I don't know about you, but I think a protagonist’s first duty is not to be likeable, but fascinating. In my experience, the flawed tend to be more interesting than the flawless, yet in the world of women's commercial fiction, editors seem to be on the look-out for a cross between Pollyanna and Mother Teresa. With sex appeal. Heroines must in addition also be young, pretty and thin because - well, because popular women’s fiction is about the young, pretty and thin. Obviously.

Linda Gillard
Only mine isn’t. I write about spiky, awkward, real women and most of them aren’t young, pretty or thin, which only compounds their felonies. The heroine of STAR GAZING is middle-aged, widowed and blind and she’s not too happy about any of that. (In fact the Scots hero describes her as "crabbit".)

Over the years my heroines’ bolshy behaviour has led to conflict as I’ve resisted attempts made by long-suffering editors to make my female protagonists nicer. It’s not just that I think in fiction, nice is generally a bit dull (how many times have you re-read POLLYANNA?), it’s that I’m steeped in the classics and know niceness is not necessary; that many a book has stood the test of time despite the heroine’s lack of social skills.

Let’s face it, Jane Eyre is not exactly Miss Congeniality. And I'm surely not the only one who’d like to slap Emma Woodhouse. Cathy Earnshaw is a minx at best, demon at worst. Becky Sharp, Anna Karenina, Emma Bovary, Scarlett O'Hara, Tess D'Urberville - none of them would have made Head Girl. Even everyone’s favourite, Elizabeth Bennet, is tricky. At a time when marrying for love was a fanciful and uneconomic notion, turning down Collins' and Darcy's marriage proposals was selfish and would rebound disastrously on her large and impecunious family. But we love her anyway.

Miss Congeniality?
These problematic heroines haven’t exactly blighted the books in which they feature. On the contrary, they're the reason we read and re-read. We relish their complexity, their guts and their moral ambiguity. But times have changed apparently. There seems to be a belief now among editors of commercial women's fiction that female protagonists must set some sort of example. They mustn’t drink to excess or swear; they mustn’t desert or even dislike their children; they mustn’t have casual or unprotected sex and they should (of course) be kind to old people and animals.

It’s not that publishers see themselves as moral arbiters, rather they’re convinced that readers won’t like a woman who's less than perfect, and if they don’t like her, they won’t like the book.

This might be true occasionally, but not invariably. In my second novel, A LIFETIME BURNING (now out of print, but I'll e-publish on Kindle next year), my anti-heroine Flora, a clergyman’s wife, commits every sin apart from murder, but when she dies, some readers cry their eyes out. I know because they've told me. They don't really like Flora, but they pity her and understand her.

In UNTYING THE KNOT the heroine, Fay has walked away from an unhappy marriage to her war hero husband and a casual sexual escapade has painful and messy consequences, but Fay's misdemeanours don't seem to have put readers off. The Kindle e-book has acquired eleven 5-star Amazon reviews since it was published in August. One of them says, "This book triggered all my emotions, it made me angry, made me sad, made me remember the hopelessness of lost love, the despair of divorce and the sickening hope and passion of reconciliation."

Kindle e-book (£1.90/$2.99)
Now call me old-fashioned, but I think evoking readers’ compassion is a higher goal for a novelist than avoiding readers’ censure. (This opinion may have some bearing on why I’m not rich or famous and spend much of my working day in my PJs, stuck in front of a computer, instead of signing books for queues of avid readers at literary festivals.)

I sometimes wonder how the Brontës’ novels might have fared in today’s slush piles. In an idle, possibly vengeful moment, I composed an imaginary rejection letter sent to an aspiring Charlotte Brontë. I tried to emulate the tone and content of the sort of helpful editorial feedback that many authors receive nowadays. The following might seem rather familiar to some of you...

Dear Ms Brontë

We enjoyed your manuscript JANE EYRE. You write well and most of your characters are believable, but I'm afraid we found your plot relentlessly downbeat and depressing. Does Helen Burns have to die? Does Rochester have to be blinded? A disfigured hero is not appealing and spoils your otherwise feel-good ending. We wondered whether superficial burns and a partial loss of sight would serve just as well?

We found Rochester himself problematic. He isn't likeable, nor is he physically attractive. He is wealthy (a point in his favour) but you fail to clarify whether or not Adèle is his illegitimate daughter. In short, we thought he just wasn't hero material.

Sadly, Jane herself is not very appealing as a heroine. She’s feisty, but physically unattractive and a little prissy. There's little for a female reader to identify with here.  Something more upbeat is required for a romantic heroine. Readers might forgive Jane rejecting Rochester's immoral proposal, but to reject St John Rivers as well makes her look priggish and ungrateful.

You might want to think about demoting Rochester to a subplot and upgrading Rivers to main hero, perhaps dropping the unappealing religious aspect of his character. (No one loves a do-gooder.) You could then dispense with your frankly unconvincing plot device of Jane hearing Rochester call to her after the fire. (We don't think paranormal romance has a future.)

You write well and with passion, but JANE EYRE belongs to no clear genre and this would make it extremely difficult to market. Sorry not to be more encouraging, but in a fiercely competitive field, a romantic novel has to have stand-out qualities to be commercially viable.

Thank you for letting us read your manuscript.

