A Protagonist Dilemma

Apr 12, 2023 | 2023 Articles

by Azma Dar

Following a story led by an unlikeable protagonist can be a challenge for many readers, but it’s one that I quite enjoy. Unreliable and even unattractive characters are fun because they’re full of facets, and are unpredictable, a little bit crazy, even dangerous. Like us, they’re not perfect, they make mistakes.

Azma Dar

In my work, I like to portray strong female leads that don’t conform to the stereotypes of Asian women often depicted in popular culture. My first novel, The Secret Arts, is the story of Saika, a young Pakistani woman, who marries an older man whose first wife, Zareena, died in mysterious circumstances. When a murder takes place in the family and rumours are whispered about her husband’s past, she sets about investigating what really happened to Zareena. In my recent play, based on a true story, Noor, I wrote about an Indian princess who worked as an undercover radio operator in WW2.

In creating Sophie, the protagonist in my new novel Spider, I wanted to subvert the stereotype of the Pakistani housewife. But, I also wanted to try and play with that traditional figure to misdirect the reader, just as Sophie does in the novel, presenting an image of female vulnerability to the other characters that they and we are not quite sure of as the story progresses.

As a counterpoint to Sophie’s own version of events, I chose to alternate her accounts with those of her husband’s because I was interested in the idea of telling the same story through the eyes of various characters, weaving a tale that makes you question which angle is the closest to the truth.

Sophie’s determined, outspoken, and almost obsessed when it comes to certain things in her life, such as her ambitions. She might not be likable, but I hope she’s quirky and intriguing enough to hold readers’ attention till the end.

Here’s a selection of novels I’ve enjoyed reading featuring unlikeable, weird, or creepy female protagonists that you can’t quite trust …

Notes on a Scandal by Zoe Heller
When her new friend Sheba is caught out in an affair with a teenage student, Barbara, a middle-aged history teacher, decides to document recent events with more accuracy than the scandal mongering media. A classic unreliable narrator, Barbara’s voice is snobbish, pathetic, and sinister, but Zoe Heller laces her acidic observations with a dark humour in this ominous story of obsession and loneliness.

The Woman Next Door by Cass Green
Like Notes on a Scandal, the novel revolves around a younger and an older woman. In this case, the two are neighbours, each with their own dark secret. Lonely Hester tries to involve herself in glamorous Melissa’s life without much success, until there’s a murderous turn of events.

The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins
Every day, Rachel makes the same train journey, and when the train stops for a few moments at a signal, she watches a seemingly perfect family whose home is overlooked by the tracks. Then one day, she witnesses something shocking and must uncover the truth. But, she has episodes of binge drinking, memory lapses, and blackouts. Can she be trusted? The clever plot and characterisation keep you hooked, despite the story being told through the eyes of three women who are all flawed and a bit unsavoury in some way.

The Woman at the Window by A J Finn
Another story of voyeurism, in which the agoraphobic Anna, too terrified to go outside, has been confined to her home for ten months. She spends her time drinking, lost in her memories and watching the neighbours. But, when she sees something horrific, she has to find out what happened, which is hard when she can’t leave the house … It’s tense and twisty, with echoes of Hitchcock’s Rear Window.

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Azma Dar is an author and playwright. She has written three full-length theatre productions, several short plays, a radio play for BBC Asian Network and has a forthcoming play entitled NOOR at Southwark Playhouse in November 2022. Her debut novel, The Secret Arts, was published by Dean Street Press in 2015.

Disclosure: This post contains links to an affiliate program, for which we receive a few cents if you make purchases. KRL also receives free copies of most of the books that it reviews, that are provided in exchange for an honest review of the book.


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