Writing Question: Unlikable Protagonists

While a cool idea, unique world, or suspenseful plot may grab the reader’s interest, the story’s protagonist is often the key to making the reader love your story. A strong protagonist can move the reader to tears and stay with him for the rest of his life. A protagonist who rubs your reader the wrong way can make him throw the book across the room. How do you create a protagonist that the reader will follow through fire and blood? It’s a difficult task, so we asked the Odyssey graduates for their tips and advice when it comes to creating a protagonist.

Have you ever had readers react negatively to your protagonist? For example, do they reject your farmboy protagonist as whiny and prefer your scoundrel sidekick character?  How do you make readers like your protagonist? Do you think about making the character likeable as you create him, or do you simply make him someone you like and hope the reader will feel the same? 

Barbara Campbell, class of 2000

I never set out to make my protagonists likable, but I DO strive to make their behavior understandable.

In the opening chapters of Heartwood, the protagonist is selfish and controlling. He tries to dictate his younger brother’s future because he believes he knows best. He’s wrong, of course. His actions are dictated by his own fears rather than what’s best for his brother. But that’s something he (and the reader) learns over the course of the novel.

I was willing to risk having readers dislike Darak at the outset (and some did!) because his inner journey is all about acknowledging and understanding his “dark side.” Early on, though, I tried to balance the negative behavior with several incidents that show how much Darak loves his brother and how far he is willing to go to protect him. Later, I provided back story that helped explain his fears (without excusing his behavior) and gave him external challenges to overcome that were linked to his internal journey. So that – little by little – readers could understand the things in his past that have caused him to behave as he does at the outset of the book and and come to empathize with him as he tries to change.

Adria Laycraft, class of 2006

I often have people react in a negative way to my protaganists, usually because they start off quite flawed and, in my mind, become better people along the way (if still imperfect)…but the reader might not make it that far. I’ve struggled with making them more likable without losing the flaws that they must overcome to triumph in the story. The way I’ve done this is to focus on little moments where I can reveal their cool underlying nature that is normally overwhelmed with their negative emotions about their situation.

Cherie Wein, class of 1999

Readers all seemed to dislike the main character, Mina, in my novel-in-progress Skating Backward. They said she was selfish, self-centered, and whiny. I thought she was just old and no longer cared what people thought, so she said anything on her mind. But I changed her so that, even though disabled, she helps with a couple of charities and loves animals. She still has a foul mouth, but I feel that after living on the earth 70 years she can say what she wants. That was the way Erin Brockovich spoke because she had been kicked around a lot. Audiences loved her and the movie about her.

One evil/likeable character who stands out for me is the head salesman in the play/movie Glengarry Glen Ross. He told any lie to sell fake land to some poor schnook, but he loved what he was doing, and in turn the audience loved him, including me. Strange!

Michele Korri, class of 2005

I rarely think about a character out of the context of a particular world, problem or idea–a science fiction “what if.” That is, when a specific character occurs to me, that person is immersed in a situation that interests me or that person has created a situation or problem for himself or others. I don’t generally take a conscious look at whether my character is really likeable or not–at least not immediately.

However, when I begin to work out HOW the character will deal with the problem or obstacles in his/her path, I do consider how those actions will be seen in moral terms. I want my protagonist(s) to have strengths I wish I had as well as flaws I wish I didn’t have. (Or flaws/weaknesses I have observed in others.) Protagonists I like are ones who operate with a set of standards I can admire that might be seen as odd in our society, but logical in the context of their world and or society. If they stray from that code, I try to make the action a last resort option–an I-have-no-choice-it’s-this-or-far-greater-disaster. I try to avoid a revenge/avenge angle altogether.

I could cite a number of sf short stories in which the main character is very unlikable and his/her actions drive the plot. The attraction for me to such a story is really to see how disaster will eventually befall the main character, which usually involves the misuse of some kind of scientific procedure or invention. Occasionally, the protagonist is changed by the disaster he/she has caused and is redeemed in the end. While I admire the writing of many of these stories, I tend to be more interested in the victims in such situations. This led me to write weak stories because my protagonists tended to REACT rather than ACT. (This, of course, is also a plot problem.)

I believe that my characters have a better chance of being interesting and compelling to readers if I care about them and make them active.

Barbara A. Barnett, class of 2007

I never consciously think about making a character likeable–at least on first drafts–mostly because if I didn’t like them or at least find something interesting about them to latch on to, I wouldn’t be writing about them in the first place. So I’d say that puts me in the “make him someone you like and hope the reader will feel the same” camp.

In the novel I’m currently revising, I have two brothers as the main characters, both of whom I was hoping would be likeable, each in his own way. After getting critiques on the first draft, almost everyone loved one brother #1, but a fair number of people (though not all) really detested brother #2.

Of the two brothers, one drinks too much, sleeps around (usually with married women), ends up torturing and killing several people, and ultimately betrays and stabs his pregnant wife–and he’s the one almost everyone liked. Brother #2 isn’t perfect either, but he’s definitely not the anti-hero that brother #1 is, so it took me by surprise when a couple people kept urging me to kill him off because they didn’t like him. As a result, the likeability factor has been on my mind a lot during the revision process, and I think it boils down to a few points:

1) While brother #1 does terrible things, he has sympathetic goals and has to overcome a hell of a lot of obstacles to achieve them. And in his defense, the pregnant wife he stabs is far worse than he is. She is the villain, after all.

2) Brother #2 also has sympathetic goals, but he doesn’t have nearly as many obstacles in his way. One person said he didn’t like him because he had everything handed to him on a silver platter. While I don’t agree that everything is that easy for him, it did make me aware that, compared to his brother, he has it pretty easy.

3) While I like both brothers, I enjoyed writing brother #1 more, and it shows.

So as I’m doing revisions, I’m focusing on giving brother #2 tougher obstacles to overcome, and I’m trying to delve deeper and bring out more the aspects that make me like him. I’m sure there will be people who still dislike him in the end, but so far, I think that approach is resulting in a more dynamic character. Of course, I’m biased. 🙂

Lane Robins, class of 1999

I’ll chime in briefly. I think I’m qualified, given that I’ve one heroine who poisons cats, kills pregnant women, and smothers old men, and one hero who kills an infant among his other misdeeds. I’ve also a bad-tempered PI who prefers shooting people to dealing with them, and never says anything nice when she can say something snarky.

How do I work it?

A few ways. One, I try to give them a sympathetic goal to work toward. Something that a reader can identify with even if the actions taken toward that goal are repugnant: ie, their actions are not just gratuitous evil. Two, I make sure that the people they are up against are worse. That can be done by either making their actions worse–though that can quickly escalate into silly character wars akin to nuclear posturing–or by just pitting their lesser, baser desires against the hero/heroine’s more sympathetic wants. Three, if I still think the hero and heroine need help being sympathetic, I might give them a minor character to be nice to–someone who gets to see their vulnerabilities. If it’s a book with multiple POVs, I’ll try to rig at least one to be sympathetic to their cause.

And after all that? I still get people who say I hated your character. But that’s all right. When it comes down to it, if you’re not writing a white knight, a good girl, or a saint, odds are someone will take offense. Then again, even if you do write a white knight, good girl, or saint, there’ll be someone who finds them dull, preachy, or unrealistic. I think when people react instinctively to a character, be it like or dislike, that’s a good thing. It means your character’s one step closer to being human.

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