Warning: Make This Mistake and Readers Will Hate Your Protagonist

This week’s video offers tips and an example to help you avoid the pitfall of alienating readers from your protagonist by taking it for granted they’ll always think he’s in the right.

Video Transcript:

We’re going to start off today with some dialogue, but pretend it’s not just dialogue. Put yourself in the shoes—or the mouth, as it may be—of the first speaker, who says:

“I don’t like strangers sneaking around my house and sticking their noses where they don’t belong.”

To which, the second speaker replies, “Then you have something to hide!”

To which that first speaker—you—replies again, “That’s none of your business!”

Now, this conversation is straight out of the very old whodunit TV show Mr. and Mrs. North, about a nosy housewife and her mystery-writer husband who always end up stumbling over murders.

Mr and Mrs North Breakout

This was my first viewing of this show, and I had to laugh at the above dialogue because it had exactly the opposite effect it was supposed to. Naturally, it’s the heroic, white-knight hero Mr. North who insists that Speaker #1 has something to hide—and therefore that Mr. North and his wife have every right to be snooping around in this man’s house uninvited.

The problem is that the show’s writers wrote this dialogue on the presupposition that the audience will automatically accept that the protagonists are in the right and the obviously creepy other guy is in the wrong. But this is never something we as authors should take for granted. If you consider the situation objectively, it’s kinda hard to disagree with the other guy’s insistence that the nosy Norths have no business snooping around his house uninvited.

Never let yourself fall into the trap of believing readers will give your protagonist a hall pass just because he is your lovable, righteous protagonist. There are no pass-go-and-collect-two-hundred-dollars cards in fiction. Just as in real life, your protagonist has to prove himself to your readers every step of the way—or they’ll end up disdaining him far more than they will the antagonist.

Wordplayers, tell me your opinion! Are you ever worried readers will hate your protagonist? On the other hand, might you be taking their affection for the protagonist for granted anywhere? Tell me in the comments!

Warning: Make This Mistake and Readers Will Hate Your “Good” Protagonist

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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. Thanks for the reminder.

    I’m wondering if the example also relates to motivation, i.e., an unmotivated act can also make the reader dislike a character… and stop reading.

    I’ve seen a lot of manuscripts from novice writers where the characters lack motivations for their actions, or even unbelievable motivations for their actions. Grrrr. Doesn’t work for me at all.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Good point. I think that can definitely be a factor. Had there been enough subtext to inform these characters’ otherwise totally insane motive of spending the night with a presumed murderer on a whim, in order to “find out what’s going on,” it might all have made much more sense and relied less on the general premise of their do-gooding.

  2. Great video, thanks for it! I always worry about my protagonist, as success of the whole story depends on that… By the way, did you use any tool like this: http://www.coolutils.com/TotalAudioConverter for your video? I’d like to make something like that in my blog)

  3. Kinza Sheikh says:

    Good heads up. I love my protag from current project, but I really am not sure that I am actually making an effort to show that on the page. I will focus on that from now on 🙂

  4. I love those old black and white, but they do have some cringy scenes like that one. I’d try to have them suffer the consequences of being that righteous.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      This was one more cringy than most. I have a feeling the Gracie Allen movie on which it was based was probably better.

  5. Haha, what a hilarious example. A lot of stuff was so campy back in those days. But yes, I get your point and it’s definitely worth noting.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Yes, deeply campy! But I could probably have dug up a more recent example, like Alicia’s below. We still see this pitfall all the time.

  6. Very Interesting – just saw something similar on a recent episode of Gotham

    My son (16) and I watch the TV show Gotham and the other night we got into a debate about the protagonist, Jim Gordon. My son was upset because I did not think that Jim Gordon’s actions were righteous. Of course, I realize this is all foreshadowing to what is to come in later episodes but I wanted my son to see Jim Gordon’s error in judgement and how I felt it didn’t keep with Gordon’s traditional characteristics. Basically, I was angry with the protagonist who is suppose to always be an honest cop. Anyway, my son who reads a lot more Batman comics than I ever will so I ended the argument but when I read your post it reminded me of that episode.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Have yet to watch Gotham, but this is actually something we see quite often. I think it tends to happen more often in series, where the author feels the character is already so established that the readers take his past heroism (or whatever) for granted. He’s the “good” character, so, of course, his motives and actions are above reproach. Fiction often wants to make the ends justify the means–which makes for interesting thematic arguments, but definitely shouldn’t be a trope.

    • I’ve only watched that show off and on. I was operating on the assumption that this was the origin story of the characters. So, Gordon wasn’t always good, but rather he was shaped by the consequences of bad choices in his youth, and chose to become good later.

      It’s not what I would prefer, but in this case I wonder if that’s what the show’s writers are thinking.

