Pub Rants

Prickly Protagonists

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STATUS: I worked hard on a contract today. That always requires my undivided attention.

What’s playing on the iPod right now? DIAMONDS ON THE SOULS OF HER SHOES by Paul Simon

I have to admit that as a reader, I’m often drawn to stories that have a hard-to-love main protagonist. I find the growth of that character’s story arc fascinating and so worth discovering.

Unfortunately, editors aren’t agreeing with me. I’ve shopped two manuscripts this year that had, shall we say, not so huggable main narrators and haven’t found a home for either project.

Main feedback from the editors? Main character was unsympathetic or too hard to like.

And then you wonder how something like Emily Giffin’s Something Borrowed becomes big. For me, the writer accomplished the near impossible—a character who has done something despicable yet still maintains the reader’s sympathy. Not an easy thing to accomplish and shows the strength of the writer.

So now I’m pretty reluctant as of late to take a chance on a novel with a tough main protagonist. Just today I passed on sample pages that were beautifully written but alas, had this fault in the main character.

And yes it probably does mean I’m lacking in courage but when you get shot down too many times, you gotta take a break from it.

So don’t rule me out completely but know that I’m hesitating on those prickly protagonists.

30 Responses

  1. Conduit said:

    And I’m just starting to submit a novel with an extremely dark protagonist! Think Unforgiven’s William Munny in a modern setting and you’re almost there. He’s a man with a burden of guilt that’s eating him alive. Going by your comments, it’s going to be a tough sell.

    I wonder, how much does the character arc bear on this? My story has two central characters: the protagonist should really be the bad guy, while the antagonist initially appears on the side of right. As the story unfolds, however, one man discovers his humanity while the other loses his, and their good guy/bad guy roles are reversed.

    I’ve always favoured the flawed protagonist, as a reader. The deeper the flaws the better for my tastes. Oh well, I knew it was a risky route when I started the novel, but you can’t write to the market either. The story is what it is.

  2. BuffySquirrel said:

    In Scar Night, Alan Campbell succeeded in making one of the main characters–a torturer–into a sympathetic character. He wasn’t particularly likeable (I mean, he’s TORTURING people throughout the book!), but I liked him anyway. Conversely, one of the other characters, who I suspect was meant to be likeable, I didn’t like at all.

    A redeeming feature, or being able to understand why the protagonist is the way they are, or being given some other reason to sympathise with them, works best for me in engaging with a prickly protagonist. If I can’t engage on an emotional level, I can’t carry on reading. YMMV.

  3. Karen Duvall said:

    Wow, I’m shocked to hear this, Kristin. Is it any particular genre? I can see romance as maybe not being quite so open to an unlikable main character who has some growing to do. But urban fantasy, the genre I write, is all about the snarky, bull-headed, baggage-wielding character with a very curvaceous arc to navigate through. That’s what’s so satisfying about the genre. We likes ’em extra tough! 8^)

  4. Anonymous said:

    Very sad state of affairs for literary writing if this is the case. Now I admit, I want to be able to root for a character (I don’t like characters like those on the Sopranos for example)But I don’t want my characters to be cookie cutter perfect, either

  5. Shanna Swendson said:

    I think Something Borrowed worked because the protagonist was generally a likable, sympathetic person who was doing something horrible, but kind of understandable, and the “victim” in that story was rather despicable while just as guilty as the heroine was. There were a lot of readers cheering for the idea of the smart, less pretty girl managing to steal the great guy from the pretty bitch. The circumstances were kind of rigged to create sympathy for the heroine (the way the heroine had initially liked the guy but was sure she could never snag him, the way the “friend” had treated her all along, the way the “friend” was cheating on the guy with the guy she thought the heroine was dating).

    And then in Something Blue when the bitch was the heroine, she had built-in sympathy because we’d already seen the start of her comeuppance.

  6. 2readornot said:

    It is too bad…I’ve also read a pre-pubbed ms that had a difficult MC, but I liked it. Very much, in fact. It was extremely well-written, and I find it hard to believe that editors couldn’t realize that readers would enjoy it (as I did) — her agent is also shopping it and having a tough time with the sale.

  7. Anonymous said:

    I’ve also read this on other blogs, discussions on the internet with agents, and other various sites.

    Hey, if you feel it’s too hard of a sell,then it’s probably best not to take it on.

    No shame in that.

  8. Rebecca Burgess said:

    I can sympathize with just about anyone with enough info about why they are the way they are. For me, imperfect, realistically so, makes for a much stronger character (and book by the way) for both the protagonist and the antagonist. I like to think, “Yes, I completely get why you’re so…”

    As the late great Mr. Rogers said, “There isn’t anyone you couldn’t love once you’ve heard their story.”

    I try to remember this when I create my characters, good and bad. People are not simple dichotomies, but shades along a gray continuum. Shades that shift.

  9. Kimber An said:

    I’ve wondered about this. The main thing I love about reading a novel is the growth of the hero or heroine. She caNOT grow if she starts out perfect! Yet, more publishing professionals seem to believe readers have become impatient with characters who need to grow. The Heroine must start out kick-ass or else. I wonder, do they actually go out and talk to readers or do they base this belief on the sale of new books? If it’s the latter, it’s my opinion they’re getting lop-sided feedback. That can only backfire. Readers who don’t find what they want in a new bookstore go to the used bookstores or libraries instead. Is anyone in the industry tracking their needs?

  10. Michelle said:

    I’m puzzling over this right now. I’ve sort of stopped reading contemporary romance in the past few years because I find the narrow range of characteristics in both the hero and heroine, boring. The churlish man has his charms. The whole thing smacks of Stepford to me. My first ms was rejected by an agent because, while she found the writing “professional” and the plot “well-drawn” my hero was not likeable enough. I’ve known many men – very few of them are instantly likeable. That’s why they are so fascinating, isn’t it?

