1. cloudropis
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    cloudropis New Member

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    Where can I draw the line between "flawed protagonist" and "unsympathetic jerk"?

    Discussion in 'Character Development' started by cloudropis, Jul 19, 2015.

    I'm slowly learning narrative writing and I have yet to check material pertaining to how to write protagonists, that's why I'd like your input.
    One thing I've heard several times is that you can't write an unsympathetic/straight unlikable protagonist, even if you're purposefully making him deeply flawed. At first it didn't make sense to me, but I've read many people saying they dropped a certain book/game/whatever because the protagonist was too much of a jerk, even though it was going to obviously follow a path of redemption.
    How flawed can a protagonist be before the user starts rejecting him? Is there some kind of implicit limit? And, most importantly, do you suggest some good readings about the matter?
     
  2. Edward M. Grant
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    Edward M. Grant Contributing Member

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    Well, that's American Psycho and The Wasp Factory done for, to name just two counterexamples.
     
  3. Lea`Brooks
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    Lea`Brooks Contributing Member Contributor

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    I've never read a book with a dick protagonist. But I've seen TV shows. House, Sons of Anarchy, Breaking Bad. I watched the shows because I wanted to see someone take out the main character, not because I was sympathetic of them. lol I don't think there's anything wrong with a purely awful protag.

    But, if it's suggestions you're after, maybe give a few scenes showing it's possible for your character to be polite, but most of the time, he chooses not to be. That's how I stuck with House. He was a dick, sure. But I looked forward to those episodes where he would let his walls down and show his insecurities, even if it was only for a few seconds.
     
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  4. izzybot
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    izzybot Human Disaster Contributor

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    I think it's subjective to an extent. People're always going to have differing opinions over what's too much.

    It's something I'm into as well so I'll be interested in seeing responses - I have a character who is the the protagonist of his story while being the villain in someone else's so it's a tricky thing. In writing him the thing I've tried to remember is that his actions should always seem fair to him, and be grounded in something that people can relate to / understand; in his case he's seeking revenge / 'justice' for his father's death. Vengeance is a decently common heroic motivator and I think people can get onboard with that.

    The problem is that the man who killed his dad has a kid too, so in taking revenge he inadvertently does to that kid the same thing that happened to him. Which by the established logic of the story makes him a villain. And he does other things later on in similar veins - consistently fucking shit up but with good or understandable intentions. Good motivations but actions that either go wrong due to things he couldn't know or due to poor planning on his part. One of his flaws is that his temper gets the better of him sometimes, but some truly awful things happen to him, and I think lashing out as a response to some of these things is understandable. If there were no reason for him to be lashing out, it'd be a different story.

    I think the motivations are the key thing, in two ways. 1) You can root for someone who's trying to do something good or relatable even if the end results are shitty. And I think it helps for them to acknowledge they've messed up if you want to keep them sympathetic, even if it's only to themself. 2) If you can see what's driven someone to do things that even they know were shitty - ie stress, pressure, anxiety, etc - it may not garner much sympathy but won't generally count against them as much as if they just seem to be firing off at random.

    Maybe that helps? Like I said, it's something I'm working out too.

    edit:

    Oh, another thought. When a character compromises their own personal morals, I think that's usually a point of no return for a lot of people. Regardless of whether the reader and character's morals line up exactly, recognizing that someone has done something they previously thought/said they'd never do typically results in a loss of respect, if nothing else.
     
    Last edited: Jul 19, 2015
  5. Edward M. Grant
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    Edward M. Grant Contributing Member

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    Protagonists don't have to be good, or even likeable; they have to be interesting. Particularly in some genres, like horror, where you're expected to deal with the darker side of humanity.

    That said, if you want to be a huge best-seller, you're more likely to achieve that with a likeable and sympathetic protagonist.
     
  6. cloudropis
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    cloudropis New Member

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    Didn't expect so many great replies already! Unfortunately it's almost 5 AM and I gotta go to bed so I won't reply for some time. But your input helped me already!
    I have to add one thing I forgot to mention which is sort of related to this matter; I've heard people saying that if protagonist x starts with a bunch of flaws on which important plot points are built upon and somehow doesn't redeem/overcome/whatever them by the end of the story then it makes the whole thing meaningless.
    I mean, I of course know characters, especially protagonists, should be dynamic and not static and evolve throughout the story, but this concept doesn't seem completely right to me.

