Does Your Protagonist Have to be “Likeable”

Do you enjoy reading about dashing, heroic characters? Men and women of action, pure of heart and valorous in deed, willing to face incredible danger – even death – to save others?

Or do you prefer to read about low-life degenerates, those who triumph against the odds, whose cowardly and venal actions (or lack of actions) win out despite their efforts (or lack of efforts) rather than because of them?

Maybe you like both. Can you cheer on Luke Skywalker on the one hand, but secretly root for Darth Vader on the other?

Most of us fall into the third category. However, many struggle with a truly despicable bad guy. Pity, ‘cos they are often the best fun to write and read.

A frequent comment I get about my debut novel, SOLD, is that the protagonist is completely “unlikeable”. Sure, they say, give us a baddie, but at least let us like something about him or her. It seems in Gary Braswell I’ve created someone completely beyond the pale. One reviewer referred to him as “one of the most unlikable characters ever written”. Thankfully, though, many can see beyond his negative traits to find the flawed human being underneath. Surprisingly for me, a certain contingent of reader even feels for “poor old Gary”, rather than condemn him for his unspeakable behavior.

In terms of creating what is called in the business a “well-rounded” character, a writer has to perform a balancing act. And for uber-baddies, it’s a question of: how vile and putrid can I make this arsehole and yet still have the reader empathise with them, even if only a smidgen? After all, even Hitler liked animals, so he couldn’t have been 100% bad, right? And Donald Trump… well… ok.

My goal with Gary Braswell was to create a man with as few positive aspects as possible, while at the same time make him believable and avoid drifting too far into caricature. Hopefully, I managed that, and the bulk of readers seem to agree with me. But one thing I’ve learned in my very short career as a writer is this: you can’t please everyone. So no character is ever going to be to everyone’s taste, no matter what.

 

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