Fri
May 14 2010 8:53am

The Unlikeable (Potentially Evil) Protagonist

Many of my favorite characters are, to put it gently, unlikeable people. I’m not talking about your stereotypical “bad boys” here. Not those soft-edged miscreants. No, I’m talking about the people you absolutely would not want to meet on the street at night (or some similar feeling).

There are characters like John Wayne Cleaver in I Am Not a Serial Killer that I reviewed previously because I liked his voice so much—he’s a sociopath, a potential serial killer and likes to think about taking people apart, yet he manages to be sympathetic and engaging. Felix in Sarah Monette’s Doctrine of Labyrinths books often made me want to literally reach into the story and throttle him. He’s verbally and sometimes physically abusive to the one person who cares deeply for him, he’s condescending, he’s cruel, he’s obnoxious and he wrecks his life with a single-minded purpose that makes it seem almost intentional. The thing is: Felix is one of my favorite characters ever. Why is that?

And, a subject near and dear to my heart for the past year while I've been working on a new book-project, how do you make it happen when you’re writing? When you know that the character you’re writing about (and likely adore in some way, because they’re part of the story you’re telling) is failing on one or several points you might call “socially acceptable behavior,” how can you still make that character sympathetic and enjoyable to read about? The difficulty comes from the fact that, the further down that scale of bad/icky/scary you go, the less likely the reader is to identify with this person. If they aren’t going to identify, it’s harder to make the character sympathetic.

I’d say that the inclination toward the less-than-pleasant protagonist isn’t universal—I know plenty of people who can’t stand to read books that pull them around by the emotional threads and make them angry at the characters’ behavior. But, I know just as many who love it like I do. I enjoy it because it’s something different. I like the good guys and gals as much as the next reader, but after awhile, it’s tiring to read about, say, the qualms an urban fantasy lead has about having to kill to save their lives or the lives of their loved ones. Necessary qualms for most characters? Yes. But that’s where the potentially “evil” protagonist comes in.

You can do more with your emotional tension and story when you aren’t limited by the generalized concerns a normal, run of the mill person would have. In I Am Not a Serial Killer, or the Dexter series by Jeff Lindsay, the potential solutions to the mystery are wildly different than the solutions available to, say, Harry Dresden (who I also love, make no mistake). The investigation is different, the methods are different, and the tensions are different—it’s something new. That difference in narrative is what makes some potentially “evil” protagonists wildly successful… and some less so. Because it’s a different path, it has less of a blueprint than the normal lead character. And, you know, generally speaking, you can’t base the serial-killer-lead or the sociopath-lead on yourself and the reactions you or people you know have to given situations. It requires a huge amount of research where the “normal” lead doesn’t. If it’s done cheaply or sensationally, it lacks resonance and might offend a few readers here and there, too.

Hollow Spaces, that project I was hinting around about, is narrated by two men—and one of them would admit to you that, while he does what he does legally and is paid for it, he’s a serial killer. The job is a means to an end; he would be killing regardless. It’s just that he made the justice system (in the book’s world) work for him. I have sticky notes. The big words on Vincent’s sticky note are “pathology of CONTROL.” That internal conflict and that set of needs, needs that are alien to a “normal” character, inform every word of his narrative. Structuring that is hard, but I’d like to think it has a good payoff. The unlikable lead can’t be undertaken lightly, because if the writer slips up, it’s ridiculously obvious—suddenly, your arsonist or serial killer or what-have-you describes another person like a normal narrator, or their reaction to a crime is horror instead of the appropriate response, and the audience will notice. It’s difficult.

And just doing it right in the technical sense isn’t enough to make it work in the narrative sense. I give you again my ongoing example of Dan Wells’s recent book: his proto-serial-killer narrator works because the voice is absolutely engrossing and it mixes enough trauma and realism in with the “evil” part that the reader cares deeply about John even though he’s not a socially acceptable kind of guy. There has to be enough realism beyond just getting the facts of the character’s pathology/methodology right. They need to be people underneath all of that scary-factor. People who have dreams and hurts, people who aren’t 2-D cutouts. After all, what do the neighbors always say about the real-life serial murderers? “He seemed so nice and normal.”

Emotional investment is the most important thing in making the unlikeable lead… Likeable. Felix from The Doctrine of Labyrinths is a prime example for this, and he’s hardly what one would call evil. He just does really, really bad things to himself and other people on a regular basis. If he acted like a flagrant asshole all the time and the reader never saw further into his psyche than that, he would be an awful character. Truly a chore to sit through. The thing is, Monette goes so much deeper than the surface with Felix. She pays delicate attention to his trauma, his formative personal mythologies, his social problems, his defensive maneuvers in those social situations—you can pick up why he does what he does, even though you might want to scream at him for it. It’s not being a flagrant asshole because he can see that what he’s doing is problematic and hates doing it, but not until it’s too late. In the heat of the moment, things just happen, and his defense system is not kind to others. That’s good writing. (That’s the kind of thing I hope I’m doing right, heh.)

