I know, I know, this is a very common topic for a post. I have probably done posts on this topic myself, but it was probably a long time ago and now I have a new candidate for “unlikable protagonists I really love,” so time for another post.
Obviously by “unlikable” I don’t actually mean unlikable. If the protagonist is evil, excessively stupid, or suffering from various other problems, then I won’t like them one bit, far less love them, and I’m not interested in reading about them. In fact, I’m repulsed by the whole idea of reading about them. That is a different meaning of the word than I have in mind. In fact, let me sort out a few of the various types of actually, truly unlikable protagonists before I get into the category of “unlikable but I love them,” which is entirely different.
a) Characters who are unlikable because they are completely annoying twits, such as Emma in Jane Austen’s novel by that name. I’ve only ever read that novel once and doubt I will ever read it again.
b) Characters who are unlikable because they are worse than twits: they are gripped by ennui, drift through life with a sort of depressed contempt for everyone who isn’t gripped by ennui, and just make me want to slap them. This kind of protagonist is exemplified by the lead in Steppenwolf by Hermann Hesse. You know, Madame Bovary, in the novel of that name, may be another character who fits what I have in mind here. Let’s say this is the kind of protagonist who is used by the author to glorify depression, as though depression were something edifying rather than a terrible pathology. I can’t bear protagonists of this kind, which is why Madame Bovary is the single novel I most hated ever ever ever. Unfortunately it was assigned twice, and even worse than that, I was such a dutiful student I actually read it both times. These days I can’t imagine why I didn’t just pick up the cliff notes the second time.
c) Characters who are unlikable because they are evil. I couldn’t stand Jaime Lannister because he threw that kid off the tower and killed his own twin sister and who knows what else. Nope nope nope. This is the same problem I had with Glokta in The Blade Itself. Yes, I know, he had glimmering of non-evil, but he was also perfectly happy to cut the fingers off men he knew were innocent in order to make them implicate other innocent people in nonexistent crimes, so you know what, I don’t care that from time to time he might have patted a puppy.
I’m sure there are other types of protagonists that I truly dislike – selfish, narcissistic protagonists; or petty, stupid protagonists; or whatever. But let’s move on to characters who are called unlikable, but they are actually highly likable, or at least I really love them. This is a really big category and this is the category I want to expand here. I can think of three categories of unlikable-but-I-love-them protagonists:
1. Protagonists who are ruthless.
I love Tremaine Valiarde in The Fall of Ile-Rien – and Nicholas Valiarde as well. Remember when Tremaine nearly shot those prisoners? I totally sympathized! Remember when someone (Florian?) said to Nicholas, “But if we do [whatever], we’d be no better than him!” and Nicholas was completely baffled by this common statement?
It’s true that ruthlessness could in theory grade over into inappropriate indifference to things or people the protagonist ought to care about. That would be different. But basically I love a ruthless protagonist who takes effective action, but is essentially a good guy. You know how Nicholas sort of reluctantly went to enormous trouble to save Inspector Ronsarde, and then everyone was worried he might kill Ronsarde because the inspector was in his way, but that was never going to happen? That’s what I mean by “essentially a good guy.”
2. Damaged, bitter protagonists.
Briony in Chime by Billingsley is this kind of protagonist. This is a fairy tale, more an original than a retelling. Briony believes she is guilty of terrible crimes, hates herself, and is a completely untrustworthy narrator. Did I like her? No. Did I love the writing? Yes. The story is one I liked almost despite itself, until close to the end, when Briony finally starts to believe she hasn’t actually done anything terrible after all.
I’m sure there are many other protagonists who fall into this category, but moving on –
3. Protagonists who care about people important to themselves a LOT but about other people perhaps very little.
Aud Torvingen, from The Blue Place series by Nicola Griffith, is the protagonist who made me think about writing about “unlikable” protagonists, because I can see perfectly well that she is not, possibly, a completely sympathetic character. This series is as much a character study as it is anything else, and Aud is certainly the sort of character who merits study. She is absolutely unique, as far as I know, among genre protagonists. She is a sensualist, a voluptuary, a hedonist, whatever the term you want to use, she is an extremely physical sort of person. She’s oriented toward the sensual world, not the world of the mind – as unlike Nicholas Valiarde, say, as you can imagine. She’s also on the edge of violence basically all the time, because to her violence is a sensual pleasure, the way dancing might be for a dancer. She does have this aspect of herself under control … most of the time … but it’s a crucial part of who she is.
Is she likable? I don’t know. Maybe. Or maybe not exactly. She isn’t nice, or actually she can be, but not in a conventional way. It’s more that she responds to vulnerability first impatiently, with a sort of “Well, someone has to take care of this,” attitude, but this often – not always – grades into, let’s say, a species of tolerance that is not that far removed from actually liking someone. And when she actually falls for someone, hoo boy, she falls hard.
I think she is wonderful, and if I were being attacked by someone I would want her to happen past at that moment, and I would like to take a women’s self defense course from her. As a protagonist, she is unlikable – in a good way.
Both Keziah and Carissa in the Black Dog series probably fall into the damaged, bitter category. The Wolf Duke in Winter is certainly ruthless – and so is Kaithairin, the griffin mage, though he’s a griffin, so maybe he doesn’t count. But I have never written a character remotely as physical as Aud Torvingen. I think that kind of character has to be written in first person, and I think it would be quite a challenge even then.