Writers often tell me they have a problem with their heroine: she is boring and indistinct. Minor characters are leaping off the page, full of flaws and foibles, life-like and life-affirming, while the main protagonist is dull. She lacks the energy and agency necessary to promote action. She is reactive rather than proactive. These writers are usually women who I suspect over-identify with their central characters and want readers to like them. They baulk at making their main protagonist too badly-behaved or even too assertive. They want the ‘me’-type person to be noble and worthy of admiration rather than beguilingly misguided, fascinatingly devious, or entertainingly silly (Men, of course, have no trouble creating unlikeable heroines, usually a neurotic/heartless/dishonest flagrant nymphomaniac, but you don’t have to go that far).
The heroines we love in fiction are feisty, wilful, proud, ambitious, lusty, sometimes downright immoral and/or criminal. At the most acceptable end of the spectrum, we like Lizzie Bennett even though she gets Darcy all wrong and falls for the cad Wickham. In the middle, we relate to Bridget Jones’s lack of discipline and laugh at her self-deception. Moving onto the moral low ground, we enjoy heartless flirt Scarlet O’Hara’s outrageous selfishness, admire her gutsiness and lament her lack of insight (the reverse is true of her rival mealy-mouthed Miss Melanie). All these characters are complex, complicated and sometimes contradictory. In other words they feel real.
We don’t even have to relate to a character; we just need to recognise the truth in their depiction. With forensic honesty, novelist Muriel Spark serves up interesting, flawed heroines. Most readers don’t like Miss Jean Brodie yet they feel sympathy for her, while simultaneously cringing at her arrogance, affectations and delusions. Good writers aren’t afraid of the dark. Beryl Bainbridge’s female characters are compelling, disturbing even. The heroine of her first novel, Harriet, is a 13-year-old child with “an evil mind”, in the words of one of her victims, who draws her friend into duplicity and murder. One of the publishers who rejected Harriet Said protested: “What repulsive little creatures you have made the central characters – repulsive almost beyond belief!” Stella, the teenage Liverpudlian heroine of a later novel, An Awfully Big Adventure (1989), is quite obviously based on Bainbridge, but she has no qualms about making her clever, manipulative and self-dramatising. Dark and despicable works for Emma Cline too in The Girls; Suzanne is moody, selfish and, by the end of the novel, downright evil, but she has an innate charisma that draws in the narrator and the reader.
You may not want to create a monster but if you think your central character is pallid ask yourself if you have edited out their petty, ignoble, unlovable traits. Take a step back, up your objectivity and write a list of her bad points. If your protagonist doesn’t have any, select her good points and push them to an extreme: if she’s a hard worker try workaholic over-achiever; if she worries about her friends, make her meddlesome; if she’s a keen gardener, let her steal cuttings compulsively. Watch the opening of Can You Ever Forgive Me?and note how the character of Lee Israel is revealed as drunken, foul-mouthed, misanthropic yet so sympathetic (she loves that cat!). Resist the temptation to Photoshop your protagonist; give us the warts and all and create a truly engaging character.