Please, Hate my Protagonist

Jackson Murphy has it all, but he can’t seem to hang onto it. His wife, Jenny, threatens divorce. Ray, his business partner, threatens insanity. Add to that a vindictive, but oh so sexy mistress and a con-artist cousin, and his plate is nearly full.

Jack didn’t get rich by lying down and taking his lumps. No. He eliminates his problems–first Jenny, then Ray–by carefully plotting their demise. No one suspects his involvement. Then Michael Thorne, a new contractor in Pickleton, hops onto Jack’s list of trouble and his good luck train derails.

Now he’s harassed by a whale of a homicide detective and the mob. His life takes a leap into utter chaos when he accidentally sleeps with his mistress’s mother.

Jackson Murphy stands at the edge of certain death, jail, or happily ever after. He’s not fond of prison and dying is not an option.

Jackson Murphy is an asshole. But you’ll love him just the same.

What the heck? This is what I call an intro…you know, a lead into what the post is really about and that is unlikable protagonists. Personally I think anyone who says that you have to write a protagonist that’s likable is full of shit and a bunch of other nasty stuff no one wants to be full of.

The first unlikable protagonist I created was old Jack. And you know what, he works. I’ve had several beta readers critique this manuscript since I finished the first draft in 2009 and unless they’re a bunch of lying bastards, Jack is a character the reader loves to hate.

Of course, you can’t just go into writing an unlikable character all willy-nilly without careful plotting, meticulous attention to detail and …okay, I’m just messing with you. While it’s not hard to create an unlikable character that “works” you do have to combine certain elements to ensure that the reader will stay with the asshole for 300 pages.

This is what (IMO) a writer has to consider when developing an unlikable protagonist:

First, give the reader something to relate to. Give your jerk traits that the reader is familiar with; characteristics she sees in family, neighbors or coworkers. Perhaps those traits she might not like, but sees in herself. Common flaws.

Do not exaggerate badness for the sake of badness either. What? The unlikable protagonist doesn’t have to be a loud-mouthed, racist, murdering pig just because he can be. In Dirty Truths I have a character named Thomas. Mind you, he’s not the protagonist, but he’s an unlikable character that most of my beta readers liked and wanted to know more about. He’s a drug dealing, murdering mob boss who wouldn’t think twice about slitting the throat of a young mother just because she’s getting in his way. However, Thomas is not loud or racist or cruel even. He is not irrational. He’s calm, subtle, and he always gives his victim a chance to plead her case. He believes in justice and should said victim prove she doesn’t deserve to die, he won’t kill her…he’s also kinda sexy in a dark and dangerous sort of way, and that helps.

Another important thing to remember is that assholes should suffer just a little. No, I don’t mean he should be punished for his crimes to ensure the happily ever after. What I mean is that you need to balance the unlikability with a bit of suffering. Let the reader feel it’s okay to relate to him. Let’s look at an example you all might recognize more than my little circle of characters. In Anne Rice’s Vampire Chronicles, Lestat is a horrible creature. He is selfish, evil and just not a nice guy. But she made him suffer. Lestat suffers in many ways, both obvious and subtle. The reader feels sorry for him, and therefore can keep reading and hoping that maybe, just maybe, he’ll show some tiny reason for her to like him.

Wait, I have a better example: Hannibal Lector. Yeah, Thomas Harris created an amazing character without an ounce of likability and we ate him up. (pun intended)

Let’s not forget (because I almost did) to consider your antagonist as well; the opposing force to your asshole. You’re thinking maybe he should be a good guy, to balance out the bad protagonist. Maybe he’s the cop chasing down your murdering main character, one that attends church every Sunday and eats all of his vegetables, even the green ones.

No. Don’t do that. The antagonist must be less likable than the protagonist. How is this done? Well, he doesn’t have to be more evil or more bad. Just not as relatable for the reader. Perhaps he’s annoying as shit, like that guy at seminars who always has to ask those million stupid question when everyone else just wants to leave the damn room. You might make the antagonist bad in a more unforgivable way than your protagonist. So, maybe he doesn’t kill people for kicks, but he’s a rich prick who sexually harasses his secretary and kicks puppies and kittens to see how far they’ll fly. In Jack’s story, the antagonist was a police detective who was just…gross. In the end, she did something that was in many ways worse than all the bad things Jack did. She wasn’t more evil than him, just less likable.

I think all of these things boil down to one “must” when writing unlikable protagonists: context. Don’t just have a protagonist who is an asshole because he can be one. Don’t have him doing shitty things to people without a reason. Give him a motivation, a purpose. You can make it subtle, written in the whitespace for the reader to feel rather than read. Or you can make it as obvious as a neon sign that screams “I’m a murdering bastard because my mother never breastfed me” which is what I’m told will happen to my kids because I bottle fed them. I’m okay with that.

Okay, your turn. What do you think about unlikable protagonists? For or against? Neutral? As a writer, would you write, or have your written an unlikable protagonist? Are there any tips that I’ve missed?

11 thoughts on “Please, Hate my Protagonist

  1. The most important part is relatibility. An unlikeable character is unsuccessful without it. I've found that the greatest ones are charming, just bordering sleezy. They're the people who you are warned away from but can't help but be sucked into their gravitational field. Palahniuk writes amazing unlikeable protagonists. My favorite, though, is Gillian Flynn's protagonist in Dark Places, Libby Day.

  2. Oh, how could I not mention Chuck Palahnuik. *head slap* Yes, he's brilliant at creating those love to hate characters. I've been sucked into many a unsavory gravitational field. It's never boring…at least there's that.And you've mentioned something I forgot. Charm.

  3. Where do you find those crazy art cuts? Every time I come here, it's something totally off the wall.I think you covered the punch list well. I can't remember where I heard this, but to paraphrase it came down to: No matter how unlikable your MC always give him a redeeming quality. He might love his dog, or shows generosity to the homeless or the disabled. One noble trait can elevate scum to anti hero status.

  4. Photobucket. I search through a million pics, mark the ones I like and when I need one, I search my favorites. If you click on the pic, it's supposed to take you to the correct page, but with how this darn thing's been acting up, I'm not sure if that works anymore. And yes, one redeemable trait, no matter how minor is a must. I've heard that quote in some manner too, just not sure where. With Jack, his feeling for his youngest child are his redemption. That and his really funny nasty streak.

  5. I like Jackson Murphy already! I think the other thing that keeps the reader turning the pages is the shadow of nemesis…will he or she escape it?My latest hero/protagonist is Clay Cross, who's stupid, misogynist, homophobic, and thorougly brutal. His saving grace is, believe it or not, an incredible vulnerability and the comic situations he blunders into.

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