Today I want to focus on a particularly difficult type of protagonist to pull off: the unlikable kind
The big issue with the unlikable protagonist is they are, of course, unlikable. While all protagonists have flaws (all good ones anyways) most are defined primarily by their virtues. The unlikable protagonist, on the other hand, is more defined by their faults. Shakespeare is full of unlikable protagonists where their faults reign supreme. Macbeth, Hamlet and Corlianus to name a few. In more modern works, we have our fair share of anti-heroes who, while not strictly written as good, ultimately win our hearts in the end with their character arcs. I’ve done a post about the anti-hero here.
But there are two major pitfalls that your unlikable protagonist can fall into that will drag your manuscript from great to irredeemably frustrating.
1. Their Flaws do not Meet with Consequences
Flaws are meaningless if they never cost your character anything. They become little better than quirks with no plot significance. In tragedies, the climactic moment is often built on the character’s flaws. Macbeth is blinded by power, Corlianus is murdered by his own ideals, and Hamlet is just a drama queen who really could have avoided so many people dying if he had just stopped monologue about fate. We accept these flaws because they face the consequences.
Now it doesn’t have to be so serious as death but even some acknowledgment is needed. Other character point out Scar’s hypocrisy in Fullmetal Alchemist and he eventually shifts his views. Jaime Lannister suffers heavy losses when he relies too heavily on his family name. And he also changes in time because he must deal with these losses.
When a character never faces consequences for their mistakes, their flaws feel pointless. Why not just make them perfect then? That was one of my principal problems with Throne of Glass. The main character is told that if she shows off, she’ll stick out and that could cause problems for her. She then shows off--and really there are no consequences. It made her incredibly frustrating for me.
2. There is no arc
Characters should have an arc. Even if it’s a small one. Unless the plot hinges on your protagonist being flat…they need an arc. Thus, if your main character is an anti-hero, they probably should undergo a transformation where they become slightly less of an asshole. They don’t need to see the light, necessarily, but there should be some shift in their world view. Conversely, if they don’t’ develop, their flaws should drive them to a gruesome end. I’m not saying their aren’t exceptions to this rule, but a protagonist who shows up flawed and makes it out, still flawed, and unchanged, is boring.
3. You didn’t actually intend for them to be unlikable
Sometimes a writer isn’t trying to write an unlikable character. Sometimes they might think their character is entirely relatable. I read more than one manuscript when a character was relatively nasty, but they really had no arc over the book, nor did any characters around them seem to view them as flawed in any way. And this is really the worst thing you can do to a protagonist. If a writer misunderstands their character, the rest of the novel will probably sink. The only way to see if perhaps your character isn’t as perfect as you think they are is to get second opinions. From those second opinions you can tell how to reevaluate and maybe change up your protagonist’s arc.
You can pull off a well written unlikable protagonist, and they can have deeply interesting stories. But tread lightly and make sure that they’re engaging, intentionally flawed, and have a solid arc, whether it end in redemption or tragedy.