Jennifer Lawrence as Katniss in the film adaptation “The Hunger Games”.
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Why I want more unlikeable female characters

When we don’t let women live the whole range of humanity – making mistakes, screwing things up, not being very nice – we miss out.

This article first appeared as a guest post on Chuck Wendig’s Terrible Minds.

I love asshole protagonists.

Or rather, I love a particular breed of them: protagonists who are brusque and violent, egotistical and snarky, but when the chips are down and the friends they’d never admit they care about are in danger, they’ll break the world to save them. Characters like Tony Stark, Sherlock Holmes, the Doctor, Rodney McKay, Spike, Wolverine, Artemis Fowl, Dean Winchester…

You might notice it’s a lot, lot easier to think of male characters who embody this archetype. And, in contrast to the many sympathetic asshole men who lead their own stories, the awesome ladies who are both jerks and heroes often aren’t the main protagonists: Faith and Anya from Buffy, H G Wells from Warehouse 13, Starbuck from Battlestar Galactica, Hermione from Harry Potter. We’ve got a few great leads and co-leads in genre – Maree from Deep Secret, Katniss from The Hunger Games, Miriam Black from Blackbirds, just for example. But for every woman who fits this mould, I can think of many more men: Bones and Body of Proof go up against Monk/Psych/Sherlock/The Mentalist/Endgame/Elementary/House, The Heat is one film outstripped in numbers by every other buddy cop movie ever made, and so on.

In fact, I did some maths! Narrowing solely to written fiction for the moment, since that’s what I’m about to talk about, I looked at the “literature” section of a bunch of the TV Tropes pages that match the asshole hero archetype I’m talking about:

Character Trope Male Examples Female Examples Genderqueer Examples Percentage Female
“Jerk with a Heart of Gold” 63 12 0 12/75 = 16%
“Sociopathic Hero” 16 2 0 2/18 = 10%
“Loveable Rogue” 47 1 0 1/48 = 2%
“Unscrupulous Hero” 8 0 0 0/8 = 0%
“Good Is Not Nice” 58 13 0 13/71 = 18%
Overall Average       THIRTEEN. FUCKING. PER CENT.

Notes: Literature section only, accessed 15 January 2015. I did a search on any name that didn’t have a pronoun attached. And this is not counting who is a lead character and who is supporting -- I’m willing to bet that number would go down if we narrowed to only protagonists.

Thirteen. Per cent!

Certainly part of the problem is that we don’t have enough women in media, period. After all, only about 30 per cent of speaking roles in movies go to women, and I’m not hopeful the written word is eons ahead. But 13 per cent is way way way lower than that, and also lower than other, more positive TV Tropes categories, even those we might expect to be gendered – “Minored in Ass Kicking”, for example, is more than one-third female.

This disparity in such magnificent assholery disturbs me greatly. It disturbs me enough that when I started writing what would eventually become Zero Sum Game, I purposely made my asshole antihero protagonist a woman, and it disturbs me enough that I haven’t been able to stop thinking about it when interacting with other writers since then.

And I have a conjecture.

You see, as I’ve meandered through the depths of the Internet Writer Community, I see one question asked time and again: “How do I write good female characters?” I see people so worried – worried their fictional ladies will come off as bitches or whores or mean girls or ditzes or doormats or damsels or Mary Sues. And I see people carefully constructing their fictional women to be sexy but not slutty, confident but not arrogant, smart but not insufferable, flawed but not too flawed.

Because good representation, amirite?

But this desire to make fictional women somehow unobjectionable can flatten out everything that makes characters the most compelling. After all, stories are not built on unobjectionable people! There’s an excellent essay by Rose Lemberg that makes the point better than I could: I want female characters, particularly main characters, who are allowed not to be good. I don’t mean that just in a moral sense, although yeah, that, too – but I also want women who are bad at things, or just fucking terrible at being human. Women who are not nice. Who fail. Who make disastrous mistakes. Women who are unstoppable in combat but a disgrace at basic human interaction, or women who are fantastic diplomats but can’t hit the broad side of a planet with a weapon.

And yes, I want more women who are assholes.

When we don’t let women live the whole range of fucked-up humanity, we miss out. Just look at the list of male characters I started with at the beginning – every one of them can be a horrible jerk, but every one of them has an intense fanbase of people who love and connect with them. Hell, if you tried to take those characters away, Tumblr would melt the entire internet in rage. And I’m one of those fans! But I want me more lady antiheroes as well – and that can’t happen unless we let female characters be jerks too.

