Does a great or even a good novel depend on a great or good protagonist, and by good I mean likeable and decent and mostly trying to do the right thing? And if the character isn’t great or good at the beginning of the book, must there be some epiphany or redemption by the end? Most modern characters are a stew of contradictions, but what happens when the positives fail to outweigh the negatives or when the character is ambiguous and impossible to peg?
I remember when I first realized that Grace Winter, the protagonist of The Lifeboat, was manipulative and not necessarily truthful. This was an exciting writing moment. It not only offered up huge possibilities for the story, but it liberated me from forcing her to become something she clearly didn’t want to be.
I also realized that some of my favorite books focus on less than admirable characters: Madame Bovary, The Stranger, Crime and Punishment, Hunger, Vanity Fair, The Trial. The protagonists in these books range from troubled to selfish to bad, but we are interested in them for their torment or for the strangeness of their circumstances or for the compelling way they are presented or for how a glimpse into their minds lets us grapple with the conundrums of our own.
While Emma Bovary and Becky Sharp are represented in the list above, the truth is that female anti-heroes are hard to come by. In a 92-entry Wikipedia list of fictional anti-heroes in film, only 4 are female; in another list, the count is 2 out of 50. Examples from literature are just as rare.
Often anti-heroes are protagonists we can root for even as they succumb to circumstance, so perhaps there is something in our attitude toward women that limits the transgressions we will allow them. Jack Bauer of television’s 24 can get away with torture on a weekly basis, but Carrie Mathison of Homeland needs the cover of mental illness to explain her intensity and willingness to defy protocol for the cause.
Another explanation for the dearth of female anti-heroes might be that many writers see flawed heroines as damsels in distress—in need of saving, often from themselves. Even though we have come a long way from sleeping beauty (who not only lacks the smallest bit of agency in her rescue, but even lacks consciousness) we still fall for stories where the romantic bad girl finds a man—problem solved! And we are still happy to believe that love will continue to conquer all even after the book’s end.
It could also be that society’s need for women to be nurturing social creatures is so deeply ingrained that readers react viscerally and negatively when they aren’t. Grace Winter is hardly nice or nurturing. In The Lifeboat, she uses what she has to save herself: not only her looks and sex appeal, but also her ability to observe and play to power shifts. Who she loves and exactly how much remain open to question, so she is not easily redeemed by the love-conquers-all trope.
At book events, people invariably ask me if I like Grace, and I reply that I love her. I love her not because she would be my best friend or because I would be glad to sit next to her in a lifeboat, but because she opened my writer’s mind to what a female protagonist can be.
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