This feels like a confession of sorts. I like unsympathetic characters.
A good friend of mine whose novel is about to go on sub received passes from agents who said her protagonist wasn’t sympathetic enough. I could never understand these. I’d read my friend’s ms, and I thought that her struggling, multi-layered protagonist was one of the strongest parts of her book.
A reviewer by the name of Gloria Feit, whose “recommended’s” and “highly recommended’s” I’ve come to trust, led me to a brand-new-to-me author recently. Jason Starr’s latest, PANIC ATTACK, features a protagonist characterized by frustrated ego and strivings at self-congratulatory greatness.
I hated him.
And I consequently read all the more voraciously. I wanted to see this man take a fall. Get his comeuppance.
Starr’s power as a writer enabled Adam Bloom to become much more as the book went on. Masterfully, Starr switched my loyalties, so that by the end, Bloom had become someone still flawed, yet redeemed enough that the book satisfied on a whole other level.
But the point of this post is to ask, what if the main character hadn’t changed thus? Is a protagonist whom the reader hates the kiss of death for a novel?
As learning writers, books of craft advise us to create a sympathetic character, someone the reader can identify with. But I’ve always been wary of one-size-fits-all advice, whether that’s dietary or writing. (Come on. Do we all really need to cut out every crumb of bread?)
For me–speaking as a reader now, not a writer–I love a book with a character I can love to hate. I will be all the more engaged while I wonder whether this person will be forced to face her limitations and come to terms with them.
Some of the greatest–or at least most readable–novels of all time rest on this principal. Scarlet O’Hara wasn’t exactly a noble belle of the old South. And certainly the anti-hero is a mainstay of literature.
So why are publishers or agents turning mss down because the characters aren’t likeable enough? Why the advice in those many books on craft?
What about you? Are you turned off by a novel with a dislikeable protagonist? If you’re a writer, do you gravitate towards or away from a character your reader just might love to hate?