Wednesday, February 19, 2020

Bad Girls?


HANK PHILLIPPI RYAN:  It's one of the buzziest  topics in publishing--do readers need to LIKE a main character? I vote a big no. I think they simply have to be interested in them, and compelled to find out what happens to them. For better or for worse.

There are endless readers who disagree."I just didn't fall in love with her/him," they'll say about someone's book. Or "I had no one to root for." And yes, I so agree, that's fun! And a joy to be on the book-train with a character you adore.

But the brilliantly talented (and dear friend of the Reds) Hilary Davidson has been thinking about "bad" girls. And their allure, and their compelling stories, and the need to write about them. And she's written a very special one in her brand new and "such a satisfying page turner" (says Kirkus!) DON'T LOOK DOWN.


 BAD GIRLS


When I sat down to write my latest book, I could tell you an awful lot about Jo Greaver, the suspect at the center of the case. She was being blackmailed by someone she didn’t know. She’d grown up poor, and she’d fled Kentucky after her mother died, arriving in New York at fourteen. She’d been trafficked by someone she trusted, and the photographic and video evidence of that terrible time was bubbling up years later, threatening the good life Jo had managed to build for herself.
What I didn’t realize—until after I’d finished writing the first draft of Don’t Look Down—was that I’d written an unlikeable female character. I didn’t see it for myself, either; someone else pointed it out to me. “She’s pretty bad,” an early reader said of Jo.
            “You think she’s badass?” I asked, mistaking the comment for a compliment.
“More like evil. I can’t believe she shot that guy.”

This isn’t a spoiler: chapter one begins with Jo lugging a bag of money to a face-to-face meeting with her blackmailer. She has a plan, which is to pay off the person once and for all. But she’s also carrying a gun, because she’s afraid for her own safety. The thing is, she’s not wrong to be afraid. The chapter ends with Jo and her blackmailer shooting at each other.

Writing the book, I tended to admire Jo for her toughness and her resilience. I don’t necessarily agree with certain choices she makes (such as lying to the people she’s closest to), but I understand the fear that drives her to make those choices. She’s a survivor who’s never really processed her traumatic adolescence, and that trauma seeps out in different ways—Jo’s headaches, claustrophobia, and tendency to drink too much are all related to it. 

But for all of her suffering, she’s also a person who knows how to take care of herself. She can be violent if her life is threatened. At the same time, she’s a young entrepreneur who’s devoted to doing good in the world; ever since she started her business, it’s been donating to an organization that helps girls who’ve been trafficked.

            At first, I thought of the criticism of Jo in personal terms; she’s my brainchild, after all, so I’m going to view her in a gentler light than anyone who’s meeting her for the first time would.

 But because the book deals with sex trafficking, I started looking at real-life cases.

 What I found disturbed me: girls and women who are trafficked and commit acts of violence to protect themselves are punished with unusual harshness in the criminal justice system. At first, I thought this might be because of a twisted sort of morality (basically, a desire to punish prostitutes), but the more research I did, the more disturbing statistics turned up.

 Overall, girls are punished more harshly than boys for misdemeanors, and they are far more likely to end up in front of a judge for probation violations such as running away or breaking curfew. The expectation for girls’ behavior is much higher than it is for boys, and the consequences for anything perceived as bad behavior is more severe.

The research did have one major effect on my writing: it made me give up on the idea of making Jo likeable. She’s sharp and loyal and occasionally brutal, and I decided that would have to do. When I think of novels I’ve read and loved lately (Jennifer Hillier’s Jar of Hearts, Megan Abbott’s Give Me Your Hand, and Oyinkan Braithwaite’s My Sister the Serial Killer all come to mind) their central characters fascinate me. Whether I like them or not seems beside the point. Quite simply, I don’t want to take my eyes off them. For any character in this day and age, that seems like enough to ask.
           
PS Thanks for having me visit again, Hank and the rest of the Reds. It’s always an honor to stop by!

HANK: And we love having you here, dear Hilary! Congratulations on this wonderful new book--and rejoice, Reds and readers, generous Hilary is giving away a copy to one lucky commenter! (US only, we fear, because the postage is almost more that the price of the book!)

So tell us: what do you think about bad girls? Who's your favorite "bad girl" in books or movies or TV?  



