at a job than men, who can get promoted based on seniority rather than accomplishment.

    I just got back from a long afternoon of wine tasting at two Virginia wineries, so I might sound different than usual.

    • The point of the blog, the way I read it, was that there is an expectation of women within literature to be likeable. It’s a bleed over from our society where men are allowed to be jerks and unsavory, while if a woman were to be the same way she would be labeled more severely.
      Would you agree that women are not allowed the same leeway as men when it comes to unsavory behavior? And that such judgments are consequently in literature?

      • I don’t like to read about jerks even if they’re men. I suppose it’s true that more men than women are jerks. More men go to prison than women. But I think that’s slowly changing. Young women are joining violent gangs now. Jerks who grow and change into being nice are okay in books, but I really dislike the modern books about jerks who stay jerks.

  2. I haven’t read a book with a true villainous woman in a long time. I’m sitting here, thinking, and I cannot think of a book with a truly venomous woman. That’s odd.

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