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The Unlovable Heroine
by Stephanie Lessing, author of Miss Understanding and She's Got Issues
Unlovableness is a subtle beast. Most of us think we can detect it right off the bat, right there on the surface. We spot things like a tendency to pause too long before answering a simple question or a bad dental smell, or a habit of telling long, boring stories over and over again; or a simple lack of understanding of how close it's okay to stand next to another person in an elevator. At one point, I became convinced that the single most outstanding feature of almost every single unappealing person's behavior was their inability to calculate how loud they were talking. As annoying as all of these habits are, none of them are truly responsible for unlovableness. It's something much, much deeper and much less complicated, and although it took me years to figure it out, I finally cracked the code -- unlovable people simply want to piss people off. It's not just a coincidence, it's their calling.
Interestingly enough, these people exist everywhere, and yet you rarely see them manifested as main characters in novels. They're much more likely to be cast in supporting roles, and here's why: Writers, much like clowns, are willing to do pretty much anything to get you to fall in love with them. They want you to fall in love with them so deeply and profoundly that you'll have to hold yourself back from calling them on the phone. Imagine sitting around all day for years trying to make up people. That's what writers do. They make up fake people! How sad is that? They even dress their characters up in all sorts of costumes, give them funny hair, change their sex, sometimes they give them accents (this rarely works, but it happens), sometimes they even kill them. Anything to stir your heart. Because no matter how well the character is disguised, if you examine him closely enough, you can pretty much bet there's an author under there somewhere, hiding, trembling, hoping to be and not to be discovered.
And that's why you rarely meet an unlovable heroine. Where's the love in creating an unlovable creature? It would be the equivalent of shooting one’s self in say, one's foot. That's why I was so surprised when I created Zoë. I'm not one to hide the fact that I am constantly seeking outward approval and that writing novels has become a great source of comfort to my ego. When people come up to me in the grocery store and say, "I love Chloe," I always blush, because in my twisted little mind, I think they are saying, "I love you."
There was this one young woman who came to see me speak at Boston University, who snuck in off the street pretending she was a student. That's how much she loved me, I mean, Chloe. When she told me that she borrowed someone else's i.d. to come see me, I came this close to proposing to her.
And as much as I protest, "I'm not Chloe! For the Millionth! Trillionth! Time! -- I'm not Chloe!" -- deep down I'm thinking, "I guess it's not entirely out of the question that I'm a little like her."
And so what do I go and do? I create the most demented, irritating, opinionated, insecure, insulting wretch on the planet. A creature born of my own rib and yet I despised her from the moment I met her. I rewrote her so many times trying to make myself not hate her; I finally gave up and just accepted the fact that she's a bitch and that's all there is to it. A short bitch with bad hair. Zoë criticizes everyone; she verbally abuses people right to their faces; she argues her feminist views, according to one reviewer, much like Andrea Dworkin -- and more upsetting than anything, she's "not funny." (The truth is I thought she was funny, but I might be the only one). One can't help but wonder why I didn't feel the sting of the barrage of punishing comments that came my way for creating a character that was so blatantly offensive. The thing is, and believe me, I'm as shocked as the next guy, but I did it on purpose. So much for being loved, or knowing thyself.
There were definitely times when I tried to tone Zoë down a bit. In fact, there were times when I had to hold her down and cover her mouth, but she just kept talking.
"You're your own worst enemy!" I told her over and over again, but she refused to back down.
"Actually, I'm just a girl," she would yell back.
"An unlovable girl," I screamed. "You're lucky I gave you a boyfriend! And a sister! And a mother and father. You deserve to live alone on a deserted island, where you can’t hurt people's feelings."
When she screams, "I'm just a girl," she means a girl who's not tall enough or sweet enough or feminine enough to fit in with the girls she hates . . . and would secretly love to be. She rants and raves because she feels helpless and boyish, wounded by her humiliating childhood memories -- the childhood she spent trapped in a red Annie-esque afro that she tried to crazy glue to her scalp to keep it from ballooning up to twice the size of her actual head.
She’s just a girl with a pretty little sister, whom she never understood, because her little sister was normal. A normal, regular girl.
When I first set down to write her story, I kept getting up and leaving the room. She was too pathetic and I hated talking in her voice. She was the sort of girl I always avoided. Tough and rude. The type of girl I never wanted to be, but nonetheless, the girl germinating in my head. Go figure. So I wrote, "She's Got Issues," and instead of wallowing in despair, I laughed my ass off and had the best year of my life writing about the type of girl I knew people would think was me, and love.
But eventually my conscious got the best of me and I had to tell Zoë's story.
The story about a girl who thinks she can go to work at a fashion magazine and turn it into something with a soul. Something that will ban women together and make them want to stop starving themselves for male attention. Something that will show women what they’re capable of once they stop wasting their energies competing with one another and start embracing one another. Imagine her walking into "Issues" magazine in her steel-toed boots and overalls throwing around her twisted sarcasm expecting the editors to suddenly throw their arms around her and vow to change. I just want to kick her for being so stupid and yet, I was secretly rooting for her the whole time -- all the while knowing she was going down. The more the editors sabotaged her and ganged up on her, the more I cursed her for antagonizing them while trying to help her find a way out ... but in the end, I knew I couldn't do it. Because I would have been lying. And my readers would have found me out. So I did the next best thing.
I gave her "a real girl" who will love her unconditionally despite her inherent unlovableness. I've taken away the reason Zoë feels the need to expose people. I forced her to admit that she wants to be accepted by the very thing she’s fighting against. I removed her stinger and set her free. Granted, I doubt anyone will fall in love with Zoë the way they did with Chloe. Zoë will always be a fighter, in one way or another, but at least now she has a fighting chance.
Stephanie Lessing is the author of Miss Understanding (October 2006) and She's Got Issues. A freelance writer, she lives in Demarest, New Jersey, with her husband, Dan and two children, Kim and Jesse. Stephanie was formerly the Promotion Copy Chief for Mademoiselle magazine and traveled with Mademoiselle to co-host fashion and beauty events, going on to freelance for magazines such as: Vogue, Glamour, Vanity Fair, Conde Nast Traveler, Self and Women's Wear Daily. While attending the American College in Paris, she interned for the Herald Tribune and then graduated from Boston University with a B.S. degree from the School of Public Communications.
Copyright © 2006 by Stephanie Lessing.