The Unlikable Female Protagonist: A Field Guide to Identification in the Wild — Guest Post by Sarah McCarry

Let’s kick off our series with what will be a very helpful post for those needing a little guidance to work through what many will be talking about over the next couple of weeks. Sarah McCarry is here to offer insight into the unlikable female protagonist.

Sarah McCarry ( & @therejectionist) is the author of the novels All Our Pretty Songs and Dirty Wings (summer 2014), and the editor and publisher of Guillotine, a chapbook series dedicated to revolutionary nonfiction.


Considerable debate has been devoted to the subject of the Unlikable Female Protagonist, a common pest of the natural world. While it is not our intent here to contribute to the extensive literature on her value as an object of study, we hope that by clarifying and outlining her identifying characteristics we may make a valuable and practical addition to the current research being conducted in the field.
The Unlikable Female Protagonist (UFP) is indigenous to a highly diverse spectra of ecosystems, climates, and geographical zones.
Global; she may also be found in a variety of uniquely fictive environments, including but not limited to magical kingdoms, future dystopias, re-imagined historical settings, re-told fairytales, Forks, Washington, and a a web of filth, sexual perversions, alcohol, and smoking.
ADULT and JUVENILE specimens of the UFP share a number of common characteristics and behaviors, and it is difficult to distinguish them in their natural habitats. Likewise, isolating the UFP in a group of Likable Female Protagonists may prove an insurmountable task for the casual observer; even researchers with extensive background in the field are frequently stymied when asked to assess physiological and behavioral differences between Likable and Unlikable Female Protagonists. 
Complicating identification further, a Previously Likable Female Protagonist may transition suddenly into a UFP via the application of a traumatic event, such as sexual assault, parental abandonment, death of family member or friend, discovery of previously unknown supernatural power, crushing out on werewolves, puberty, etc. Notably, rather than process her response via culturally acceptable techniques such as quietly journaling alone, attending therapy, dressing nicely, and remaining chipper but not overly perky, the UFP expresses her distress via characteristic behaviors including but not limited to promiscuous sexual activitydrinking alcohol and attending rock concertsdisrespecting her parentsbeing a bitchbeing a whiny, annoying, total bitchbeing a conceited bitchbeing a heartless bitch, being a shallow, narcissistic bitchbeing a hypocritical, coldhearted beeyotch with a stick up her assbeing dirtyattending a diverse high schoolbeing Muslim, living with a disabilitybeing cleverer than Harry Potterfinding a man who is stupid enough to love her, masturbatingbeing afraid of her emotionsdetaching herself from her emotions, and swearingYeah she had a bad past, with her absent dad, butthole boyfriend, and an unexpected pregnancy/subsequent abortion, but she is a whiny brat
These, of course, are not the sole identifiers of the UFP, and merely existing may serve as trauma enough to effect a transition from Likable to Unlikable. The UFP is also feministnot feminist enough, is too cheerful, overachieves, has pink hair, and does not criticize her love interest for putting up posters of attractive women on motorcycles. Additionally, the UFP may be precociousa moronirresponsibletoo glamoroustoo fattoo anorexictoo fixated on older mengaypassivearrogant, and not feminine enoughShe has male friends, is obsessed with sexis too richis too poortalks too much about racism, and is generally detestableselfish, and possessed of solely first-world problemsHaving cancer is no excuse for her whining, unless she is written by a man. She is overly forgivingpathetica HUGE wussy/complainerunremarkablevapidthe kind of girl who feels the need to expose herself to a guy she doesn’t knowoverly forceful, and self-righteousShe would give IT up wayyyy too easilyShe is, quite simply, an idiot.
While inexperienced researchers may express confusion about the apparently contradictory nature of the UFP’s behaviors, the obvious unifying factor among them is the fact that the UFP is always, as her name suggests, female.
Female Protagonists may only ever be subdivided into “Likable” and “Unlikable”; for Fully-Developed Human Beings, refer to “Men.”
As noted above, isolating and identifying the UFP in natural environments is a challenging task for the researcher. While she may elect to self-identify by donning goth clothing or applying black eyeliner, it is as likely that she will be visually indistinguishable from her likable counterparts. The UFP is so common, in fact, that naturalists might be better served by devoting their energies to searching out the Likable Female Protagonist instead, a creature so rare and elusive that some researchers suggest she is extinct, or in fact a figment imagined by overly enthusiastic graduate students in the humanities. At any rate, delineating the behaviors of the Likable Female Protagonist, should they be definable, is outside the scope of the present paper.

Sarah McCarry’s All Our Pretty Songs is available now and Dirty Wings will be available in July. 
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  1. says

    Love this post! Funny and insightful…two of my favorite things. As a soon-to-be-mom of a little girl, I want to help my daughter fight societal fit-in-this-box pressures and become her own person…and the thought of how to do that is sometimes pretty scary.

    That said, I have one question, and it may sound sarcastic, but I mean it in a heartfelt and genuine way. Discussion about LFP and UFP always makes me wonder: how do I best express my opinion about a character when the truth is I don't really like that character? Generally, I try to avoid blanket judgement statements and keep it specific and personal (and gender neutral, because usually what I dislike in a character has little to do with whether or not they are a male or female) — but like real life, sometimes me and someone else just don't get along, you know? I'd like to have room to express honest opinions about a book, but not contribute to the Judgement Machine.

    • says

      I've been thinking about this since you've asked, and I think the best response is this: say that YOU don't like the character. There's nothing wrong with your not liking a character. The problem is when what you prefer in a character becomes the critical lens through which you judge that character. "I don't like the character" isn't "This character isn't likable." "I don't like the character" isn't "The character is too ____," with the blank filled in by any of the ideas above. Your dislike of a character is a preference and one you're entirely entitled to. Your dislike of a character, though, isn't a critical assessment (and I think you totally get that via what you've said).

  2. says

    Very funny and very true and very sad. I've been getting complaints for years that my female main characters are "not likable enough." The solution, it seems, is to make them into boys.

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