Hilary Davidson has won two Anthony Awards as well as the Derringer, Spinetingler, and Crimespree awards. She is the author of the Lily Moore series—which includes The Damage Done, The Next One to Fall, and Evil in All Its Disguises—the standalone thriller Blood Always Tells, and a short-story collection called The Black Widow Club. Her new series began with 2019’s One Small Sacrifice, and continues with Don’t Look Down, which was just released by Thomas & Mercer. Here’s what Kirkus had to say about it: “A blackmail plot produces complications upon complications in a story of sex trafficking, class wars, and stolen identities... such a satisfying page-turner.” Visit Hilary online at https://www.hilarydavidson.com


82 comments:

  1. Congratulations on the new book, Hilary . . . I’m looking forward to meeting Jo and reading her story.

    I don’t mind “bad” girls in stories [and I enjoy reading the backstory, although I do get a bit frustrated when all of the characters are unlikable] . . .

    Mayella Ewell in “To Kill a Mockingbird” comes to mind as a pretty despicable character . . . .

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    1. Thank you so much, Joan! Mayella Ewell is the perfect example of a character with no redeeming qualities. I want even my "bad" characters to have some positive feature...

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  2. I have a very hard time rooting for truly bad/evil people. I even have a hard time rooting for the "hero" in a revenge movie. So I think for me, I need the main character to be fairly likeable for me to enjoy a story. There are always exceptions, but that's the general rule.

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    1. Thanks for stopping by, Mark! You make an interesting point — I remember watching "Breaking Bad" and feeling all kinds of wrong about rooting for the bad guy...

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  3. First, congratulations on the new book, Hilary. I don't understand why a reader would be uncomfortable with the woman main character shooting her blackmailer when he was obviously a dangerous person and had a gun he used, too. Then, I don't think the character should be considered a liar because she doesn't want to share a past that was steered in the wrong direction by someone other than herself. She was a victim, and I don't think she owes sharing that past with anyone she doesn't want to or never talking about it at all. Second chances and trying to make a better life should mean you don't have to keep apologizing or being repentant about your past. Of course, I probably feel that way in your character's situation because, again, her past wasn't really her fault. And, it's funny that you should bring up Jennifer Hillier's character in Jar of Hearts because I was thinking of that character in that book that is a favorite of mine before you mentioned her. Now, having said all of that, I would prefer a main character to be likeable and have some redeeming qualities, but it would be boring if they didn't have some flaws, too.

    I think Don't Look Down sounds like a great read and will add it to my TBR list.

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    1. Thanks so much, Kathy! You make a lot of interesting points. I think you're right about people having a right to privacy, especially when they're trying to move past a painful situation. I love that I made you think of Jar of Hearts. Jennifer Hillier is a good friend of mine and she's such a brilliant writer!

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  4. Most of my current reading has been in the cozy genre. No bad girls in that bunch. Outside of the cozy world, I like my characters to have an edge. I've honestly never thought of whether a protagonist was bad or not, whether or not they are interesting is what will keep me reading.

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    1. Hi Kait! I think I like characters to have an edge, too (true in both what I write and in what I read). I don't think that makes them bad at all... maybe that's what keeps them interesting?

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  5. It sounds like you've written Jo the way she needs to be, Hilary. Bad women (let's stop calling them girls...) in books? I'm not sure, but I definitely want to read this one!

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    1. Edith, I remember a bad woman in one of your Quaker Midwife books who turned out to be a killer. She was really evil!

      Diana

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    2. I've definitely written more than one female villain - but not bad protagonists!

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    3. Thank you so much, Edith! You are right about calling them women and not girls (I had the Donna Summer song "Bad Girls" running through my head as I was writing this... it's quite an earworm!)

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  6. Good point, Edith! Women not girls, indeed. As for whether I want to read about bad women, hmmmm. I think I prefer to spend my book/reading time with characters I might actually want to spend real time with, but I definitely appreciate women in stories who are tougher and braver and more "bad" than I am. I'm thinking of Lisbeth Salander (sp?) of the Dragon Tattoo series. She did things I hope to never have to do, but her backstory made clear why she was driven to such action. "Badness" for the sake of it is unappealing to me, but "badness" with good reason draws me in.

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    1. Hi Amanda! I love characters (and people) who are tough and brave, too. Part of the fun of writing is channeling these characters who are willing to do things I never would...

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  7. I have mixed feelings about bad women in fiction. On one hand, I like edgy women who aren’t perfect, but on the other hand I do want there to be some redeeming quality. I guess I don’t have to like them but I don’t want to hate them. If the character has well-developed reasons for being bad, I’m more likely to be okay with her. Don’t Look Down sounds like it has a bad woman I can enjoy reading!

