Sunday, April 29, 2012

I Love to Hate You: The Irresistible Antihero

One of the biggest challenges for writers is to create appealing protagonists (my Beta Readers know how hard I’ve tried with mine!) According to the experts, if readers don’t identify with our characters, they’ll stop reading. But attaining character identification is not so simple, especially if we look at how the dictionary defines this word:

  1. a process by which one ascribes to oneself the qualities or characteristics of another person.
  2. perception of another as an extension of oneself.

Psychologists tell us that “we like best those who are like us,” but if we take into account that everyone has different tastes and personalities, the task seems monumental. Yet, there is an almost universal agreement that most of us are drawn to positive/optimistic characters like Lucy Ricardo or Forrest Gump. Sounds simple enough, except that not every character can be like them. Time and time again, we’re told that nobody likes perfect characters because they’re not true to life, that our protagonists should have flaws and that they should learn/change/grow along the way in an emotionally satisfying way. With all that in mind, how do we balance flaws and appeal? Logic tells us that the more flawed the character, the bigger his/her arc will be. And if we have a big character arc, we just may touch our audience. But if nobody likes him/her, how do we make the reader continue reading?

Fascinating antiheroes in literature and film are proof that this can be done. In search of answers, I came across a simple concept to solve this dilemma: unsympathetic characters must COMPENSATE their flaws with a compelling trait. This quality should be gripping enough to keep the reader's interest, despite his/her feelings for the mean main character.

Ideally, negative protagonists should have one or more of these five traits:


There is something irresistible about a person who can make us laugh. When we first meet Melvin Udall (Jack Nicholson) in As Good as it Gets, we immediately dislike him, yet we can’t help but laugh at his quirky habits and some of his snarky comments. We are hooked by this unusual and utterly unlikeable character (perhaps because we’re curious to know what crazy thing he’ll say/do next.)

At the beginning of When Harry Met Sally, Harry (Billy Crystal) is full of himself and obnoxious, but some his comments are so outrageous they’re funny. By the middle of the film, he has matured and his insights on men/women relationships start to make sense.

For ten years, Sally could not stand Harry. 
In Overboard, Joanna (Goldie Hawn) is a millionaire snob who hires a carpenter called Dean (Kurt Russell) to build a closet on her yacht. When the task is complete, she refuses to pay him as the closet was not done to her full satisfaction. That evening, after she falls overboard and suffers from amnesia, Dean claims her as his wife hoping to get his money back by having her take care of his kids and house. Joanna must adjust to a humble, rural lifestyle and do things she’s never done before. As expected, she encounters a number of funny situations that, eventually, win the audience’s (and Dean’s) favor.

Joanna experiments in the kitchen for the first time.


What do Scarlett O’Hara, Michael Corleone, the Vicomte de Valmont have in common? They all have power. Scarlett is so beautiful and charming no man can resist her. She also has the power to overcome the hardships that come her way during the war.

Scarlett knows exactly how to get what she wants.
Valmont (Dangerous Liaisons) can conquer any woman he sets his eyes on. For his love, they’re willing to ruin their reputations and their marriages. 

The irresistible and cruel Vicomte de Valmont
Michael Corleone (The Godfather) starts off as a sympathetic character, an articulate family man and returning war hero who wants nothing to do with the mafia, but eventually becomes as ruthless and powerful as his father, Vito. Power, or the ability to achieve what us mere mortals can’t, can fascinate and hook the audience in spite of the protagonist’s flaws.


Clint Eastwood is a brilliant director. When we first meet the bitter, rude and racist protagonist of Gran Torino (Walt Kowalski), he’s standing by his wife’s coffin during her funerary service and his badly dressed, ill-behaved, self-centered grandchildren are giggling and checking their cell phones. In addition to these offenses, his two sons are whispering a joke at his expense. We are immediately sympathetic to this character even though we can see from his expression that he’s not a warm and likable man.

