I recently wrote a couple of guest posts about something that is dear to my reader’s heart, and my writer’s heart–to both my literary hearts: The unlikable teen protagonist. I thought I’d make this week’s RAW blog post about this same topic—well, without limiting it to not just teen protags—because I believe it’s a good one to discuss and I’d love to hear what my fellow WCDR members, and other RAW visitors, have to say about it.

Part 1 of my blog is here. In it, I talked about my experience receiving critiques about my teen protagonists (mainly, Pen, the protag of my current work-in-progess Boifriend) that pointed at the fact that my characters’ attitudes made them unlikable. As a writer, you constantly hear about your characters having to be likable (likeable? I didn’t know both were acceptable. Thank you, Dictionary.com). Before you realize that what they mean is angry ladyprobably closer to “relatable,” you might do what I did and try hard to change your character into being likable–which is pretty difficult since liking something is subjective (I mean, I like the odor of skunk drifting on the air. Just saying…). As I gained confidence in my storytelling, the whole concept of teen protags being held up to this “likable” standard started to really bother me. Do we take into account that those making statements on what’s likable about teen characters are adults? I’m not sure, but what I do know is that all my beta readers and critique partners are adults. I’m not technically writing for them, but they’re the ones who get to have opinions about the teens I’m creating. Lots of adults “get” teens, but lots don’t. It became apparent to me that teen protagonists can be deemed unlikable based on characteristics inherent to teenagers. Allow me to quote myself:

As a writer of YA fiction, you have to be faithful to the teen experience to give an accurate inside look at the teen world. And yes, all teen experiences are different—I get that. But when it comes to a regular teen in a contemporary novel, you can’t disregard the characteristics of that developmental age. That means the hormones, the ego, the identity stuff, the magnified emotions, the angst. I mean, would you call a toddler protagonist unlikable because he pulls the dog’s tail, destroys the paint job by using markers on the wall, and drops his mother’s iPhone in the toilet?

If you don’t care about my protagonist, that’s one thing; but if she’s not sweet and rational all the time, that’s not unlikable—that’s life. And if Pen asked me to sign her yearbook, you can be sure I’d write, Don’t ever change, man.

In Part 2, I took it a bit further and examined the way girls are often treated unfairly when it comes to this likability thing. This isn’t something I came up with: do a search on the internet and you’ll find lots of articles and blogs about this double-standard related to female gender expectations. So, teen girls can really have a tough time starring in young adult novels. That, too, led to my trying to “decrustify” my characters (all girls) to make them more appealing.

So, now you have my take on teen protags, and female protags. Let’s talk about all protagonists.

Here’s what I think: It’s not about what’s likable, or even what’s relatable. I can’t really relate to Dexter, but I want to read about him. I’ve read stories featuring people that probably fit the “likable” mold, except I didn’t like them at all. I see this this in a lot or works-in-progress, even in my own, and it’s the first thing I point out in critiques, and it’s usually the reason I won’t read any further. These characters piss me right off and I wish for them to get nothing that they want because they don’t deserve it. Harsh, I know. But why do I react that way? Because characterization totally crumbled for me: they said, did, and thought things that I didn’t buy. They weren’t sculpted with care. They were victims of inexperienced writing, or worse, lazy writing. You can present me with the exact same characteristic, for example “a wishy-washy personality,” and in one character it’s so well done I get it and it works, while for the other character, it’s a actually a symptom of bad characterization. I am prepared to like a lot as a reader; I’m even prepared to love a lot of ugly things. But it’s your job to ensure I’m given what I need to understand the people you created, and to want to read about them.

So, yeah, I’ve written some “unlikable” characters.

Maybe the first version of Pen was unlikable because I had no idea what I was doing, and I had no idea what she was doing. But now, if Pen’s unlikable, it’s for completely different reasons that I really have no control over, and that should not force me to change her. I think as long as you work your butt off breathing life into your characters, they can’t be unlikable because they’re real. But if you’re not going to do that, then yeah, I’m not gonna wanna be their friend and for good reason.

Instead of likable and relatable, let’s just concentrate on making our character-people real and readable.

Thoughts?

 

6 Responses to The Unlikable Protagonist

  • Cryssa says:

    I’ve been thinking about this post since reading it yesterday.
    One of my favourite writers, Daphne du Maurier, had a talent for creating complex characters that weren’t always likeable but they were always compelling. Her portrayal of Richard Grenville in The King’s General was masterful. Although he was not the protagonist, in many ways, the story revolved around him through the protagonist’s ongoing love for him. He was arrogant, contentious, ruthless and rude. I doubt that even the protagonist actually liked Richard Grenville. But he remains one of my favourite characters and I looked forward to when he appeared on the page. I found him compelling and sympathetic because of his ability to tell an idiot that he was a fool and get away with it. He was also extremely good at soldiering and leading people. He had an unshakable sense of loyalty to his men. They knew that he had their back. Even though he was 90% unlikeable, those special traits (skill and loyalty and blunt honesty), made him a compelling character to read.
    When I think of unlikeable protagonists, I can’t help but think of Hillary Mantel’s Thomas Cromwell. It was a huge risk to cast one of history’s most contentious and controversial figures as a protagonist, and I’m sure she got a number of people questioning her sanity. She succeeded because she showed him as a teenager taking a beating by his father then running off to escape the monster. His intelligence got him noticed and it went from there. Throughout the story, on the political tightrope this character walked on, because we understood where he started and didn’t want him to go back there, his story became compelling. The idea of providing for family, securing the best resources for the next generation are all motivations we can all understand and root for. We also can sympathize with a character who goes too far down that path because that is the human flaw.

