confession: i don’t like my novel’s protagonist.

Disclaimer: This will be ranty and disjointed.  I can never think clearly when I’m editing.  Plus I’ve had too much coffee this morning.  (Disclaimer #2: A little clickbait never hurt anyone. *wink*)

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oh look it’s me

So I was editing my novel a few minutes ago (me??? editing??? what is this?!), and I realized that… I don’t really like my main character???

Now, granted, I’ve known that for a while, but it just now hit me.

Beta readers of this book (The Art of Letting Go, which you can learn about here because it’s been so long that I posted about it that my readers probably forgotten about it) understand this, because they know her.  (And, hey, if you’ve read it and you feel this way, let me know in the comments!)

But, just in case you don’t, here’s the gist: Daniella James is a very complicated young woman, made even more so by the fact that (spoiler) her boyfriend dies.  Killed right in front of her.  She’s already got Mommy & Daddy Issues, and those are complicated by the loss of her future and only security (which she’d wrapped up in her boyfriend).

Start out with an anxiety-ridden, pessimistic teenage girl, multiply it by a million, add a dash of cynicism, and you’ve got Danni.

I knew from the get-go that Danni would be different from my previous protag, Nikki, but I didn’t know how different.  Now, four drafts later, she’s basically Nikki’s polar opposite.  She’s rash and negative and cusses and doesn’t really believe in any kind of higher power and doesn’t think about the consequences of her actions and I honestly don’t know if we’d be friends in real life.

(Obviously she changes by the end into a more likable person, but for a good chunk of the book – the first third at least – she’s not the greatest person in the world.)

This got me thinking… why write characters that you, at best, disagree with?  Or even, at the very worst, don’t like?

The short answer is character change.

Good books thrive on conflict.  Boring books have no conflict.  Who wants to read about a static character?  Um, not me.

So if a book has to start out with a faulty character so that they’ll change for the better because of the circumstances they have to go through, bring me that character.

I’m fascinated with faulty characters.  Give me the bad boys and let me cheer for them as they’re put through trials that break their hardened shell and reveal the softer young man inside.  (I’m specifically thinking about Bender from The Breakfast Club or Jughead Jones from Riverdale.)

The other day, I watched a made-for-TV drama based on the life of Michael Glatze, a gay activist who slowly lets go of his gay identity after becoming a Christian, eventually renouncing it, taking on the identity of a heterosexual man, marrying a woman, and becoming a Christian pastor.  It. was. fascinating.  Although I thought the movie was poorly made (it tried too hard to be artistic and some of the actors couldn’t do their jobs very well because of the stilted script) and although I disagreed with some of it (both with some of the things the homosexual characters and even some of the heterosexual, Christian characters said), I’m still thinking about it.  It challenged me.  (Here’s the trailer.  Bear in mind that this movie is TV-MA for language and some sexual scenes, and I still don’t know how the director wanted to portray Michael, but you can do some Googling and read exactly what he’s said on the subject.)

All this to say, what are your thoughts on unreliable or unlikable protagonists?  Have you encountered any of these lately in movies or books?  Did they change or were they more likable by the end?  What changed?  Let’s talk!

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19 thoughts on “confession: i don’t like my novel’s protagonist.

  1. I think this just shows that you’re a good writer (sister-friend for life!). You’ve got this character that challenges you as the story develops, and that’s a good thing. Danni is flawed, like we all are. But she changes as the story continues.

    I’ve always been a sucker for the underdog/flawed (bad boy/girl) characters because they have so much potential and promise. They CAN change, they CAN deliver, and they DON’T have to stay where they are. Keep writing and see where you go! Can’t wait for the future!! ❤️

  2. I liked Danni as a protagonist, though she did annoy me to some extent, but her character development is worth it.
    And I totally style my characters after myself and it needs to stop. My first protagonist was me as a guy, and that might be why I don’t like him very much because he lacks motivation and doesn’t enjoy leaving his comfort zone. Though giving characters one or two of your traits isn’t bad. I gave one of my characters social anxiety (which I actually don’t have anymore. Yay!!), another one a propensity for quiet, another my kind and good natured side, and others similar family situations.

    • I’m glad you liked her, although I agree about her being a little annoying lol. I’m so glad you thought so! Haha same. Interesting! Ooh cool – those are great ideas!