      To the larger post, I think this is a good argument for beta readers. I would not be surprised if the writers of the Norths genuinely agreed with their sentiments, and genuinely thought the other guy was wrong. A good beta reader could provide a POV that gets the writer to re-think.

      • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

        Hear, hear on the beta readers. Outside perspectives are musts. Sometimes I’ll have a reader point out something like this, and I’ll be like, “Whoa, *I* don’t even agree with the what the protag is doing here! How did that sneak by?” Sometimes we’re just serving the plot without really thinking about the reality of what a character is doing and its necessary and obvious ramifications.

  7. I’m always a little worried my readers won’t find my protagonist appealing. He’ll either be too annoying or too bitter or too motivated by hatred. One of my beta-readers suggested putting an example of the protagonist’s better qualities early on in the work. An example might be an act of kindness strategically placed so the readers know he or she is a good guy, and even with all of the negative qualities, there is still some good in there. And it helps if they see it early.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Which is good advice. In next week’s video, I’m going to talk about a powerful twist on the “pet the dog” trope that can help readers resonate with characters who may not be all that likable on the surface. As was mentioned somewhere earlier in the comments, another important tool is your character’s motive. If readers understand and resonate with a character’s motives, they’ll hang with him no matter what he’s doing.

  8. Good points, K. M.
    I dislike it when a protagonist is shown doing something I completely disagree with and then I am expected to go along with that.
    In ‘The Seahawk’ with Errol Flynn, the love interest tells Captain Thorpe something to the effect of, “Whatever you do must be right!” While he wasn’t doing anything wrong in the first place, that has always annoyed me to no end. Just because your main character is doing something, and no matter their reasoning for it, doesn’t mean they’re right. I often identify more with the character who’s talking sense, especially in a movie, than with the ‘amazing’ protagonist, who usually justifies his actions because everything turns out all right in the end. *eye roll*

    • Nixon: Well, when the president does it that means that it is not illegal.

      Frost: By definition.

      Nixon: Exactly. Exactly. If the president, for example, approves something because of the national security, or in this case because of a threat to internal peace and order of significant magnitude, then the president’s decision in that instance is one that enables those who carry it out, to carry it out without violating a law. Otherwise they’re in an impossible position.

      Frost: So, that in other words, really you were saying in that answer, really, between the burglary and murder, again, there’s no subtle way to say that there was murder of a dissenter in this country because I don’t know any evidence to that effect at all. But, the point is: just the dividing line, is that in fact, the dividing line is the president’s judgment?

      Nixon: Yes, and the dividing line and, just so that one does not get the impression, that a president can run amok in this country and get away with it, we have to have in mind that a president has to come up before the electorate. We also have to have in mind, that a president has to get appropriations from the Congress. We have to have in mind, for example, that as far as the CIA’s covert operations are concerned, as far as the FBI’s covert operations are concerned, through the years, they have been disclosed on a very, very limited basis to trusted members of Congress. I don’t know whether it can be done today or not.

      Frost: But when you said, as you said when we were talking about the Huston Plan, you know, “If the president orders it, that makes it legal”, as it were: Is the president in that sense—is there anything in the Constitution or the Bill of Rights that suggests the president is that far of a sovereign, that far above the law?

      Nixon: No, there isn’t. There’s nothing specific that the Constitution contemplates in that respect. I haven’t read every word, every jot and every title, but I do know this: That it has been, however, argued that as far as a president is concerned, that in war time, a president does have certain extraordinary powers which would make acts that would otherwise be unlawful, lawful if undertaken for the purpose of preserving the nation and the Constitution, which is essential for the rights we’re all talking about.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Well, she *was* in love with him. :p But, yeah, that didn’t make me respect *her* character anymore.

  9. Aidan Cloutier says:

    Hi K.M. I just found your blog, it looks really nice. I have a question for you— what would be the best way to relate a character to the reader in order to develop emotions, even when those characters are fictional and don’t resemble us at all? I’ve recently gotten hooked onto a web comic, and I am very interested in one of the characters. Her name is Violet, and she has a brain ability that lets her do almost anything she wants. But, she hides herself from others because nobody can understand her, and she thinks her father doesn’t even want her. She tried helping the protagonist by trying to remove a bad childhood memory that involved his sister (without his approval) and so everyone considered her an antagonist. But near the end, we learned why she did it and that she was only trying to help him, so I don’t even consider her bad anymore because I can somehow relate to what she did for him, like I understand why she tried helping, even if it was wrong.

    It’s hard to explain, but I’ve grown so attached to this character, and I’m not even sure why. We aren’t psychic and I don’t have powers like her, yet the things she did made me relate to her and understand her, so now I think she’s a really great character.