Walt Kowalski surrounded by his uncaring family

The protagonist of Girl with a Dragon Tattoo, Lisbeth Salander, is not the most charming heroine: she’s an antisocial computer hacker who never smiles or has a kind word for anybody. However, we see early on that she’s had a rough life. Not only does she live a lonely existence in a cold, humble apartment, but also, the only person she seems to love (her guardian) has a stroke and she’s left in the hands of a disgusting man who abuses her.

When something bad happens to a character or those he loves, we feel sympathy for him (if the author handles the situation well). In addition to sympathy over Walt Kowalski’s crappy family and his impending loneliness, he has positive traits to compensate for the venom that spills from his mouth every time he speaks: he’s hard-working, brave, loyal, straightforward and kind to his dog.


Both Lisbeth Salander and Walt Kowalski have another thing in common. Even though they’re tough and confident, they’re vulnerable. Salander is a small, thin woman, with a guardian twice her size who has no conscience. Kowalski is a sick old man who, despite all his weapons and war experience, lives alone in a neighborhood ran by gangs. The two of them are never safe and we cringe every time they take a bold action (which is often).

The Girl with a Dragon Tattoo is always in danger.

As a woman in the South after the Civil War, Scarlett O’Hara is often in danger, too. Her vulnerability makes our bad feelings for her soften at times (though she keeps making us angry throughout the entire novel!)


If we can see early on that an unsympathetic character is, at the core, a good person, we’re more likely to tolerate his/her bad behavior. We may even start rooting for him/her. Salander does a lot of illegal things, but she has a sense of justice that we can sympathize with. She punishes evil and cruel men. We may not agree with her methods, but we instinctively know that she wouldn’t harm an innocent.

Kowalski has no regards for other people’s feelings and is quick to insult them, but he recognizes that his young neighbor has a good heart and appreciates/respects his virtues. He’s willing to commit the ultimate sacrifice in order to give this kid a chance in the world. Despite his many flaws, Kowalski has a clear sense of right and wrong.

Although Melvin Udall is consistently spiteful to his neighbor (Simon), he gives him shelter when the latter has nowhere to live. In addition, he takes good care of Simon’s dog despite his initial irritation toward the animal. This shows us he has a good heart.

The misanthropist, obsessive-compulsive Melvin
proves he has feelings when he helps Simon.


In his book Writing the Breakout Novel, agent Donald Maass points out that the most common mistake he finds in submissions is that the protagonist is unsympathetic. In an attempt to create flawed and interesting main characters, writers make them too dark and that can be “wearisome,” he says. Although he agrees that perfect individuals are not engaging and transformation can be very powerful in a story, redemption only comes at the end of a novel and readers may not stick around for that long. The key to make readers care, he says, is to balance negativity with sympathetic qualities and give dark characters “moments of humanity.” Maass offers the following tip: if a character is aware that he’s self-destructive, wrong or in trouble and makes an effort to change, the reader will remain engaged. The example he gives is Conrad Jarrett in Ordinary People.

Conrad is a depressed teenager who’s just returned home from a psychiatric hospital after a suicide attempt following his brother’s death. Even though his thoughts are dark and depressive most of the time, Conrad makes an attempt to get better and take it “one day at a time.” The reader starts rooting for him.

“Readers need reasons to hope. To write the breakout novel, it is necessary to provide readers those reasons not just at the end but all the way through.” (Maass, Donald. Writing the Breakout Novel. Pg. 117)

How have you handled your own dark characters? Can you think of other imperfect protagonists in literature and what has hooked you to them?

Erasure - I Love to Hate You

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  1. I'll be honest, I'm struggling with my current character. She is the only problem I have with my story after all the feedback I've received. Although she makes the proper moral decisions later on in the novel, she doesn't make any good ones early on and I think this is why there's a little disconnect with the readers. BUT, I think I know how to fix her, so we'll see!

    Thanks for a great, insightful post, Lorena!

    ♥ Mary Mary

    1. I think you're right on track, Sister Mary! Glad this helped.

  2. I didn't know you liked Erasure!

    L, this is another thorough, well-realized post and can I just say I *knew* you were going to mention Jack Nicholson's character the second I read the third paragraph?

