Image: Matthew Loffhagen
Literature and TV are chock-full of compelling but detestable protagonists. Even when these characters don’t undergo a dramatic transformation – à la Ebenezer Scrooge – they captivate an audience and are often wildly popular. Let’s explore what makes unlikable protagonists work. There’s a little bit of human psychology behind it and plenty of literary mechanism.
Why we like what we don’t
We need to begin by acknowledging that people are fascinated by terrible things. People pay big bucks to gawk at macabre paintings; they award and gape at photography depicting war corpses; they even make themselves late to work because they can’t help rubbernecking at car accidents. They laugh at the politically incorrect (Borat) and celebrate the morally reprehensible (A Clockwork Orange). Bizarre though it may seem, a glimpse into human fascination with the unpleasant can inform the way we write successfully unpleasant characters.
Pleasure, no pain
A couple of psychologists from the University of Colorado, A. Peter McGraw and Caleb Warren, have a theory about humor that’s apposite to our discussion:
We laugh when Moe hits Larry because we know that Larry’s not really being hurt. It’s a violation of social norms. You don’t hit people, especially a friend. But it’s okay because it’s not real… comedy comes from violating society’s rules, but only if the observer feels those rules have been violated in a safe way.
In other words, people are entertained by violations of social mores when they are benign; when nobody actually gets hurt. This doesn’t just apply to humor. Consider the way a crowd gasps in a collective adrenaline rush when two football players collide and one flies into the air. The exhilaration of injury is benign because it’s part of the entertainment value of football. The thrill is lost if the player is legitimately hurt, and the audience applauds when he gets up.Without real consequences, antisocial behavior can offer incredible entertainment.Click To Tweet
This mechanism has even more potential in fiction, because there’s no risk of taking the pain too far. It’s the reason Loony Tunes is funny. Nobody would actually laugh if somebody ran off a cliff with a box of dynamite, but the combination of distance and drama makes it engaging. Likewise, if most of us saw an actual beheading, we’d never recover. When we see it in The Patriot, there’s a rush of adrenaline without any real-life consequences.
Though a happy ending isn’t prerequisite for this correlation, more people like the unlikable when it leads to something positive. As communications specialists Mina Tsay-Vogel and K. Maja Krakowiak point out, readers forgive Severus Snape for his part in the murder of Harry’s parents because he helps defeat Voldemort. Snape never really becomes any more likable as the series progresses, but his heroic contribution to a positive outcome makes him work as a character.
Readers enjoy things in literature and other media that they wouldn’t enjoy in real life. They experience adrenaline or excitement without any consequences. One way to craft an unlikable-but-successful protagonist is to make sure they are exciting or intriguing. Think Snape (mysterious, element of surprise) or Hannibal Lecter (the train wreck from which we can’t avert our eyes). Bonus points if the character contributes something good.
At least I’m not that bad
Susan Feagin, a philosopher of art and aesthetics, assesses the paradox of enjoying the unpleasant as a matter of contrast. We compare ourselves or our own response to the negative sensations the media produces. We enjoy fear, for instance, because we enjoy overcoming fear. Another application might be this: we enjoy morally reprehensible characters because they simultaneously allow us to indulge in perversity without actually being perverse and because they make us feel good by comparison. Tsay-Vogel and Krakowiak again: ‘Morally ambiguous characters can actually make people feel better about their own actions in the real world.’Unpleasant characters make the reader feel virtuous by contrast.Click To Tweet
Such characters might range from Leslie Knope, who makes us feel oh-so-competent by comparison, to Lester Burnham, who we just want to throttle along with everybody else in American Beauty, to Hamlet, whose solutions to life’s problems include soliloquizing and killing people.
Unlikable characters make us feel better about ourselves, just as well-placed flaws make other characters both more believable and more palatable to readers. Even the unlikable protagonist, then, has to be consistent so that he or she is believable. Javert is consistent to the end, so that despite his relentless pursuit of our primary protagonist (Jean Valjean) and his radical legalism, there’s a place for admiration. People enjoy the conflicted nature of his character, and in the end feel they would have made a better choice.
Unlikeable ≠ boring
Just as characters that are too perfect are boring (Evangeline in Uncle Tom’s Cabin), characters that are pure evil are never going to succeed as protagonists. Notice the transformation of L. Frank Baum’s Wicked Witch of the West (The Wonderful Wizard of Oz) to Gregory Maguire’s Elphaba (Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West). Maguire doesn’t cast Elphaba in a negative light; the point is that she has to gain some complexity in order to work as a protagonist. This might mean painting a villain as misunderstood, as Maguire does with the Wicked series, or as Neil Gaiman does in his classic fairytale retellings. Or it might mean adding depth to a genuinely unlikable character.
