I Hate Your Protagonist! Want to Know Why?

I Hate Your Protagonist! Want to Know Why?

This week’s video explains why readers may hate your protagonist because they feel betrayed by his unlikability.

Video Transcript:

A long time ago, when this was a baby blog, I wrote a post called “Character Likability Is Overrated.” The point of this post was that characters do not have to be perfect little goody two shoes who never say a mean word and never do a bad thing. ’Cause as it turns out, all this niceness actually makes characters unlikable. So, really, the point of the post was that likability is never overrated. This has been on my mind, because lately it’s seemed as if I’ve been running into one unlikable protagonist after another. And this is a problem.

Why? Because not only does it mean that I don’t like your character, it probably means that I hate your character. You’ve suckered me into reading your book with the promise that I’m going to like or relate to this character only to betray my trust by sticking me with someone I probably just want to smack in the face for being such a jerk.

Now, don’t get me wrong, nothing wrong with a good antihero. Nothing wrong with a jerk either, so long as he’s entertaining or relatable in some deep and fundamental way. But if you’re writing a character with prominent unlikable traits, just be aware you’re going to have to work extra hard to get readers to care about him. Maybe we wouldn’t want to invite him to dinner, but, at the very least, he better be funny or super-duper good at whatever it is he’s doing.

One pitfall in particular to be aware of is that of transforming a likable character into someone unlikable—even for a short amount of time in your story. If I’m already invested in your protagonist, only to have her turn on me—as well as, presumably, every other person who likes her in the story—you can pretty much bet you’re going to make me and all your other readers mad. Never test your readers’ patience anymore than you have to. Give them a character they can love because of his flaws—not in spite of them.

Tell me your opinion: Why won’t readers hate your protagonist?

I Hate Your Protagonist! Want to Know Why?

 

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About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland lives in make-believe worlds, talks to imaginary friends, and survives primarily on chocolate truffles and espresso. She is the IPPY and NIEA Award-winning and internationally published author of the Amazon bestsellers Outlining Your Novel and Structuring Your Novel. She writes historical and speculative fiction from her home in western Nebraska and mentors authors on her award-winning website.

Comments

  1. Good post, KM. Though the likability of a protagonist must span the entire novel, a writer would do well to follow the advice found in “Save the Cat.” For goodness sakes, take one paragraph early on and have your character do something unexpected. I would even venture to say it doesn’t have to be something nice. I couldn’t help but love the protag in “Despicable Me” just because the writers set him up as so wonderfully despicable that we had to love him (and, you know, the title probably primed us for it anyway). Most of the time, a “save the cat” moment will carry a long way toward character likability, though. Thanks for another great video. I love that I recognize most of the books on your shelf, by the way.

    • Funny characters get so much more leeway. If we’re entertained, even by someone despicable (think: the Joker), there’s a least a part of us that’s going to like him.

  2. Oooh, I like this. Antiheroes seem to be the new hero, to the point where they’re poorly done. You make good points. Thanks!
    In one of the first paragraphs of my manuscript, my protagonist goes and gives her breakfast to an eight-year-old homeless boy who is contaminated with a rash that will kill him in a matter of months. Most people don’t give them anything, because ‘the sooner they die, the better off the rest of us will be.’ My character is, I think, likable because she’s always trying to make people like her. Perhaps that is an ulterior motive, but it is a relatable one and because of it, she does nice things–and for reasons that sometimes surprise her.

  3. Steve Mathisen says:

    I find this post fascinating in that I recently read Ender’s game and found Ender to be a thoroughly dislikeable character (very few of the characters in that book were actually likeable). I also just finished reading the Hunger Games trilogy and discovered myself wanting to whack Katniss upside the head on occasion for the dumb things she did. Most curious for me in that book was Peeta who went from really likeable to despicable and then back to really likeable toward the end. Some really good books take you on a roller coaster ride with their characters and you may not always like the ride.

    • Interesting. I’ve always liked Ender. Card usually gives most of his characters a hard edge, and I can see how that might be off-putting to some people (same with Katniss). Not surprisingly, character likability is about as subjective as it gets in fiction.

    • Charlotte says:

      You found Ender unlikeable? Huh, I liked him very much. He was dangerous, yes; being brilliant and frightened at the same time can do that. But he really was a rather excellent person. He was a frightened, emotionally starved, terrribly manipulated (and absolutely brilliant) little boy, who did do horrific things. Every one of them he was manuevered into by his elders. I thought that book was the worst literary case of child abuse I’d encountered. It made Oliver Twist look kind of lucky.