Let’s have more Starbucks and Marees and Olivia Popes. Let’s populate fiction with women who are every type of humanity – assholes and all.

Who’s with me?

S L Huang is the author of Zero Sum Game and its sequel Half Life, the first two books in a series starring an asshole female protagonist. You can find her online at www.slhuang.com or on Twitter as @sl_huang.

S L Huang is the author of Zero Sum Game and its sequel Half Life. You can find her online at www.slhuang.com or on Twitter as @sl_huang.

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Conjuring the ghost: the "shape-shifting, queer, violent, hippie genuis" of David Litvinoff

A new biography tracks down the elusive Kray confidant who became a friend of Mick Jagger and Keith Richards.

David Litvinoff is a mythic character to anyone with an interest in London during the Sixties. An intimate of the Krays, he was a tough and violent Jew from the East End. He was also a musical genius with an unrivalled knowledge of jazz, the blues and rock that made him a valued friend of Mick Jagger and Keith Richards. It was his ability to move from the East End to Chelsea, from the dives of Soho to Notting Hill, that was the critical factor in the extraordinary vision of London that Donald Cammell and Nicolas Roeg conjured into the film Performance, for which Litvinoff is credited as dialogue coach. And yet, even though all this is known and recorded, he remains a ghost, a figure who wrote nothing and who systematically destroyed all the records of his life he could lay his hands on. Even his exact role in Performance is shrouded in mystery. He is said to have dictated much of the script to Cammell. This biography claims that Jagger’s mesmerising song on the soundtrack, “Memo from Turner”, was in fact a memo from Litvinoff.

Multiple reports describe him as the most brilliant talker London had known since Coleridge, but although there are rumours of tapes they have always been just rumours. I’d have thought he was a figure who would defeat any biographer – a shape-shifting, queer, violent, hippie genius lost in a mist of hallucinogens – but Keiron Pim’s account of this extraordinary character is a magisterial work of scholarship. He tracks down all the living witnesses; he has also unearthed letters, and even some of those long-lost tapes.

The story that emerges is even harder to believe than the legend. Litvinoff came out of the Jewish East End but he was from one of its most talented families. His name was not even Litvinoff: his mother’s first husband went by that name but David was the son of her second, Solomon Levy. Long before he met the Krays or the Stones, he was a gossip columnist on the Daily Express, practically inventing the Chelsea set that shocked the prim Fifties. By that time he had met Lucian Freud, who painted him in an astonishing study, the working title of which was Portrait of a Jew. Litvinoff was furious when Freud exhibited it with the new description of The Procurer, and the bad blood between these two men, both of whom inhabited the drinking clubs of Soho and the Krays’ gambling joints, remained for the rest of their lives. In fact, it is Freud who comes over as the villain of the book, fingered by Pim as the man behind the most violent assault on Litvinoff: he was knocked unconscious at the door to his own flat, on the top floor, and awoke to find himself naked and tied to a chair suspended from the balcony, nose broken and head shaved bald.

I learned much from this book: a period working for Peter Rachman before he became involved with the Krays; sojourns in Wales and Australia when he was fleeing threats of violence. The big discovery for me, however, was Litvinoff’s encyclopaedic knowledge of the jazz and blues traditions that gave birth to rock’n’roll. He taught the Stones a lot but he taught Eric Clapton even more – they were both living at the Pheasantry building on the King’s Road, and Litvinoff seems to have had unlimited access to the most recherché back catalogues and the most recent unreleased recordings. The book traces, but does not comment on, a transformation from an amphetamine-fuelled hard man in the Fifties and early Sixties to the oddest of hallucinogen hippies by the Summer of Love in 1967.

But, for all Litvinoff’s knowledge, wit and gift for friendship, his tale is a tragedy. A man who could talk but couldn’t write; an out gay man long before it was acceptable, who seems never to have been at ease with his sexuality; a proud Jew without any tradition of Judaism to which he could affiliate. Above all, this was a man who lived to the full the extraordinary moment when London dreamed, in Harold Wilson’s Sixties, that class was a thing of the past. Back from Australia in the early Seventies, Litvinoff awoke again to find that it had indeed been a dream. His suicide in 1975 was cold and deliberate. He had outlived his time. 

Colin MacCabe edits Critical Quarterly

Jumpin’ Jack Flash: David Litvinoff and the Rock’n’Roll Underworld by Keiron Pim is publisyhed by Jonathan Cape (416pp, £16.99)

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser