Writing Excuses 13-4: Protagonists Who Aren’t Sympathetic
Key points: Non-sympathetic protagonists, aka antiheroes, come in two flavors, classic and pop! Classic or literary antiheroes don’t protag. They don’t move the story along, even though they are where a protagonist should be. Pop is an evil person who still does good. Why write an unlikable character? Well, one reason is a reverse character arc, where the character goes down, then redeems himself and comes back up. It does make readers uncomfortable! Sometimes it’s a signal that the character is becoming an antagonist. Sometimes we do it to mimic reality — some people aren’t very likable! To make it work, hang a lantern on it, give the reader subtle hints that it is okay to dislike this character. Modern antiheroes? The Punisher, or other bad guys with a heart of gold. We like them because we wish we could forget the limits and just do it. Hulk smash! Also, the pop culture antihero has dramatic tension — they aren’t likable, but they are proactive and competent. Built-in tension! Or maybe they are likable and proactive, but not competent. Again, built-in tension. You may not like them, but when the aliens show up, they are the hero you need.
[Mary] Season 13, Episode Four.
[Brandon] This is Writing Excuses, Protagonists Who Aren’t Sympathetic.
[Valynne] 15 minutes long.
[Dan] Because you’re in a hurry.
[Howard] And we’re not that smart.
[Brandon] I’m Brandon.
[Dan] I’m Dan.
[Howard] I’m Howard.
[Brandon] All right. We have, for the whole year, special guest star, Valynne. Tell us a little bit about yourself.
[Valynne] My name is Valynne E. Maetani. I’m a young adult writer. My book, Ink And Ashes, came out in 2015. It’s a mystery-thriller. I also have a couple more companion books coming out in the Ink and Ashes series. And two more books coming out with Harper Teen next year in 2019.
[Howard] Just to be clear, when you say you’re a young adult author, you are an author of young adult books.
[Valynne] I’d like to think I’m a young adult, but apparently, people tell me I look much older than that…
[Valynne] So, yes, I do write for young adults.
[Howard] Were I a bartender, I probably wouldn’t card you, depending on how good the lights were.
[Valynne] That’s a little offensive, but…
[Valynne] I will allow…
[Dan] Howard just wanted to make sure to get that out there…
[Dan] It’s because Howard is showing us what it’s like when a protagonist is not sympathetic.
[Howard] I am exceedingly non-sympathetic right now.
[Valynne] Well, you’re not getting any sympathy from me, right now.
[Brandon] All right. So I’m going to start us off with a definition as it was explained to me in college. I could be wrong on this, but I’ve always viewed antiheroes, which we’re going to talk about today, in two general groups. The classic literary antihero, which is just a character who doesn’t, as Howard would say, protag. They were devised as a character who did not fulfill the role that a protagonist was supposed to. They were not heroic, they were not moving the story along…
[Howard] It was a literary device for defying expectations by putting someone where the protagonist would be, and they don’t act like the protagonist.
[Brandon] Exactly. Now, that’s not what it means to most pop-culture when you say antihero now. Antihero now, generally, means somebody who does good, but is an evil person. They achieve means that we root for, through… It’s the classic Punisher sort of thing, or whatnot. It’s a person who goes too far, but we still want to like. It’s a… It’s Deadpool, or something like this. Those are two distinct types, and I want to talk about both of those today. Though we’re going to back it up just a little bit, and the first question I’m going to ask you is, have you ever written a protagonist that people don’t like? How did you do it? Why would you do it?
[Dan] Everyone’s looking at me.
[Brandon] The weird thing is you are writing a little bit more of someone who we do like, and we start to dislike. Right? In certain John Cleaver books, you push him into non-likability on purpose. So… Why?
[Dan] That’s what we did in the second one. The entire goal of the first book, of I Am Not a Serial Killer, was I’m going to make you like this guy, even though he’s not a really great guy. Then, once you liked him, the second book has this kind of reverse character arc, where he goes down and then back up. Instead of rising to a climax and a denouement. So there’s a big chunk in the middle… In fact, when I ran this through the writing group with Brandon, he… We showed up that week and he said, “Well, I’m done with this character. I will never like him again.” I thought, “We’ll see.” I don’t know if you ever…
[Brandon] Yeah, I totally did.