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    1. Thanks so much, Cindy! I have a similar feeling about it. For me, there's a big difference between a character who's a sociopath who enjoys hurting people, and one who might do bad things when there's no other choice but has a moral code. The motivation for what they do is everything!

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  8. In general I would have to say I prefer the main character be at least somewhat likable. I don't want to spend my time reading about evil characters, but that would be fine with me as long as they get the end they deserve. I cannot think of any specific character I've read about lately - I think they've all been in books I didn't care for and maybe that's why I didn't care for them. The one in Behind Her Eyes, truly awful, both character and book. No, I was not even a little bit fascinated.

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    1. Hi Judi! I know what you mean, I don't want to spent time with sociopathic characters who enjoy inflicting pain, either.

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  9. This is a fascinating discussion and thank you for being here Hillary! I love the way you have described why the character acts as she does. And see I think she is someone that I could root for, but me being me and a psychologist, I would hope that she would figure some of this out by the end of the book or the series and be able to make some changes and grow into a healthier person. Ha! I realize that doesn’t always happen and shouldn’t in some suspense and thriller type books. Either way, I find your character fascinating and look forward to reading!

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    1. Lucy, it would be interesting from a psychological viewpoint.

      Diana

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    2. Thank you so much, Lucy! I don't want to be spoilery, but let's just say Jo does make some realizations before the end of the book that could make change possible. Psychology fascinates me, and I like to see characters change and grow, too.

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  10. Congratulations, Hillary!

    I don't need to necessarily "like" a character, but I do need to not be repulsed by them. And as you say, I do need to be intrigued by them, to want to follow their story, understand why they do the bad (and good) things they do, etc. And like Lucy, I always hope they have enough self-awareness to learn and decide to stop doing the self-destructive things.

    That said, not a single "bad woman" is coming to mind. At least none that I can mention without it being a major spoiler!

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    1. Thanks so much, Liz! Some come to mind for me, too, but you're right that we need to keep this a spoiler-free zone!

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  11. Hilary, I think your protagonist is poised to fit in with today's more powerful and complex women characters, who are trending far from the cookie baking perfectionism of the past.

    Look at the fabulous Killing Eve. Sandra Oh's character can't keep herself from admiring Villanelle and her unique and inventive methods, and neither can we. She's pure evil, but in such a fascinating way. And why not? Male characters have been venal and flawed and have their own agency since the beginning of time. I say brava!

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    1. Yes,Villanelle was AMAZING! I was mesmerized by her..

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    2. Karen, I am so excited that you mentioned "Killing Eve." I *love* that show, and Villanelle is one of the most interesting characters around. I just said in another comment that I don't want to read about sociopaths but I am absolutely fascinated by Villanelle!

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  12. Congratulations on your new release! Initially, I found Gail Honeyman's Eleanor Oliphant snarky and resilient. Isolated and lonely Eleanor emerges from the pages as a survivor, willing herself to feel emotions and join social conversations.

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    1. You beat me to Eleanor Oliphant, Margaret, which I LOVED, and I can't say that Eleanor was likeable!

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    2. Thanks so much, Margaret. It sounds like I need to read Eleanor Oliphant!

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  13. Congratulations on your new book, Hilary. It sounds intriguing. I've been interested in the topic of human trafficking and also in the unequal justice that seems to be dealt to women who are driven to violence to escape from abusers.

    Bad Women in literature isn't a new concept, it's just handled differently. Becky Sharp (Vanity Fair) is the character that comes to mind. She does everything she needs to do to have what she wants out of her life, even when it bites her in the end. What redeems this character is that the note which she kept for her own advantage is what eventually frees her childhood friend, Amanda from her self-imposed nunnery. I loved that book when I read it, keeping both Becky and Amanda at arms length. The story was compelling, even if every character was tremendously flawed.

    My reading tastes have changed. I still will read a good story even if the characters (male or female) are edgy or a bit hard to take. I just finished Ian Rankin's Knots and Crosses and even though the main character is seriously damaged, I'll probably read more.

    As for true female villains, I can't think of a book I've read that has one as the POV character. Actually, I don't think I read books with the villain as the POV character, male or female. I just started The Late Show. Most of the female characters in the books I'm reading are somewhat heroic. That is what I am choosing these days. Your new book is going into my TBR file.

