November 8, 2009

I have no sympathy for you

Filed under: Great Reads,The Writing Life — jenny @ 10:05 am

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?


  1. I pretty much have to say I don’t love to hate protagonists. Life is full of dislikable people and situations, I don’t need them in my escape time. Flawed and faulty is fabulous. Grimy, disgusting, and unredeemable not so much.

    However, given a compelling story, flawless writing, and enough other things I care about and am intrigued with—and a character arc that makes sense, I might continue to enjoy the book.

    There are no rules in writing, but there are preferences, biases and turn-offs. Apparently there are more people who want to read about characters they care about and can identify with than those who don’t.

    Comment by Peg Brantley — November 8, 2009 @ 11:31 am

  2. My guess is that, if Dexter can make such a big splash (pun intended), there is no character so unlikeable, so unredeemable, that they cannot rise to the top and become a star of sorts.

    I, on the other hand, want the protagonists in any book I read to be human (in actions, if not in species): fallible, good points and bad, but on the whole reasonable representations of what any of us could be, had we been endowed with that individual’s life experiences. I don’t like protags who are either unbelievably intelligent with a mind that holds all the information in the universe, who have all the money in the world to spend and do so unstintingly in the pursuit of truth and justice, or who have no conscience whatever and believe that the end justifies the means, regardless.

    I guess those are reasons I can’t stand “24,” don’t like Nero Wolfe, and find figures like Bulldog Drummond amusing but totally unbelievable.

    Comment by Tony Burton — November 8, 2009 @ 11:49 am

  3. It depends on the character. Who doesn’t love Scarlett O’Hara? And her much more evil European counterpart, Beatrice Lacey of Phillippa Gregory’s WIDEACRE? The kind of girls you love to hate–yet wish would win.

    A friend of mine is currently writing an anti-hero piece that I just love. It’s sort of CONFEDERACY OF DUNCES in feel (but much more interesting IMHO). The narrator has a “full view” of events while the protagonist sort of stumbles through his own personal hell. Very interesting stuff.

    Comment by sapphiresavvy — November 8, 2009 @ 12:32 pm

  4. Sapphire,

    The thing is, I’m from the South, and I hate–HATE– Scarlett O’Hara. She’s a manipulating, cold-hearted bitch and I spent most of the movie wishing that I could see her fall on her face in the mud. I never wanted her to win.


    Comment by Tony Burton — November 8, 2009 @ 12:55 pm

  5. I not only like “unsympathetic” characters, but I actively dislike characters that are supposed to be “sympathetic” but come across to me like gooey goody two-shoesers. You know, wistful yet spunky women whose worst fault is a messy desk or being 5 pounds overweight. Please! Give me an interesting villain over a boring paragon any day.

    Comment by Sara — November 8, 2009 @ 1:36 pm

  6. From Sara to Peg…there is a lot of variation in terms of what we want from our protagonists. This is a little like the genre versus literary fiction discussion, do we want our books to be lifelike or an escape from life? But the consensus seems to be that flawed is necessary, downright unpleasant doesn’t work. Although as Tony points out, a certain TV character is pretty popular these days. Welcome, Tony! And thanks for stopping by, everyone…

    Comment by jenny — November 8, 2009 @ 7:14 pm

  7. I like my protagonists to be layered, and, like Sara, to have bigger problems than needing to lose five pounds or having a messy desk. . .I also don’t understand why agents/editors an be turned off by protagonists who can be snarky, rude, self centered, etc. I have read many a book where I don’t like the protagonist, but I keep reading anyway. I’ve read books where I dislike the protagonist so much I don’t care about the book. Same with “perfect” protagonists — I don’t like protags. who don’t grow during the course of the story.

    Comment by Judy — November 9, 2009 @ 12:18 am

  8. I have to agree with Jenny; I generally enjoy unlikable protagonists. Thomas Covenant is a bastard, but that series is a favorite of mine. Richard Stark’s Parker novels feature a cold-blooded, emotionally detached thief and so far I’ve never read one of his stories that I didn’t like. The protagonist of Stephen King’s Dark Tower novels, Roland Deschain, is a single-minded, brutal, knight-errant who uses his own friends as a means to an end and tosses them aside when they have outlived their purpose.
    For some reason, these characters appeal to me in spite of, or possibly, because of their flaws.

    Comment by Travis — November 9, 2009 @ 5:08 pm

  9. I will have to check out all of Travis’ intriguing recs. Welcome, Travis!

    Comment by jenny — November 9, 2009 @ 5:24 pm

  10. This was a topic on another blog today. Nobody likes a goody-two-shoes. A character too likeable or too unlikeable could be one-dimensional. And if it’s a sub to an agent, so much depends on those first impressions, because they’re not going to feel any obligation to read to the end (or even chapter three) to see if things get better.

    Readers want to be able to identify in some way with the character, or the characters’s conflict. I don’t think I’d read a book just to see an unlikeable protagonist get his due. A secondary character, yes.

    I like characters to be artichokes — lots of tough leaves you have to pull away to get to the meaty, tender heart.

    One of about 3 books I didn’t finish had a protagonist I just couldn’t get behind. I couldn’t accept her situation, or the choices she made.

    Comment by Terry Odell — November 10, 2009 @ 11:35 am

  11. Love the artichoke image, Terry! That is a keeper if you don’t mind my borrowing (giving all credit to you, of course…)

    Comment by jenny — November 10, 2009 @ 1:06 pm

  12. In some of my latest books I find I’m writing less sympathetic and more deeply flawed characters. In my latest, Memory of Darkness, I’m finding that the reaction is very mixed. Most seem to love his flaws and his struggles not to be a total jackass, but a few have seen nothing redeemable about him.

    I don’t know about anyone else, but I like writing about these deeply flawed, not very nice characters who sometimes even relish in how bad they are. So much more interesting than the more typical strong, empowered one who always strives so hard to be good. There’s a place for them, yes, but there’s also a big place in my writing at least, for the irredeemable.

    Comment by Pat Brown — November 16, 2009 @ 2:16 am

  13. I look forward to checking out your latest, Pat! And Tony, whose comment should post soon, did you like the book (GWTW) if not the protagonist? What I’m wondering is whether an unsympathetic character ruins the book–or can we love to hate someone as we’re reading?

    Comment by jenny — December 28, 2009 @ 11:26 pm

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