A Brief History of “Unlikeable” Protagonists

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From Crime Reads:

Writers of “unlikeable” protagonists have it tough. They have to make their central character complex and interesting, and their story so compelling that a reader will put up with someone objectionable leading it. In real life, we might not be able to avoid the people we dislike: the narcissistic mother, the backstabbing boss, the professor with the personality disorder. But we can easily close a book.

An unlikable protagonist might be psychopathic, vain, silly, naïve, foolish, selfish, self-deluded, arrogant or, if you buy into a more superstitious notion, just plain evil. There are supremely unpleasant characters in literature—and not just in genre fiction—whose antics and boldness are so impressive that we can’t look away. It’s not just that they contrast so vividly with their supporting cast. We simply have to know what they’re going to do next. That’s when the story gets good.

The technique of employing an unlikable narrator didn’t begin with Gone Girl. Classic literature is full of them.

. . . .

The Grandmother, A Good Man is Hard to Find (short story), Flannery O’Connor, 1953

Narcissist, hypocrite, fantasist. The grandmother at the center of O’Connor’s classic short story initiates a dramatic chain of events that gets her entire family, including her grandchildren, murdered. She believes that everyone around her should bend to her beliefs and whims, and she shapes her self-righteous commentary and arguments to (in her mind) represent herself as an important, respectable, and piously Christian woman. Her desperate need for acknowledgement results in a fantasy that takes her vacationing family down an unfamiliar road where a freak accident will leave them all at the mercy of a notorious killer. While the story is fraught with religious and moral implications, it’s also a perfect gem of a read.

. . . .

Tom Ripley, The Talented Mr. Ripley, Patricia Highsmith, 1955

Psychopaths aren’t necessarily unlikeable, and Tom Ripley has a flattering, swindler’s charm that often works on his fellow characters, as well as many readers. His most prominent qualities are similar to those of many psychopaths: he’s remorseless, arrogant, charming, deceitful, and manipulative. He’s also murderous, but he murders with purpose, particularly when someone threatens his enjoyment of the finer things in life. On a list of unlikeable protagonists, he might be the least unlikeable, second only to the more recent Dexter Morgan, of Jeff Lyndsay’s Dexter series. At least Dexter keeps his murders focused on serial killers, and doesn’t project Ripley’s highly irritating arrogance.

Link to the rest at Crime Reads

Other unlikeable protagonists:

9 thoughts on “A Brief History of “Unlikeable” Protagonists”

  1. My go-to example is Harry Flashman, as interpreted by George MacDonald Fraser. What trips people up about him is that it is easy to misunderstand the character, taking him to be a lovable rogue: Han Solo, who talks a good game about only being in it for the money, but who we all know will come through when the going gets rough. Flashman isn’t that guy. Flashman is the guy that Solo pretends to be–worse, actually, as he has a mean streak if he isn’t toadying up to you. The negative reader reviews often are from people who, expecting a lovable rogue, were shocked by what they instead got.

  2. or, if you buy into a more superstitious notion, just plain evil

    It takes a special kind of moral imbecility to think that the notion of evil is a superstition.

  3. It doesn’t say the “notion of evil” is superstition. It says a person being “just plain evil” is superstition. I don’t think superstition is the right word here, but I am certain that no human being is “just plain evil”. Human actions can be evil, but not human persons.

    • Actually…
      It would depend on definitions, like so many things, but what’s the difference between doing only evil and being evil?
      We are what we do.
      A spree killer, a serial killer, a violent psychopath…
      No one is born evil but by the time a Jack the Ripper is fully baked it becomes a matter of semantics.
      At the extreme it’s a difference that makes no difference.

  4. I’d cast my vote for unlikeable protagonist for Sauron, The Lord of the Rings.

    He has a singular eye on the goals he is trying to accomplish, but too often tries to overreach and loses a piece of himself in the process.

    We all get his motivations and can admire his work in Mordor in quickly industrializing previously unused land. But what makes him unlikeable to me is simple body language. Does he really have to talk with raspy breaths? Does he have to hide behind all that armor? It just makes him so unapproachable.

  5. MIchael Burnham. Unlikeable protagonist + bad writing + uninteresting stories = STD fails as “Star Trek” series.

    • Not that I disagree, but I thought the OP was about unlikeable but memorable characters, ala Gordon Gekko.
      Forgettable MarySues and outright villains are a bit less interesting simply because they’re not intentionally unlikeable.

      It’s a bit like comedy: hard to do on purpose, easy through incompetence. 😉

  6. For me, the most unlikeable character I’ve ever encountered in fiction but yet I was obsessed with reading about was Thomas Covenant.
    Stephen R. Donaldson’s The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant was such an awesome series that when White Gold Wielder came out I literally ripped the last copy in a bookstore from a kid’s hand so that I could buy it. (I’ve become a more polite person since then.)
    What’s not to hate about Covenant? He’s a leper, a cynic, he arrives in the Land and promptly rapes the first person he meets, he refuses to believe that the people he’s befriended and who sacrifice for him are real…. a real charmer but OMG so interesting.

  7. Severian from the Book of the New Sun. I really had to force myself through those books because he was not only unlikable, he was dull. I mean, he did a lot, I guess, but the way it was told from his perspective (first person) was so, so dull. Not an interesting thought in his head.

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