An article on Jezebel argues that the characters movies present to us as obnoxious women are often the good guys: they’re mature and they’re dissing the hero for perfectly good reasons (The Mary Sue discusses this in relation to Breaking Bad and the narrower range of options for women to be non-nice without the audience hating them). An article elsewhere some years back made the same point about Rachel on Friends. She’s presented as a a spoiled princess out on her own, but if she stuck with Monica — an overweight, very uncool kid in her teens — there has to be more to it than that.
Having readers or viewers like characters who are supposed to be obnoxious villains is a problem for writers, though I think I see it more the other way around — characters the writers think are great and I or others find insufferable. There are a number of supervillains the writer clearly thinks are seriously awesome and I just find annoying (giving a character mind-blowing power levels does not, in itself, make them interesting). Similarly, readers often look at heroic protagonists, particularly female ones, and dismiss them as a Mary Sue.
Outside of comic-book villains, I think Wesley Crusher on Next Gen was my first encounter with the phenomenon: I didn’t mind him, but I learned that a lot of fans found him insufferable. Lots of fans (myself included) had a similar reaction to TK Danny Chase, a teenager Marv Wolfman added to the cast of Teen Titans (by then just New Titans) in the late 1980s. A teenage spy and the son of spies, Danny considered himself way more competent than the rest of the team and the scripts seemed to agree (Danny takes down two of the unstoppable Wildebeests during the Titans Hunt arc).
The worst-case scenario is where the author’s written a character who’s transgressing boundaries and the story doesn’t acknowledge it. The wizard in Naomi Novik’s Uprooted abuses the protagonist for much of the book, but it’s hand-waved away. I doubt Brian Azzarello and Cliff Chiang meant for readers to see Orion in their Wonder Woman run as a sexist douchebag, but that’s how he comes across. James Bond’s treatment of Patricia in Thunderball is played for laughs, but it’s creepy as hell.
Or consider My Best Friend’s Wedding (1997). In a reverse of the female characters discussed in the first paragraph, we’re supposed to see Cameron Diaz’s Kimberly as a woman who deserves Michael (Dermot Mulroney) much more than Julia Robert’s Julianne: Where Julianne’s always prioritized career over love, Kimberly’s willing to postpone college and career for marriage, and even give up her honeymoon so sports reporter Michael won’t miss covering any baseball games. This is supposed to make her the Good Girl; all I could see was an appalling doormat and a sexist script (despite AV Club’s argument the film subverts rom-com tropes).
Badass characters in comics are usually supposed to be cool anti-heroes who have no patience with your shit, won’t follow anyone else’s rules and kick butt in a way nobody else can. Wolverine when he’s written badly. Battalion, a loud-mouthed jerk in the Titans spinoff Team Titans (I think we’re supposed to be impressed than when he crosses the street he just smashes cars that get in his way, but that’s just being a jackass). Ravager, a Teen Titan who wins fights just by the sheer weight of her badassery. To me they’re all just jerks. Keith Giffen had the opposite problem with Lobo: conceived as a parody of violent psycho badasses, huge legions of fans decided he was so over the top he was absolutely awesome.
We can’t guarantee readers will have the same reaction to our characters that we do; the best we can do is hope our beta readers or editors pick up on problems. KC, the protagonist of Impossible Takes a Little Longer, is self-conscious about not looking like a classic comics superhero (shorts and t-shirt for a costume — that’s about all she can stomach in Northwest Florida’s heat). The first or second time I read the beginning of the novel to my writing group, several women said it came off more like she was self-conscious about her looks and not being pretty. I rewrote to make it clear it’s not a lack of body positivity, it’s just that she doesn’t look epic compared to say Gil Kane’s Green Lantern or Curt Swan’s Supergirl (the gap between comics and her life as the Champion is a running element of the book).
Beyond that, like so much about writing, we just have to roll the dice and hope the numbers are good.
#SFWApro. Cover by Scott McCowen, all rights remain with current holder.