Brandi Spencer (formerly B. C. Marine), Secretary-Treasurer Authors 4 Authors Publishing
Welcome back to Misused Advice, where we pick apart common adages of the writing community to figure out what they originally meant and where they went off the rails. As our returning readers know, every piece of advice that we talk about in this series has good intentions at its origin but has evolved into something either misused or inviolable. Today’s advice is that every story must have a likeable protagonist.
The heart of the likeable protagonist is that a story should engage the reader and keep them reading to the end. There are two ways to do that: a situation or plot-driven story, or a character-driven story. I’m not going to dive deeply into the reasons a likeable character is helpful, because it’s pretty self explanatory. If readers fall in love with a protagonist, of course they’re going to want to read about them; they love them! Following that concept is a sensible decision.
But what about a protagonist who’s a bit prickly or downright foul? It’s still possible to tell their story.
And Then Something Even Crazier Happened!
If your story is driven by the plot or situation, you don’t necessarily need likeable characters. They wouldn’t hurt to have, but with a sufficiently interesting plot or zany events, it’s possible to forgo them. This is most likely to happen in comedy or mystery.
Comedy of Errors
Look at popular comedies like Arrested Development, It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, Community, How I Met Your Mother, or Friends. They are filled with awful people. Most of the hijinks are caused by extremely vain and selfish decisions that no reasonable or likable person would make. This isn’t a criticism of those shows but an objective observation. It could be argued that the unlikeability itself allows these shows to be so funny; if the characters were better people, the consequences they deal with would invoke pity instead of humor.
What Comes Next?
Mystery—especially of the whodunit variety—is the obvious genre here, but it isn’t the only one. When your audience is completely enraptured with what’s going to happen, they can overlook dislike of a character—to a point. The more repulsive the protagonist and supporting characters are, the harder your plot has to compensate.
Be aware that this is a tricky dynamic to navigate. When you rely completely on the intrigue of your plot, remember how much weight it’s carrying. If you leave huge plot holes or give lackluster reveals to your twists, readers will walk away disappointed and wishing they could get back the time they spent reading. That isn’t to say that those aspects of your writing don’t need to be good if you have likeable characters, but they are absolutely glaring without them.
Relying on intriguing plots also has an expiration date. Your readers will only stick with your story for as long as you can continue ratcheting up events. At a certain point, you’re going to reach the peak of interesting things that can happen, and when you do, you won’t have anything to keep your audience going.
Get a Load of This Guy
Believe it or not, it’s possible to have a character-driven story without a likeable protagonist. This might seem counterintuitive, but let’s look at some ways this could work.
Our “Hero,” Ladies and Gentlemen
This is where antiheroes are born. If you put your protagonist against heinous odds or great evil, their very defiance can make the story worthwhile. The reader interest lies in the failure of the antagonist, rather than the success of the protagonist. It’s the classic, “the enemy of my enemy is my friend.” The trick is to balance a formidable enough antagonist to outweigh the worst flaws of your protagonist.
Dexter is a good example. He’s a psychopathic serial killer, but he’s accepted as a protagonist because his victims are other predators who wouldn’t be caught by the legal system for one reason or another. He’s a monster, but people follow his story because his antagonists are arguably worse.
Of couse, you might look at that example and scoff because you see all murderers as equally bad. This is a common and valid response to antiheroes, which is why using one is risky. The point at which a protagonist is beyond any redemption is highly subjective, and the closer you get to it, the more readers you will alienate. What you as a writer have to determine is how many you’re willing to lose.
The Human Dumpster Fire
What if your unlikeable protagonist doesn’t have a worse antagonist? You aren’t out of luck yet. A sufficiently interesting character can hold your audience’s attention. Becky Sharp from Vanity Fair is a terrible person: greedy, vapid, manipulative, selfish. The book is mostly a series of all the awful things she’s done to the people in her life—most of whom also suck in their own ways. But because she’s clever and inventive in her terribleness, readers are captivated by her story, wondering when she’ll go too far and finally dig herself into a hole she can’t claw her way out of.
For a less fictional example, the millions of people who watched Tiger King this year didn’t do so because the people it follows are likeable. They watched because of the cross-fascination of horrible people and bizarre events.
Pay No Attention to the Man Behind the Curtain
This last method works best when it supplements one of the others but can be highly effective at that. Your protagonist and main character don’t have to be the same person! If you want to know more about the difference between them, you can read my post on it here, but essentially, it boils down to this: the protagonist is the one driving the plot, while the main character is the one whose perspective the story is told from.
Sherlock Holmes mysteries are a standard example of the two being separated for the sake of an unlikeable protagonist. Though Holmes is brilliant, he’s off-putting and unfriendly—so much so that they’re some of his defining traits. Since he can’t be changed, the audience is given the affable Dr. Watson as a main character, a sort of buffer to make Holmes more palatable and get the read to stick around long enough to be pulled into the interesting plot.
Make Them Likeable
Of course, when in doubt, the original advice to make the protagonist likeable is still the ideal option for most stories. If you’re looking for some strategies on how to do that, Rebecca Mikkelson wrote a helpful post about how to make characters bond, both with each other and your audience.
Were you taught this rule or some other strange-sounding writing advice? Let us know! Next time, we’ll discuss the advice that you should never filter the point of view.
Join us next week, when Rebecca Mikkelson will tell us about writing for your audience.