Commonly, we like to like our fictional heroes and heroines, and within some genres it is considered literary suicide to have a lead that isn’t very nice. Before I completed Redemption Song, had I been asked, I would have said I prefer stories with a likable protagonist: I adore Lou in Me Before You, Annie and Kate in The Day We Disappeared.
However, once the first draft was down and I knuckled down to the real business of writing – rewriting – I realised that while I love Saffron, my lead, her behaviour isn’t always likable, especially at the novel’s opening. I pondered whether to increase her nice factor but in the end decided that readers must see her warts and all. She is a good person; she just doesn’t always present that way!
And I began to dig a little deeper into my own likes and dislikes. Were my favourite literary heroines all lovely? No, as it turned out … Katniss Everdeen, Lisbeth Salander, Emma Bovary, Emma Woodhouse, Becky Sharp, the list goes on. These are women I find fascinating, but always nice? Definitely not. The more I thought about it, the more I acknowledged my penchant for difficult characters, difficult female characters in particular. Why is this?
It stems, I believe, from a dream to be the rebel, the feisty girl who does as she pleases, who kicks ass, metaphorically if not literally. Like a great many women – more than men, I believe – from childhood I have been a ‘pleaser’. Pleasing others equals likability and acceptance, and if you need proof that girls seek approval more than boys, spend some time in a primary school classroom! As a girl, I would often set aside my desires and ambitions rather than risk upsetting others. As the years have passed, I have become better at not always being selfless, but I still find it extremely difficult to say no. This is why I enjoy those heroines who don’t give a damn what others think (some of the time), who are unafraid to pursue their desires, who behave badly sometimes, who forge a new path, who are unafraid of unpopularity. And the irony is that it is precisely these types of women who often become role models and national treasures. In real life I’m thinking of the likes of Caitlin Moran and Suzanne Moore.
An author I respect, Lionel Shriver, said some years ago: ‘Goodness is not only boring but downright annoying… When fiction works, readers can develop the same nuanced, conflicted relationships to characters that they have to their own friends and family.’
And now that Saffron from Redemption Song is out here in the world, I must turn my attention to Diana, the protagonist in my next novel, Skin Deep. A former model and an artist, she is beautiful, talented, messed-up, thoughtless, selfish and needy. Another challenge, in essence!
Have a lovely weekend, people,