Making an Unlikable Protagonist Likable

Having a protagonist who is too perfect can be a very irritating thing in any work of fiction, from novels, to films, to video games. One of the reasons I never got into the Halo series as much as everyone else was the faceless hero of John 117 was too perfect. He was never mean, never made mistakes, and was an all around Mary Sue. However, there’s a much more risky type of character that, when done right can provide some of the best heroes you can imagine, but when done wrong they can turn your audience off before they even have a chance to redeem themselves.

Having a character truly change from one type to another is one of the joys of fiction, and an audience will generally want to see their protagonist change for the better, becoming more successful and also becoming a better person. Because of this, starting a story where your protagonist is not so great and watching them become just that is a great way to go. There’s just one problem. If your character is nasty, mean spirited, cynical or otherwise has such unlikable qualities, it can turn your reader off to them before they have a chance to become better.

How does one overcome this problem? There are a number of ways to make the audience get behind a character who they may not otherwise stick with. One method is to make them funny.

Peter Venkman from Ghostbusters is not a good person. The first scene with his character shows him using his status as a professor to flirt with a female student while simultaneously bullying a young man. He’s crass, greedy, and cynical. His dialogue however makes him very likable for the audience, because he knows how to tell a good joke and poke fun at his friends.

One such line is when his cohorts excitedly speak of a stack of books as proof of the supernatural, to which Venkman replies “You’re right. No human being would stack books like this.” This makes us get behind him in spite of his abrasive nature, because he makes us laugh. This approach has been utilized many times, including another Bill Murray film, Groundhog Day.

Another tried and true method is to make the antagonist even more unlikable. Take for instance Dirty Harry. Our protagonist is, in the first film, a pretty lousy person. He’s a racist, misogynistic, short tempered cop who often flies off the handle, uses excessive force, and generally has little regard for the people around him.

However, the person he’s after, the serial killer Scorpio, is much worse. The first scene of the film shows the killer sniping a helpless young woman as she’s bathing in her backyard swimming pool. From then on he murders a 10 year old child, and kidnaps and brutalizes a fourteen year old girl. Because of this, we’re more willing to put up with Harry in the hopes he’ll bring the killer to justice.

These are two methods that work well, but there’s a third, arguably more difficult method commonly known as the ‘Save the Cat’ method. In this method, we see a character who is generally unlikable or un-relatable do something that shows they have a more compassionate side beneath the surface. They key element to this method is timing. You must do it early on in the story, preferably in the character’s intro, in order to peak the interest of the audience.

There are several good examples of this. One is the Disney adaptation of Aladdin. The hero steals a loaf of bread, dodging guards, wrecking the square, and generally causing havoc while showing little regard for those around him. However, when he sits down to enjoy his spoils, he notices two starving children. In spite of all the hard work he went through to get his loaf, he hands it over to the children instead.

Another really good example, and you all knew this was coming, is Raiders of the Lost Ark. We don’t know much about Dr. Jones at this point, but shortly after being betrayed by one of his guides, he enters a dangerous temple with his other companion who is, at best, sketchy. In spite of this, Indiana Jones does his best to keep the man safe, getting some dangerous spiders off of him, preventing him from falling to his death in chasm, and stopping him from stepping into dangerous traps.

In spite of this man’s close association with the previous traitor guide, Indy gives him the benefit of the doubt and tries to keep him safe, perhaps because he really does value those close to him, or he’s so desperate for companionship that he’s willing to take a chance. This may be a little against type since Indy is a likable character, but it does show how to endear an audience to a character quickly so you can get away with a lot more later.

There are other methods to endearing the audience to an otherwise unlikable hero, but these three are a good place to start. Writing a Mary Sue protagonist is a misstep in many more ways than one, so your hero should be flawed, they should be troubled, so the audience will have more pleasure in watching or reading them overcome those flaws to become greater. Therein lies the risk, because people do want to see someone become better, but don’t want to follow someone who is too flawed. It seems like such a contradiction, and can be very disheartening for a new writer to try and find that balance. Remember, the duty of a writer is to communicate what we feel onto the page. We know why such a protagonist is worth following. It’s up to us to show our audiences why that’s the case.

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