Is it bad to have an unlikable person as the protagonist?

by K. Y. Pery
(New York)

Hi Glen, I'm currently working on a novel where the main protagonist has to save the world (anymore than that and I'll give away my story). The only problem is, I hear all the time in How To Write books and websites and such that protagonist should always be a great, wonderful guy, and the things is, I don't want my protagonist to be all that good. He's highly intelligent, you see, and that intelligence causes him to be self-centered and arrogant at times, condescending to the reader (it's a first-person POV,) etc. Do I have to turn him into a nice guy, or can he stay the way he is?

Answer: Short answer: immoral, unlikeable main characters can work just fine.

What you want, in a story with a happy ending, is for your reader to feel empathy with the main character. Making him kind, moral, humble, nice to dogs etc. is one way to do that, but it's not the only way.

Writers often try to create empathy by making the main character similar to the ideal reader. But who among us is morally perfect? How many people are nice all the time? If a character is too good, it can actually be harder for the reader to relate to him.

For example, how likeable is Ebeneezer Scrooge in the opening chapter of A Christmas Carol? In some respects, not very. He's miserly, rude, even cruel. Nonetheless, he is somewhat appealing because we often like characters who speak their minds, which he does. It's something most of us wish we could do more often. Horace Vandergelder in The Matchmaker or Hello, Dolly is another such character.

We like these characters at first because we admire their honesty and audacity. As the stories progress, we come to empathize with their situation. And, because most of us see ourselves as good, we appreciate these characters' redemptions.

In other words, a character is more likeable if he is admirable in some way.

Consider too characters like Ender in Ender's Game, or Artemis Fowl. Great heroes. Admirable. But not particularly nice people.

Another example is the recent British TV series Sherlock, a remake of Sherlock Holmes. In this version Holmes is arrogant, inconsiderate, condescending, etc. Yet he is very admirable because of his intelligence, bravery, audacity... and the fact that he helps people against overwhelming odds. So is Dr. House from House.

Sometimes immoral characters work because, bad as they are, they are at least a little less evil than their enemies, or because they have a redeeming factor (such as looking after their friends).

Another way to make an immoral character work is to make him charming. Consider Alex in A Clockwork Orange. He's a delinquent who spends his evenings committing acts of violence and theft. Even his own gang members can't stand him. Yet he works because, in addressing the reader in first person, he is very charming. It's flattering for the reader to feel like they are the character's special confidant. Alex also has a way with words that draws us into empathizing with his point of view.

Charm, of course, depends on creating an interesting voice for the character. Making him witty or giving him a unique way of looking at things helps too.

Dramatica says that a traditional hero has three qualities. In addition to being likeable, a hero is...

1) The Main Character (primary point of view character)

2) The Protagonist (the primary pursuer of the story goal).

Sometimes, you only need two of the three qualities. For instance, classic tragedies often feature a character who is both protagonist and main character, yet suffers from a personality flaw that leads to his downfall (e.g. Macbeth).

I have also seen a few films in recent years in which the main character was also the protagonist and yet was thoroughly immoral - someone who does not deserve to achieve the story goal. Yet, unlike with traditional tragedies, the main character does achieve the goal, leaving the audience with the distinct message that life is unfair.

Bottom line: go right ahead and make your main character arrogant, self-centred, and condescending. Just give us reason to admire his redeeming qualities (intelligence, bravery, charm, concern for others, etc.).

Best of luck.

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