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I have a story where one of my lead characters is a headstrong young woman. In terms of personality she is hyperactive, energetic, and charismatic, but at the same time these traits make her arrogant, insensitive, and tone-deaf. One thing I have noticed is that headstrong female characters are often criticized as being annoying and unlikeable if written poorly. Audiences seem to be more sensitive to this in recent years, due to authors wanting to insert "strong, independent female characters" in their stories but failing to balance headstrongness with likability. Rey and Korra are some of the most commonly cited characters when it comes to this. Given this, I am wondering how can I make a likable headstrong female character without them coming off as annoying or unlikeable?

In particular, I'm wondering how to keep readers invested and sympathetic towards the character in the earliest part of the story when she is at her most flawed before character development starts kicking in. Overall, her arc is supposed to be one where she learns to temper her energy with humility and maturity, but if the audience checks out because she is too annoying the point is moot. Her flaws are shown to have real negative consequences, including getting her into trouble when she overestimates herself, causing her to say the wrong thing when trying to comfort her friends, and in one case outright torpedoing her chances for a romantic relationship with someone she has a crush on. The characters around her are shown to both like her vivaciousness but at the same time get irritated with some of her behavior. The narrative doesn't try to whitewash her negative traits and paints her mistakes as mistakes and her arrogance in her own abilities as misplaced.

Additionally, in more somber moments she is shown to be concerned about the people around her and feels bad that her attempts at cheering them up or comforting them fail. She is also shown to have more relatable emotions underneath her surface like fear, sadness, and self-doubt, and isn't hyperactive 100% of the time. Perhaps the biggest thing I've noticed in criticisms of characters like Korra and Rey is that they often come across as self-centered and unempathetic, or they are only concerned about other people when the plot tells them to be and their more ordinary actions come off as uncaring towards others or even outright sociopathic.

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    Bear in mind that likeability is in the eye of the beholder. My protagonist is cynical, angry, depressed and self-centred. A reader who holds traditional views of women said she was ‘whiny and annoying’. Feminist readers have had no problem with her: one said, ‘Well, she’s bit grumpy, but she’s having a crap time so it’s understandable.' Everyone will have a different take - try her out on people whose judgement you trust. – Mousentrude Jan 18 at 18:17
  • @Mousentrude This happened to me as well. I had a case where a (female) European beta reader saw no problems with a particular plot element, but a (female) American reader saw the same concept as sexist. Reader reactions can be heavily influenced by individual experience, culture, etc. – user2352714 Jan 19 at 21:18
  • @user2352714 That actually sounds like the opposite experience - in Mousentrude's case, it was the reader with traditional views that objected, and the feminist reader who had no problem. But yes, it varies by individual. – DM_with_secrets Feb 22 at 16:46
  • @DM_with_secrets, hmmm but I'm pretty sure user2352714 doesn't give enough information to determine which reader has traditional views... (Both the US and Europe is large enough to contain both...) just saying... ;-) – Erk Feb 22 at 17:12
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    @DM_with_secrets, you're right! Alas, how blind is the eye! – Erk Feb 24 at 7:13
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Mary Sue

Personally with the examples you give, I like Korra... but I hate Rey... and that's not because she is a "strong, independent female character" but because she is a Mary Sue.

A Mary Sue (Or Gary Stu when male) is a character that is "perfect". Rey for example, without any training or experience whatsoever, is suddenly a skilled pilot, able to use force powers, able to duel a Trained Sith, beautiful and for some reason everybody loves her instantly... such perfectionism is boring as hell and gives no room for growth making the story stale.

Not a Mary Sue

Buffy, even though she had the powers she was still untrained and unable to use her full potential. This is because she is lazy, ditsy and a bit arrogant. This even causes her to die in the first season against the master because she didn't prepare herself as she should have. And although each season she improves and starts taking her duties more seriously... she still gets her ass kicked several times with her friends being needed to save her or clean up after her. These flaws and weaknesses made her able to grow for pretty much the entire 7 season run of the series. Also because more weaknesses and flaws are developed across the series like her depression after her mothers death causing her to make mistakes.

And even outside her life as a slayer she seems flawed due to her relationship issues and her difficulties with her education. Such human flaws make her relatable because everybody had issues with school at one point, or struggled with depression or got their asses handed to them in a fight or during a (sports) game. But Rey on the other hand, is naturally perfect in everything making people feel inapt for not being naturally perfect as well.

