Friday, May 13, 2011

Why Are Sleazy Protagonists Popular?

by L.J. Sellers, author of the bestselling Detective Jackson mysteries

Alcoholics, sex addicts, porn stars, thieves, and kidnappers. In today’s crime fiction, these characters are often the protagonists, and as a reader, I’m expected to root for them. I rarely can. I’ve put down many well-written and well-plotted novels lately because the main character was not someone I could relate to.

For example, in one story, the protagonist—a reformed criminal, living a good life—participated in a kidnapping to keep himself from going to jail. If I had not been reading the book for discussion, I would have put it down immediately. For me, there was little point in reading about a protagonist I wanted to see caught and punished, especially since I knew he would not be.

In another story, the character was well developed, resourceful, and good-hearted and I really wanted to like her. But the world she inhabited was sleazy and everyone she encountered gave me the creeps. Despite the terrific writing, I finally gave up, because spending too much time in her world was a little hard to take.

Don’t get me wrong. I love crime fiction! And I’m certainly not a prude. I write a mystery/suspense series, and the first book is called The Sex Club. My main character is a homicide detective who’s a hardworking family man. Not perfect, by any means, but he’s also not a cynical, pill-popping alcoholic with dysfunctional relationships. I’m tired of that cop stereotype, and I want my character to be someone readers can relate to.

But it’s not a clear-cut issue. Two of my favorite books last year had protagonists who were criminals…or at least they had been. In Beat the Reaper, the main character is an ex-hit man who becomes a doctor. But he’s trying to redeem himself, and it’s a terrific (and often funny) story. The Lock Artist, another novel I loved, is about a psychologically mute safecracker. But the reader knows from the beginning that Michael goes to jail and hopes to change his life. So I rooted for both characters all the way.

For me, good characterization for a protagonist, especially a recurring character, means creating someone readers will care about, like, and/or respect in some way. (I make an exception for Elmore Leonard’s stories, in which everyone is shady, but often likeable, and I can always cheer for a charming thief, especially if he’s played by George Clooney.)

I realize I may be somewhat alone in this thinking. In my book discussion groups, many other readers say they don’t have to like the protagonist to find the story compelling.

How do you feel about protagonists who are unlikable, deeply flawed, or simply not someone you’d ever spend time with? Does it spoil the story for you? Can you name a novel you thoroughly enjoyed even though you didn’t like the protagonist?


  1. I'm with you on that, LJ! I get turned off if the protagonist is a creep, and I put the book down and don't pick it up again.

    James N. Frey, in How to Write a Damn Good Thriller, says readers want to read about justice prevailing and the good guy winning over evil. That's certainly how I feel.

    A flawed protagonist with basic good qualities is okay - makes him more human and more interesting. But a basically evil or selfish or unethical or amoral protagonist? No thanks. Too depressing for me. I'll just put the book down.

  2. Generally, my favorite characters are the ones who are flawed yet vulnerable--or at the very least, have some sort of quality that gives me a connection with them or a reason to care.

    Having said that, I could easily enjoy a character who's a criminal just as much as one who's a doctor--as long as they give me something I can grab onto. After all, some of the most evil characters have also been the most beloved. It's the Character we Love to Hate Syndrome.

    Look at Hannibal Lecter: without a doubt one of the most repugnant in literature --and yet, without a doubt, also one of the most popular. A psycho with a soft spot, he's very dark yet very funny. Harris does a brilliant job creating a monster the reader can actually like. We know he's horrid, and yet, at times we almost forget.

  3. I'm one of those who enjoys reading about "unlikable", deeply flawed characters. I put "unlikable" in quotes because that can be quite a continuum, and if there's something there that creates empathy, or gives me a connection (something to grab onto like Andrew said), I'm engaged with the story.

    None of the protagonists in Patricia Highsmith's novels (except maybe Ripley) are likable, but they fascinate me, and I can empathize with their alienation, and that's enough for me.

    I actually don't care for "heroic" characters ... I think they're often too good, their flaws too minor.

  4. A thriller wouldn't be a thriller without at least one nasty villain for us to hate and fear, but I like my protagonists to be likeable. The hero has to be flawed, of course, and the villain can't be 100% evil. Both need the depth and tension of opposing traits within themselves.

  5. Deeply flawed is one thing. Deeply flawed can be interesting, something to hope for. Redemption is such a cool literary tool. Unlikeable? Not so much.

    Flat characters, both the good guys and the bad guys, are boring. We all know that.

    But a protag who I don't like? Not gonna go there.

    I picked up a book one time by an enormously successful author. It was my first read of hers, and the book was in the middle of her series. I know she walked a fine line between boring her long-time readers and engaging new ones, but I have to say, she failed miserably on the latter. I never did care for her protag, and as a result it was a DNF.

    For me, finding someone who interests me, engages me and connects with me to the point I'd love to have them as a neighbor, brings a read up to a higher level.

    Maybe I'm just selfish.

  6. When I'm reading a book (or writing one), "Make Me Care" is #1. I'm not looking for perfection, but I'd like to think that if I met this character in my life, I'd like/respect him or her.

    Then again, I write romantic suspense, where the protagonists are referred to as hero and heroine, which automatically means they're going to have to be "not-shady"

    Terry's Place


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