    So, how can I do this with my own fiction characters?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Motive. It all comes to motive. Even though this character–and so many others–has powers and circumstances that are completely different from our own, we can always relate to the pain people feel, the desires they have, and the reasons they do things. Create compelling motivations for your characters, and it will carry them through just about anything.

  10. Hey Katie, have you ever written anything about Katniss Everdeen? Your blog post has made me wonder about her again – that she wasn’t terribly likeable as a protagonist. I saw her as terribly self-centred and the only reason I, at least, was concerned for her was because of the injustice of the situation and how Prim would survive without her.
    Because of this, by the end of books, I didn’t much care for Katniss. There was nothing left to care about, other than Peter, who I wanted to be happy in life (and I doubted whether that was in fact how he ended up).
    What are your thoughts on her as a main character?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Actually, I almost used her as an example in the post I’m going to be doing next week about “unlikable” characters. I hesitated in the example, since I have a feeling a *lot* of people would argue that she is, in fact, totally likable. Still, she’s a good example in that her unquestionably redeeming virtue is her selfless devotion to her sister.

  11. Jim Arnold says:

    In my debut novel, I had the protagonist fall on his face by doing wrong by his lover. But I made sure he made up for it. I put him through some painful situations over the course of the next chapter or two. By the end of it, she knew how much he really loved her.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Really, this kind of thing can all be fixed with a suitable uses of consequences. It doesn’t matter if the characters behave badly (in fact, it’s almost always interesting when they do!). What matters is that they don’t get off scott-free with the author excusing all their faults. So good job!

  12. Steve Mathisen says:

    In a slight defense of the writers of that TV show, it was one of many Golden Age of Radio shows that were adapted to that new medium of entertainment—television. The show had run on the radio from 1942 to 1954. The television version that you probably saw debuted in 1952. (It ran until 1954.) It counted on the pre-existing audience from radio migrating to television.
    Coincidentally, the concept was brought to life again in 1979 in the show Hart to Hart.
    You are perfectly right though about our stories. None of our readers will have had access to our characters for a decade and, therefore, will not love them the same way we do.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Well, you probably know what I’m going to say. 😉 Good storytelling is good storytelling! Character loyalty really isn’t a good excuse (even when we actually have it to rely upon) for expecting readers to take anything for granted in a story.

      • Steve Mathisen says:

        That is why I framed it as only a slight defense. I do completely agree with you. I just wanted to set some context.

        • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

          It’s absolutely true that for every absolute statement there is usually a necessary mitigating caveat. 😉

  13. Ryan S. O'Malley says:

    It’s hilarious how often this happens in crime shows. I was watching Gotham the other night and Gordon (the “white knight” hero) throws two guys out of a window. They land on some trash bags and are fine, but still. When I was watching I couldn’t help, but think Gordon had crossed a line. It was supposed to be like a scene of righteous anger, but I left the scene thinking Gordon had lost it.
    Thanks for your consistently great posts and videos.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Interesting. Someone mentioned Gotham earlier in the comments. Wonder if it was the same episode? It obviously struck a chord with people!

  14. Funnily enough, I actually set out to make my protagonist unlikable at the start of the novel. The plan — risky as it may have been — was to first get the readers to side with the supporting characters until I gradually revealed the protagonist’s motivations and what made him the way he was at the start of the novel. As I mentioned, it certainly was a very risky move, especially considering that was my debut novel. But from the feedback I’ve received, it seems to have paid off. Those readers who contacted me have told me they ended up growing really attached to my protagonist, so I suppose that counts as a victory for me!

  15. I had the opposite problem with a story. The author tried to pretend the guy was a great guy when he wasn’t. The character was a piece of work. The author thought because the guy showed up great. No work, no nothing.

  16. Great post. I’m going to go take a look at what I’m working on now and make sure I don’t ever assume the readers are going to side with my protagonists just because they are the “good guys.”

    It always seems to me that the characters I want people to hate end up being the ones they like. How frustrating!

    (not sure if this is editing my comment but that’s what I’m trying to do)

    I was also reminded of a scene from the Cycle of Arawn—which I don’t recommend by the way. The protagonist, Dante, tends to make some very questionable decisions. It’s infuriating as a reader to watch him do this and realize the author doesn’t seem to notice that Dante has just acted like a complete jerk. Two books in and several thousand pages later (I’m a masochist and keep reading books I hate) Blaise finally calls him out for it in a key scene. I was so excited, and then the moment had no follow-up. The next scene rolls around and Blaise seems to have forgotten all about it. But your post made me realize exactly what was going on and why I felt so frustrated and vindicated.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      “The author doesn’t seem to notice.” That’s the key right there. Nothing wrong with characters who *are* bad or self-righteous or make bad decisions. It’s only when the author seems oblivious of it and wants the reader to ignore it as well that it becomes a problem.

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