I Like My Protagonist Flawed, With A Side Of Tragic

People are not perfect. I apologize if this comes as a shock to you, but I rather doubt it does. Because of humanity’s lack of perfection I find my favorite book protagonists are the ones that are deeply flawed and for the most part down-right unlikable. A great example of this is Dark Places: A Novel by Gillian Flynn.  The protagonist, Libby Day, describes herself (most accurately) with the following: I have a meanness inside of me, real as an organ. Slit me at the belly and it might slide out, meaty and dark.

So what is it about these deeply flawed individuals that I find so compelling?  Is it because I find them more realistic based on my skewed views of humanity? Is it because I hope they will find redemption or some king of happy ending? Or am I just a psychopath that wants some company?  More than likely a mix of all three.

In the main story I am writing right now one of the main characters is a very dark character and is not very likable.  When you have a character that is unlikable and does some very dark deeds how do you get the reader to feel for him?  It is something I am struggling with and am hoping to accomplish.  Dark Places and other stories with flawed characters help give me an idea of what can be done, and I would be lying if I didn’t admit I am interested to see how far I can push the unlikable-ness meter and still get readers to care about my protagonist.

What about you all, how do you like your protagonist?

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7 Comments

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7 responses to “I Like My Protagonist Flawed, With A Side Of Tragic

  1. Where is the “Amen” button?

    Totally agree! I read Dark Places last fall and actually liked that Libby describes herself that way – after all, who would live through what she did and come out the other end as nice?

    I personally like protagonists (and even minor characters) as flawed. I don’t want to say dis-likeable because even flawed characters are likeable (Jay Gatsby, for example). The three main characters in my completed MS are all flawed (my hope is that you cheer for and against them at the same time). I did have one critiquer who said she hated two of my main characters, but in all honesty, she’s not my target audience so it didn’t bother me.

    That’s a good question about getting readers to feel for a really dark character. I’m dealing with that now in my WIP and they way I’m (hopefully) making him likeable is through humor, but also through glimpses of vulnerability. We’ll see if it works.

    Thanks for sharing this! Happy Writing!

    • In regards to the critiquer who hated two of your main characters, I would still see that as a success! To be able to elicit emotion from someone is much better then them simply not caring about the character. Of course if your intention was for the characters to be likable I can understand your frustration.

      Also good point about the vulnerability. That is a great way to get someone to care or understand a character. I’ll have to work more of this into my “dark” character.

      • Haha, thanks! I think that’s a great way to look at it – and no, I didn’t want her to like them.

        Think of it this way – everyone has a soft spot. It’s just a matter of you pushing on them enough to find it.

  2. I agree, characters need flaws to make them more real. That is just how it is. We need those moments in the narrative where the right decision isn’t always obvious as much as we need the ones where it is, but they choose in their interests instead. I have heard it referred to, and i call it, the morally gray compass. If you like fantasy, good examples are A Song of Fire and Ice by George R.R. Martin and the First Law Trilogy by Joe Abercrombie.

    I need to relate to my protagonists. I need to connect to them on some level, emotionally or intellectually. I find that if i can do one of the two or even both, I can forgive the character for doing darker things. Building the empathy of the reader is no easy or small feat, but it is crucial in any character of a story. It probably goes double for the antagonist. My biggest suggestion, give the character something quirky that most people can get behind, like they absolutely hate people who abuse animals. Build upon one area where they take ‘the right thing’ to the next level, but seriously lack in other departments for genuine reasons.
    I could seriously write a dissertation on the subject. I tried to paraphrase.

    • Good point about the antagonist. I would love to read a story where it is not entirely clear who the true antagonist and protagonist actually are.

  3. without the protagonist flaws, their personality would simply be boring and hard to relate to. It’s the imperfections of the characters that makes them realistic with the ability to trigger an emotion or a reaction among its readers. Great start. I enjoyed the post.

  4. I totally agree. Flaws are what make us interesting and real. A character with no flaws is flat and lifeless. The key is to work around the flaws and make the character likeable–you have to show both sides of the coin, so to speak.

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