    Back a bit to your opener, trying to create a character that is 'universally-loved' may (just may) be an exercise in futility because of marked subjectivity but also because in trying to be liked we often come off as trying to, so perhaps in trying to create a likable character, the same thing occurs?

    Maybe it is more just about writing with joy and those who love it will love it and those who don't, won't?

    I know this flies in the face of the obsessive 'how-to' culture so robust in our milieu, but I just know it was a hell of a lot easier for me to produce when I wasn't chewing my fingernails down to a bloody nub over greatness. I was just in love with my books.

    Two rusted cents. (Still legal tender.)

    1. Dear Suze,

      I'm in love with the 80s as much as you are :)

      About "how-tos", I think the ideal for a novelist would be to be able to write freely and happily, but as we have seen, once our novels leave the comfort of our hard drives and are exposed to the world, we are confronted with the harsh reality of publishing. In that sense, I think articles, peers, books, etc, can help us figure out what's not working. But the risk of too much information/knowledge, unfortunately, is that it can have a paralyzing effect. One more challenge we have to face, I guess.

    2. I'm going back. I'm going back to love. I think, if you suffer, you learn something and it becomes imprinted on your soul. Then you can stop focusing on it and go back to love.

      I'll let you know how that works out. :)

  3. Dear Sister Lorena,
    I don´t have problems with negative protagonists. In fact, I love them. I NEVER liked Lucy or Forrest Gump (I was partial to Lieutenant Dan). I resent negative traits that come dressed with good intentions (i.e. romance heroines that lie through their teeth as part of their self-sacrifice). On the other hand, I find it equally boring if a character is always bad, to the point of caricature. I’m afraid that is going to happen with Lady Melisandre in GOT, so far I am enjoying he power and cleverness.
    I didn´t like Scarlett for her power over men. I only like her when she is fighting overpowering odds. I enjoy her more when she is down on her luck than when she is rich and spoiled. A real dastardly protagonist is dear Dr. Lecter, but I love his intelligence, his learning, his wit and appreciation of good things. Moreover, he never really harms the innocent (well only in Red Dragon).

    Talking about my own characters is a bit painful since all of them are dark and follow their own moral codes, but I gave up on Venefica after you complained (thrice) about the heroine’s harshness. I thought I had given enough reasons to explain her coldness and apparent callousness, but I realized I had failed in creating a sympathetic character. Sometimes even putting them in danger, or describing their unhappy childhood is not enough to create an appealing dark character.

    1. I'm sorry if I complained too much about Venefica, but remember, that was just one opinion. Someone else may love her. :-)

      Tell me about Lady Melisandre. I don't know anything about GOT although you and Sister Steph constantly mention it.

      Oh, I'm in love with Forrest Gump and Lucy!!! But I see how they may get on people's nerves. That's why I mentioned that "identification" is very subjective. (I do like Lt. Dan. It's Major H's favorite character, too)

    2. I don´t know. Every time I read Venefica, I get the feeling that not one of the characters is nice, barring Violante. That is why I wrote a different novel around her.

      I’m not surprised Major H. likes Lt. Dan. We are both drawn to military figures.

      People tend to resent you if you like negative characters. Lucretia, my favorite character in Spartacus, was not a good person. She did commit many crimes, but she paid dearly. She lost everything she loved. Her husband and her best friend were killed. She lost her baby, her house, she was raped, etc. But I mentioned how much I liked her in YT, and someone charged right at me and said “then you must be like Lucretia!” There is a certain stigma in liking wicked characters.

      Melisandre is not GOT protagonist, but she has her importance. She is a fire priestess who brings a mysterious Eastern religion to Westeros (the mythical land where GOT’s action takes place.) She uses religion and her magic (and sexual powers) to control Stannis Baratheon (one of the many Kings involved in The Five Kings War) She is very subtle in her maneuvers, but very lethal. So far, those who have not read the books thought that all her talk of magic was chicanery, but two weeks ago she showed her might, by giving birth (extremely graphic scene) a shadow demon that killed Renly(Stannis’ brother and another claimant to the Iron Throne.)