  • Sally Moore says:

    You make some excellent points, M-E. I can’t speak much to the writing of teen characters, although I love what you said about teens acting like teens (although, yes, I would find a toddler who pulls on a dog’s tail unlikeable, lol).

    The same dilemma occurs in writing about adult women. In my historical fiction, the heroine is just past a teen, and her upbringing has been ruthlessly strict. She’s been raised to compete with men, but to project a feminine persona, repressed socially and expected to hold her own against a male-dominated court who play by much more lax rules. It’s a metaphor for my career which started in the eighties. It’s a cruel world, baby, and the punishment for not competing is harsh. But you still have to be a woman, which of course was defined by the men in that environment.

    So of course my character had trouble appearing ‘likeable’. She was simply not rewarded for being likeable, and she sometimes just had to accept that winning meant people would not like her. There’s an irony for you. Win or be a failure, win and be disliked. So that makes winning as much a challenge as losing, for which she was publically humiliated.

    Along with that comes a certain stoicism that is especially ‘unfeminine’. How do you fawn over men, spread sugar in your speech, and still beat their asses at whatever nasty game they devise to get ahead and bury you? If you play their game, you are marginalized; if you compete, you are unladylike. I’m not talking about all men here, just to be clear. I’m talking about a world where women compete with ambitious men in certain circumstances. AKA the world in my books and at times in my life.

    In my contemporary novel, my heroine is a business woman in a very competitive industry. She is accused of being too ‘rigid’ whenever she tries to object to what she sees as a violation of her values. Her world is dominated by ambitious men and aggressive women, and she finds herself becoming too much like them in order to compete. Rather than become ‘unlikeable’ to the other characters in the novel, she plays the game and becomes subversive. The result is an unreliable narrator who only sees what she wants to, and begins to dislike herself. She is relatable (I hope), because we’ve all done and said things that later we wonder why we did it. We realize with distance and perspective that what seemed important enough at the time, was not worth the people it hurt.

    So I think the key to unlikeable characters is to make them sympathetic because of the challenges they face by the crap that’s heaped upon them that they can’t control, and to let the reader in on the journey, the evolution that makes them more self-aware and changes their behaviour. Either that, or the character has to win you over to their dark side, show you that their behaviour is not only justified, but best for the world they live in, and for the flaws in the reader, too. You may not like being told we live in a greedy, dishonest, two-faced world that tolerates insider trading, but you have to acknowledge that it’s true, and bravo to someone who has the guts to say it.

  • You have definite opinions about character and this is courageous and wholly likeable. I recall to mind the workshop at the Canadian Association of Authors where a learned colleague taught me that the subconsciousness and the consciousness of a character battle and this is why they do the things they do. If we endwith catharsis, then there is a meeting of the two and it is my hope this leads to a greater understanding of who we are in the wider sense. The second most important lesson was from a workshop in Orillia from WSCS that showed me how to let go and actually get into the head of your character, full on, pull out all the stops. I think that is similar to what you are saying. Are readers ready setty for us to do this or are they holding us and themselves back. Truly, amidst the days awkward less than congenial realities do you want to cozy up to a cobra or a hot chocolate with marshmallows. We are only as large as our reading public will allow us to be This is the ultimate truth and yes, we get it. I know the faucet is broken and Jimmy or Jane is in perilous need of new sneakers and a dental appointment. I am too real for my own good. I urge you to ignore me. No not really awkk I want readers, my precious precious readers. Sound familiar ;) Lord of the Ring. Epic classic Thanks M.E. Love this!!

  • Paula says:

    I’m a bit late to the party but just catching up on my ME blogs at 2:00am

    The really cool thing for me is in the ability to make the typically unlikeable likeable. If I ever met a Heathcliffe character (Wuthering Heights) in real life I wouldn’t give him the time of day but because another, less unlikeable character, loved him I’m forced to see that which made them loved. In the case of Dexter, most successful serial killers seem to be likeable and loved by many likeable characters. Then again, my mother in law always said I like ugly things. She’s actually inspired a blog (intentionally pretentious) currently under construction “pretty girls who like ugly things” where its purpose is to humorously deconstruct liking the unlikeable.

  • MEGirard says:

    Hey Paula. Thanks for stopping by! So, is this blog a real thing? I love the concept. Tell me more. :-)

  • Dale Long says:

    I agree with Paula. I don’t think there are any totally unlikable protagonists. If they were that unlikable, we’d lose our reader pretty fast.

    Even the most unlikable character has to have some traits that the reader will like and connect with even if they don’t like what the character stands for. After all, the protagonist is the one we root for right?

    I have this very problem with my second book. How to make this normally despicable character someone the reader is actually going to root for even though they don’t like him.

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