[Dan] If he redeemed himself in your eyes, but… The point there was to take him into unlikable territory, in part, just as a test to see… Because it was a horror novel. To see how much I could get away with, and how much you would be willing to go along with. So, for me, unlikable protagonist is an opportunity to make the reader very uncomfortable, because that’s just a tool I don’t often get to play with.
[Brandon] It is very difficult and dangerous to do. The times I’ve done it most successfully, I’ve done it in books that I didn’t think ended up working, and didn’t end up releasing. This is because it is so difficult to do… Let me explain. Normally, this is working in one of two ways. Number one, it’s a literary archetype where people are going in, wanting their expectations defied. Or, number two, you’re doing the actual antihero, where they’re really going to like the character, right? Making a character that people don’t like on purpose… It’s one of these skills that as a writer, often times, we’re like, “Oo, I could do this.” Then you write the book, and you’re like, “I did this.”
[Brandon] “Boy, this is unreadable.”
[Howard] A question that might be easier for the group. Have we written characters who were not the antagonist, who were with the protagonist, who were part of the protagonist’s team, who we made deliberately unsympathetic?
[Brandon] Have you? You’ve got a large cast. Surely…
[Howard] Yeah. I have a large cast, but I have a cheat, which is that there is always a punchline. In the Schlock Mercenary universe, the first rule of physics of that universe is that there is always a punchline. By virtue of there being a punchline, if somebody has made you laugh, you end up liking them.
[Howard] So, even if they’re horrible, then…
[Brandon] I’ve done this with side characters, and most often, for me, it’s a signal that the character’s becoming an antagonist. I’ll usually start with, “Boy, you wish this character had made different decisions, but you still like them,” moving into, “Man, I don’t actually like this character,” into, “Oh, it’s okay for me to not like them. Brandon has made him into a villain. I get it now.” There is that uncomfortable moment in the middle. There’s an entire subreddit dedicated to one of these characters, which is just swearing at them.
[Brandon] Almost all the posts are just two words, which I’ll leave to your imagination, involving the character’s name.
[Brandon] This actually came from…
[Dan] I think that’s one word.
[Brandon] It came from a Game of Thrones’ meme, where the same thing happened with a character.
[Dan] Well, that’s… That was the character arc of Walter White in Breaking Bad. In season three, that’s the uncomfortable season, because that’s where he’s in that limbo, where you’re like, “Wait. Isn’t he supposed to be the hero?” He is not anymore. By the time you get to season four, you’re like, “Yeah. F this guy.” He’s a full-on villain now.
[Brandon] Why? Why did they do this? What do they gain from the story?
[Dan] Well, in the case of Breaking Bad, what they gained was… I mean, that was their entire purpose, setting out from the beginning. We are going to show a fall from grace, the origin story of a super villain. Which is just awesome.
[Brandon] Valynne, you did this in your book, but with the father figure. Right? The adoptive father, who we introduce sympathetically, and the entire opening of that book is to make us uncomfortable about the fact that we liked this person.
[Valynne] Yes. I think that… I’ve written this kind of character a lot in other things that I have not published. But one of the things that I liked about it is just that this is reality. There are a lot of people that we just do not like. Sometimes we can’t even explain why we don’t like them. They are just very irritating. So I like mimicking reality. So I think that I don’t necessarily set out percent making this character likable or not likable, that’s not part of my thought process. It’s more just creating that character and seeing how people react to them. I think that there are people that I get really irritated in life with, that other people don’t. So, I think we just need to write the characters the way that they come to us. Sometimes, characters just aren’t likable. If there are things that we begin to like about them, that begin to make them a little bit more sympathetic, that inherently can also sway your readers as well. But there are a lot of things that people do… People are not perfect, we make a lot of mistakes. Some are not redeemable, and some are.
[Dan] Well, I think that is a really good point, that it is an accurate reflection of a lot of people. People that we know and people that we are. Harry Potter five… What’s interesting to me about that book is that it seems for the most part that’s either people’s favorite or least favorite Potter book. It’s because they’re taking these 14, 15-year-old characters, and just really accurately presenting all the angst of being 14 or 15 years old.
[Valynne] Whiny, and…
[Dan] They’re whiny…
[Dan] They snipe at each other, they make stupid decisions on purpose because of whatever. I hated that book so much, but at the same time, I can remember being like that, and I can remember doing those same dumb things. I spent the whole book kind of rooting for them, “Come on, Harry, get your act together.” That was an interesting process to go through, emotionally.
[Brandon] One of the things I think that makes this work is hanging a lantern on it. Like, I found that in stories I’m writing, if there are subtle indications to the reader that it’s okay to dislike this character, then they are able to do this disassociation, where they separate and say, “Oh, okay. I can dislike this character without disliking this book. That’s what I’m supposed to do.” That uncomfortable moment is where you’re not sure yet. Like, by the time… You mentioned Breaking Down [Breaking Bad]. By that season four, everyone’s like, “All right, I get to root to watch this guy’s downfall, rather than rooting to see them succeed.” We can mode shift and enjoy it. The books that… Sometimes, like the ones that I haven’t released that have not worked, it’s because that transition doesn’t happen, and people are just frustrated with the character the entire time.
[Brandon] Let’s go ahead and stop for our book of the week. We are actually going to do the science fiction classic antihero story, Thomas Covenant The Unbeliever.
[Howard] When you say science fiction classic, it’s epic fantasy.
[Howard] I picked this up… I have not read it. Disclaimer, I have not read it for decades. But, if you want the experience of a non-sympathetic main character, my experience with that book… I picked it up after having read the Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings. That was the extent of my epic fantasy reading. I picked that book up, and when Thomas Covenant, who is a leper and who is bitter and cynical and horrible… When he gets pulled across into the fantasy world, which the back of the book told me was going to happen, in which I was very excited about… He immediately begins doing horrible things. I felt betrayed by the entire genre. I was very, very upset. But I kept reading because, as a young man for whatever reason, it had not yet occurred to me that I was allowed to stop reading a book once I had started.
[Brandon] Well, let’s also… Let’s extol a little bit of the literary merit.
[Howard] Well, see, but that’s the thing. I… yes, I was very, very put off by that. But I was put off because it was done so realistically and so well. I was engaged. I was committed. As I kept reading, I found reasons to like Thomas Covenant. By the end of the series, he redeems himself.
[Brandon] Kind of.
[Howard] After a fashion.
[Brandon] Maybe. Kind of. I mean, I’m going to say, Stephen Donaldson is an excellent writer. This is part of it. Thomas Covenant is the classic antihero. This is not a modern antihero. So if you go in expecting, “Oh…”
[Howard] That’s true.
[Brandon] “He’s got a heart of gold, and he’s doing…”
[Howard] He’s not the Punisher.
[Brandon] He’s not the Punisher. He is classic, in that he does not want to move the plot. He acts against moving the plot. I will warn readers, there is a rape scene early in this book.
[Howard] That was what put me off.
[Brandon] This is a really interesting book, in that it is a literary fantasy novel released in the 70s, right after the Tolkien mania wave hit, and there wasn’t a lot of fantasy of that style. This very much is. But it’s like Stephen Donaldson said, “Yeah, let’s write that Lord of the Rings thing, but with a classic antihero.” It is a fascinating book. I still can’t say if I like it. In fact, I’m going to say I dislike it, but I am fascinated by it at the same time.
[Dan] I love… Disclosure, I have not finished the series, and I never grew to like Thomas Covenant himself, but I really enjoyed the books that I read because of the way… I kind of saw it as a what-if thought experiment. What if we had to do Lord of the Rings, but instead of Frodo, we had this horrible douche bag. That was really interesting. Watching the other characters try to deal with, “Well, this is who we have to work with. How are we going to make this fly?”
[Howard] What if the hero of prophecy does not want to be the hero of prophecy, and the prophecy doesn’t care. It was… It was a lot of fun. In…
[Howard] In that… I mean, watching those things unfold… That was fun.
[Brandon] For various definitions of fun.
