Wednesday’s Rambling Writer – The Unlikeable Protagonist

I have some exciting news to share – this week I finished outlining my new novel ‘The Soul Hunter’ and have FINALLY started writing… YAY! Granted I am only 7000 words in, but still, the fact that the words are now flowing onto the paper (or onto the virtual paper anyway) feels great. (BTW I have just signed up for Around the Words in 80 Days Writing Challenge – I am setting myself the goal of 500 words a day for 80 days, more on this next week.)

The other good news is that this time I have been following a more structured protocol (obviously, you cry, I mean there is an actual outline and everything!). This means that I had the coveted one line ‘idea’ BEFORE I started writing. Want to hear it? Okay. “Can a Demon and human she loves find their happily-ever-after in Hell?”

The take-away concept from that is that my Protag is a Demon. Yep, that’s right a violent, sex-crazed, conniving resident of Hell. Yet somehow I need her to be ‘likeable’. So I have been researching and I thought I would share with you some of the things I have found about how to make an unlikeable character likeable.

1. The Redemption Factor

This applies to characters that start out unlikeable but over the course of the novel/movie grow, begin to really see themselves for the first time, recognise that they were unlikeable and change for the better. Think about Bill Murray’s character in Groundhog Day. At the beginning of the film weatherman Phil is painful. He is arrogant, rude and let’s face it sleazy. When he first starts reliving the same day over-and-over it brings out his worst characteristics as he tried to take advantage of every situation. But everytually – redemption and suddenly we the audience feel bad for him.

2. The Use of Humour

When we see a character behaving inappropriately but their behaviour is considered humourous then somehow we ignore the moral ambuigity and laugh – suddenly they are likeable, regardless of the way they act. Think of Melvin Udall in As Good As It Gets (portrayed brilliantly by Jack Nicholson). He is the definition of ‘unlikeable’ but he is funny and we love him.

3. The Badder Baddie

If you are going to have a protag that is inherently evil then the Antagonist needs to be bigger and badder – thus making your protag likeable purely by comparison.Think of Dirty Harry (or any movie or book with a morally ambiguous cop for that matter) the cop might be dirty but I can almost guarantee that the people they are chasing are far worse.

4. Morality Is All About Context

Give your Protag morals, they can be skewed morals, but morals nontheless. Then make the Antag go in exact opposition to those morals – suddenly your protag is ‘likeable’. Often the ‘morals’ given to unlikeable characters revolve around protecting family, revenge etc… Think the Godfather.

Note that most of the examples given above fit into more than one category.

Now I want to talk about my favourite unlikeable protag from the last few years – the one and only Lisbeth Salander. If you don’t know who I am talking about, first I will say – have you been living under a rock? And then I politely add – she is the the girl from the Millennium Trilogy (you know the one with the dragon tattoo) by Stieg Larsson.

Lisbeth Salander is character gold.

I can only fantasize about how much fun it would have been to create a character that is human but has no empathy for any other member of the human race. She is excessively violent, sexually promiscuous, she steals, she lies, she hacks into peoples computers without batting so much as an eyelid – in short she is awesome. But what makes her so likeable?

Well lets look at the categories above shall we? 1. The Redemption Factor – while she certainly isn’t apologetic for her behaviour at any point in the book, we get a better understanding of her backstory as the books progress and therefore have an appreciation of why she is the way she is. 2. The Use of Humour – okay maybe not so much… 3. The Badder Baddie – for sure. In fact there are lots of them, virtually everyone she deals with is worse than she is. 4. Morality is all about context – I think this is really where Salander shines – she has strict highly defined morals, she detests violence against women, she believes in karma (at least in so much as revenge is concerned) and she is loyal to those that are loyal to her.

All the violence in the books can be directly attributed to revenge or self-defence – we never see her attacking someone just for the hell of it there is always cause and effect. Also (and I can honestly say I didn’t notice this when I read the books) she never actually kills anyone (thanks Anthony Lee Collins for that info!). She sets people on fire, shoots people and embeds axes in their heads but none of those people die as a result of those injuries. It is a subtle but effective way of ensuring we stay on her side throughout.

As a side note I will say that while I loved Salander’s character in these books I couldn’t stand Blomvkist. I also think that the books really needed a good edit, there was alot in there, particularly in the first book, that wasn’t really necessary for the story. My fav of the three books was number 2 The Girl Who Played With Fire. Undoubtedly because this is the book where Salander had the greatest role! I can also highly recommend the Swedish films of the three books and I can only hope that when the American versions are released (the first one is due for release late this year) they are as good!

