A common piece of writing advice is to make sure your protagonist is likeable. If they’re not likeable, the reader won’t want to root for them. Closer to the truth is that it’s easier to pull in a reader with a likeable protagonist. But with a bit of extra work, unlikable protagonists can do the same — or even better.
The bond between reader and protagonist is key. It’s easy to form when the protagonist is likeable, but how do you cultivate a bond between a reader and an unlikeable protagonist? Looking at famous examples such as Sherlock Holmes (notably the latest BBC remake) and Doctor House, 4 steps become apparent. Let’s dive in!
1. A Strong Personality
If a character isn’t likeable, they need to be interesting. A strong personality that is quirky or unique is important. Set them up with an unconventional set of morals they are passionate about, or dig deep and find a new way of looking at the world.
For example, Dr House is passionate about his belief that “everyone lies”. He also sees the world as a giant series of puzzles, which can be solved with logic and science.
To add extra depth and a roundness to his character, House also has a love for music and an addiction problem. These two character additions seem to at once conflict and harmonise with the rest of his personality.
Music and emotions go hand-in-hand, but House probably connects more to the maths and patterns of melodies. As a doctor, he should know better than to take drugs, but his arrogance, desperation and self-isolating tendencies make it believable.
2. Likeable Friends
When an apparently unlikeable character is good friends with a very likeable and relatable character, it gives the impression of a redeemable quality. Even if one doesn’t exist. Your reader will think, “well, if this great person is friends with them, they can’t be completely horrible”.
You can find this pattern everywhere. Sherlock Holmes has John Watson. Gregory House has James Wilson.
This friend character is very important. You need to craft a strong, honest and believable relationship between the two. A bond so strong that it can survive their difference of opinions and inevitable arguments.
In the absence of friends…
Sometimes your protagonist doesn’t really have friends. What you can do instead is create a likeable character who would suffer if your protagonist fails.
Let’s take the Japanese Death Note story. The protagonist Light Yagami mass murders criminals under the name “Kira”. Well, talk about a unique set of beliefs. First step done. But what about friends?
Light’s father is an honest, hard-working detective. A likeable character. And readers know that the father would be destroyed if he ever discovered his own son was Kira. Thus another reason for readers to hope Light can outwit the police.
3. Admirable Qualities
You’ll have a hard time convincing your reader to continue with a completely good-for-nothing protagonist. So you’ll need to give your protagonist some admirable qualities — note I didn’t say likeable qualities, just admirable ones. Although, likable qualities are good too.
A common admirable quality is incredible intelligence and factual perception. Cue the unsociable genius, Sherlock Holmes. While he is rude and doesn’t care much for others, his unique skills give his character value.
Have a look at pre-existing unlikable protagonists for ideas on what qualities are admirable. Consider the popular Marvel character Deadpool. What allows us to over look his violence? Foremost is humour, but also confidence, determination and charm.
Often the very qualities that make them admirable can be the ones that make them “unlikeable”. For example, Sherlock is so intellectual that he walks all over other people’s emotions. And Deadpool is so determined to complete his task that he doesn’t care about leaving a trail of bodies in his wake.
4. Lesser Of Two Evils
The final step of a great unlikeable protagonist is a meaner antagonist. Sherlock is a jerk, but at least he solves crimes instead of instigating them, like antagonist Moriarty.
In Mark Lawrence’s trilogy The Broken Empire, the protagonist is a truly despicable person who basically wants to take over the world. But, despite his many flaws, he is certainly preferable to the Dead King who wants to expand his dominion over the dead to the living also.
You should always put a significant amount of work into your antagonist, and make sure your villains are authentic. But if you have an unlikeable protagonist, you will need to put even more thought into the motivations and actions of your antagonist.
Balance is key, and you want your readers to be in favour of your protagonist, even when they are not “heroic”.
As a script writing teacher once said, “You don’t need to make your character likeable, just make them follow-able.” It was these great words of advice that encouraged me to examine characters and discover these secrets to a great unlikeable (but follow-able) protagonist.