Thursday, September 29, 2011

The unlikeable protagonist????

Sometimes the main character in a story starts out a bit unlikeable.....unreleatable.....

When I first searched for an agent and publisher for A Bitch Named Karma...I had a real hard time. I didn't realize my character was unrelatable and unlikable until I was told so by an editor who judged a contest I entered the story in. And at first I couldn't see it. (What? They are COMPLETELY crazy!) But then I did start to see what they meant. And it angered me a bit. Yes, Lexi is self-centered and materialistic and just a the beginning.... Did all these agents and publishers really think I wrote an entire story with a main character like that who did not learn and grow throughout??? I thought they should have had a little faith that the character would not stay the same. That she would turn into a character the reader would love and admire and really feel connected to. Don't all main characters in any movie or book develop throughout the story? Become different people, or at least better versions of what they were in the beginning.

I have two prime examples of stories where the protagonist starts out really mean and nasty and unlikeable.

Let's first take Lightning McQueen from Cars.

This has long been one of my kid's favorite moves, and in my top 3 Disney films. I really just love it. But Lightning starts out very unlikeable- he's mean to his crew, he has no respect for his fans, he pushes his driver to go all night, promising to stay awake with him...then falls asleep on him. He's plopped in a new town where he insults the residents and does a crappy job fixing their road- his penance for destroying it. But as the movie goes on, he slowly learns what life is all about and what really matters. In the end, you can't help but root for him to win the big race...and even when he doesn't, he's still the winner. I get teary every single time I watch it.

And something a bit more adult, the character of Darcy in Emily Giffin's Something Borrowed.

I adored the main charter in the book, Rachel. Like most women, I identified with her on so many levels. And even though she did a bad thing, I wanted her to do it because she deserved to and her supposed BFF, Darcy, was such a colossal bitch. But in that story, Darcy was not the main forward to book two- Something Blue.

I did not expect Darcy to be the protagonist and I did not like her AT ALL. She was the bitch who made my "friend" so miserable in the first book. Several times I wanted to put the book down and not continue. But I did because I had faith in the writer and the character. And in the end I did like Darcy and enjoyed her story. I liked watching her mature and become a different person.

Have you ever read a book or watched a movie where the main character was not likeable in the beginning?? What did you do?? Did you put it down, or did you push on...having faith that the character would grow and develop??


  1. I'm having trouble with an unlikeable, unsympathetic character in one of my novels. She's an assassin so what do you expect? She does grow and change a lot over the course of the novel, but I'm trying to give more hints in the beginning that she could change, if she wanted to. It's not easy.

  2. Personally, I think unlikeable characters are an interesting break from the usual sympathetic main characters. It gives them a little spice, and while you might not relate to them, you certainly want to see what happens to them.

    The trick, I guess, is to make the story/conflict interesting enough that the reader wants to go on spending time with somebody who's not very nice. Maybe when an editor or agent rejects a manuscript because the MC was "unlikeable", he/she really means to add "and the story wasn't compelling enough for me to hang around and watch them change." What do you think?

  3. I don't know, I think that with the example of McQueen, even though he's a bit of a jerk, you have hints given that he has a good side. For one, you have the comparison of Chick Hicks and his blatant terribleness. McQueen doesn't cheat like Chick Hicks, he's the underdog who fought his way to get to where he is. So even though he may be a bit of a jerk, the watcher can relate to him for other things.

    I really think that's the key. Finding at something your readers can latch onto and relate to.

    Best of luck with your book!

  4. hahaha I love that you used cars as an example

  5. My first book, Courtly Love, had an unlikeable main character. Of course I didn't think so but my readers had trouble relating to a woman in the throes of post-partum depression and called her "whining" and "self centered." The story is about her finding herself and finally liking who she is, which includes being a wife and mother.
    Still, you have to get past the whining first and it won't ever happen. That book is stored fondly in my computer, never to see the light of day.
    Cars was a great example.

  6. I can see what the editors meant; a lot of times, I feel resentful of the writer when I don't like the protagonist. "Are you really making me read about this bitch?" I think. If they do turn it around, it's glorious. But it has to be well-done. "Uglies" comes to mind. I HATED Tally when it began, but by the end I was rooting for her!

  7. Mr. Darcy in 'Pride and Prej' is another example. But, of course, Colin Firth changed all that.

  8. I so agree with you, Stephanie. Speaking of children’s movies, The Emperor’s New Groove cracks me up. The Emperor is voiced my David Spade, and if you are familiar with him, you know he usually plays the snarky, selfish guy, which is how he starts out in this cartoon, just add lazy too. By the end he cares about his kingdom and wants to rule.

    I’m currently writing a novel about a girl sent to a center for out of control youth, and so in the beginning she’s, well, out of control—cursing, fighting, and self-absorbed. I’ve had a reader tell me she isn’t likeable, but eventually you start to feel for her. And another reader told me they felt for her from the very beginning. I don’t mind if people don’t like her in the beginning. You probably shouldn’t. She’s all rough edges. And even though you don’t have to like all characters in every book, I think it’s far more important to show a character’s growth. Likable can go to unlikable and vice versa.

    Great posts!

    Oh, and Susan, Colin Firth can change a lot of things. I just rewatched that the other day. *sigh*

  9. Some people hate my protagonist, but I think it's funny b/c other people LOVE her. However, no one is indifferent about her. (not sure what I think about that).

    You make some interesting points though. Because the MC in Something Borrowed did strike me as a better person than her friend, but I thought she whined a lot too, and inspite of being likeable wasn't that interesting. The first chapter of something blue was in the back of something borrowed, so i read it. I don't like Darcy, but I just thought her voice was more interesting.

  10. Yes Susan, so true!!!

    Karen, I have seen that movie...another great example! I guess whenever I read or see a movie like these, I have faith that the writer will take the character through a transformation.