Some stories are driven by antiheroes. Other stories are driven by protagonists whose morale is of a dubious, gray nature. There are as many types of protagonists as stories. There is no need to go into that. What we are focusing on today is all the signs that show that your protagonist is developing to be unlikable – and when a character is unlikable, he or she is definitely not easy to relate with. Keep in mind that some protagonists are so deeply flawed that we are compelled to like them, and then there are some protagonists who are so deeply bad that we love reading about them just to see them fall to their ruin.
However, the type of protagonist we are focusing today is, for lack of a better term, a regular protagonist who should drive the story and take us along for the ride. If that character is unlikable, then you will not have readers who will fanatically analyze every word, every sentence to look for a deeper meaning. Books with that kind of protagonist end up as doorstoppers, and below, you will several signs that this is where your protagonist (and by extension, your book) is going.
1. Indulging in self-pity
In fiction, the protagonist should rarely indulge in self-pity and have woe-is-me scenes. We don’t want to read about all the troubles that the protagonist is in and how overwhelming they are. He is chased by mobsters, hunted by mercenaries, caught up in a conspiracy, and on top of that, his dog peed on his bed? Then show us the chase, the mercenaries, the signs of the conspiracy, and of course, the dog. But don’t have scenes where the protagonist sits at home with the lights out and the curtains drawn, huddled between the coffee table and the sofa, hiding and crying. Indulging in self-pity flat out pauses, and even stops, every story. At most, do it once, when literally everything looks bleak. But if the protagonist does this at every turn, it’s called whining, and it is neither an admirable trait, nor a rounding flaw.
2. Mean in narrative
Your protagonist might only be trying to be funny, but in some occurrences, it can go too far. Being mean in narrative happens when a protagonist shares their thoughts with the audience in first person point of view. The protagonist draws stereotypical conclusions about another character at best, or is being flat out judgmental towards another character at worst. An example of this is a female point of view character being mean about another female character for no reason. This is taken to the extreme when all the other characters that the protagonist is friendly towards are male. Male protagonists are not free from this either, for they can also be mean towards other characters for no reason. It’s one thing to show the protagonist’s insight into other people, it’s completely another to have him draw conclusions based on another character’s appearance.
3. Being a hypocrite without facing it
Let’s say your protagonist was narrow minded and judgmental at the beginning. Unless that changes by the end of the book, the protagonist will not be a favorite among the readers. In fact, they might even hate the protagonist. An off-shoot of this is if the protagonist has acted in a judgmental, hurtful, or stereotypical manner towards another character because of something they did or said – and then the protagonist turns around and does the same thing, justifying it with many different reasons. The protagonist might never acknowledge the hypocrisy of his actions, never show that he understands things better now, and continue acting in the same manner. That’s being a hypocrite, which might be interesting in a villain or antagonist, but not in the protagonist – unless they acknowledge and face that fact.
4. Lack of progress
A protagonist who acted like a hypocrite needs to acknowledge that, face it, and make progress. But, there are other things that shape up your protagonist that are beyond behavior. There is trauma from the past for example. If you are writing a series featuring the same protagonist, and the protagonist is still facing the same internal issues caused by a trauma that happened before the first book even started, it’s lack of progress. You need to keep your protagonist on a path of change, constantly, have him discover his inner problems and work on them. But, if something happened to him when he was in his teens, and he is still consciously dwelling on this despite the fact that so many things have happened to him in between, which were supposed to help him heal, then you must have a good reason why that’s happening. But if you don’t have a reason and include details just because it’s part of the character’s framework, then you need to think in terms of progress, not stagnation.
5. Simply being too good
This is a very easy one, and one of the earliest signs of creating an unlikable character. Your character is basically extremely good at everything he needs to be good at. He is the best friend anyone could ever want. He is extremely good looking – and guess what? He doesn’t even need to go to the gym, and he can indulge on food as much as he pleases. Everyone wants to date the protagonist; everyone seems to simply like him, and the only reason why the antagonist or the villain is after the protagonist is because of jealousy. How couldn’t they be? Even when the protagonist stumbles on a pile of dog manure on the street, he finds a winning lottery ticket inside! The list goes on and on. Tone it down, or none of your readers will want to spend more than five pages in the company of your protagonist, let alone the length of the book.
Georgina Roy wants to live in a world filled with magic. As an art student, she’s moonlighting as a writer and is content to fill notebooks and sketchbooks with magical creatures and amazing new worlds. When she is not at school, or scribbling away in a notebook, you can usually find her curled up, reading a good urban fantasy novel, or writing on her laptop, trying to create her own.