Women aren’t often allowed to be unlikable—and that’s especially true for fictional women. Most readers get that “sympathetic” or “interesting” isn’t the same as “nice”: look at all the asshole geniuses and Byronic heroes lauded in fiction and adored by fans. But the common denominator among these assholes about whom so much ink is spilt, and to whom so much screentime is devoted, is that they’re invariably male.
Female characters have a low threshold for unlikability, as well. Often it simply means that they have goals and motivations that have little to do with the wellbeing of other people. Women who aren’t nurturing and self-sacrificing? How dare they! Do they even know how to woman?
My debut novel Sorcerer to the Crown follows the adventures of a man who is rather nice, and a woman who isn’t particularly. In honour of my heroine Prunella Gentleman’s literary forebears, here’s five books I love about difficult women.
Living Alone, Stella Benson
Living Alone is a slim, strange novel about war and magic, set in London during the Great War. The very first paragraph says of its long-suffering protagonist Sarah Brown that she’s a woman about whom “the less said the better.” But it’s not Sarah Brown who’s difficult: it’s her life, which leaves her overburdened, hungry and solitary. Enter a witch, who is difficult. Superintendent of a house called Living Alone, the witch is, of course, one of those people who are born for the first time and are therefore capable of magic. The book is available for free on Gutenberg and is long overdue a rediscovery.
Villette, Charlotte Brontë
Villette is my favourite Brontë novel for reasons I don’t even fully understand, but which have a lot to do with its angry, lonely, depressed protagonist Lucy Snowe. I like Lucy because she’s such a loser on every axis that matters in Victorian society, but she’s totally uncompromising about it. In Charlotte Brontë novels Reason and Passion are always anthropomorphic characters that engage in titanic Godzilla-vs-Ultraman-style battles, but Passion generally wins with Lucy Snowe, whether she admits it or not. She’s painfully honest about how weird and obsessive she is, but she also lies constantly to everyone, including the reader. She’s so interesting!
The Palace of Illusions, Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni
The Palace of Illusions was my introduction to the Mahabharata, which is not as much of a thing in Malaysia as the Ramayana, as most of our ethnic Indian population is South Indian. The Mahabharata has all the richness and complexity you would expect of one of humanity’s great epic stories, but The Palace of Illusions is not a bad entrance point if you want an introduction that is the length of an ordinary book and you’re interested in difficult women. Divakaruni’s Draupadi is proud and furious and passionate. You can see why she would start a war, and you’re rooting for her even if it seems like it might be a bad idea.
Sister Mine, Nalo Hopkinson
Sister Mine features not one but two difficult woman, as well as all their inconvenient godly relatives. Abby and Makeda are twins, daughters of a demigod and a human woman, but Abby got the family mojo, whereas Makeda is little better than any claypicken mortal. Makeda moves out to try to break her family’s hold on her and make her own life, but she’s drawn back into their affairs when her father goes missing. Makeda’s voice is fantastic and her story is all about family quarrels and magic, so it is the perfect book for me.
The House of Shattered Wings, Aliette de Bodard
The House of Shattered Wings is set in a Paris ravaged by magical war and features any number of uncompromising women with unsanded corners all poking at one another. It’s got such a strong cast of characters with conflicting motivations that it’s an irresistible temptation to pick favourites. Mine is a tie between the haunted alchemist with a tragic past, Madeleine, and a certain princess who shows up in the waters of the Seine later in the book—but to say more would involve spoilers! Read it yourself and pick your own favourites.
Zen Cho writes speculative fiction, with the occasional foray into romance. Her debut novel Sorcerer to the Crown is available this week from Ace Books (US) and Tor UK (UK and Commonwealth). Read an excerpt here.