  11. Dave Kuzminski said:

    Even better when you have a flawed hero going up against another flawed hero while they’re both fighting the same enemies only they don’t realize it until the end. [even better, it was just published by Double Dragon Publishing] 🙂

  12. Anonymous said:

    I don’t mind flawed heroes, however, I’m just not going to read 300 and some odd pages of a book if I don’t like the characters.

    I agree that the protagonist needs to grow, but that doesn’t mean she/he has to start out being completely unredeemable.

    I read books to escape reality.

  13. Bella Stander said:

    There is plenty of fiction being published with flawed and/or unlikeable protagonists, just not by the editors Kristin deals with. She’s reporting what she sees in her corner of the publishing world.

    So if you’ve written the next TALENTED MR. RIPLEY or LOLITA or EPICURE’S LAMENT, you’re going to have to query elsewhere. But if you have an odious M.C. and you’re writing in a genre that Kristin represents, maybe it’s time for some tweaking.

  14. Poor Struggler said:

    Was Ignatius J. Reilly likeable? Was Rabbit Angstrom likeable? And as a previous poster alluded to, was Humbert Humbert likeable? Nope.

    Personally, I enjoy these types of characters and all their massive flaws. It seems rather sexist to me, too, that we have to like our female protagonists, but our male ones (like those mentioned above) can be flawed and unlikeable literary masterpieces.

  15. Catherine said:

    Knowing this makes me a little sad since it’s usually the darker characters which garner my sympathy the most. I like the monsters, the twisted, bitter ones and the terrifying psychopaths because they break (or are broken) easily and hurt most in the end.

    I’m often drawn to the antagonists in stories because they’re more human, more morally grey, than the protagonists who have a tendency to just fight the good fight and see things in a black and white way.

  16. Anonymous said:

    Ahab’s obsession, Gatsby’s obsession, Raskolnikov’s guilt, Emma Bovary’s materialism and shallowness, Mary Lennox’s snobby spoiled personality at the start of “The Secret Garden”…. It’s hard to find a classic without flawed characters. It seems like, after reading this, the writer has two choices: change your characters to fit what is popular and watch it disappear when the craze is over, or keep your book the same and know it has a better chance of lasting– even if part of its life-span is spent hidden in a drawer. You have to decide which is a deal with the devil. Oddly enough, to me it seems like the deal with the devil is the very route that wants you to edit out your devil.

  17. Anonymous said:

    Unlikeable with highly “redeeming qualities” however, shows the strength of a good writer who can clearly showcase these two key elements.

    Therefore, it gives a good basis for the ability to “root” for that character in the end.

  18. beverley said:

    Yes, I love the not so sympathetic heroine or hero. I think it just adds to their conflict and I’m sad I don’t see more of them out there. But when you say unsympathetic, do you just mean he or she is not nice? cold? a cheater? illegal activities? I’m not sure where the line is drawn here.

  19. April said:

    Ninteen Minutes by Jodi Picoult is another excellent novel with a hard to like protagonist. But it works. I myself don’t know if I could write a novel like that b/c I need to be able to relate to the protagonist. And I can’t if I’m mad at them for the thigns they ahve done.

  20. LitWitch said:

    Well, darn.

    I add to the chorus of cheering the tragic/dark hero/heroine, but there must be a “gray area” between humanly-flawed and out-and-out nasty. And romance is certainly different than spec’fic’ or satire.

    Still, it’s not a good sign when editors or agents send up the little white flags.

  21. Heather said:

    When I go to the romance/erotica section in a bookstore I look for a churlish hero and a strong heroine described on the back cover.

    Then I flip to page 100 to see if they’re making “lovey dovey” eyes at each other yet. If they’re doing that by page 100 I usually won’t purchase the book.

    The hero needs to have more of a journey to redemption (or maybe not be redeemed at all) in order for me to fall in love with him.

    Nothing makes me more disapointed in a book than to have the author or publisher promise a tortured and lovably unlovable hero and then not deliver.


  22. Thom said:

    Look at the problems being faced by the prime time medical show House M.D.. House is a study on what to do and what not do to with a somewhat nasty main character. Unfortunately, after staring with what to do in seasons one and two, the writers have decided to try a season of what not to do, and, frankly, it is hard to waste that kind of time on a character that doesn’t either teach you something, make you hope for something, or at least challenges you.

  23. Anonymous said:

    I was thinking of Nineteen Minutes too. I went back and forth between despising the shooter and feeling extremely sorry for him. It takes a great storyteller to do that.

  24. Anonymous said:


    I think you are confusing an unlikeable character with an unlikeable action.

    I agree with Shanna. Something Borrowed works beautifully because the heroine is very likeable, and the fascination is that she does something so horrible…but she sets it up so well that you end up rooting for her….because she’s sympathetic.

    It’s hard to engage with a character who is unlikeable off the bat, unless he/she has some quality that draws you to him, a hint of the softer side or just something so interesting that you care about what happens.

  25. Anonymous said:

    This is very reason I’ve stopped reading and buying most romance novels: because the characters are no longer complex; are cookie cutter-nice and light (like air), and duller than dull. Me no like dull. Give me a nice bi*ch any day. Kristin, maybe you should tell/ask those editors to cut it out already. Sorry, though.

  26. Lupina said:

    Seems there was a little novel some years ago with a vain, snobbish, arrogant, selfish protagonist who had a thing for her nice cousin’s man … her name was Scarlett O-Something. 🙂 People LOVE a wicked lady if done properly!