We’ve come so far in contemporary literature to be in an abundance of authors who write about women honestly and vulnerably. It requires both compassion and skill to develop a character who isn’t immediately the subject of adoration and yet makes us feel connected to them. Enter: the female protagonist who makes us scratch our heads over their questionable choices, or panic for their wellbeing. Where there are “unlikeable” women, there are mirrors of our own latent desires—to win, to be wealthy, to exact revenge, to be loved—and acceptance for them.
We may have left Women’s History Month behind for the year, but we’re always down to celebrate the complicated women we love to see in literature. Below are six novels with edgy, sharp-tongued, morally questionable, bad-breathed, or straight-up unlikeable female protagonists who offer us a welcome look at our own humanity.
1. My Year of Rest and Relaxation by Ottessa Moshfegh
Ottessa Moshfegh became a big champion for provocative, unlikeable women in 2015 with her debut novel Eileen. She followed up in 2018 with My Year of Rest and Relaxation, a painful and honest look at a narrator who is tired of life…Columbia degree, art gallery job, and Wall Street boyfriend be damned. Veering on the side of dangerous while being laugh-out-loud funny, Moshfegh has created another unsteady character who deeply yearns for betterment but finds only worrisome ways to get it—that is, spending a year under the influence of prescription pills and sleep. My Year of Rest and Relaxation gets to the heart of depression and reminds us that it can get unpleasant inside all of us, and that alienation is, paradoxically, a universal experience.
2. New Animal by Ella Baxter
In Australian author Ella Baxter’s debut novel New Animal, the protagonist Amelia is grieving for much of the plot. Except, it’s not with the tenderness and patience that is often urged on us by professionals. Amelia is a sexually liberated woman, routinely landing one-night-stands with the swipe of a finger and finding no reason to seek any further intimacy or closeness. She evades introspection as she courses through her life as a mortuary cosmetician (if you love dark humor, this book is for you) until the death of her mother, which alters the trajectory of her sexual exploration as well as the way in which she explores her grief. New Animal is a toast to the women who have plodded through heartache and sorrow in unconventional, raw ways.
3. Cassandra at the Wedding by Dorothy Baker
Cassandra is an unhappy, gay graduate student who is hellbent on sabotaging her twin sister’s wedding. The tragicomic novella follows an unpredictable course of events through which she is unabashedly conniving, frenzied, and heartbroken in her scheming. Narratives that allow women to be as unkempt and absurd as the way Baker writes Cassandra are cherishable for their rarity, and historically, lesbian and queer women have had a harder fight for their stories to be heard without their having to be “likable.” Originally published in 1962, Cassandra at the Wedding is one of the first of its kind to empathetically subvert “othered” women having to be presentable.
4. Catwoman: Soulstealer by Sarah J. Maas
This simply wouldn’t be a proper anti-heroine list without celebrating a book that gives Selina Kyle the character development that she deserves. Fantasy writer Sarah J. Maas enters the Batman canon with Catwoman: Soulstealer, in which the street fighter has returned to Gotham City a few years older and wiser after being forcibly split from her terminally ill sister and put into foster care. Selina proceeds to scheme her way around the wealthy and powerful elite, clawing at Gotham’s underbelly along the way and working in concert with Poison Ivy and Harley Quinn. Through the novel, Maas develops a protagonist who feels sure of her villainous ways, but pauses to think about all the trouble she’s gone through for the sake of genuine good—that is, for the survival of her sister Maggie. Perhaps Selina is not so morally gray after all.
5. Confessions by Kanae Minato
Yuko Moriguchi is a teacher who wants revenge upon two of her students, who she claims are responsible for the murder of her only child. In her last lecture to her class, Moriguchi is meandering, captivating, and chilling. Twists and turns abound as the focus eventually turns to Moriguchi’s pupils—including the points of view of the two accused students—who are reckoning their teacher’s unspooling plot with their own perspectives and struggle to fight back. Prepare for shock, angst, and the eventual creep towards empathy for Moriguchi and her class as they all gradually get closer to the truth.
6. My Sister, the Serial Killer by Oyinkan Braithwaite
Quite naturally, it’s always immediately hard to like a murderer. But whereas American Psycho’s Patrick Bateman is the disaffected and conceited killer who works alone, My Sister, the Serial Killer has two sisters: the younger, Ayoola, is a kooky, affable serial killer with a history of offing her boyfriends, and the older, Korede, quietly, resentfully cleans up after her—literally. The two find themselves at odds when Ayoola eyes her next victim, a doctor who Korede is smitten with. Tension builds as Korede has to decide whether family really is the most important thing, opening up an inner world that explores jealousy, resentment, and the sometimes-ugly moments built into sisterhood.
Lisa Kwon is a writer and reporter based in Los Angeles, CA, with an interest in arts and food culture. You can find her work at L.A. Taco, Eater, Cultured magazine, National Geographic, and Time Out.