Acing Unlikeable Protagonists

by Monica Shaughnessy

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Tell My Story. I Dare You.

When I look back at some of the short stories I’ve written, many, many of them feature unlikeable main characters. I find deeply flawed people fascinating, and it’s easy to “get away with” telling their secrets in short form. Readers might not stick with them for an entire novel, but they’ll definitely stick with them over, say, ten pages.

Here are just a few of the evil/pathetic/bigoted main characters I’ve cast over the years:

Lydia Strichter (“The Trash Collector”) – A bigot with a big mouth who loves prying into other people’s business. Perma-free on Amazon.

Josie Kreneck (“Date From Hell,” First Last Forever) –  A fickle thirty-something who’s dumped more men than Madonna.

The Professor (“Hell Cent,” Lethal Lore) – An academician with a giant ego and a yen for strangling women.

Lydia Strichter, by far, has hit the most home runs with readers. Reviews mention her by name, either calling her out for bigotry or praising her journey. (I won’t spoil the ending!) The Professor comes in a distant second, but only because “Hell Cent” is part of a recently released collection and “The Trash Collector” is perma-free (and more widely distributed). We’ll see about Josie Kreneck. But I think her story will resonate with readers as well.

So how do you write an unlikeable character that people will tolerate, maybe even secretly like or identify with? Here are my top tips:

  1. Give them a past tragedy that evokes sympathy and let it drive the story. Lydia is a grieving widow. Josie is afraid of entering middle age alone. The Professor is out of a job. Even readers who haven’t gone through one of these major life events can at least imagine what it’s like to lose a husband, their youth, or their career. This evokes a sympathetic response from the start. It’s harder to hate (truly hate) someone when you know they’ve had a rough past.
  2. Give them a least one likable or admirable quality. Perhaps it’s a sterling work ethic (The Professor) or sentimentality (Lydia) or even bravery (Josie). Your unlikeable main character must have at least one winning quality. Why? Because that’s real life. And people love characters that read like real life. No one is ever “all bad” or “all good.” If you write them like that, you’re creating cardboard characters (which is WORSE than writing unlikeable characters!) Plus, it gives readers something to root for when things turn ugly.
  3. Give them a foible that is very, very common. If a reader has that foible, too, or at least knows someone with it, chances are, they will receive your protagonist more kindly. In the case of my characters, Lydia is uncomfortable with anything too “different.” Josie is desperate for companionship. The Professor is superstitious. I don’t know about you, but these traits resonate with me because I’ve displayed them at one time or another in my life. Luckily not all at once!

Okay, to show you all of these tips in action (and to prove they work), I’m going to give you some characteristics of a real person (now deceased) who has made a great unlikeable main character in both fiction and non-fiction in the past. And by the way, all of the bullet points below are factual. Can you guess who I’m talking about?

Our Protagonist was:

  • An aspiring artist and cartoonist
  • A student with unfilled dreams
  • A grieving brother
  • A decorated veteran with multiple war wounds
  • A vegetarian against the slaughter of animals
  • A loving husband
  • An electrifying speaker

I don’t know about you, but I can either identify with or root for many of these qualities, even admire them. Except, they all belong to…

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Adolph Hitler.

Yeah, no kidding.

Which leads me to the very last tip:

4. Don’t make your main character so freaking bad that no tragic past/admirable quality/common foible can overcome their evil. In other words, it’s possible to wade too far into the deep end and create a character that prompts readers to shut the book on page one and curse your name. Er, like Hitler.

So don’t be afraid of casting bad guys in protagonist roles. Just do it with thought and planning and a little sympathy.

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How about you, dear reader? Ever cast a bad guy as your protagonist? Ever made your hero an anti-hero? Let’s discuss!

Heard & Overheard During NaNoWriMo

by Mandy Broughton

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In case you live in a cave or have been kipnapped by the Fae-Mer-folk, it’s NaNoWriMo. What is this bizarre acronym? It’s just a fancy way of saying National Novel Writing Month.

For one crazy-fun-filled month, November, writers from around the galaxy, commit to writing a 50,000-word novel in thirty days. All output, no editing. No deleting. No lamenting, “I shall write a novel one day.” That day is now. And we’re in the midst of it.

I personally believe that NaNoWriMo is better than sliced bread. For a numbers gal, who never got praised for being creative in ANYTHING, I get the chance to cast aside all responsibility and to create. It is a wonderful and exhausting experience.

As with any of casting aside of responsibilities, there have been some interesting conversations overheard in my particular NaNoWriMo quarantined household. I’d like to share just a few.

  1. “Mom lets us watch as much TV as we want but we also have to scrounge for food.”

From December to October, media time is severely limited for my kids but I do reward them with lots of home-cooked meals. But in November, they catch up on all their missed media and out-Netflix the most devoted Netflixers.

I disagree with peanut butter sandwiches being considered as scrounging for food. It’s like a fast, only with peanut for thirty days.

  1. “Would a tree spirit in human form be healed if she were planted in soil and watered?”

Yes, I asked this question. What do you think?

  1. “I can’t find the Apache name for a Dryad—a tree spirit? If I can’t find the name, then what am I supposed to call her?!”

“What about ‘tree spirit?’”

Okay, this happened in writing group. I get so caught up in my research that I forget maybe sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.

  1. “Outta my way, it’s NaNoBaTi. I’ve got three minutes.”

NaNo word sprints are the greatest thing ever. Tweets from my phone set me to typing as fast as I can. I make Clark Kent look like a slacker. Only problem is that sometimes they don’t call the National Novel Bathroom Time often enough. Especially when I’ve been downing caffeine like a camel on water after a long journey through the dessert.

  1. “I sorry, I can’t come in to volunteer today.”

I really hope the organizations where I volunteer don’t read this blog.

  1. “Taking notes on the bulletin about the sermon today?”

“Uh… no.”

I do not NaNo during church. I promise. Just because I jot down a few ideas doesn’t mean I wasn’t listening to the sermon. I promise!

  1. “You killed off the horse I named?!”

Sorry, kid. Yes, I needed a name of a horse. And, yes, the werewolves got him. I’ll write another horse one day. And let him live. Maybe.

  1. “Maybe if the house were cleaner, the kids would enjoy going to school more.”

The house gets messy. The kids get cranky. And my husband gets desperate. I promise I’ll clean… December 1. But wait, I might be doing National Novel Editing Month then…

  1. “What are you doing for lunch?”

“Mining silver.”

Did you know YouTube has videos of mining silver? And smelting silver from ore? And one lady has an entire blog series on the making of silver bullets? You can’t melt silver over any old campfire.

10. “I just finished the first draft of my new novel.”

I haven’t said this one yet this year. But I will. I love NaNoWriMo. If you haven’t done it, try it. If you love it, please consider donating. It’s a wonderful cause. And we always need a little more creativity—and fun—in this part of the galaxy.

Okay, my phone is calling. The new NaNoWordSprints leader is ready to sprint. I’m off to finish my novel.