Wednesday, August 03, 2005



It is an equation that anyone who has ever sent a manuscript to an editor or agent knows by heart: Unlikable protagonist = Prompt rejection. And in many ways, the very words of the equation announces its logic. PRO means for, and how the hell am I going to be FOR someone I innately dislike? Besides, there's lots of characters roaming around lots of stories inside lots of book covers (some would say TOO many, the unpublished would say too few, but that's another subject.) My point here is why spend your vanishing leisure time with one you don't like?

You may have to grin and cluck at a boss you can't stand, may even be stuck in a marriage with a spouse who has revealed sides of his or her character that were in shadow before the ceremony. Aside from the messy business of quitting your job or getting a divorce, you're stuck with those particular "characters". But the characters in a book? If they grate on your nerves, you can close the book with a triumphant thump, and never encounter them again. Go hang out with someone sweet and quirky like Holden Caulfield, or turn to the ever sage Atticus Finch to elevate your character.

The only trouble with the equation is that sometimes a dark, self-centered, miserable protagonist can be frankly fascinating. Especially when they're honest about it. You find me narcissistic and vaguely despicable? this type of character says. Guess what? So do I. And what's more, if you stick around I'll tell you why.

Such is the case of Eva, the protagonist of WE NEED TO TALK ABOUT KEVIN. She's selfish, she's a misanthrope; she's a deadly poor mother, but I hated for her story to end. In fact, this grim but absolutely absorbing story gives you no one to root for. Besides Eva and the sociopathic son who is the product of her genes and her coldness, there's her All-American husband, Franklin. Though he is painted as the good guy, I found him positively infuriating. In fact, I couldn't see what Eva--who possessed a fine intelligence despite her flaws, ever saw in this dolt. The constant excuses he makes for his son's anti-social behavior are supposed to bespeak all-American optimism. To this reader, they merely suggested the willful blindness that is perhaps the worst of our flaws. And even the blandly sweet Celia hardly comes off as a likable character. Her vapid and fearful nature is so cloying that this reader ended up preferring the company of her malevolent brother.

I know I recommended this dark, provocative and utterly brilliant novel when I was 100 pages into it. So why have I returned to do it again? Because it's that good. Good enough, in fact, that maybe some of those editors should reconsider the Unlikable Protagonist equation when it comes to the work of lesser lights than Lionel Shriver.


Anonymous said...

I hope there are editors and agents out there taking note of this. :o)

Anonymous said...

Now I really want to buy the book!
It's given me food for thought, too, and I've written a post on my blog about how to make an unlikable protagonist work.

Bev Jackson said...

Good points, Patry! My protags are not always likeable so this interests me greatly.

Melly said...

Very interesting.
It's so hard to think of a protagonist who has no redeeming qualities. It's even harder for me to think about reading a novel that seems so dark and harsh and gives the reader nothing to hold on to.
I guess I'll just have to read it now.

P. A. Moed said...

Thanks for highlighting something I'm struggling with right now in my novel! The reader needs something positive to latch onto even in the most vain and self-centered character.

Steve Kane said...

Amazing. The thought of whether my protaganists are likeable are not doesn't even enter my head. All I care is that they are interesting and believeable.

Actually, no, they don't even have to be believeable so long as their actions and words adhere to the story's internal logic which may be very different from the logic of the real world.

I don't necessarily want readers to sympathise with my protaganists so long as they can empathise with them. If I can at least make my readers feel that they understand the protaganist to some degree then I am not bothered if readers like them.

Patry Francis said...

Lots of interesting commentary here. I hope everyone will go to Debra's blog and consider her excellent ideas on how to make an unlikable character work.

I also feel that I sold the character Eva short, and made her come off as a protagonist with "no redeeming qualities" as Melly said. Actually, Eva is astute, brilliant ruthlessly honest about her flaws--a virtue which makes up for many of her shortcomings.

Grendel said...

Also try Dostoyevsky's Notes From Underground. 90 pages of a narrator you'd never want to meet but can't get enough of. For God's sake, Lolita must be the ultimate in unlikeable protags.

In class, Ethan Canin sometimes focuses on this curious possibility of the unlikeable but magnetic narrator or protagonist. I didn't know agents were put off by them, though. Too bad.

Patry Francis said...

finnegan: Thanks for recommending Bukowski. I've never read him, and I'm starting to miss my unlikable Eva now that she's gone.

Grendel: I think you (or Ethan Canin) hit on the secret here: if you're going to write about a jerk, better make him/her a charismatic one.

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