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    1. Thanks so much, Judy! Becky Sharp is one of my all-time favorite characters in fiction. I'm so glad you mentioned her!

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  14. What an interesting discussion. I confess, I have a hard time with truly through-and-through nasty characters, whether they're male or female, hero or villain, cats or dogs. Just because I think real people are, for the most part, complicated and there's at least some good with the bad, or a really compelling reason that they're SO bad.

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    1. Hi Hallie! I think you're absolutely right about real people being complicated, and I love seeing that reflected in fiction. I like to think that all of my characters exist in shades of gray — no one is completely a hero or villain, there are always flaws and surprising moments of humanity.

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  15. I do not enjoy reading about characters who are extremely unrepentant and mean. The book has to reflect their background and why they have this character. I try to overlook their faults when the writing is great and the story riveting.

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    1. Thanks for stopping by! I agree about books needing to explore a character's background. The psychological element always intrigues me.

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  16. How about--Bonnie of Bonnie and Clyde? And Thelma and Louise? Scarlett O'Hara wasn't the loveliest person in the south...:-) And what's her name in Age of Innocence? She was quite the manipulator, right?

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    1. Hank, was Glenn Close the evil character in Age of Innocence with Michelle Pfeiffer?

      Diana

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    2. The character's name is May Welland, and she's the young and seemingly naive bride who makes a very manipulative decision when her husband becomes enamored to Countess Olenska.. OOh, I'm not sure who played them in the movie.. oxo

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    3. Hank, I will have to read the book. Edith Wharton is the author, right? xo

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    4. Anna Karenina, too. And the young woman in Of Human Bondage. Oh, she was a bad 'un.

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    5. I love the "Of Human Bondage" protagonist/villain. That's what keeps me interested in a book, a character caof Idubious morality whom I cannot help finding intriguing. It makes her charming and manipulating others more believable.

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    6. Yes, it is incredibly good, Diana. They made me read it in high school, and it was lost on me. But as an adult? Wow.

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  17. When I look forward to a novel I encounter many unsavory characters which I have to put up with. Sometimes it is a chore but other times they are fascinating and worth exploring.

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    1. Thanks for stopping by! I know what you mean — it can go either way with unsavory characters...

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  18. HIlary, welcomne to Jungle Reds! I look forward to reading your new book. This is an interesting discussion. I am not sure if I am staying on topic here. When you mentioned the disturbing statistics about women being more severely punished, I was surprised because I got the impression that people (both men and women) are more likely to be severely punished if they are poor and / or Not white?

    On another topic, I have noticed that many novels out there have women as crime victims. Often a serial killer would target women, for example. It bothers me.

    Great question about "bad" girls. Is it a matter of perception? Is she a "bad girl" because she refuses to marry at 18 and be a baby machine? Is she a "bad" girl because she does not follow the rules? If she breaks rules, what are the rules? Is she a "bad girl" because she is brave and protects the vulnerable? Is she a "bad girl" because she is a drug dealer? Is she a "bad girl" because she robs banks? Is she a "bad girl" because she is the "other woman"? Is she a "bad girl" because she is like the witch in Hansel and Gretel or the wicked stepmother in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs?

    When I was a little kid, whenever someone said "bad girl", I thought they meant a girl who robbed banks. LOL

    And we met at Bouchercon in Toronto. I loved your short story about the church tour to Jerusalem and I thought the ending was perfect!

    Diana

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    1. Hi Diana, I love that you have so many thoughts on this! The topic is a big one, because we're mostly talking about fictional characters but all of these issues reverberate in real life. I think you're right about "bad" often being a matter of perception, especially because women who didn't follow social norms were deemed bad (even if those social norms were messed up).

      PS I'm so glad that you enjoyed "Jerusalem Syndrome"!

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  19. p.s. for me, the characters have to be likable. I have found myself not finishing a novel when I noticed that I did NOT like any of the characters in the novel.

    Diana

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  20. Congratulations, Hillary, and thanks for introducing such a fascinating topic. I think we are perhaps blurring the lines between "villain" and "unlikeable." Add in the fact that behavior that would be considered "normal" in a male character is considered "bad" in a female character, which goes back to the statistics you quoted.

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    1. Thanks so much, Deborah! Some of the discussion has veered towards villains, which to me is a different issue. You're absolutely right about male characters being treated differently — that's an issue that drives me nuts.

