Jeanne: Writing the Unlikable Protagonist

Some of my very favorite books have unlikable protagonists:

  • Ain’t She Sweet, by Susan Elizabeth Phillips
  • A Long Way Down, by Nick Hornby
  • Gone Girl, by Gillian Flynn,
  • Girl on a Train, by Paula Hawkins
  • A Confederacy of Dunces, by John Kennedy O’Toole
  • Wuthering Heights, by Emily Bronte.
  • Citizen Vince, by Jess Walter

But, you point out, most of those novels are literary fiction. Only one is a Romance.

True, but I’ve never subscribed to the notion that Romance can’t take on the same challenges as other genres. The only two rules your book has to follow to be a Romance are:

  1. Must have a central love story.
  2. Must end with a happy ever after.

That’s it. Somewhere along the way, a lot of romance authors (and, to be honest, readers) have added a third, unwritten rule: The protagonist must be likable from Day One. I beg to disagree.

A recurring theme in reviews of The Demon Always Wins is my protagonist’s unlikeability:

  • It took me a while to warm up (no pun intended) to Belial
  • I thought, ‘Oh no, this is a romance. I can’t root for the demon.’
  • The author managed to get me to root for the hero, the demon Belial, despite him having a goal that I didn’t want him to achieve.
  • I even found myself rooting for a demon – kind of. 😉
  • And, verbally, from a writer friend I was mentoring, with genuine bewilderment: “I thought the hero of a book was supposed to be likable.”

And these are all five star reviews. Even though readers were initially skeptical of a hero who was anything but heroic, they kept reading long enough to get hooked and even eventually root for him.

I’ll grant that the easiest way to get that kind of buy-in is to create a protagonist people love and want to see win from the start, but if the story you want to tell requires a different kind of hero–say, for example, a story about demons–here are some thoughts for how you pull that off:

  1. Your hero and heroine don’t have to be likable–they just need to be empathetic–that is, people need to be able to identify with them, to think, “In the same situation, I might have made that same choice.”
  2. In fact, they don’t even need to be empathetic initially–just compelling enough that the reader keeps reading until the empathetic element surfaces.

So how do we make the reader keep reading?

  1. Make your protagonist fascinating.
    1. Heathcliff in Wuthering Heights may not be the lovable boy-next-door, but he’s pretty hard to look away from and the same for Cathy. Ditto for the four characters who start A Long Way Down considering suicide from a rooftop in London.
  2. Surround them with even LESS likable characters.
    1. Citizen Vince does a brilliant job of this. Vince Camden is awful, but his buddies are so much worse he looks mild by comparison. (This is one of the tricks I used in The Demon Always Wins, surrounding Belial with demons and gods who behave so awfully he shines as the best of a bad bunch.)
  3. Give a hint that they’re redeemable.
    1. I used this trick, too. In a scene one reviewer described as crass, Zeus takes the opportunity to grope a she-demon who is waiting tables. Belial knows she’s been ordered to endure whatever bad behavior comes her way, so he distracts the horny old god, letting her slip away–and getting himself into even deeper trouble with Satan.
  4. Give them a characteristic that flies in the face of everything else we’ve seen about them.
    1. Susan Elizabeth Phillips does this in Ain’t She Sweet. About the time we’re ready to write off Sugar Beth as a complete loss, something happens to make us realize that deep inside her spoiled, privileged exterior there lurks a strong sense of justice and an willingness to face the music for her past misdeeds.

How about you? Have you ever read a book with a protagonist you didn’t want to root for, but found yourself cheering on anyway?

2 thoughts on “Jeanne: Writing the Unlikable Protagonist

  1. This is a real toughie. I have liked a lot of books with not-very-nice characters. I guess they generally have a sense of justice going for them — Sherlock is a horrible man, an unfixable man. But I still enjoy the stories and the imagination that the character inspires.

    I have stopped reading a lot of books when the author has tried to make them “likable” through stuff like “oh, poor orphan that nobody loves and everybody bullies”.

    For me, brains go a long way towards making a character interesting. It also helps to have one nice character who I can cheer for — someone who puts up with the bullying and social stupidity of the “smart guy” because they see something admirable in the character.

    (-: I love seeing some of the reviews to your book. We all come to books and characters in our own special ways, and it’s fun seeing how some people reacted. I didn’t like Belial at all in the beginning, but he’s a demon. I’m not supposed to like him very much. He was also an underdog, and I can appreciate his position being forced to implement certain work policies that are vaguely worded with goals that may not benefit the organization in the long run. Lilith also did a great deal to keep the book interesting.

    Characters who are bad and know they are bad are often a lot more interesting than “good” characters. You never quite know what they are going to do next — they think outside of the box. “Good” characters tend to have to abide by the rules, and it’s easier to predict what they are going to do.

    • I’m with you on the reviews. Even with just the handful I have so far, people have come up with things I never thought about when I was writing the book. So far, I haven’t had to squint to see what they’re talking about, but they’ve definitely given me some new things to think over.

      As you have here. One of the things I enjoy about writing about demons is that they, as you say, think outside the box, which means I can have them do things I’d never consider having a human character do. They live in a world where the rules are different, and as long as they work within those rules (which, in their world, includes breaking them if that’s to their advantage) they have a wide array of choices.

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