Your character

If she is charismatic make her fall flat once in a while. Will Smith for example is a highly charismatic actor but there are a lot of people who can't stand him. Your character should be the same. Sure most people like her, but also have people be indifferent or clearly annoyed with her (with good reasons of course).

Hyperactive & Energetic? Make her Chaotic Good...she does things she thinks helps people but sadly screws them over in the long run because she doesn't take the time to look at the bigger picture. She does something good that leads to new, sometimes even worse problems, what her friends or others need to solve. Don't make her solve the problems herself because that would counter the entire exercise, but make her learn from it so it won't happen a second time. Like having her blindly trust somebody which caused a lot of damage, with her being less trustful of others in the future.

Let her be guided to be a better person, by her own failures or a mentor and it should be fine. Because that's also one big critic on Rey... she does everything herself... never needed a mentor, never needed to fail she just does it and it works out. And this makes all the other characters feel like filler, because why are they even there if she can do it all by herself?

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  • How would one avoid falling into the same trap as Korra then? Because that's the exact same kind of thing Korra did: she screwed up a lot because she didn't look at the big picture and she thought she was helping but she came off as abrasive at best and annoying at worse. And it is these exact reasons a lot of people list off when they say that's why they find Korra unlikable or unsympathetic. – user2352714 Jan 19 at 7:10
  • @user2352714 it's more a Franchise thing then a character thing if you ask me. She is the reincarnation of Aang but nothing like him. So a lot of people hate her for it... they compare her (and the series as a whole) to much to the previous one instead of treating it as something new. – A.bakker Jan 19 at 19:40
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So because of your examples cited, I will respond with my own experiences with the characters you listed. In both cases, the initial story concluded and left me wanting more from both Korra and Rey (season one of "Korra" and "Force Awakens" respectively). It's what happened after those stories that left a sour taste in my mouth.

In the case of Korra, it's mostly because she backtracked. At the end of season one, she had completed some nice character growth from where we started in season 1 (She was the reverse of Aang. She was way too sure of herself and needed some humility and restraint that was taught in some hard lessons. Aang was pretty humble and restrained from the start... but needed to learn that part of growing up means making difficult decisions and self-confidence. Korra started with the idea that being the Avatar was a good thing as it meant she had no consequences, while Aang started with it being a bad thing because it had consequences he wasn't willing to accept. Without spoilers, Korra is brought down to earth and realizes the things she said and did are not always well thought out and caused problems she didn't think of. Working through that helps her reach this. Come season 2, she is downright nasty to everyone and receives very little pushback for it (That said, season 3 and season 4 did show better characterization.).

With Rey, it was mostly how the sequels handled her, and even then her actions weren't too annoying with her, but in the story's settings, it kinda magnified other story problems. I could write a whole issue with "Last Jedi" and "Skywalker" as to where the story problems occurred. But largely Rey's character had little to do with it other than she was never allowed to fail. Consider Luke's role in Empire and Rey's role in Last Jedi. Here Luke is coming off blowing up the Death Star and successful evacuation of Hoth... only to be stuck in a swamp being reluctantly trained by an old fart who is giving tasks he can only overcome in the right mindset... it's not like a muscle he can flex and get better... it's a way of thinking that isn't something he's used to and doesn't understand... he knew he could make the Death Star Shot... he knew he could kill AT-AT's but he couldn't quite grasp the mysterious nature of the force that Yoda was trying to teach. Meanwhile, Rey has to convince the reluctant teacher to teach her an ideology he's all but given up on... especially notable because this teacher is a much older Luke who doesn't teach her the mentality he had to learn between Empire and Return... he believes they made everything worse. In "Skywalker," Rey's story dominates over the entirety of everyone else's story and she lacks any kind of real crisis of character or consciousness. Mostly because "Jedi" really ripped so much of the foundation laid by "Force" up, "Skywalker" fails because the focus has to be on Rey because by now she's the designated hero... but where in Star Wars tradition, the second film of the trilogy needs to highlight the hero's failings, "Jedi" was such a mess, that this wasn't properly told in the story.

