There’s been lot of talk about unlikeable characters, in particular female ones, who seem to be given a much harder time than their male counterparts (I know this because I’ve written a fair few). Women protagonists can be strong but not bitchy. Harsh but they must still display a softer side. And for goodness’ sake, beware of making them know-it-alls. For a long time, it appeared the consensus was unlikeable female characters still needed to be, well, likeable.
Recently, I’ve noticed a shift toward a wider acceptance of the fact female protagonists can be as evil and Machiavellian as male ones, and that’s a good thing because it makes for much more interesting stories (and writing thereof). To celebrate this step toward “bad protag” equality, instead of writing a listicle of unlikable female characters, I decided to make one about unforgettable female leads instead. Whether good, bad, or downright despicable, here are eleven of them you should be getting to know:
Amy Dunne in Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn
While I put these in alphabetical order, it seems fitting Amy Dunne kicks off this list considering she inspired many authors, including myself, to write female characters who are unapologetically strong. In many ways, Amy gave us permission to develop female leads who are evil and entirely comfortable in being so. It may have published almost ten years ago, but Gone Girl is a book I’ll remember in another ten, and it helped move mountains in terms of what’s deemed an acceptable portrayal of women in fiction.
Beth Morgan in He Started It by Samantha Downing
I’ve been a huge Samantha Downing fan since gobbling up her debut My Lovely Wife, and He Started It is just as compelling. Sibling rivalry reaches new and undeniably terrible heights in a road trip from hell, where nothing is as it seems and no one can be trusted, especially protagonist Beth Morgan. Question is, what will she do next, to which of her family members, and is she really the worst of the bunch? Samantha’s characters are bold, fearless, and should scare you half to death. Make sure you look for Samantha’s next stellar novel For Your Own Good, which publishes in July.
Claire “Mac” Woods in Bad Habits by Amy Gentry
Claire “Mac” Woods knows what she wants and will stop at nothing to get it, and Amy Gentry deftly explores power struggles and their subtle—and not so subtle—shifts and consequences. When the truth about what happened one night a decade ago claws its way to the surface, I found myself switching allegiances from left to right and back again. Claire was “bad” – but it felt entirely justified. This is one heck of an exploration of what can happen when friendship tangos with an insatiable appetite for success and control, and this book has a diabolical ending I won’t forget any time soon.
Detective Inspector Anjelica Henley in The Jigsaw Man by Nadine Matheson
While some of Nadine Matheson’s characters will make your skin crawl (and read with the lights on!) there are others you’ll love, including Detective Inspector Anjelica Henley. She suffers from PTSD, struggles with work-life balance, and is desperately trying to manage a spiraling relationship with her father. But she’s also gutsy, great at her job, headstrong, and highly intelligent. All this makes her feel so real, so human, you wouldn’t be surprised to see Anjelica walking down the street. I was delighted to hear there’s a sequel in the works!
Detective Constable Cat Kinsella in Shed No Tears by Caz Frear
Time for another good cop. This is the third installment in the Cat Kinsella series and right from the first page Caz Frear plunges her readers back into a fast-paced, twisty police investigation chock-full of intrigue, secrets, and lies. Detective Constable Cat Kinsella has secrets of her own—her dad is a shady criminal who has so far evaded the cops, and that makes her work a lot more challenging. But Cat’s wry sense of humour and deadpan one-liners made me laugh out loud, and this is an irresistible, thrilling read. The novels can be read in any order, but make sure you check out Sweet Little Lies and Stone Cold Heart as well.
Connie Woolwine in The Shadow Man by Helen Fields
Connie Woolwine, an American psychological profiler called to Edinburgh to work on a kidnapping case is a character after my own heart. She’s direct, whip-smart, has an awesome sense of humor and is unique in the sense she suffers from achromatopsia, a condition that resulted from a brain injury, meaning she can only see in black-and-white. Throughout the story I was hoping Connie would beat the bad guy (one of the creepiest antagonists I’ve ever read) and there would be a sequel. Will she survive? You’ll have to read the book to find out.
Lily Atwood in Her Perfect Life by Hank Phillippi Ryan
Anyone who has read a Hank Phillippi Ryan novel knows she’s a true master of twisty turns and deep deception—nobody keeps us guessing like Hank does, and her characters have more layers than an onion. Lily Atwood is no exception. The beloved television reporter has it all—fame, fortune, Emmys, and a great kid, but scratch a little under the surface and you soon find out all that glitters isn’t gold meets be careful what you wish for. What secrets is Lily hiding? Will they be her downfall? And will you want them to be?
Nellie Murdoch and Alice Hale in Recipe for a Perfect Wife by Karma Brown
In this dual timeline narrative, Nellie Murdoch is a quintessential 1950s housewife while Alice Hale lives in modern day. They don’t know each other, but both have a troubled marriage and secrets that lead them down very dark paths indeed. Their determination, deviousness and backbones of steel made me root and cheer for them both throughout this tale of lies, deceit, pressure, and the price of trying to achieve impossible standards we never set for ourselves. I couldn’t read it fast enough and it’s one of those books I put down at the end and thought, “Dang. I wish I’d written that.”
Olivia Carson in No More Words by Kerry Lonsdale
Kerry Lonsdale starts her latest trilogy off with a bang. Brimming with drama, suspense, and family secrets galore, this novel will have you tearing through the pages to figure out what really happened to this broken family, and who is playing whom. Protagonist Olivia Carson wants to protect her own, but as she uncovers the truth about her relatives, she must make choices nobody should ever have to face. Lonsdale’s characters are always beautifully drawn and complex, and Olivia was a stand-out protagonist for me. Thrilled two more books will follow!
Sarabeth Shepherd in What’s Done in Darkness by Laura McHugh
Would you return to a place you barely escaped from if it meant you might help save someone else? That’s the brilliant premise for Laura McHugh’s latest unputdownable thriller. Add to that Laura’s combination of seamless prose and atmospheric settings (the small town is a character in itself) and this is one heck of a spine-tingler. Sarabeth Shepherd was kidnapped and held for days when she was seventeen, and finally managed to escape not only her abductor but also her parents’ deeply devout clutches. She’s damaged but determined, fearful yet brave, and that made her an irresistible protagonist to go on a journey with.
Personally, I’ve never had a problem reading unlikeable point-of-view characters, be they male, female, or non-binary and I’m hoping we can retire the discussion about “how to write an unlikeable female character” for good. What most readers need is for all characters to be fleshed out so we understand how and why they became who they are. Trust me when I say the books above do this in spades.