How to make your unlikeable protagonists more… well… likeable

This post was one of my personal favourites from this year. I hope you find it useful. As always I love hearing from you.

Jody Moller

Wednesday’s Rambling Writer – The Unlikeable Protagonist

Posted on July 6, 2011 by Jody Moller

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.

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

7 responses to “How to make your unlikeable protagonists more… well… likeable

  1. I have a hero who, when seen through the eyes of other characters, comes across as dangerous and powerful, which can be a deadly combination. His enemies don’t stand much of a chance. But when you see the situation from his point of view, you recognize that he’s acting from his own set of distinct morals. Likewise, the antagonist is hateworthy, and you loathe him because the hero does. But I purposely wrote a little from his point of view to show how his inner bad boy feels about a few issues, and ended up with a character who was slightly more sympathetic. Even if you still hate him, you don’t think he’s 100% bad. 99.9% maybe… 😉
    I enjoyed this post and appreciate the way you laid out these various methods. It makes sense, and I’ll be referencing it again.

  2. I really like your explanation on how to treat the “we normally shouldn’t like this protagonist” protagonist. Salander is one of my all time faves. Great post, again. Anytime you can add Dirty Harry, it’s a winner!

  3. This is such a great post! I’m linking to it on my resources page on my blog for future reference!

    Also thanks for stoppin’ by the other day. I totally understand the “kitchen bench” thing so much better now!! Awesome!

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