25 Reasons I hate Your Protagonist

This is actually a post from Chuck Wendig at Terrible Minds, so it’s 25 reasons he hates the protagonist. There’s probably some overlap with reasons I personally detest a protagonist, though I’m not sure I could come up with 25 reasons myself. Maybe four or five major reasons. You know what, I’ll try that at the end of this post. Regardless, let’s take a look at Chuck’s list:

Lack of agency. Yes, fine. This won’t make me hate the protagonist; it will make me not care about the protagonist and quite possibly DNF the book. Chuck points at a couple of different types of problems in this same basic ballpark.

No redemptive qualities. I’m on board with this one. Actually, for me, the protagonist needs to have plenty of redemptive qualities, not just one nice quality in a mass of awfulness.

I’m not sure the best term is “redemptive.” I’m not sure what the best term is. Certainly not “nice.” The protagonist definitely does not need to be nice. Nicholas Valiarde is one of my all-time favorite characters in fantasy, and his daughter Tremaine is even better. I could probably name a dozen great characters who are favorites of mine but aren’t particularly nice. Kaoren Ruuel, say. While thinking of AKH, also Aristide Couerveur, especially in The Bones of the Fair.

But moving on, let’s see what else is in this extensive list of reasons to hate the protagonist.

Steps across the wrong line. Oh, yes, that’s for sure. No killing a pet dog. Don’t care why. Even killing a dog like Cujo isn’t something I tolerate very easily.

–Eye-rolling stupidity. I seem to have mentioned this fairly often recently. It’s not a deal-breaker for me necessarily, depending on my mood. But I don’t think a book can rate above mediocre if the plot is mainly driven by the hopelessly dense protagonist failing to see the obvious.

Various other things, but I think Chuck is starting to reach well before the end — hitting problems with plotting or whatever rather than specifically with the protagonist. Like here:

These Angles Don’t Add Up — I don’t want a boring character, obviously, and yet I do demand some degree of internal consistency. The things she does need to add up. They need to come from a place inspired by her fears, her motivations, her past. If we know all along she’s got a lady-boner for revenge, then it’s a hard pill to swallow when she continues to perform actions against that revenge. But it falls to little things, too — she got shot in the leg but doesn’t limp, she’s from Philadelphia but doesn’t know what a cheesesteak is, she’s got black hair one minute and the next minute she’s a sentient recliner named “Dave.” You know. Little things.

That’s a lack of continuity problem, not specifically a problem with the protagonist. This isn’t the sort of thing that makes you hate the character, it’s the sort of thing that makes you roll your eyes at the author.

And some of the things he mentions — characters who are too perfect — that’s not necessarily a problem for me. If the author handles the perfect character properly, that can be something I really enjoy. I enjoy uber-competence, but the linked book offers a protagonist who is just centered in a golden glow of perfection. Somehow this works.

Regardless, obviously many funny bits in the linked post; by all means click through if you have a moment.

Okay, Four Reasons I Hate Your Protagonist:

1) The protagonist is an awful person. I don’t much care if there are redemptive qualities or not. If the protagonist is basically awful, no thanks.

2) The protagonist is not just dense, but eye-rollingly impulsive. Probably angsty as well. Highly emotional stupid characters who leap into self-defeating action are a definitely DNF for me, even if they manage to somehow come out all right afterward.

3) The protagonist is ineffectual. While the world falls apart, the protagonist stands aside wringing her hands. Occasionally she timidly tries something, but it fails and she retreats into worry and hand-wringing once more. I can’t stand her. I’m thinking of a particular book here, and although I may be exaggerating this quality in the protagonist, this is the feeling I had most of the way through the book.

4) The protagonist is self-destructive and makes terrible choices that anybody could see are terrible and therefore destroys his life. Wow, I see the book I’m thinking of here is book 1 of a six-book series. I can’t imagine going on to book 2 after what happens in book 1. Here is my post after I first read this book. I said this:

I also mean the sort of books in which the good guy loses. I mean really loses, so that his life is thoroughly screwed up at the end. Worse: the sort of story where the good guy does it to himself, so that you, as the reader, can see everything going wrong while the protagonist’s mistakes pile up and then come crashing down on him and everyone around him with all the power and inevitability of a tsunami.

