An Unlikeable Protagonist

I’ve been seeing alot of requests for this recently. We want a hero we don’t like but that we can root for.

Oh, awesome. Because that makes tons of sense and is super easy to pull off.

I have tons of real world experience to draw upon. I love rooting for people I don’t like. I go to political rallies for candidates I despise and shout “Woo! Yay for you! I hope you win you sick bastard!”

Seriously though, this kind of hero is showing up more and more in fiction and agents and readers are seeking it out. Why?

Writing a Mary Sue, who is perfect, sweet and likeable in every way is easy, and it, inadvertently has the opposite effect of what we, as writers are looking for. People don’t like someone who doesn’t have to struggle. They can’t relate. They roll their eyes when the extra awesome protagonist has trouble.

Writing a hero that isn’t particularly nice immediately raises that stakes. It sets the conflict on a internal level as well as external. Consider  But there is a fine line to walk. Even though the hero isn’t likeable, you want your reader to want them to succeed.

This is not to be confused with characters that are “morally bad” that we love anyway like Jay Gatsby or Tyrion Lanister. This is more along the lines of Sansa Stark or Sherlock Holmes. We don’t really want to be friends with them, but we want them to succeed.

But it’s a fine line to walk. You don’t want your character to be so disagreeable that your reader just can’t stand to stick around and find out how they succeed.

In “Fate of a Princess” my main character Princess Melandria is just awful at the beginning. In fact, she is so awful that beta readers didn’t want to read on and see what happens to her. I needed to go back and fix her up just a bit.

How do you pull this off? First off, they need a spark of something. Whether it’s just very interesting or a hope for greatness, this hook needs to come into play in your introductory chapter. Sometimes all you need is the foreshadowing that this character has some serious poop coming their way. Sometimes you need something more.

You want the villains they’re pitted against to fail. You really want them to fail. In Sansa’s case, the villans are really really awful. So even though she is a simpering little fool, easily mislead by pretty things, pitted against Joffery and Littlefinger, you want her to suceed by wising up and getting out. When Mr. Holmes makes a brilliant observation paired with a barb toward his long suffering bff, you grin and shake your head, because he is an ass, but he’s a brilliant ass who’s gonna stop a nefarious plot.

They can be dynamic or static. I like to think that Sansa is dynamic, but I’m still holding out to be sure. At some point, she’s going to have to grow up, realize that she needs to control her own destiny and see past the facades that seem to dazzle her so easily and acknowledge the good people who have tried to help her are not as posh and polished as the ones who have hurt her.

In Holmes case, remaining static is how he gets it done and any inkling of change is quickly dispelled as a momentary lapse. This works. We don’t want him to change, because then he may not be as competent or interesting. When writing your character, you will see what works for you in this regard.

The stakes need to be high. Since we already know Holmes is brilliant, the case needs to be completely baffling and full of false turns and certain disaster needs to be imminent if he does not succeed. This is where an unlikeable character becomes really interesting because, with all the bombs exploding outside, the deep flaws of the character are sure to get in the way too. Those flaws can be overcome, they can be put on hold or they can used as strengths.

It’s a challenge for a writer. It can require serious planning, but the payoff is so much more rewarding when you succeed.

Who’s your favorite unlikable protagonist?

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