This is no. 36 in a series of micro craft essays exploring the finer points of writing. Check back each week for a new Craft Capsule.
As writers we all have specific goals when creating our fictional worlds. Some writers value plot, others value humor. Some prioritize beautiful sentences or abstract ruminations about the state of society. When I write, my goal is to construct characters full of depth and complexity. I don’t need readers to agree with my characters, but to understand the why behind their actions.
When I created Haemi Lee, the female protagonist of my novel, If You Leave Me, I focused on developing this complexity so that my readers would know her intimately. At the beginning of the novel, Haemi is a sixteen-year-old refugee during the Korean War, and by the last pages she is a thirty-two-year-old mother in 1967. By covering a wide swath of time, I want readers to watch Haemi survive, mature, fall in love, make mistakes, become a mother, and grapple with the difficulties of life in post-war South Korea. I want Haemi to feel as real as possible, which meant that she would have to be imperfect, flawed. As I wrote, I considered how she would behave as a daughter, sister, wife, mother, and lover. I considered her temperament. Growing up without means in a conservative time, there would be strict social and gendered guidelines placed on Haemi. I wanted her to bristle against those rules. The problem, I discovered, was that an imperfect female protagonist is often labeled unlikable.
The first time I heard Haemi described this way was in workshop. I was surprised. It was a gendered remark, and I hadn’t been expecting it at the graduate school level. When did we ever question the likability of male characters? Complicating matters further, when did we question the likability of female characters when they were written by male writers? I simmered in silence as my classmates discussed Haemi Lee. (As the student being workshopped, I wasn’t allowed to speak.) Jisoo and Kyunghwan, my two male protagonists, were not always likable and yet the focus remained on Haemi. Why did she need to be likable when her male counterparts were not? Why were we concerned with the likability of women anyway? Who among us are always likable?
This conversation led me to consider the trope of the “unlikable female character.” I prickled at the phrase, the silly term that asserts female characters are valued for their docility and amiability. I decided that I couldn’t let other readers’ apprehensions about Haemi’s likability soften her. Haemi pushes against the social expectations of her time by not hiding her feelings, by wanting an education, and by speaking freely of the difficulties of motherhood. Haemi is giving and selfish, kind and callous. She is concerned with the welfare of everyone around her while also deeply concerned with her own happiness. If I succeeded in my writing goals, my readers will not always like Haemi, but they will feel deeply for her. They will want to guide her, argue with her, and root for her.
When writing, our concern should not be a character’s likability, regardless of gender. As the writer, our focus should be on making the character feel true. When my students hesitate at revealing their character’s flaws, I encourage them to dig into the messy, ugly parts. Flaws are what make fiction interesting and realistic. Though we may not love our flaws, they are crucial for characters. When a student worries about the likability of their female characters in particular, this is what I tell them: We need more unlikable female protagonists to deepen the way we consider women in our society. Literature teaches us. Literature makes us question and broaden our understanding of the world. If “unlikable female” means a realistic, imperfect, complex woman, then we need to write as many of these characters as we can.
Crystal Hana Kim’s debut novel, If You Leave Me, is forthcoming from William Morrow in August. She was a 2017 PEN America Dau Short Story Prize winner and has received scholarships from the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, Hedgebrook, and Jentel, among others. Her work has been published in or is forthcoming from the Washington Post, Elle Magazine, Nylon, Electric Literature, and elsewhere. She is a contributing editor at Apogee Journal and is the Director of Writing Instruction at Leadership Enterprise for a Diverse America. She lives in Brooklyn, New York, with her husband.