As I wrote about a few weeks ago, I recently became obsessed with Robin Hobb's Liveship Traders series. I highly, highly recommend it as one of the best series I've ever read. And one of the (many) reasons I adored it was an initially rather awful character called Malta Vestrit.
Malta is the youngest female character in the Vestrit family, at 13, and fights with pretty much every character we grow to love. While her mother and grandmother struggle to make ends meet and her aunt Althea runs off to have adventures on the high seas, Malta just wants expensive jewellery, pretty dresses, and everyone's attention on her, and she despises every other sympathetic character for standing in her way. In the first book, her selfish actions sabotage her family's attempts to salvage their situation, and she is very, very hard to sympathize with or like.
But even when I absolutely hated her, I kind of loved her too. I love that Robin Hobb wasn't afraid to make her act horribly to every other character we care about, and to be horribly wrong in so many ways, not as a villain figure, but as a basis for her growth as a character.
I was constantly waiting for something bad to happen as a result of her actions, that she would then learn from (after being suitably humbled from her horribleness, of course). But not something connected-to-the-main-plot bad. Brashen's brother would turn out to be a scoundrel! She would be forced to marry that Rain Wilds guy and live there against her will! Something related to her flirtations. Not that she would grow to genuinely like Reyn, beyond all his gifts, that she would help to free the dragon, and that she'd end up being one of the Elderlings.
Basically, I expected the story to punish her for her boldness, because female characters can't even be a little bit vain in fantasy without getting punished. They certainly can't reach Malta's levels of selfish cruelty unscathed. Instead, she gets a storyline where bad things do happen as a result of her actions, but it's not "you were vain, now you're punished," it's "wow you woke up a dragon and saved the Satrap and now you're stuck with him on a ship fighting to survive."
I love that, in many ways, she's basically Althea, but with a very different upbringing. Instead of adventuring on a ship during her childhood, she's grown up as a Proper Bingtown Lady. She's resourceful, she puts herself first, she stubbornly believes that she is right, she disdains rules when they clash with what she wants for herself, she speaks up for herself and is pretty fearless... but she's never seen the world outside Bingtown Society, and so at first, she uses all these traits for teenager social grappling to make herself seem the prettiest, richest and most desirable girl in town.
And, of course, she thinks everyone around her is out to get her. Since we can see the other people's perspectives, we know she's wrong and maybe hate her for it, but in reality she's pushing against rules the same way that Althea does. She's just doing it to embrace the life that she's grown up in, and to gain power and independence as she sees it.
In fact, this is addressed explicitly in the third novel, when she's comments that her behavior is driven by a desire to not by like her mother. She resents Keffria for her "weakness," and although at first it seems like selfish rebellion against living simply, but, like Althea, she is actually fighting to have power of her own. She doesn't want a great romance and marriage. She doesn't want to be small and domestic and ignored by her husband. She wants men to admire her, but only so she has power over them. She wants to be free from anyone. And even though her father babies her, which might be seen as patronizing, she loves him because he fulfils two needs in her life that no-one else in her family does -- he's easily manipulated, but he also treats her as somebody who knows what she wants. She is frequently furious that no one will listen to her, and that everyone treats her like an idiot, including Reyn. In fighting for independence, she ensures that everyone dismisses her as a stupid girl who ruins everything, and their disdain only causes her to rebel more. To make sure she will never end up weak. And yes, she is someone who makes many, many mistakes, but she's also clearly resourceful in her rebellion. She doesn't act as a trustworthy person, but she does have smarts and talent.
Even in the first half of the series, when she's pretty terrible, we see how clever and resourceful she is. She's an awful brat, but she's perfect at saying exactly the right thing to manipulate people. She doesn't understand pretty much anything that's happening, but she's not afraid to take action on her beliefs, even if they end up hurting everyone in the end. Her growth comes when she's exposed to the wider world. People could argue that she grows once she "loses" her beauty with her scar, but she starts using her stubbornness and ambition for good as soon as she has reason to do so. Once she's given something to strive for beyond the frivolities of Bingtown life, she dives in headfirst and doggedly pursues those goals instead.
And honestly, I love that she's so terrible at first. I love that she's actually like people's misreadings of Sansa Stark -- so wrapped up in dreams she doesn't care about anyone but herself, betrays her family for her own advancement, obsessed with pretty things and riches. She's allowed to be deeply, deeply flawed, and to still be a heroine by the end. And it's the very traits that previously made people hate her that save her in the third book, when all power is taken away from her. She can manipulate people into believing what she wants. She can act imperious and force people to listen. She's inventive and resourceful. And through these skills, she survives an impossibly dangerous situation, and comes out the other side still the Malta we saw before, but one who's finally more confident, more sure of herself, no longer scrabbling for her place in the world.
She gets to be awful, and complex, and still be a protagonist. In a book of fantastic female characters, she stands out as the one that I've never seen as a protagonist before. And oh my god, I love her for it.