[Howard] For various definitions of fun. Lord Foul’s Bane, the first book of the Chronicles of Thomas Covenant, by Stephen R. Donaldson.
[Brandon] All right. Let’s go to modern antiheroes. Let’s talk about the Punisher or let’s talk about this style of… The Chronicles of Riddick or whatever it is where it’s “Oh, look, it’s a bad guy, but really he’s the protagonist.” Have you ever written this? What do you think about this? Why do we enjoy these types of stories?
[Valynne] I think that we enjoy them… Well, I’m not writing this now, but it’s going to be in one of my next books. I think we enjoy writing them because it’s different, but once again, it reflects a certain part of humanity, and maybe a certain part of us, where sometimes there are things that we wish we could do, and we don’t get to do them the way we want to do them. There’s part of us that just wishes we could say, “You know what, forget all the rules and laws and politeness and human graces, and just get the job done.”
[Brandon] I think you hit it on the head. That’s exactly… It’s wish fulfillment, but in a I wish I could do this and there weren’t social mores holding me back from doing it my way. Even though my way is probably not actually my way. Like…
[Brandon] I think if you got us all together and said, “What do you really want the world to be like?” We’re like, “Oh, yeah. We do not want this world.” But there is a certain part inside of us that’s the four-year-old kid who’s just like, “You know what? What if I just could go Yargh and make everything better?”
[Brandon] I think another part of this pop-culture antihero is the idea that the best characters have a certain dramatic tension to them, built into them. We’ve talked about this idea that characters… You have this likability scale. You can make them more or less likability. You can make them more or less proactive, you can make them more or less competent. If you put all three at the top, you end up generally with what we call an iconic hero, which we’re going to do a story… Podcast about later. These are the James Bond’s of the world, right? Everything’s at the top. The classic… A lot of heroes are this way. But modern fiction has played with these what we called sliding scales and dials, and you can have your own version, but those are the ones I envision, where they move one all the way to the bottom and say, “Can we still have a hero?” Right? You’ve got this idea of like Samwise Gamgee where it’s like he really wants to… He’s really likable, and he really wants to do good things, but he just doesn’t have any competence at all. Right? And things like this. Well, I feel like the classic antihero is like, well, we need dramatic tension. Iconic heroes are falling out of favor. People are not wanting to read or watch the story about someone who is just hyper competent, hyper likable, hyper everything. What if we moved the likability all the way down, the niceness factor all the way down, but we still made them extremely proactive and extremely competent? That type of story creates this antihero thing where narratively, there’s a tension to them. We’re not… They’re rough around the edges, and they’re even… They’re not just Clint Eastwood rough around the edges, they’re beyond that, they’re like I would not want to hang out with this person. I don’t want to be anywhere near them. But I’m fascinated by them.
[Howard] I’m trying to think of good examples of that, and the best example I can think of is from a movie that really benefits by you not watching the first half of the first act. That is… Please don’t laugh at me… Battleship.
[Howard] The movie.
[Dan] Sorry. You told me not to.
[Howard] The movie… Okay. The first half of the first act, the main character is made out to be so unlikable that it’s actually unbelievable that he can end up in the positions he’s in later in the story. If you don’t watch the first 20 minutes of the film and just start with the aliens and the battleships, then it is a fun popcorn movie that manages to work in the mechanics of a goofy boardgame into…
[Howard] Battleships versus aliens. My daughter, she… 22, sat down to watch Battleship with us, and walked out of the room during the opening scenes. She walked out of the room and said, “I’m done with him. Let me know when the ships show up.” She’s not wrong.
[Brandon] All right. Let’s wrap this one up. I have some homework for you. I want you to take a slightly different spin on this. I want you to write a protagonist or a hero that the reader is supposed to like and does like. Right? You’re going to make them likable. But you’re going to try to create dramatic tension by having them… By having the reader not want this protagonist to succeed. So, generally, the reader’s going to have information that the protagonist doesn’t, or they’re going to see things more clearly than the protagonist does. So you want the hero to fail. He or she is trying something, and you like them, but you still want them to not succeed. See if you can do that. It’s very difficult. It’s an interesting thought experiment. This has been Writing Excuses. You’re out of excuses, now go write.