Writing one of these sorts of people takes research, precision, and a hell of a lot of revision with beta readers who are willing to tell you that “this is stupid and Vincent wouldn’t think that.” (Or whoever.) I promise it’s rewarding, though, when it’s done right. It provides a more nuanced narrative and one that doesn’t match the usual pattern. It gives the reader something different, something challenging. Plus, dammit, people with trauma and problems are just more real to me. Give me more of them, please, I beg of you. Be they serial killers or just jerks, if you can make me love them, I’ll read you forever. Promise.


Brit Mandelo is a multi-fandom geek with a special love for comics and queer literature. She can be found on Twitter and Livejournal.

15 comments
Milton Pope
1. MiltonPope
Throughout the history of literature, some protagonists have been obsessed and merciless: Achilles, Captain Ahab, Sweeney Todd, Mack the Knife, Tom Ripley. It's fascinating when the writer can make that work.

But it doesn't always work. Merely starting with a villain and setting them in a protagonist role isn't enough. I enjoyed the Dexter series (although I eventually quit watching it), but Thomas Covenant made me sick, and frankly, I still don't understand how anyone can enjoy those books. The characterization is tin-eared. I mean, this is a man who forcibly rapes his brave assistant,because he is upset about not having leprosy anymore!
Lucas Huntington
2. L.P.Huntington
I'd totally read your book. In fact, now that I know you are working on one, I'm eagerly anticipating it!
I wish I had some advice to give you, but I'm not much of a writer myself. But, like you, I love love protagonists who are...kind of riding that line between good and evil. A la Mystique, in X-Men. In recent fantasy books, some other authors come to mind, like George RR Martin, and Joe Abercrombie (Inquisitor Glokta was...AWESOME!). You mentioned Felix from Doctrine of Labyrinthes. Have you read The Archer's Heart, by Astrid Amara? Although the two main characters are pretty purely heroic, the entire rest of the cast of characters have both very good and very very bad qualities, and you will likely find yourself torn between two sides of a civil war. I'd recommend checking it out.
I think one of the things I like about these characters is that, while I, presumably like you and most other people, am generally a good person and would like to think that if I had super powers or magic or some such, I would use that power to help people and fight a good fight - at the same time, I am also somewhat self-serving. I'd rob the hell out of the rich. I'd deal with bad guys in questionable ways. Remember the movie The Brave One, with Jodie Foster? At what point does she become a villain in that movie? How justifiable are her actions? And Catwoman, in comics Batman - femme fatale...but, hero or villain? Depends who you ask.
I guess I like people who fight dirty and are self-serving but, ultimately are going to be on the right side of a fight when it counts.
I'm kind of just rambling here and not really making a point, but I'm with you on this whole "unlikeable (potentially evil) protagonist" thing. I prefer them because I can see my own good and bad sides in them, I understand them better.
omega_n
3. omega_n
Snape. Bitter, obsessive, cruel, sadistic, sarcastic, and with a very wobbly moral compass. He's also one of the most popular characters in Potter fandom.

I second Abercrombie, but on all counts. Almost none of the major characters in that series were anything close to 'nice people,' but they were all utterly fascinating.

I think it really sort of comes down to the fact that characters who are always nice and never do anything that makes you want to strangle them are just not interesting, because I think we sense that they're not real. Everyone does stupid, mean things sometimes.
Hypatia James
4. hypatiajames
The first character that popped into my head while reading your piece was Edward and Otto from the Anita Blake series - and increasingly, Anita herself. Now, Otto, you're supposed to not like him, but Edward is one of my favorite characters in the entire series (and yes, it helps that he is one of the few recurring male characters that isn't sleeping with Anita). But there are others, and most of the ones I thought of come from manga, Alucard and Anderson, some of the characters from Death Note (not going to ruin it).

I, personally, quite enjoy Dexter (both the books and the tv series), and find the well written evil protagonist to be quite interesting to read.
omega_n
5. Angela C
I love these kinds of characters, too... and do my best to write them. I think this article is a very good one. If you haven't, you should read Joe Abercrombie's fantasy novels (start with the First Law series) - flawed but fascinating people populate his world, and they are WONDERFUL.
Jeff Weston
6. JWezy
Thomas Covenant is a tough read, no argument. That is one of the few books that I ever just put down and did not finish. Later on, however, I decided that maybe there was more to it, and I gave it another try, and found that I enjoyed the books.

I never liked Covenant, but I came to understand him a bit better, and found that there was something to appreciate.