      I am so hooked on that series (and books); I may open a blog just to chat about it. So far, there seems to be only one in Spanish. You should read them. They read like historical fiction, or King Arthur’s Legends.

    3. Thanks for the info. If you like antiheroes more than traditionally good heroes, why do you like Melanie?

    4. Because, unlike most people, I see Melanie as a rule-breaker, a transgressor. She dares to do everything Scarlett fears. She befriends prostitutes, stands up for Rhett when he is an outcast, becomes Scarlett’s partner in crime, and seduces her husband so he can get him pregnant again. Unlike Scarlett, she doesn´t let fear of G-d, or social ostracism stop her.

    5. Interesting how the general perception of Melly is that she's weak, but after all the points you mention, I realize she's just as strong as Scarlett (and perhaps smarter because S is always getting in trouble, but everyone adores M).

    6. This comment has been removed by the author.

    7. Oophs Major H. will hate us but I can´t bypass a chance to comment on my favorite literary character.
      For years, simpleton critics have dismissed Melanie as a “bloodless Madonna” forgetting that the Virgin Mary is the strongest female figure in the New Testament (perhaps in the entire Bible.)
      What is the paragon of female power according to publicity? A woman that exudes confidence. That is Melly´s strongpoint. She is confident that every one of her actions is right whether is helping Scarlett hide the corpse of the murdered Yankee or putting flowers on Yankee soldiers’ graves. Whereas Scarlett is never sure of her actions, she is always pretending or conniving. She only dares to be genuine when she is really angry.

  4. Sisters,

    Can we please have a discussion without mentioning GWTW? I agree Violante. By the way, I think that the Clint Eastwood character is misinterpreted. Many people see his character arc as being a long one over a very short period of time. I don't really see it that way. I think he was a good guy at the beginning of the story and still a good guy at the end. Pretty simple if you think about it.

    Major H

    PS - Hi girls hope you all are doing well!

    1. I tried to control myself about GWTW, Major H, but one cannot speak about antiheroines without mentioning Scarlett. It's not our fault that GWTW offers so many good examples in a variety of situations :)

      I believe Eastwood's character has an arc. In the beginning, he dislikes his neighbors because they're not American. By the end, he loves Thao more than he loves his children/grandchildren (he sacrifices his life for him and leaves him his precious car) and realizes "they're more like me than my own family" (quote from the movie!)

    2. Dear Major,
      How nice to read you!
      What do you have against GWTW?

  5. Regis remarks—Reading the comments to this interesting post, I couldn't help thinking of the saying, 'different strokes for different folks. Is it really necessary to for a reader to identify with and worry about a character, to enjoy a novel? As an example, (excuse me if I sound too literary), I managed to stick with the confusing prose of Proust's 'Remembrance of Things Past' for many tedious hours, just because it was a picture of a milieu totally foreign, but terrifically interesting to me—full of odd events and characters; I can't think of one character I particularly liked or identified with. (French readers may have). But then, by the strictest definition, Proust's book may not be a 'novel.' My beta reader suggested I work on the 'lovability quotient' of the MC in my present work. (Along with, perhaps, another conflict, or two.)

    1. "Is it really necessary to for a reader to identify with and worry about a character, to enjoy a novel?"

      Not necessarily. But if you're not drawn to the character, you have to be drawn to something else: plot, setting, prose. It seems to me that in our current literary market, characters are very important (if you look through agent/editor websites/blogs, they're always mentioning *strong characters*). But it may not have always been the case. Perhaps at other points in time, plot or theme were more important (just a guess).

    2. Setting aside my personal tastes, I would say YES. Having a realistic protagonist a caring about what happens to the MS is essential. Publishers, agents and reader agree about that part.

      If you don’t care about the main characters then you won´t care what happens to them, and certainly you won´t care to read about their lives and adventures. You don´t have to love them, approve their actions, or to be like them, but they have to hook you.

      Regis, I think what your BR meant was that you should inject some emotions into your MS to make him more realistic hence more interesting.

