HER KIND: Bitch Magazine provided us with the following prompt for our BITCHES theme: In a May issue of Publisher’s Weekly, Claire Messud was puzzled by her interviewer’s remark that the main character in Messud’s The Woman Upstairs seemed like someone she wouldn’t want to be friends with. “Would you?” she asked Messud, who responded, “What kind of question is that?” and continued on to list a number of male fictional characters whose male authors, as far as we know, were never asked to account for their likability. Do likable characters matter? When you write, do you consider how readers will judge your characters—particularly female ones—according to gendered expectations of behavior?
Cassandra Dallett: I don’t write fiction, so I don’t create characters. My character is myself. I certainly do not write myself, or my family and friends, with any thought of likability. You will identify or not and I don’t really care. My younger self did a lot of stupid things—most people do—but I continued doing them longer and am probably more honest about the fool I am than most people would dare to be.
I am often published with a lot of men. Some of the content, in some of the magazines I have been published in, is pretty objectifying; but I like being the woman who talks about men as objects. It’s how we often talk between ourselves. But I talk about them out loud—about their small dicks and premature ejaculations. I beat them to it, and talk about my fat thighs and slutty behavior. Things that caused me enormous shame growing up—everything caused me shame in my life—now I’m happy to own it. I get a really positive response from men and woman, which is amazing, therapeutic, and free!
I do doubt that a male writer would be asked about the likeability of their characters—these are the mind frames we need to blast out of. With all the amazing woman writers in the world, it is absurd that we would be held to a different standard or expectation. Why should our characters be likeable? And more important, likeable to who? I am a fan of realness; I like to read things that ring true and I write truth, as I know it. My experience is only my own.
Sometimes in workshops, people say I can’t believe this narrator would do this thing and I say, I know, I know, but I did. I did do those crazy, stupid things, acted too tough and too weak, vulnerable and fierce. I shoot these tales out into the world and trust that somewhere, someone will identify with them.
Karyn Polewaczyk: I write mostly nonfiction—and to boot, a lot of the stuff I’ve worked on (pieces for women’s lifestyle magazines/websites) tends to be service-oriented, with the reader in mind. It’s not always about whether I’m likable as a writer as, it is whether what I’m producing is likable and relatable. There comes a point in every artist’s life, though, when she (or he) has to decide if she’s creating for herself, or for the public. The inherent wont to create something tends to be extremely personal, and doesn’t stem from the desire to please, but to make.
That said, though, I’ve published pieces on Jezebel and xoJane—two highly-trafficked female-focused websites that are as well-known for their content as they are for their notorious commenters (especially on the Gawker sites, where commenting is a sport), who will rip a writer to shreds. It’s why I often don’t read the comments, and it’s why I think anyone who wants to share their work publicly, whether it’s online, in print, or spoken aloud to a room full of strangers, needs to develop a thick skin (but not so thick that her vulnerability, which helps an artist connect with herself and her audience, is diminished). Writing for yourself is different than writing with the hope or intention of being published. Know what I mean?
CD: I do know what you mean. It is true, it depends a lot on the genre, and if I was writing a novel, say, I might want a character that more people could connect with, because as a reader, I like to fall in love with and miss the characters in my favorite books. You and I write in very different places, so of course yours is much more driven by what the magazine or site wants and needs.
I think staying away from comments on the internet is always a good idea. It can get very depressing reading how much racism, sexism, and general nastiness still exists when people can hide behind their computer. I really like what you said about having a thick skin and retaining our vulnerability—that is absolutely what makes a writer good and also successful, in my opinion. I agree there is a difference, but I would still say that I write for myself and hope to be published.
KP: Have you ever seen the TED Talk by Brené Brown? She talks about the power of vulnerability. Here’s the link, if you haven’t: ted.com/talks/brene_brown_on_vulnerability.html
I’m really particular about my fiction reading. My favorite book, for a long time, was The Catcher in the Rye, but after discovering The Dud Avocado last summer—seriously, it’s so good, my heart beats for it—it’s since reached second-place contender status. Most of the books I love have a female character who’s strong, unnerving, unwilling to settle, fierce—and so on. I’ve always been able to relate to the bad girl, in books or elsewhere, and at the risk of sounding morbid, I get why Sylvia Plath stuck her head in the oven. (I’m sure my therapist would have a lot to say about that.)