I later read Donaldson's The Mirror of Her Dreams / A Man Rides Through, and found it a bit more accessible, although his Gap series remains beyond me as yet.

The distinction seems to be in the degree of brokenness of his characters. All of his most interesting characters are not just flawed, they have been seriously damaged by their environment. His books seem to be about the path these characters take toward healing, and there is something to be learned there.

It is also interesting that Covenant's seriously broken personality is woven wholesale into the story - his pathology is mirrored in the Land, and only a person as damaged as he is could possibly save the land from it's own damage. Fundamentally, his path to acceptance and redemption is the same as the Land. This is made doubly clear in the second book by the counterpoint between Covenant and Hile Troy.

It does make me wonder, however, about Donaldson's upbringing. If indeed the successful author "writes what he knows", this is probably not someone I would enjoy spending time with.
Tim Nolan
7. Dr_Fidelius
@MiltonPope

That was the point when I laid the book down. I say 'laid'. It may have bounced off a couple of walls before it hit the floor. The protagonist was only one of the reasons I didn't like Lord Foul's Bane but he was easily the most important.

Steerpike is the first character I think of when people talk about the bastard as protagonist. Is there anyone who reads Gormenghast and ends up rooting for Titus? Humour may be the key to a reader's heart, but deviousness can pick the lock.

(This post brought to you by the Department of Dubious Metaphors.)
Beth Mitcham
8. bethmitcham
Brust's Vlad is assassin, and the arc of the books move from "what fun and exciting tricks I use during my trade" through "there are some moral problems with murder-for-hire" -- a gross simplification-- but the books are great.

The YA book by Sarah Rees Brennan, _The Demon's Lexicon_ has a problematic antagonist. Nick has a circle of friends (a small circle) and no regard for anyone outside this. But I enjoyed it and I'm looking forward to her next book.

I also couldn't get through the Donaldson. I may try again if I ever run out of books.
David Levinson
9. DemetriosX
Covenant is a very tough read and I think most people probably first encounter it when they are too young. I read it first when I was in my teens and, while there were things I liked about it, I didn't much care for it. I tried again in my 20s and it wasn't much better. I've just reread it again in my late 40s and this time I've really appreciated it. There's a lot of depth there, but you have to work your way through all of Covenant's armor to get to it. Perhaps the most amazing thing is that Donaldson was only in his late 20s when he wrote it. There's more maturity there than you expect for someone that age. Constantly making love to his thesaurus is something else.

JWezy @6, I don't think his broken characters reflect his own childhood. His father spent several years treating lepers in India, and young Stephen lived there as well. He probably got to meet an awful lot of very broken people.

Dr_Fidelius @7, Steerpike is an excellent example. He and Covenant are both examples of proper anti-heroes, not just bad boys letting us go along for the ride.
omega_n
10. Jeff R.
I have never understood exactly why Covenant is so well hated while Elric is so well liked...
Erick Chase
11. TheMarchChase
I was one of those folks who picked up _Lord Foul's Bane_ in my mid-teens and couldn't finish it. Honestly, could barely start it. Maybe it's time for a revisit.

Elric, on the other hand, I find completely likable. I am not in love with Moorcock's stories, but I found Elric very compelling over the arc of adventures that I read.

How about Jack Vance's Cugel? Or C.S. Friedman's Gerald Tarrant?
Rikka Cordin
12. Rikka
I absolutely ADORE Felix. And Mildmay. Which I like more depends on which book I've read most recently but dear gods Felix is so ruined and messed up it's hard not to love him even, and perhaps especially, when he's being an ass.
omega_n
13. Boll Weevil
"I Am Not A Cereal Killer!"

Mr Boll Weevil
omega_n
14. psychicscubadiver
Antiheroes are fun but you have to be careful to avoid the 'angst' trap as a means of getting sympathy. A very little works but a lot is just annoying. There's almost too many failed characters like that to count.
omega_n
15. Bluesrat
I love these characters too. I've been on a Hellblazer kick lately, actually, so I've been thinking about this quite a bit: what makes a character as flawed, selfish, and sometimes borderline psychopathic as John Constantine so likable? We do get under his skin and see that he's often doing the wrong thing for the right reason, or if he's not then at least he's feeling bad about it deep inside.

But I think we usually try to overlook another point, because it's not very flattering for anybody involved: people like John (whether real or fictional) are often good at manipulating people and possess a kind of sick charisma. I suppose it comes from a sort of admiration for seeing somebody flout the rules that the rest of us hem ourselves in with. And while that is generally a nasty, unattractive thing in any moral or sympathetic sense and sometimes it's gooky to get into that mindset as a writer, it still brings both realism and allure to an anti-hero character.

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