  3. This was interesting! I like my protagonists for the most part, although, I did write a short story and the heroine started off as an incredibly bratty and annoying character (and then changed by the end). I didn’t like her to begin with, definitely. 😛
    I think I need to be bold and daring, though, after mulling it over. I have a tendency to want to make my protagonists relatively nice people even to start with, so that people like them and want the best for them right from the get go. However, I realize how much I love a good character growth throughout a story, and if they already start off as lovely people, it can get a bit bland. Hmm… now you’re giving me ideas. 😀

    That movie looks pretty thought provoking. I love thought provoking films. 🙂

    Also, I think it’s funny that the ONLY way I know about Riverdale (I’ve never seen it though – is it any good?) is because Corey Cott’s brother, Casey, plays in it. And also the fact that Casey’s girlfriend is Stephanie Styles. XD (Now I’m beginning to realize how much of a musical theatre nerd I am…)

    • Although, on second thoughts, I guess protagonists don’t have to start off “mean” to go through a significant change. Often my favourite kinds are ones that mature during the story, and become more confident, courageous and compassionate. (Wow… alliteration much.)

    • Thanks! Ooh cool! Glad you get where I’m coming from. I completely agree – it’s hard to give them room to be themselves & learn from the things we put them through!

      Same!

      It’s AMAZING. And LOL! I know about him the same way. I pride myself on being a fan of him before Riverdale, through Stephanie! XD

  4. Agh. Right now, I’m bouncing back and forth between WIPs. One protagonist is definitely the leather jacket snarker type, and he has to change a lot to get to the story goal. He’s also my favorite character that I’ve ever written. The other is v morbid and angsty. And I still love him, but I don’t /like/ him? So it’s difficult but I still love it.

  5. No! I agree . . . but I’m not the greatest person in the world, either. (I don’t know anybody who is, to be honest. We’re all #beautiful messes and that’s just life, I guess.)

    If you don’t mind me asking, do you struggle with anxiety/pessimism/negativity much, yourself? If you don’t, then I have to say, GOOD JOB because you portrayed it incredibly realistically–it was very much like “yes, I recognize all these feelings and I have felt all these feelings.” Which definitely isn’t always the case when I’m reading, let me tell you.

    Aww thank you!!!! I’m hoping she is! Now you’re making me want to go back and forge ahead with the first draft–which I took a break from to finish the Snow White story–and this is always a good thing 🙂

    • Lol legit same. 😛

      A little of each! I’m more of an optimist, though, and I hate negativity, but I do struggle with anxiety sometimes. Aww, thanks! I’m so glad that was tangible and relatable and accurate in the book!

      Do it!

  6. Huh.

    See, I liked Danni? Quite a lot, actually. I liked her better than either Kyle or David, I think; because I related to her so much better. And it wasn’t just because she was a girl and they were guys . . . I really related to her anxiety and pessimistic outlook and such on a rather deep level. Now, she was much more brash and outspoken about it all than I could ever be–that’s definitely not me–but I understood all the internal feelings.

    Do I write unlikable characters? Hmmmmmmmmm. *thinks* I write characters that *I* like, but I really don’t know how other people feel about them. I THINK the POV character of my Snow White story is fairly likable (in an objective sense); but the other main character, not so much. He’s a bit of a “bad boy,” if you will; but he has clear and definite reasons for being that way, so the readers’ reaction could go either way. We’ll see, I guess.

    Now, the protagonist of my Holocaust/WW2 novel is–if we’re being honest–objectively unlikable. She ain’t nobody’s little ray of sunshine, that’s for sure; she’s silent and cold and blunt on the outside, completely torn up by grief and depression and survivor’s guilt on the inside. She feels way too much and she literally has no clue how to express it; and, objectively speaking, she’s a MESS. But I love her, because she has an enormous heart inside that cold little shell and there’s nothing she won’t do to help someone who needs her help. Plus, I know what she’s been through–and I know I’d be an even bigger mess in her shoes.

    So yeah . . . I think I’d have to admit I tend towards “unlikable” characters as well. They’re more fun to write, honestly. (Plus, I see myself in them more easily. *coughs hurriedly*)

    Long and rambly comment alert 😉 (Probably should’ve put that at the beginning?? Oh well.)

    • Interesting! Glad you weren’t turned off by her at all. I like her, too, she’s just not the greatest person in the world lol. She’s definitely relatable, though. I relate to her in a lot of ways, too – not in her reactions to her situations, though.

      Sounds about right! I agree!

      Ooh she sounds wonderfully complicated! Love it!!!

      I AGREEEEEEE.

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