CD: I’m glad you like bad girls because I am certainly one!
I have seen the Brené Brown TED Talk and I love it! I thought of it immediately when you mentioned the importance of vulnerability. I have also put The Dud Avocado on my reading list. I love a good recommendation. I have been reading mostly poetry and memoir because that’s what I’m working on.
But back to bad girls. My stories are about being a sexually promiscuous, alcoholic teenager in the punk scene of the eighties. Dabbling in drugs, managing to try most of them before the age eighteen. I had no adult supervision or direction, no goals or good education, so I floated through life landing where I did. I lived through some very violent situations. I didn’t know how to communicate without the physical and I found myself in some very abusive relationships.
It’s hard to know how your reader will react—admitting these things that are very vulnerable, but there is a toughness too. I’m the girl that buys a gun at the end of the story (which is of course the beginning of another disastrous story). I write about being the cheater in a relationship, which is not a likeable character by any means. And I write about things people don’t want to think about, like being a single mother working shitty low-paying jobs, and the pain and hopelessness of living in a community whose young men are getting shot and jailed at an alarming rate. These are things that should be talked about—I am no heroine, just someone who bumbles her way through, reporting on what not to do more than anything.
KP: I think it’s interesting that you affiliate, what some might call deviant behavior, with being “bad,” especially when you say you write about what not to do. To me, that signals someone who maybe just lost her way for a bit. Being bad, in my mind, is something inherent; it’s more about defiance than deviance. Bad can also be manipulative or seductive; at the risk of sounding like a misogynist, I also like the idea of a “bad bitch” (via hip-hop culture), which suggests a woman who owns her shit and makes no apologies about it.
Here’s a question for you, then: do you think you can “create” a likable character, if you’re writing memoir with a focus on situations that may rouse readers’ judgment? Do you care?
CD: I did come up heavily influenced by hip-hop culture. My relationships have been with men who were misogynist, that is probably where I get the bad label from.
I am defiant, and I am a “bad bitch” to be sure. I am not the “good girl” my ex had hoped I would be. I tried but I am, in the end, very rebellious and only like to do things for someone when it is not expected. I have certainly lost my way many times, but in the end, I write about it unapologetically. I am only sorry for the harm I caused myself—much of which, in hindsight, was unnecessary.
To answer your question, yes, you can have a likable character that rouses readers with their actions—absolutely, that is probably the most common outcome. But I don’t think you should write them with that in mind; you write with honesty and the honesty tends to be what the reader likes about the character.
I certainly have an inherent need to be liked, but I try not to think about that when writing. I stick to the facts: this is how it actually happened. I leave it up to the reader to take away what they will. Every time I read in public, people come up to me afterwards and say they loved the honesty and found it brave. I’m sure there are people who judge as well—they just tend to keep it to themselves. If it were a blog, I would probably get pages of nasty comments.
I recently read the book Tiger, Tiger: A Memoir by Margaux Fragoso; it’s about her and her molester. They had a very complicated relationship that continued well into her adulthood. I read it with a group of woman. Everyone loved the book; it was one of the rare times we all agreed. We loved the writing; it was very good and the honesty brutal. She owned her part in the whole dysfunctional situation. She said things most people wouldn’t dare to. It confirmed my belief that you should just tell your truth no matter.
Cassandra Dallett occupies Oakland, CA, she writes of a counterculture childhood in Vermont and her ongoing adolescence in the San Francisco Bay Area. She has published in Slip Stream, Sparkle and Blink, Hip Mama, Bleed Me A River, Criminal Class Review, Enizagam, among many others. Look for links and chapbooks on cassandradallett.com.
Karyn Polewaczyk lives and writes in Boston. Her work, which focuses largely on women’s lifestyle topics, regularly appears in columns at Boston.com and Dig Boston, and has been published in Jezebel, xoJane, LearnVest and More.com, among others. Follow her on Twitter @KarynPolewaczyk.