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My female protagonist wears Prada, and after receiving a big promotion at work, she plots to take over the CEO-ship of her company. One (female) reviewer said something like, "That's one tough cookie you've got there."

The woman is a taking a well earned vacation on a cruise with her (future) fiance, and there are a number of scenes where she takes out her various jealousies. For instance, she playfully "grounds" him for looking at the legs of Argentine tango dancers (and then lifts up her skirt to expose her own legs), and pouts when he chooses a song on karaoke night without consulting her.

But she goes ballistic (and creates the decisive conflict) when her date befriends a young man, and fellow New Yorker, from the "wrong side of the tracks" (Harlem) while they are onboard.

My reviewer then asked me if this isn't going too far, and making the protagonist seem petty and mean.

Isn't this within character? Or is this somehow out of bounds?

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It's hard to give a completely accurate answer without the complete context of the character (her dialogue, her descriptions, how she views the world, and how specifically this situation unfolds) but the assumption of pettiness might not be wholly a symptom of likability, and more to do with how round, or fleshed out your character is.

Ask yourself is this action seems justified for your character to do? While Chris' comments are absolutely important to consider (the importance of likability is a huge conversation within the literary world that there simply is no real answer to) what's equally important is making sure your characters always have a motive or a clear reason for the actions they are doing.

Consider whether or not the actions she take are counter to her original design. Do the readers have any reason to believe that she wouldn't do something like this? Have you previously presented her as open-minded, tolerant, and fair, and perhaps her sudden hatred of people from "the wrong side of the tracks" (a phrase which is has its racist connotations) might be throwing readers off.

Pettiness largely stems from being narrow minded, after all. Do you consider your character as someone who would be largely narrow minded? If so, it's perfectly fine for her to be petty, in fact, even if you don't consider her to be narrow minded, it's perfectly reasonable for anyone to make a petty comment once in a while.

What's critical however is making sure your character is not just one thing. Make sure she is not just "tough" or not just "petty" but a combination of things. Let the audience know why she's doing things, what is causing these emotions (perhaps she's jealous or had a bad experience), and so on, and you'll be fine. That is, after all, what makes for strong likable and non-likable protagonists!

  • In the play, the (domineering) protagonist scheduled all the land tours for herself and her date. The issue was that the young man had an extra ticket for the one day the woman hadn't scheduled a tour, that was offered first to her, and then to the date. So the issue was that the woman's authority was being challenged. Perhaps I sharpened the conflict by giving the "plum" young man role to a real-life African-American friend of mine. – Tom Au Sep 1 '15 at 19:09
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The problem isn't necessarily that the character is too mean, it's more likely that she doesn't have enough positive traits for that particular reader to enjoy a story with her as the protagonist.

Different readers will have different tolerances. I'm guessing you enjoy mean characters, and some of your readers will probably feel the same way. But you might want to consider providing some balance as well. Is your character secretly insecure? Does she have a heart of gold? Is she compensating for past trauma or exacting secret revenge?

With all that said, I've occasionally seen stories that are so compelling that you don't care that the main character is thoroughly unlikeable, you just want to go along for the ride (I'm thinking of Youth in Revolt here). But you really have to "go for broke" to make that work.

  • The story line is that the heroine HAD a heart of gold, years ago, was traumatized by events in the story, and rediscovers it on board ship, during the resulting fight. At the end, she tells the hero, "I guess you need me to start acting like a fairy godmother, and not like a wicked stepmother." Is that likely to lead to a satisfactory ending? Thanks for your help. – Tom Au Sep 1 '15 at 19:16
  • @TomAu I hope that's a summary and not an actual line of dialogue. That's a painful pair of clichés, and in either case, shouldn't the gentleman be looking for an equal partner and not a mother of any kind? Plus I feel like she's framing her only possible relationship options as "selfish bitch" or "horn of plenty which doesn't require reciprocation." Are you trying to establish that no matter what she does, her relationships will be unhealthy? – Lauren-Clear-Monica-Ipsum Sep 1 '15 at 19:20
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    @LaurenIpsum: The previous discussion was how the hero had become a "godfather" to a number of people. So it was a line of dialogue, but the context was that a good godfather needs to marry a fairy godmother, and not a wicked stepmother (think of poor Cinderella) to fulfill his mission. And since they've gotten rich together at work, it's just a question of how they manage their horn of plenty, including reciprocation. – Tom Au Sep 1 '15 at 19:24
  • @TomAu Context is everything. :) Makes much more sense now. – Lauren-Clear-Monica-Ipsum Sep 1 '15 at 19:55
  • @Lauren Ipsum: The story has a happy ending because the woman "comes around." Yes, the cliches are "painful" but I wanted the story to be "poignant." The ending feels so much sweeter (at least to me), after all the "hurt." – Tom Au Sep 8 '15 at 0:37

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