Is it okay to dislike your protagonist?

This question was raised on facebook the other day and I have to admit that up until I saw it, I hadn’t given it a thought. I’d always assumed that your main protagonist was someone who you must always love. The question as to whether you can dislike them or not had never entered my head but now it has, I can’t decide. Sometimes the answer is simple; if your protagonist is a nice guy/gal who is always helping people, humble, honourable and gorgeous to boot, then it’s going to be easy to love them but what if your protagonist is a murderer?

Suppose you wrote a novel about a serial killer or some other unwashed fruit loop and their adventures; would it be wrong to dislike them? After all, you would very probably dislike such a person if you met them in real life, so why not dislike them as a fictional character? Is it okay to have a protagonist who is an unlikeable character or must they always be nice? I really feel that there’s no reason why one shouldn’t write a novel with a nasty protagonist; they have stories to tell too. The thing is, would such a book sell?

I suppose the feeling is that if the protagonist is someone you don’t like, then readers won’t want to read the book but is this true? Are readers so superficial that they won’t read a book if they don’t fall in love with my protagonist? I feel the answer is probably yes, readers tend to be that superficial and they want to like the characters and I guess that is why the bad guy is always a secondary protagonist rather than the main event. There is of course, another way of looking at this. As in real life, we may be disgusted by the actions and lives of serial killers, but we are also fascinated by them, so maybe such a book would sell?

What are your thoughts? Add your blog link in the comments and join the debate.

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11 comments

  1. I think that it would be really interesting to write a protagonist that you didn’t like. It would be interesting to see how the writing change depanding on your feelings towards the characters. Although it would be hard not to alter the character over time so that you do like him or her.

  2. You can make your protagonist as unlikable as you please as long as you give readers some way to understand why he is the way he is, and a reason to feel some sympathy for him. I read a beautiful example of this recently. Plaguewalker, by Gemma Tarlach is about an executioner who hates himself just a much as everyone else does. I recently bought A Word Child by the well-known author, Iris Murdoch. It’s described as being about a thoroughly obnoxious man, but one that you eventually come to understand. Another unsympathetic character is the protagonist of As Meat Loves Salt by Maria McCann. I believe that the best way to learn how to write such characters is to study how established writers do it.

    1. I completely agree Catana, even an unlikeable protagonist must have something about them that keeps you interested in them and it is imperative that they be easy to understand.

  3. I don’t think you have to like the protagonist–after all, the term means only the character the piece follows, whether they’re a good person or not. I do think, though, that you have to understand them. Even if you think that your character’s actions are repulsive, you still have to be able to see how and why they would have taken those actions, to make the characters interesting and complicated.

    1. It is very important that the protagonist has something about them that keeps you interested, even if you don’t like them and I agree Beckony, you have to be able to know why and how they are as they are.

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