Unlikable Protagonist

Tips for Writing Better Pricks, Dicks, and Assholes.

The last few books I have read all suffered from the same flaw: an unlikable protagonist.

Having the jerk at center stage is nothing new. It is the basis for the redemption character arc: the Grinch, Scrooge, or my personal favorite, Melvin Udall in As Good As it Gets. These guys are nasty individuals, and yet they are some of the most beloved characters around. But just because the protagonist is a jerk, doesn’t mean he can’t be likable. And if your readers are going to get past the fifth page, he had better be.

So why do these characters work, where others fail?

First and foremost, no whining.

Falling into the self-loathing, woe-is-me mentality is the first major hurdle. Resist the temptation to elicit sympathy for your character by rolling out all the tragedy that your character has endured. No one likes a whiner. Don’t “explain” why your reader should feel sympathy for your character. Telling me about how sad he feels about his dead sister on page 1, or how he lost his job and doesn’t know if he’ll find another one makes your character pathetic, not sympathetic. The pathetic character is something different and requires different handling. Pathetic mixed with a jerk is the formula for the person no one likes.

What to do instead:

Show your character taking control of the situation. Melvin Udall hates his neighbor’s yip-yip dog. But instead of whining about it, he takes action. The action, dropping the dog down the garbage chute, is deplorable, but that’s why it works. We can relate to the situation, a pet parent who is inconsiderate of those around him. Our ability to relate to the sentiment makes us relate to the character. His over the top response to the situation speaks to the level of his frustration, and it also appeals to our own hidden villain. We wouldn’t do it, but we might think it.

Second, Avoid the victim mentality

Similar to the no whining, the victim mentality will elicit eye-rolling and disgusted guttural noises from your readers. Don’t let your character’s situation overwhelm him into inaction. Jerks never just sit there and take it. A spineless character is not only annoying, he’s boring.

What to do instead:

Sometimes bad things happen to characters. Everyone at some time in his/her life has felt powerless in a situation. Capitalize on this shared experience. Show a reaction. Fight back against an attack; make a mental plan for revenge, something. Is your protag getting chewed out by her boss? Let her make a mental Target list of things she’ll need to set his car on fire, and then check to see if any of it’s on sale on Cartwheel. Jerks are never helpless.

Third, Personality

Jerks get all the best lines: Joe Pesci in Goodfellas, Samuel L Jackson in Pulp Fiction. A character can get away with the most inexcusable behavior if he has a quick wit. In As Good as it Gets, Melvin, a writer, is cornered by a fan who demands to know how he can write women so well. The fan’s obnoxious behavior is enough to make us sympathize with Melvin, but when he responds with, “I think of a man, and then I remove reason and accountability,” we can’t help but laugh at an insult so perfectly crafted to the situation. Giving your jerk a fantastic voice will make him more memorable. Let him say all the things you’ve thought, but would never say.

Fourth, Be consistent

A jerk who is prone to random nasty outbursts is difficult to follow. Narrow the focus of your jerk’s anger. The Grinch hates Christmas. Scrooge is greedy. Their motivations are clearly defined. Make sure your jerk’s behavior has a specific reason related to his goal. Melvin Udall goes on a racist rant to clear people out of his table. We don’t have to agree with the tactics, (that’s why he’s a jerk) but we should understand why he’s doing it. Once this motivation is established keep his outrageous behavior related to his goal. The key to creating relatable characters is keeping the motivations clear.

Not every MC needs to be likable. Having clearly defined character goals will make him relatable, and that will make your jerk someone we can all cheer for.

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9 thoughts on “Unlikable Protagonist

  1. I just finished a book that had the whiny protagonist problem. “This can only happen to me”-type of phrase was moderately funny the first time it was used, the 18th time not so much. It didn’t make me hate her, but I lost a bit of respect for her.

    You offer interesting alternative ways to elicit sympathy. I especially agree with the “quick wit” suggestion even though it’s the hardest one to do, I think.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I agree. the quick wit is difficult. Something that sound funny in the moment doesn’t always translate well to the page, but I find wit is easier in internal dialogue. But that’s my personal writing style.

    Liked by 1 person

      1. I find it easier because wit in dialogue needs good setup, wit in internal dialogue can just be a gut reaction to a situation. (or maybe I find it easier because my first language is sarcasm.)

        Liked by 1 person

    1. I find its the most effective way to engage a reader. Not saying it isn’t possible to write a great story with a pathetic whiner as the MC, but that requires a skill level that I haven’t achieved yet.

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