Yeah, if that is happening to the protagonist in a novel, I really do not want to go along for the ride. At all. If I finish the book, it will be because I can’t believe the author is really doing this to their protagonist. If it winds up that no, the protagonist really does destroy his life, I’m never touching another book by that author, ever.

I’m not sure there is anything else that makes me loathe a protagonist to the point I will drop the book in revulsion and back away. Those are the big four.

How about you all? What will make you loathe the protagonist so much you can’t stand to read the book?

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10 thoughts on “25 Reasons I hate Your Protagonist”

  1. The impulsivity thing is a big one for me. *especially* if said impulsive nature doesn’t just endanger them. Really dense/unbelievably naïve characters particularly bug when it’s not in keeping with the characters background. That was part of my problem with the last Becky Chambers I read. There’s a pov character who meets a bad end, and in order to get there he has to completely ignore some massive red flags.

  2. I hate the things you hate. I also hate protagonists who tell cringe inducing lies, especially to impress people. The: “I know how to ride a horse.” lie by a protagonist who has never been on a horse is the worst.

  3. The protagonist’s narrative voice is sour, nasty, never seems to find anything good… however much the narrative tries to tell me she (I’ve got a particular example in mind) is likeable, competent and driven to succeed, I won’t get past the sourness: “This situation could be compared to someone quite suddenly wanting to offer him a cup of coffee. He could accept it gratefully and enjoy it. Or he could refuse the offer, because the coffee had been brought to him before he had time to order, the cup was the wrong color, and it was probably poisoned anyway.” That sort of thinking – makes my brain feel dirty.

  4. Horrible person.

    Also, stupidity. And this is a pet peeve because I don’t like it even if it’s entirely within character, and the character would have done exactly what he did.

  5. I think all of these are good reasons to hate a protagonist, particularly about the protagonist being a bad person or crossing certain lines, which at a certain point become the same thing.

    Aras from the Tuyo series is a good example of a brilliantly written, well developed secondary protagonist that I love, particularly for the moral dilemmas he constantly has to wrestle with (and those he makes everyone around him wrestle with,) but if he had been the main POV protagonist of the series I would have stopped after [spoilerish] what he did to Ryo near the end of Tarashana. The incident was very well handled and perfectly in character as it was written, I simply would not be interested in a main protagonist that did something like that regardless of justification. Nikoles is the only book of the series I did not finish for much the same reason, though I thought he was a good minor character in Tuyo.

  6. Ruus, it’s very interesting to me how differently readers view that, um, interaction. I’m surprised how many readers consider that Ryo is making too big a deal about this. I’m more on your end of the spectrum, although at the same time, it’s hard to see what else Aras could have done. Anyway, as you may be able to predict, various related moral dilemmas are likely to occur in Tasmakat.

  7. I think there’s a tendency, especially for masculine warrior characters like Ryo, to expect them to instantly shrug off any emotional hurt, particularly if like in this case it was the least-bad option Aras had at the moment and it saved a bunch of people. Real emotions aren’t that rational, and it was well established through the whole series that… that… was a very serious thing. I was glad Ryo got the space to break down a bit and grieve before he had to get back up and go on with things.

  8. “Real emotions aren’t that rational” — exactly! That’s exactly right! I’m going to put it that way from now on. Perfect way to express the emotional fallout from that incident.

  9. I was going to wholeheartedly agree about unfollowing an author forever if they pulled that on me, and I just refused to go see a play billed as a tragedy because that is the specific arc (although at least they are upfront about it). But it hit me that MacBeth arguably fits this — he’s not a nice guy, he makes bad life choices, we can all see it’s going to come crashing down, and it does. But it’s still one of my favorite plays. Maybe because I know the arc going in? I’m not really sure.

  10. I don’t know that macbeth is the protagonist? Because we know the arc going in, we’re not terribly invested in him, so his self destruction doesn’t provoke the same dread.

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