Have you written anything with an unlikeable protag? Do you have a favourite unlikeable protag from a book or film? Do you agree with my assessment of Lisbeth Salander? Did you like my one line novel ‘idea’? As always I would love to hear your opinion, please leave a comment.

Jody Moller

(The Exasperated Novelist)

12 responses to “Wednesday’s Rambling Writer – The Unlikeable Protagonist

  1. First of all, thanks for the plug, though I don’t deserve the credit for the observation, which I got from Tim Parks at the New York Review of Books: And I agree about Salander (and about the books’ desperate need for editing). I didn’t hate Blomkvist, I didn’t have any strong feelings about him at all, but Salander was and is obviously the key character.

    As we talked about before, I do have a rather unlikeable major character (she’s not a protagonist, which probably helps, too), called starling. I talk about her here:

    I think she is less sympathetic than Salander, since she isn’t on any sort of heroic mission (she does heroic things, but she doesn’t seek them out). And, unlike Salander, she has killed a lot of people, usually not for good reasons.

    Redemption is a big factor in how I portray her. She’s trying to be better, and working at it very seriously. Like Salander, she is fiercely loyal and basically fearless. There is some humor (she appears to be humorless, but she isn’t). There is definitely the Badder Baddie situation (the person who is really trying to kill her is doing it in hopes of getting a book deal as “the man who killed starling,” and he doesn’t care who he hurts or kills on the way to that goal). Plus, she acts heroically when there’s a natural disaster.

    The thing I like about her, also true of Salander, is that she never makes speeches. She never apologizes, she never downplays what she’s done. She just tries to do better.

    Oh, and as for the upcoming English-language Millennium films, I have just one comment. I hope they’re good, and they could even be better than the originals, but there will not be a better Lisbeth Salander than Noomi Rapace.

    • thanks for your comments. and I totally agree with out about Noomi Rapace – she was amazing. Am clicking the link now to read more about your character Starling.

      • okay so I read it – starling sounds amazing (in a violent kind of way). Would love to read more. Are any of your books available to purchase?

      • My first novel is available for purchase, but she’s not in it (well, she appears briefly,but at a much earlier part of her life).

        U-town, my second novel, is available online:
        (caveat: she doesn’t come in until about a third of the way through — as I say, she’s not a protagonist, though she is a central character in the middle third of the book)

        Another way to meet her (so to speak) is in the story “The Rock Band Mystery,” which is here:

  2. Oh, and as if I haven’t gone on long enough, I think there is another factor: How do other people react to the character?

    If you actually knew someone like Salander, you’d probably think she was a pain in the ass. But other characters (the nice ones, not the baddies, and especially Blomkvist) like her and usually try to help her. This sort of brings the reader along.

  3. I just blogged not long ago on why we might like villains better than heroes. It certainly seems our heroes seem to be getting more and more villainous (in other words, kick-ass and free of restraints). I always loved the bad guys in novels – but naughty heroes are just as good. I loved Steerpike in the Gormenghast trilogy. As far as I was concerned – he was the hero. Titus was bloody boring.
    Best wishes for your novel. You’ve got an outline??? That is awesome and astonishing!

    • I totally agree with you a really bad baddie is a great draw card. the great thing with a baddie is you can make them as evil as you want – with a protag, however, you want the reader to like them, so they have to have some likeable qualities. I am having some difficulty with this at the moment. Zeph my protag is not quite there yet (I think it will be something I will need to work on during the editing process!). it’s funny though one of my other Demons, who is just as bad ass as Zeph, is already funny and entertaining and I totally love his character (don’t know how that happened… the character wrote himself!)

    • Very true. This is easily seen in comic books, where heroes from the 1960s and earlier are pretty goody-good, but ones which came later (Wolverine, for one example) are much more mixed between “good” and “evil.” And much more popular (there wasn’t an “X-Men Origins: Cyclops” movie, after all).

      I think if you’ve got a really great villain, make the most of it. And be willing to play with the categories a bit. Hitchcock did that in a lot of his movies, as I talked about on my blog:

  4. Hi Jody

    I came across this blog post when a googled a search for unlikeable movie protagonists. I think it’s an excellent summing up of how to make them work for an audience and I’ve taken the liberty of reposting this on my blog – with reference and a link to you and yours of course. Hope you don’t mind.


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