    • Oh, I liked Ender!

      But Katniss, no. Emo with a bow and arrow.

    • Peeta was hijacked in the third book and I assume Coin wanted someone close to Katniss to kill her since she was starting to become so powerful and Coin didn’t want that to happen, so she had Peeta come after Katniss.

  4. I found almost the opposite to be true in the ‘Clockwork’ trilogy by Cassandra Clare. Her main character was *perfect.* EVERYBODY *lurved* her. She never did anything wrong. She was sooooo pretty. She was soooooo smart. She was sooooo good I HATED her. Through all 3 books, I kept waiting for a flaw and through all 3 books I hated her. Characters need depth and I caution writers from making theirs too one way or the other. All characters need a little ding here and there to learn and grow, otherwise, what’s the point of caring for them?

    • Ah, yes, the dreaded Mary Sue complex. The irony, of course, is that we *like* flawed characters, and we usually *hate* perfect characters. Likability does not necessarily equate with niceness, or even goodness.

  5. I felt this was a problem in The Curious Incident of the Dog In the Night, which is a seriously overrated international best seller. The main character is heavily implied to be on the low functioning scale of Autism. I will admit that his voice was very original and authentic, and I liked the realism in him seeing abstract concepts in “black and white” as well as his motivation and intelligence, but he was also pretty selfish. For awhile in the story, his flaws seemed balanced out but by the end of the story I felt the author made too whiny and self centered. I wouldn’t mind as much if there weren’t so many critics claiming he was hero when he did nothing outside of personal gain for the entire story. I guess this goes to show how stories solely driven by one character cause there to be very opposite opinions among readers.

    • For me, the bottom line when I’m creating my own characters is, “Would *I* like this character if I were reading him in someone else’s story?” If I’m letting him get away with things I would hate in another book, I have no excuse for for letting him behave that way in my book. Certainly, not every reader will like my character even then – but at least I’ve done right by my core group, which is readers like me.

  6. This was timely! I just finished NaNo and made the word count BUT – and this has never happened to me before – discovered I despised the main character. I didn’t care about her or her problem and, therefore, the story. I’m still stunned and am trying to figure out how it happened. I bought your books and one other to help me sort it out.

    I liked the idea of the MC being an anti-hero. Instead, I created a monster. (kinda funny since she’s a ghost) It’s a very tight line to walk…this making anti-heroes. Wish me luck.

    PS I’ve been following you for a while via email. I popped over to leave a comment and discovered I really like the vlog. Very cool. I’ll pop by more often now that I know how fun it is. Keep up the good work. 🙂

    • K.M. Weiland says:

      So glad you’re enjoying the vlog! Our own reaction to our characters is always a good way to judge how readers will react. If we don’t like him – or if we’re bored by him – that’s always a sign that we need to dig deeper and see if we can identify where the root problem is buried.

  7. In my novel I had to work very hard with my main character to make sure he was likable even though he is no hero. It was also a challenge to keep him from being a whiny victim too. There was a lot to balance between his unique abilities, actual lot in life and his outlook on it.

    Something that bothers me is a protag who whines incessantly. I got rather tired of Harry Potter by book four. Something similar happened with the Anita Blake series. I loved her in the first three books, she was smart, sassy and uncompromising. Then she fell in lust and I gave up reading because she changed so much.

    Personally I love Ender. He was partially inspiration for my own protagonist.

    • K.M. Weiland says:

      Yes, if there’s one thing Ender isn’t it’s whiny. Card did a great job of presenting a character in a horrible situation, without letting him grovel in any “woe-is-me-ing.”

  8. Oh man, now I wonder if Grak is too difficult to love. I suppose that depends. Is hating babies still on the negative list these days?

  9. K.M.
    I understand that actors ALWAYS love playing “bad guys,” be they men or women. I think readers, too, love to live vicariously on the dark side with the right kinds of heavies. The trick is knowing how to do it. Clint Eastwood’s Dirty Harry is for all intents and purposes a sociopath. But he is up against a homicidal sadist sociopath, so Harry looks pretty good. My own principal Bad Guy in my mystery The Anything Goes Girl is an assassin who kills innocent people, and simply sees it as a job. He would be impossible to feel anything but hatred for–except (I hope) he shares my Good Girl hero’s point of view about a lot of things. Plus, he happens to like her for the right reason: she’s got guts, and he respects that.