      I have to confess that I don´t worship Proust as critics do, but I liked Swann, I cared enough about him and The Narrator´s liaison with Albertine to read In Search of Lost Time.

  6. Erasure: blast from the past! I am back at my prom.

    Great post, Sis Lorena. I love your prescriptions. One of my dark characters is (I hope) leavened by humor. But she's modern. The other dark protagonist I have is historic, and it's harder to insert humor into an historic character, since humor is very time-dependent. I look to other novels set in the 19th century (classics or historical fiction) to see what makes a heroine — in particular — compelling. It's tricky, because women in classic novels tend to be quite passive; in modern novels set 100 or 200 years ago, women might be spunkier but usually it's at an enormous cost to themselves. They are tragic figures, either way. Modern female protagonists, like modern females, have so many more ways to be interesting.

    1. Sister Steph,

      I just finished reading a historical novel based on a real woman (Manuela Saenz, Simon Bolivar's lover) and she's pretty funny and strong. Of course there's tragedy all around her (times were tough!) but she's a compelling heroine, and she's not all perfect either.

      "It's tricky, because women in classic novels tend to be quite passive."

      Perhaps the reason why this heroine is so engaging is because the book was published six years ago. Authors now are very aware that heroines, even historical ones, have to be strong. (Honestly, it's starting to bug me--it's becoming predictable. But that's subject for another post.)

      Anyway, I think you would enjoy this book. It's called "Our Lives Are The Rivers" by Jaime Manrique.

    2. I hear you Sister Lorena.
      It´s imperative to have “strong” heroines, but what do the mean by “strong”? I think Melanie is strongest (and the author says as much) than Scarlett but most readers don´t see that. Some people say “strong” means to control their sexuality and so you get promiscuous heroines which are not always sympathetic.

      There are so many archetypes of female power: temptress, warriors, healers, witches and saints. Watching Spartacus and then reading comments on social networks I got a very odd idea of what male viewers saw as “strong female”. For them that had to be a kick-ass girl, one that killed just like a man, attacking frontally and wielding sword or knife.

      On the other hand, both villainesses were murderers but they used poison or backstabbing (cowardly forms of attack) and what the macho men really resented was that both “forced” male slaves to sleep with them.(I use quotation marks because Lucretia and Ilythia were very beautiful and sexy so slaves didn’t really resent having to gratify their “dominaes.) But the audience didn’t see that as feminine strength. I guess the dominatrix days are over!

  7. I love dark characters. They are the funnest to write. Perhaps it's because I don't understand the always cheery characters. My favourite dark characters are Mr. Rochester from Jane Eyre.

    1. Clarissa, I agree that dark characters are sometimes easier to write, but for me that happens when they're not the protagonist. With the protagonist I have the pressure to make her appealing to the reader and I don't feel free to make her too dark (like I do with secondary characters). Rochester is a good one. Thanks for stopping by and good luck with your e-book!

  8. In my own writing to begin with the main character is particularly nasty, and represents an extreme and deadly xenophobia. But then in a few chapters he begins to have a crisis of faith, which leads down a meandering moral path. The more he tries to be empathic, the more it ends up hurting him one way or another. So he becomes more and more moral, and yet more and more of an emotional wreck.

    The two other character perspectives are a generally likeable man, and then a girl who goes from terrified victim to sadistic abuser. Although she's most interesting given her hunger for power, partly as a way to empower herself from being the abused runt of a very large litter, so to speak, heh. I suppose that mix helps to balance it.

  9. Hi nodgene,

    How have your readers reacted to your xenophobic/dark character? I'm curious to know if you've 'compensated' for his nastiness with something else. Are you happy with the way he turned out?

  10. Hi, I'm a new subscriber to this blog and I'm very happy to have discovered it. I love protagonists that start off as awful people and then make a transformation. It's a real challenge for a writer to make this transformation believable, but it's part of the fun of writing.

    1. Welcome, Francene! Glad you found us.

      It's definitely more fun to write flawed characters. The problem is when nobody (but the author) likes them!!


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