Yours sincerely
A N Editor


Nicola Morgan said…
Brilliant post, Linda! I couldn't agree more. However, I think "liking" is a very complex thing in itself. I remember that before my first novel, Mondays are Red, was published, an editor said she found the main character (a boy, in this case) too unlikeable. I didn't know what she meant because I was in his head and it felt personal, but very recently I've been re-reading it while tidying up for my new ebook edition, and I found myself seeing that unattractive element for the first time. I had become the reader, not the writer, the acquaintance and not the emotionally-attached friend. As writers of complex fiction I think we tread a fine line between creating the fascinating character and the unappealing one. Jane Eyre is appealing because of her imperfections but imperfections don't inevitably make an appealing character? This is not to disagree with you - far from it. I totally agree. But I think it's harder and more complex than we often allow ourselves to recognise.
Linda Newbery said…
Brilliant rejection letter, Linda! And I'm with you - give me prickly and awkward, any day. I'm just having precisely that dilemma myself - my main character is prickly and awkward for good reasons, but my editors think readers won't identify with her ... Hmmm. So I am trying to find that fine line Nicola talks about above.
Oh Linda, this had me practically punching the air this morning! I've had that same letter, or something very like it, more than once! And I could add to your list of problematic heroines - Catriona MacGregor in Stevenson's Kidnapped sequel is deeply flawed and often downright irritating (as well as intensely loveable and absolutely real!) While although I love Dickens, just about all his heroines are the least appealing of his creations - although I assume they appealed to him. I tend to read 'round' them and appreciate the books in spite of them! My next two novels, both of them finished, one of them doing the rounds of conventional publishers, and one scheduled for Kindle publication before Christmas, have heroines who are equivocal at best, and I'd always question the readers' need to 'like' them. We have to be interested in them, maybe identify with them. We don't have to assess them as potential candidates for sainthood.
I love that rejection letter, Linda, as you know :)
Many of our most enduring heroines are not that likable. Perfection isn't what makes interesting characters; humanity is. Think of your closest friends. They all have traits that bring out our inner crabbit, yet we love them as well. Relationships - including those with fictional characters - happen because of a process of bonding, not admiration. That's what the writer has to aim for.

To your roll-call of heroines who today would be given the air-brush, let me add Mrs de Winter. What a drip. But I still care deeply about her story.
Karen King said…
Loved the letter, Linda. A really interesting post. Do heroines have to be likeable? I think they do, but above all they have to be human, compelling, someone we can identify with. So likeable yes to a certain extent, perfect absolutely not!
Linda Gillard said…
Thanks, everyone.

Catherine, that is so true about Dickens, though I'd not really thought of it before. We love and/or admire Estella, Nancy & Mme Defarge as characters (or do I mean characterisations?). Drippy Dora Copperfield & Lucie Manette seem like plot devices, love objects only.

What I don't understand is why fiction is thought to be different from cinema. Think of the actresses famous for their bad girl roles: Glenn Close, Kathleen Turner, Uma Thurman, Meryl Streep, Jodie Foster and in an earlier age Vivien Leigh, Bette Davis, Joan Crawford and Barbara Stanwyck.

Are female readers more judgemental than cienama-goers? (I say female because the need for morally air-brushed characters seems to apply to women's fiction only.)

Ros, you make an interesting point about Mrs. de Winter and I agree. Du Maurier manages to depict moral goodness in a way that isn't off-putting or boring. I think Jane Austen also manages this with Fanny Price in MANSFIELD PARK, but I know a lot of readers disagree and think she's a pain in the butt, preferring naughty Mary Crawford.

But I'm not sure the editorial battles are really about moral goodness. I fell out with an editor over a pregnant protagonist drinking gin (in a stressful situation). Her argument was intelligent people know you shouldn't drink during pregnancy. My argument was intelligent people frequently do things that are ill-advised. Then it became clear the issue was one of reader-identification not verisimilitude.

The gin stayed in. ;-)
Dan Holloway said…
But if Jane Eyre had been rejected we'd never have had Wide Sargasso Sea. Now if an editor had come back to Mr Bell and said "hmm. I'm not sure about this as it stands, but one bit did intrigue me. Let me see, what was it, ah yes: 'madwoman in the attic.' There may just be something in that"...
Don't get me started on insane editorial battles about behaviour that readers might copy.
Linda Gillard said…
Ooh, go on Roz - you know you want to. ;-)
JO said…
I so agree - protagonists who have lived a bit, abused chocolate etc, are far more interesting than the young and beautiful. Indeed, I find myself wanting to tell the young ones they'll feel better when they've grown up a bit!
Jan Needle said…
all fascinating stuff. but on linda's point about cinema and lit - could it be that if you have a difficult, bad, or unpleasant heroine in print you can't see her, and your imagination tends to reflect your negative perceptions. while on the screen,the "bad girls" are there in front of you, and usually powerful, charismatic, attractive entities (like real human beings you maybe disapprove of but still love/fancy?). i recently read Jamaica Inn for the first time (shame on me), and was fascinated how du maurier got round the sex question. even on the last page, when our heroine was going off to (presumably) a night of passion with a roguish bastard, it was not an "ishyou". perhaps our daphne knew publishers and their lunacies better than some of us do...
Linda Gillard said…
Very interesting point, Jan, about JAMAICA INN (which I haven't read either. Memo to self: remedy this asap.) Du Maurier famously objected to being pigeonholed as a romantic novelist and my points perhaps only apply to commercial women's fiction. (Although Lionel Shriver got a lot of flak and rejection slips for WE NEED TO TALK ABOUT KEVIN. It only became a success by good word of mouth.)

I wonder if we allow historical heroines more moral leeway? If so, why? Because their behaviour cannot possibly be held up as a template for our own?...
Rowan Coleman said…
what a great post - and heartening and my current heroine is also a bit tricky to like all at once, she takes getting to know. I love Jane Eyre, and I love your rejection letter, it is very of the moment!
Carol Hedges said…
Brilliant! I've been told by at least 2 editors that my heroines are not likeable. As they're teenagers, my response is: yeah. (with shrug, hands in pockets). Thanks for this! Enjoyed reading it.

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