    • K.M. Weiland says:

      It’s important to distinguish “goodness” or “niceness” from likability. There are plenty of crazy evil characters who are enduringly popular. The trick is finding a way to overcome readers’ inherent revulsion to the bad things the character may doing. Fascination is usually a good hook, which can then be backed up powerfully if we’re able to create an empathetic bond between the readers and the character, even on some small level.

  10. Bill Gorol says:

    I’m wondering about the television character of Walter White in AMC’s “Breaking Bad”. He begins as a hapless, likeable high school chemistry teacher, then “betrays” the audience by becoming, albeit gradually, a dispicable (murderous, self-absorbed methamphetamine producing) fellow. Yet most fans of this show (me included) report the odd sense of pulling for him until the end of the series. Was this just a case of extraordinary writing, or do the rules not necessarily apply in performance story-telling?

    • K.M. Weiland says:

      I haven’t seen the show, but I’m betting that, early on, he hooked viewers either with empathy or with some sense of fascination. Once viewers invested their interest in him, he could get away with all kinds of badness (so long as he remained in character) and viewers would remain loyal.

  11. It takes a lot for me to like anti-hero type characters, but when I do, I find the strongest appeal is when the writer gives me a clear look at the good motives and intentions of the character, or a clear look at what pain they’re compensating for. I find myself hoping the character will change and grow into that better person the writer has shown me glimpses of.

    Geoff Johns in the Justice Society comics wrote Black Adam with such depth that it was hard to dislike him even when he started a global war and killed millions of people. I was drawn to the character’s passion to protect the people he ruled and sympathized with his pain and anger at the death of his wife. In the tv show, The Mentalist, Patrick Jane the lead character, tramples over peoples’ feelings and acts on the ends justifying the means. But he appeals to me because it’s clear he’s hurting from the murder of his wife and child and pushes people away even when he cares about them. He still wants the “bad guys” caught. I liked Wolverine because he was a man fighting to keep his humanity.

    I know other people like these kinds of characters for other reasons, but for me the characters at war with themselves are the most fascinating and what I’m rooting for is who the character could become.

    • K.M. Weiland says:

      It’s that inner pain that draws me to antiheroes as well. I adore redemption stories, so if you can take a less-than-good person and use his pain to bring him to a higher purpose, then I’m going to be all over that.

  12. My main character starts off as pretty likeable. You feel sorry for him because his love was murdered. However, he down spirals and ends up being a classic tragic hero. You hate his flaws and mistakes, but you can’t help but hope things will work out for him. I would say he reminds me of Hamlet.

  13. Thanks so much for the advice! I was researching information for my story when I stumbled upon this. Upon reading this helpful article, I decided to read over my unfinished story once more, and realized for the first time that my main character was a complete jerk. Luckily, I had not written very much of my story yet, so it wasn’t too hard to revise his personality. Now he’s just a dude with anger problems that’s trying to protect his family. So much better!

    Thanks Again!
    Megan

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Awesome! It’s always exciting when you can identify – and fix – problems like, especially early on.

  14. I have recently read a book where in the first three chapters I just stopped. That’s the first time ever I have stopped reading a book because it was so bad. To my defense it was probably more than three chapters, but that’s when I started losing interest. The heroine was too cold and too depressed and had no purpose. She insulted the one guy who was nice to her and she makes enemies with nearly the entire group of people she is with. I didn’t blame them. My hope for my novels is that my characters will be likable to the point of interesting. To keep the readers interested. I have a minor character who is an anti-hero, but other than that I do not write anti-heroes.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Focus on what you love about your protagonist. If you can share that with readers, chances are good they’ll love him too.

  15. Miranda Smith says:

    Awesome post! I can completely relate with what you are saying…every single goody-two-shoes protagonist that I have run into…I hate. For this reason I try very hard to deeply intergate my character’s flaws into the story so that readers never get the sense that the character is perfect. A perfect protagonist is a boring one because they never have obstacles to over come in the novel; your readers will never really have a reason to root for your character if they don’t have any hurdles to jump over or temptations to fight. I love a fatally flawed protagonist and quickly lose interest if they main character is too perfect or if they are not relatable enough. Thanks for this…I didn’t find it until now but it is still useful. Thank you for that!
    Miranda Smith

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Totally agree. The most interesting characters are always those that match deep virtues with deep flaws. It’s the juxtaposition that is fascinating and compelling.

      • Perhaps that is why I could never seem to get through The Bobbsey Twins books, though I tried several times as a kid. Perhaps they are overrated as a classic — the kids are just TOO good. The most exciting thing they do is bake a pie.

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