How to write unlikable protagonists

As media consumers, there are a subset of characters out there that if we met them in real life we wouldn’t like them but in media are absolutely awesome. Han Solo, Ratchet, Tony Stark, Thor, half the roles of Sigourney Weaver. (How does she do that?) These tend to be the jerks, the shoot firsts, ask question later, do shit without thinking things through or just be manipulative of everyone around them and/or abrasive. You notice most of my examples are males. Because females tend to get pushed into an entirely different type of unlikable role if they’re the protagonist of the story. (Sigourney Weaver on the other hand, takes roles that were written for men and plays them as a woman without changing the fundamental nature of the role.)

How do we are writers make these types of characters, make them sympathetic and thus, making them popular? Most of my examples seem to be jerks with a heart of gold. (Maybe this is the opposite or corollary of the whore with a heart of gold trope. See Wade Wilson and Vanessa from Deadpool.) Or maybe not. (That’s a whole discussion about gender, power and false equivalency that I’m not sure I’m equipped to go into today.)

I said a while back in a post about the new Ratchet & Clank game, that the key to writing a good unlikable character is to have them grow and change over the course of the story. And the first part of doing that is giving them the capacity to grow and change. We aren’t talking Joker characters who do evil for the sake of doing evil due to some craziness and obsession with a certain black caped vigilante. We’re talking about the characters who, while petty and a bit arrogant now, have some sort of kernel of goodness to them for one reason or another. Sometimes this could be nothing more than a ‘he doth protest too much.’ Han Solo said all the time that he was just in it for the money. But hey, he came back at the end.

Giving a character this capacity to change, means giving the audience a reason to sympathize with them. The audience wants the main character to win! Even if they’re Jackson Teller, VP of an outlaw MC that runs guns, bankrolls a porn studio and incites violence on every gang around them. Jax is supposed to be the hero of the story. And we want him to succeed in his role as a hero, even if we don’t like him that much because he is a womanizer who runs his mouth and isn’t as smart as he thinks he is.

A good way to make an unlikable hero, sympathetic is to give them a goal. Han Solo was trying to get out of being in debt to Jabba the Hutt. Thor is trying to regain his powers and the good will of his father. Ratchet just wanted off his planet to see the universe. Jackson wanted out of the Sons of Anarchy. Tony Stark had been kidnapped and had shrapnel in his chest. We wanted to see him escape and then take his revenge.

Or you can give this character a weakness that no matter what they’re doing. They have to stop and do this one thing if it’s in trouble. Take Hellboy, his weakness was kittens. Even if he was smashing bad guys while chewing on a cigar. If kittens were in danger, he had to rescue them. Or maybe they have a weakness to pie. Yum. Pie. In Ratchet & Clank, if Ratchet had a weakness for anything, it was gadgets. If he could get a gadget out of it, he’d swim through a tunnel that would electrify in two minutes swimming through rings to unlock doors. (Sometimes, I hate that level. It’s almost as bad as the ‘race the rising water’ level.) All for the sake of a bolt magnet or a hypnotizer.

Or maybe, they just like to make smart remarks. Smart remarks seem to be an action adventure genre staple. Jim Butcher’s Harry Dresden likes to make smart remarks. If he’s not making smart remarks because the plan a) involves his mouth being full of garlic powder or b) he’s in a bad situation and using too much magic to waste air on being witty. Wade Wilson is known to being the smart remark king of Marvel often breaking the fourth wall to do so. Smart remarks are part of the reasons why I like Agent J and Hawkeye so much. If you can laugh at or with a character, you can feel some sort of kinship with them.

Another good way to make them likable is have them pushing back against the establishment. Sure, they’re young and stupid, but they’re not sitting back and doing things the way they’ve been done for the past 100 years because it’s tradition. Agent J, Eggsey from Kingsman, F’lar from Pern, Rachel Morgan in the Hollows. These are characters who are given a list of rules, snort and throw them away and use flexible thinking to get ahead. And if the establishment is corrupt, all the more reason to bring it down! Whether or not this always works in the real world is debatable. But hey, fiction is the place where dreams come true!

Or, there are two old stand bys. One, the unlikable hero is trying to save the universe. Han Solo, Harry Dresden, Tony Stark, Thor, and the list goes on and on. Save the known universe, people tend to like you for it. Two, the unlikable hero has had a shitty past and his pain is why he acts this way.

But somewhere over the course of the story, usually towards the end. It’s imperative that the main character especially if they are unlikable jerks to show real change, to do something heroic and unselfish and for the greater good. Han Solo swept in and hit the tie fighters on Luke’s tail so Luke could destroy the Death Star. Ratchet decided that maybe he would save the universe after all because the planet he’d been raised on was in danger. Agent J put himself in the way of a big bad alien bug in order to give K time to kill it.

Now in future stories for the sake of consistency, yeah, these characters will still probably be in things for the money and make smart remarks and shoot first and ask questions later and in general be arrogant jerks who think they know better than everyone else. (If they survive their first story that is.) But we’ll like them because we know ‘oh, they have a goal, weakness, bad past, make funny quips, saved the universe and in general have been unselfish at least once in their lives!’

And you may think that well, sure, every character needs to have something of these traits. And I agree, characters need to have weaknesses and goals and be the hero of their story. But not all characters are the jerk types. A character who acts in their own self-interest all of the time, is going to be a pretty boring and unredeemable character.


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