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  21. And I think it depends on what kind of a book it is, right? In a cozy, an unredeemed "unlikeable" character is going to be a villain, because the genre calls for that. But "quirky" is okay, and "peculiar" and "unpredictable" and "something is weird but we love them anyway." But let's take--the brilliant thriller Day of the Jackal. Let's say the Jackal was a woman. We love the Jackal, even though he's an assassin. Why wouldn't we love the character as a woman, too?

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    1. That is so true, Hank! I think a lot depends on the type of book it is. (Can the Jungle Reds collaborate on a new version of The Day of the Jackal, with the Jackal as a woman?)

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  22. Congratulations on the book! You explained the bad girls and what a book needs so well it made me stop and think and realize I've changed my thinking about what makes me like a book. I used to think I didn't like a book if I didn't at least like someone in it, or connect somehow (but who wants to necessarily feel a connection to someone truly bad or evil?) but you got it when you say I don't have to like them but I have to be unable to turn away. That's exactly it. The books I haven't liked and initially thought it was because I couldn't find someone to like were actually books where I didn't much care what happened next.

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  23. Congratulations on your book ! The subject is deep strong yet intriguing. I am a lover of suspense and the themes of mystery and crime,but also the theme of human trafficking and their life is a subject that I love and I cannot help to feel so much emphathy for others. I would love to read it. Thanks for the opportunity.

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  24. The question about a character being "likeable" or not is SO gendered. Imagine a novel where a man goes to meet his blackmailer and kills him in s shootout. Actually, you don't have to - it's probably happened a dozen times or more.

    When women characters (or real life women) protect themselves, put themselves first, or prioritize their own needs ahead of others, they're BAD. When men do the same thing, they're just... men. I for one love to read about women who say, "Step back, I'm looking out for myself."

    And my recommendation? The mother of them all: THE LIVES AND LOVES OF A SHE-DEVIL, by Fay Weldon. It's a must-read for all women.

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    1. Yes, that's what I meant about The Jackal. As a man? Terrific. As a woman? Uh, oh no, totally and completely unacceptable. :-( . Why?

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    2. Julia, you hit the nail right on the head: the entire question of likeability is SO gendered. Thanks to you, I've just added Fay Weldon to my TBR list!

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  25. I'm looking forward to reading Don't Look Down. I have a hard time with books that have an unlikeable main character, but it sounds like Jo isn't inherently bad, just shaped by her circumstances and therefore understandable, if not relatable. A "bad girl" that I liked and was not put off by was Lizbeth Salander from The Girl with the Dragon Tatoo series ~

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    1. Thank you, Celia! I think you're right — Jo definitely isn't a villain, but a damaged person who's in dire circumstances. Lizbeth Salander is similar in some ways.

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  26. Congrats on the new book, Hilary! Such an excellent topic - likability. My editor and I have had endless debates about reader's expectations for a character's personality, and while I get it, it can be sooooo frustrating. Good for you for crafting Jo as you did. I am really looking forward to reading this one!

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    1. OOOH, love to hear about this someday..xoxoo

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    2. Thank you so much, Jenn! Like Hank, I want to hear that story, too. (I do feel lucky that my editor supported my vision for the book — she never asked me to change Jo.)

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  27. I thought the characters in Gone Girl were totally unlikable, but I kept reading until the end since it was a compelling story.

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  28. I prefer the main character has some likeability and redeeming qualities but I don’t want to read about a perfect person either. Let’s face it. A man and a woman can act identically in the same situation but it will not be perceived the same way.

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  29. This is reminding me of one of my favorite movie lines: Jessica Rabbit (in Who Killed Roger Rabbit) says, "I'm not bad. I'm just drawn that way."

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  30. Rebecca, even though she's dead throughout the book. Was she really a "bad" girl, or was she just not willing to be controlled by Maxim?

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  31. I am not a fan of the bad girl. I am retired special education teacher, and bullying is a real problem! I don't mind reading about bad girls in books!

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  32. I always go back to Scarlett, she was just so spoiled and treated Rhett bad. Can't wait to read your book.

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  33. Thank you to all for a warm Jungle Reds welcome! (And especially to wonderful Hank for arranging my visit.) What a fantastic discussion! I'm also happy to announce that Karen in Ohio has won a copy of DON'T LOOK DOWN. (Karen, Hank will be in touch to get your mailing address.) Sending each of you a hug. Until next time!

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