p.38: On Unlikeable Protaganists

How likable should protagonists be? Do unlikable protagonists need some qualities about them that readers can identify with, some aspect of the character they can feel invested in?

It’s a debate I’ve had with a number of other writers. While I think there are no right or wrong answers — there’s a reader for every kind of writer — I lean down on the side that even unlikable protagonists should have something about them that helps readers root for them in some way. Even if the protags are horrible human beings.

In that vein, I stumbled on this excellent video blog from the Lessons on the Screenplay channel on Youtube that examines the protagonist in Nightcrawler, a tremendously underrated movie. Jake Gyllenhaal plays a true sociopath in it, someone who I highly doubt most any viewer could actually like, who is yet an incredibly compelling character. The performance is a tour de force, but it’s all there in the screenplay, too.

The video really sums up my thoughts on the subject better than anything I could write, and uses great examples from the screenplay for evidence. I hope others will find it as useful as I did.

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P.28: Characters You Can Relate to, or Not

My friend and I were having a discussion about Transparent, Amazon’s widely-praised series playing on their Prime streaming service.

I think it deserves all the praise it gets, but I don’t like it quite as much as I’d like, because the characters are all a little too flawed.

Don’t get me wrong — I like flawed characters, protagonists included. But for me, it’s important that there’s at least one or two characters in any story who have some nuggets about them that make them likable, relatable or people who you could root for in some way — even with their flaws.

My friend disagreed, and had a good reason — there’s so little fiction out there that doesn’t ascribe to the conditions I set above. For her, that’s what made Transparent all the more refreshing. It was hard to argue with that, so I conceded the point.

What it all boils down to is different strokes for different folks. I still prefer my stories to have at least a few characters to like, relate to or root for, especially if they’re morally grey or worse, and so that’s what I write — but the more different kinds of fiction, filling more and more niches, the better.