Janelle Brown: My Life as an Unlikable Woman

Bestselling literary suspense author channels unlikability into her characters.

Posted Aug 02, 2017

Contributed by Janelle Brown, author of Watch Me Disappear

Photo courtesy of Penguin Random House
Source: Photo courtesy of Penguin Random House

I write novels with “unlikable” women. Or so I’m sometimes told, though honestly, I hate the term. I think of my protagonists as difficult women with complicated feelings, who often do things that are against conventional expectation.

To wit: Billie, the protagonist of my latest literary suspense novel, Watch Me Disappear, manipulates her friends, deceives her husband, and emotionally suffocates her child — all before disappearing on a hike. This is not the most charming behavior, and that’s why I love her. Nice women make good friends; they do not make for terribly great stories. This is why my characters cheat, lie, and worry not a whit about what other people think of them.

My characters do everything that I am afraid of doing myself.

I’ve spent most of my 43 years worrying that I’m not likable enough; trying to be nice and pleasant and not rock the boat.  In part, that stems from a childhood in which I wasn’t always particularly likeable — I was a bit of a know-it-all, a bit of a dork, the kind of kid who always raises her hand first when the teacher asks a question. I equated visibility with likability — hoping that being smart and outspoken would endear me to my peers. (As anyone who has ever been a 10-year-old can tell you — it doesn’t.)

I struggled to find my footing in the social milieu of my youth, and it wasn’t until the very end of high school that I finally shed my awkwardness and started figuring out how to make friends. Until then, there were many lunchtimes spent hiding in school bathrooms so that I wouldn’t be seen wandering aimlessly, alone, around the campus. I knew people didn’t like me; I didn’t know what to do about it.

Even after I mastered the art of social interaction and built a strong circle of friends in my twenties, I still spent an ungodly amount of time worrying about whether these people liked me. Irrationally or not, I still believed friendship could be yanked away at any moment, thanks to a small misstep I might make. And when, at age 27, a close girlfriend dumped me rather unceremoniously, while telling me she found me “annoying,” it was like she’d plunged a knife straight into my heart (even after I discovered that she really dumped me because she wanted to date my ex-boyfriend without any residual guilt). It was as if she was the sole person who had figured out my secret — that I wasn’t a likable person, and never had been.

Decades later, I’d like to say that I’ve moved on; I am able to recognize that I have more (lovely, wonderful, inspiring) friends than I can even manage, and clearly, they like me plenty. And yet there’s still a subconscious sense of unbalance, as if I’m walking an invisible tightrope which threatens to topple me at any moment. The world we live in now doesn’t make it any easier, either. Social media has given us all so many new ways to obsessive over whether people like us; I obsess over the most mundane aspects of self-presentation. Am I posting about my new novel on Facebook too much, and does that make me come off as conceited, or self-absorbed, or needy? Did my response to that woman’s Tweet sound dismissive, or unkind? Why did that person just un-follow me on Instagram?

Which is why it’s such a relief, for me, to sink into the characters in my book. They never seem to worry about these kinds of things: Instead, they grab life by the balls, never over-analyzing their own behavior. They become the outlet for all my social anxiety: I channel every unsociable thought that I suppress in my every day life into the women (and men!) that I’ve created. The words that come from their mouths are the ones that I am afraid to utter myself; their actions are the ones that I am too gutless to take. 

The funny thing is that as I create these characters who do socially unacceptable, even unpleasant things — say, a husband who cheats on his wife or a teacher who fakes a student’s grade (i.e.: the characters from my second novel), a mom who develops a meth addiction or a daughter who hides from her creditors (i.e.: my first) — I find myself falling in love with them. After spending years with these characters I can understand the psychological impetus that drives their erratic behavior; my empathy for them grows; I find them likable. And I often hear from readers that they feel the same way.

“Is it wrong for me to say I really like Billie?” was a recent message from one reader. Another friend texted me, while on chapter 12: “Do women tell you that they relate to Billie? Because I do.”

And this, I think, is why so many readers buy books like mine. Fiction gives us all an outlet for our suppressed unsociability — we get to live, consequence free, inside the head of a person who says and does all the things we are afraid to do and say. In a world where “likes” are the new currency of existence, and your self-worth is tied up in the number of friends on your Facebook page, getting lost in an “unlikable” character feels like a vacation from all that second-guessing and self-doubt. It certainly is for me.

Janelle Brown is the NYT bestselling author of Watch Me Disappear, All We Ever Wanted Was Everything, and This is Where We Live. She lives in Silver Lake, Los Angeles, with her husband and two children.