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Today’s guest is Swati Teerdhala! The Tiger at Midnight, her debut novel, is the first book in a young adult fantasy trilogy inspired by Indian history and Hindu mythology. You can read a sample from The Tiger at Midnight on the publisher’s website, and you can read the full book after its release on April 23—tomorrow!

The Tiger at Midnight Cover

The Unlikeable Heroine
Swati Teerdhala

The first time I heard someone call a heroine unlikeable, I was confused. To me, this heroine, Sansa Stark from Game of Thrones, was a character I had been waiting a long time for. I saw her as someone flawed, someone who was simply trying her best.

She starts off as a young girl caught up in her own life and unaware of her surroundings. She was a little selfish, a little naive, a little too trusting. But she was also kind, clever, and tough. Sansa learns and changes over seven seasons, as she grows into a woman. A woman who is complex and so painfully human, I often wanted to cringe and look away in fear that she might expose my own shortcomings. But also a woman so strong in the face of tragedy and terror that she encouraged. Inspired me.

In short, a woman who was real.

That reality spoke to me in a way that was direct and tangible. I felt seen and heard. But this friend of mine complained about all her flaws, saw them as ugly markers of her imperfection and failure as a woman rather than old battle scars from the realities of life.

When I tried to dig into why my friend thought she was unlikeable, I heard something that I’d hear many times again. “She’s too….”

Too loud, too quiet, too emotional, too logical, too cold, too warm, too assertive, too obedient…too much.

As a woman who has constantly been told her entire life that she’s too ‘much’, that hit me deep. It seemed to me that these women, even characters in books, like Katniss Everdeen or Hermione Granger, could never win unless they were able to balance along some imaginary line of likeability solely to keep people’s archaic ideas of how a woman should act intact.

What I learned that day was that an ‘unlikeable heroine’ can be any heroine. And she often is. Women in fantasy get penalized for just about everything you can think of. It’s even worse for diverse women in SFF. Women who challenge stereotypes about their marginalization are also accused of being unlikeable simply for being different.

A hero can murder hundreds, but the tiniest hint that there’s more to him than meets the eye and cults of adoration pop up like magical weeds. Just look at The Darkling from Leigh Bardugo’s Grishaverse or Kylo Ren from Star Wars. However, a heroine can get knocked for simply having the gall to be selfish or to not sacrifice herself for another character or the group.

The expectations for a woman are to always put others first, to overcome hardship, to be the emotional glue—and to do it all with a smile. Women in SFF have always been kept to the wings and the moment they step onto the stage as multi-dimensional characters, people are unhappy, shocked that a woman would dare to care about something more than her appeal to others or their perception of her.

Why is being unlikeable the worst thing a woman can be?

Women are raised to care about being liked (or loved) over anything else. And according to society, this can only be achieved through perfection. But in fiction, we have the ability to write women to truth. Proud, shy, serene, angry, fierce, emotional, quiet, loud.

When I wrote Esha, the main character of my novel THE TIGER AT MIDNIGHT, I kept this idea of likeability in my mind at first. Esha is consumed by her desire for revenge after the murder of her parents and she’s dedicated her entire life to avenging them. On a hero, this might be an endearing backstory. But for a heroine, I was aware that this could make her unlikeable.

She could be tossed into the annals of fantasy books, another rage-filled woman who would be reduced to simply being a shrew or a caricature. In my first drafts I wrote her to be softer, kinder, less sharp-edged and sharp-tongued. I changed her character arc over the second and third books as I outlined, trying to ease her over that tightrope of likeability she’d have to walk.

But then I realized that would be untrue to the depths I knew she had and the places she could go if she was only allowed to be herself, as we all should be. And if we, as fiction writers, don’t take the steps to challenge the stories we tell about women, who will?

So I made her angry. Cunning. Loyal. Kind. Ruthless.

A complex and possibly unlikeable heroine. But a real one.

Swati Teerdhala Photo Swati Teerdhala is a storyteller and writer. After graduating from the University of Virginia with a B.S. in Finance and History, she tumbled into the marketing side of the technology industry. She’s passionate about many things, including how to make a proper cup of chai, the right ratio of curd-to-crust in a lemon tart, and diverse representation in the stories we tell. She currently lives in New York City.