To highlight the reverse, I will point to a headstrong female character who doesn't come off as annoying or unlikeable... but I initially thought they were. In Avatar, Katara was this and almost deliberately written as such. She's quite stubborn, bossy, aggressive, vindictive, and is prone to big passionate speeches that drive the lesson of the day home. But what makes her likable is these are deliberately written and addressed over her character arc. She not only makes some pretty stupid decisions, but these decisions cause problems for her in the long run and she is called out for it by characters we like. For example, her controlling nature often clashes with Toph to the point that Toph almost quits the team on multiple occasions (in one case, Aang breaks character and calls her out on refusing to work with Toph to the point that she leaves, by pointing out Toph is needed by the team and while he did make the statement that caused Toph to leave, it was Katara who started the matter causing the gang all their internal squabbles.). Katara does cause trouble... but she's allowed to see the mistake and make up for the very issue she created and learn from her lessons.

On the Star Wars side, we have Ashoka Tano, of Clone Wars fame. I was around when her character was first discussed and she was hated by a lot of older fans when the concept of her was first introduced. She was Anikan's as of yet unmentioned padawan... a concept no one wanted, given that the last time we saw Anikan in the clone wars era, he was slaughtering children. She was introduced in a kids cartoon in a way that felt like she was supposed to be a kid-self insert character to sell toys (these rarely work well for numerous reasons.). And she was in just about every episode of season one, with significant dialog devoted to her over other characters. That said, by season two she was dialed back in appearing in so frequently and her stories were given significant strength in writing that allowed her to grow more likable over time. It's not to say Ashoka was ever a bad character, more that she was something the fans weren't asking for and didn't think could work... and had been overly marketed by people who could see the grander design... In her initial appearance in 2008, she was hated for being in the show, and in most episodes at that... 12 years later, she's the star of 2/3rds of the season seven, with four episodes telling the story of how she survived Order 66 and when announced she would get a live-action appearance in "The Mandolorian" the big fan concern was that a different actress would be playing the character... that is... the fans were concerned that this would change their beloved "Snips" so much it would be unforgivable. No one doubted for a moment Ashoka wouldn't be awesome by the script.

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    +1 for the detailed examination and dissection of why the commonly cited examples don't work and why, along with counter-examples that did work – user2352714 Jan 19 at 19:07
  • @user2352714: I wouldn't say the counter-examples were chosen because they worked... if anything, they were chosen because they were examples of well written female characters from the same franchise as the poorly written ones that also preceeded those characters in the stories. I don't think anyone out and out hated Katarra from the onset. I do recall Ashoka had her detractors that put her just slightly above Jar Jar as least liked character in Star Wars... and that she largely won over those that initially hated her. – hszmv Jan 19 at 19:11
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Just write your character how you want them to be. Life isn't perfect, and someone is inevitably going to go on about how horrible they are and someone is going to go on about how awesome they are. Just try to make an original character. Sometimes it is good to have a character that is like another character from something old, but it is better to make an original character, with her own problems, finding her own solutions, and all the while being a compelling story, and maybe in the end, people who disliked her in the beginning, will come to like her in the end.

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A small thing that always helps me, is giving characters something they care about. This instantly makes characters more relatable. A few examples:

  1. A friend/relative they would do anything for, and whose advice they take. (example: Hanna in Pretty Little Liars; Cersei in Game of Thrones; Alyssa in The End of the F*cking World)
  2. A goal they would do anything for (Gossip Girl: Blair who wants to be accepted at Yale; Arya in Game of Thrones).
  3. A cause they fight for (I don't know specific examples for this one :D Think politics, climate change, refugees...)

Another trick is finding out what hurts them. In Legally Blonde, the main character has an incredibly humane moment when she keeps getting rejected by her ex-boyfriend Warner, in spite of the enormous efforts she's gone through to prove her love.

The last trick: let your character learn from her mistakes. I find it so annoying when people keep getting away with their self-centered behaviour.

I hope this helps :) I myself love it when female main characters are selfish/arrogant, and then prove that's not all there's to them. I wish you luck!

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Hmm, you sound as if there was an equation for a character being likable, and no is quite subjective.

Some people aren't going to like your character even if you managed to do a perfect characterization. So one of the better options would be to not try to make her a perfect person or too excessive in one determinate personality trait.

If you do, she could be adorable to some and quite annoying for other readers... Unless that's what you are looking for.

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