If your unlikable characters, even protagonists, are interesting, people are still going to engage them. This is part of human psychology. Now, let’s take those protagonists from passable to irresistible.
The frosting on the cake
When your protagonist is truly abhorrent, ‘compelling’ might not be enough. There are other elements you can weave into the story in order to support your repulsive leading man or woman. It’s not necessary (or ideal) to use all of the below; figure out which elements fit organically with your story and characters and try to draw them out of the existing material rather than forcing them in.
Tsay-Vogel and Krakowiak offer further insight. They had two groups of study participants read two different versions of the same story: one in which the protagonist has selfish motives for doing something objectionable and the other in which their motives for the same action have some altruistic quality. Participants showed preference for the latter. This is unsurprising for fans of Breaking Bad, whose protagonist is increasingly detestable across the series – arrogant, devious, grouchy, even murderous – and yet spectacularly popular. Walter White garners empathy early on, because he’s motivated by a desire to take care of his family and he’s battling cancer, an antagonist many of us are all too familiar with.
One characteristic that is bound to draw readers to any protagonist – from the real life Bonnie and Clyde to the iconic Sherlock Holmes – is mastery. Bonnie and Clyde obviously fall a few notches above Sherlock Holmes in terms of moral deplorability, but both are off-putting in disparate and important ways. Bonnie and Clyde are heartless murderers; Holmes is pompous and cold. Readers wouldn’t exactly be friends with either, but the outlaws’ cunning is gripping and Holmes’ genius is irresistible. Make your disagreeable leading character a genius at something, and readers will be captivated.Readers love a character who is master of their domain, even if they’re also immoral.Click To Tweet
Anna Karenina manages to enthrall readers despite being dishonest, disloyal, heartless, and whiny, but a lot of her draw is pure sensuality. The same magnetism is embodied in characters like Scarlett O’Hara, Patrick Bateman, Amy Dunne, and Jay Gatsby (not to mention Dracula). There’s a beauty and romance tinged with danger – in Bateman’s case – or vexatiousness in the case of O’Hara. Dunne is overtly sensual and Gatsby is all mystery and glamour. Sex appeal is a powerful tool in crafting a compelling protagonist.
Think of Jordan Belfort of The Wolf of Wall Street – unapologetically extravagant and rather despicable. This work delivers a double whammy: readers get to enjoy the power and all of its glamour (this happens with Gatsby, too) and the ill portrayal of somebody with power and money makes readers feel a little smug about how much better they would behave in his shoes.
Humor probably requires less explanation. We laugh at caricatures – Ignatius Reilly, Rabbit Angstrom, Alexander Portnoy, Don Quixote, and countless others – because they offer relief from the reality that some people really do suck. It’s a similar to the pleasure we feel when someone wrongs us and we turn around and complain about them. If I grouse to my friend about my psychotic coworker, I’ll feel a tiny bit better. If I make a joke about the coworker, I’ll feel heaps better. McGraw, Warren, and Kan of Colorado University delve into this if you want to go deeper. Another bonus: most people, no matter how much they suck, aren’t as bad as their caricatures. So again, by comparison, we feel like the world we live in isn’t so bad after all.Humor, sex appeal, and skill make bad people compelling in fiction.Click To Tweet
People will also tolerate (or enjoy) a distasteful protagonist for the sake of a driving storyline, suspense, compelling social commentary, an epic setting, or just plain old really-awesome-writing. Madame Bovary succeeded on style alone. Scarlett O’Hara’s success was aided by a romanticized setting. Lolita’s Humbert is like the car accident – too grotesque to look away. Patrick Bateman is suspenseful. Outlaws in westerns and probably half the people in Star Wars are integral to a good story.
Crafting an unlikable protagonist
If you aim for an unlikable protagonist, let me give you one fair warning in advance: you need to be legitimately okay with some people absolutely hating your book. Claire Messud took a lot of flack for Nora Eldridge from The Woman Upstairs, even though the book was successful. I’ll let her have the last word today:
We read to find life, in all its possibilities. The relevant question isn’t ‘is this a potential friend for me?’ but ‘is this character alive?’ What really makes fictional characters worth reading isn’t likability, exactly, but complexity, richness and the intangible charisma that keeps readers invested in their story. At any rate, likable people rarely make for an exciting narrative. It’s the flaws, ranging from minor foibles to horrible secrets, that add spice to the reading and raise the stakes of the narrative.
What leading characters do you love to hate? What qualities do they or their stories possess that make them so compelling? I look forward to hearing from you in the comments. Or, for more great advice, check out Enthrall Your Readers With A Complex And Tantalizing Antihero. Here’s How and How To Avoid Writing A Mary Sue Protagonist.