13.4: Protagonists Who Aren’t Sympathetic

Your Hosts: Brandon, Valynne, Dan, and Howard

This week we’re joined by Valynne Maetani, who’ll be one of our hosts all year. We’re discussing protagonists who, per writer intent, do not engender audience sympathy.

Credits: This episode was recorded by Dan Thompson, and mastered by Alex Jackson.


Write a likable character, but write them in such a way that the reader does not want them to succeed.

16 thoughts on “13.4: Protagonists Who Aren’t Sympathetic”

  1. I am so fortunate to have access to these podcasts. I live in rural Australia and I download them and put them on a usb and while driving out the back of nowhere your educational, enjoyable and funny podcasts keep me great company. I really like looking at a vast long paddock and hearing your American accents at the same time.

  2. I really enjoyed this episode, but the whole time, it felt like you had a big unspoken part of the premise: an antihero is a protagonist character who is not likable intentionally. Who the author deliberately writes as a bad guy who gets good results.

    I just wanted to draw attention to the “intentional” part, because every once in a while you run across something like The Sword of Truth. The further into the series you get, the more and more two things become clear to the reader:

    1) Richard (the protagonist) is an absolute monster, almost as bad if not worse than the utterly horrible people he’s fighting against, and the rest the “heroes” he surrounds himself with are not much better.
    2) The author is completely unaware of this, and firmly believes that Richard is not only a hero but a paragon!

    Do you have any plans to cover situations like this, and how to avoid them, later in this season?

    1. Yes! This!
      Sometimes writers are the last ones to know that their hero is an utter monster. Could we have an episode on how to identify that, how to ‘recover’ your hero’s heroic nature, or how to go with it and accept that your character has become his worst possible self? Please?

      Also, I love this podcast. I found it a couple of weeks ago, and have downloaded the entire back catalog, so I can work my way forward.

  3. I was confused about which unlikeable character Brandon was talking about until he mentioned the two-word swearing subreddit–then I knew *exactly* who he was talking about. The fandom hates that character more than Sadeas and Amaram combined.

        1. I came to WE from Howard’s work originally, I’ve been listening since the middle of last year, and just in that time I’ve started reading the other contributors (and I’m happy that I have so far). Of Brandon’s work, at this point I’ve just read the three Mistborn novels.

          I did figure out the reference, eventually, while carefully sidestepping spoilers. The hate for that character appears to be a pretty spicy meatball.

  4. When good guys turn bad? Well, at least unsympathetic, unlikable, and just plain mean? This time around, Brandon, Valynne Maetani, Dan, and Howard take a look at the classic and pop flavors of antiheroes. The classic antihero don’t protag, while the pop version is a bad boy who still has a heart of gold. Why would you write one, why do people like these stories, what’s going on here? Read all the musing in the transcript, now available in the archive and over here


  5. The original Covenant series was one of the first I read after Lord of the Rings. Even though Covenant himself was utterly despicable, I wanted him to do the right thing for the sake of all the other amazing people in the story. I’ve read the trilogy 3 or 4 times and I still go back every now and then to read the part in book 3 where Mhoram tries to summon Covenant. That part always gets me.

  6. Dear Hosts,

    If you’re looking for an excellent example of the antihero, might I suggest the Banshee series (from Cinemax). It is a small-town noir story with protagonists who make Walter White look like Gandhi. They’re selfish, self-serving, and violent criminals and murderers. Even the ‘good’ characters eventually give into their darker natures at some point… every single one. And yet, they’re loyal and care for one another – even through the toughest moments. All their actions make sense and are true to their character. At some points throughout the story arches, you even root for the main villain – a man of unspeakable violence and cruelty. And the entire series revolves around one of the most intense, tragic love stories I’ve seen in some time. Despite the high-octane plots and action, the characters are always REAL (even to a fault) and that’s how the writers make it work.

    Definitely worth watching, but be warned… Banshee is unflinching in its portrayal of violence, so not for the faint of heart.

  7. How exactly do you go about turning a character from sympathetic to unsympathetic without losing your readers interest in the book. How do you make it okay for them to hate your character without hating the book?

      1. Oh, okay. The world or the mystery has to grab hold of the writer’s mind and eclipse the character who is now dodging the rotten tomatoes.

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