    Let's say we have Mark. Early on we discover Mark failed to save someone close to him because it would've required sacrificing something of some sort and that made him chicken out at the last second (ie saving his girlfriend from a sawmill because he would've risked getting his arm cut off). He falls into depression becoming bitter and cynic, AKA flawed. Yet he starts overcoming his state of apathy, slowly accepting what happened and even managing to start a new relationship. In the story climax though the two fall in a situation similar to the one in which Mark's wife lost her life, and all clues point to Mark overcoming his fear and saving his new girlfriend, even at the cost of physically injuring himself. A pretty regular story, right?
    BUT, let's change it a bit. Let's add some stakes, ie his girlfriend is a major mob boss whose death will actually improve many people's lives. Now Mark has two conflicting ideas in his mind: risking his body once again to save the girl he truly loves and try to change her from her criminal ways or just let her fall because she still lied to him the whole time and she's deep down a villain. Ultimately, he decides to let her fall to death.
    Did I really make the whole character arc pointless? He started A, being a depressed, weak person, slowly became B, starting to overcome his past and becoming a better man, and finally went back to being A and accepting it might regret it for his whole life. Was the whole experience a waste of time then?
    Sure, from the viewer's viewpoint a criminal just bit the dust and by the end of the day the greater good prevailed and that's ultimately not a bad outcome, but from Mark's everything went back to square one in his life.
     
  7. izzybot
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    izzybot Human Disaster Contributor

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    Not to repeat myself but again I'd fall back on motivations, internal reasoning.

    Does Mark let his girlfriend die because he's realized that she's a bad person, she's damaging the world and it'd be better off without her? In that case it could be seen as parallel to the first case but not identical - he still loves her (I'm assuming) and the selfish thing would be to save her. If he was the same fearful person as when he started, he'd save her because living without her could be as bad as living without an arm. Having grown as a person, not saving her for the greater good is a sacrifice. That's the way I'd read it, anyway

    But if he doesn't save her just because he's still too scared to put his life on the line for it, then there's no real character growth and it is back to square one.

    Also worth considering: does he let her fall for petty reasons, ie because he's mad she lied to him? Or is he really thinking of the greater good? Does he really think he could change her if he saved her, or does he realize deep down that this is a pipe dream?

    I think it's okay if he's indecisive, even after the fact, and questions his own motives, but as long as you present the different motives the reader should get the idea.
     
  8. Ben414
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    Ben414 Contributing Member Contributor

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    You don't need the protagonist to necessarily fix his flaw, but you do need to explore the flaw through the story. All things equal, the depth of the exploration of his flaw matters a ton more than whether the protagonist fixes or reverts back to his flaw.
     
  9. GuardianWynn
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    GuardianWynn Contributing Member Contributor

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    I think it is notable to know the difference between a few terms.
    Unsympathetic
    Jerk
    Unlikable
    I don't think these three terms are interchangible. At least not fully.

    I mean I can be unsympathetic to a nice girl in a rich school. Maybe I feel she is like a snob and her problems are so trivia. I won't sympathise with her. Yet she can be nice and likable.

    I hope you get my point there.

    About a character being an asshole. Sometimes being an asshole is what makes them likable. I do get what you mean. Take Breaking Bad for example. I stopped watching it because I no longer cared for the MC and it was partly because he was such a jerk. It was also because he no fun and he had to me no redeeming qualities.

    Let me give you a quote. One of my favorite lines or scenes.

    Bad guy is beating up a man and his kid. They are both on the ground. The man has broken ribs. He is giving his son words of encouragement. The bad guy is watching. In the midst of it they try to hold hands as a signal of strength. The bad guy kicks the dad away right before they touch. He then says "Being a good fiend is like being a photgrapher. You have to wait for the right moment."

    He sat there patiently, with the full intent of just being and extra jerk for no reason. And it was awesome. Part of this is in the fact that he was fun. He was smiling. He clearly understood he was a jerk and was lovin it. At the same time. When things went bad and someoned was about to kill him. His response?

    "Go ahead and do it already. I don't offer mercy I sure as hell ain't going to ask for it."

    Again! Awesome. It is admarible for him to think that way.

    So your MC can be a jerk. We just need a reason to want to see what hapens next. Or better yet. If the moments with him our so good we quote them to other people, we are probably going to read on for the next one. If he is a jerk or not.
     
  10. Renee J
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    Renee J Contributing Member

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    If the flaw is such in that it's clear it's a flaw, I would probably like it. But, if the character is obviously flawed to me, but the author writes him/her as if they are the greatest thing ever, than I would probably dislike the book. For example, if a character is arrogant, it makes a huge difference if he's portrayed as someone who should change verses someone who is perfect and everyone who disagrees is just a hater.
     
  11. Shadowfax
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    Shadowfax Contributing Member Contributor

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    I can remember a book I read years ago, first person POV, where the MC was a criminal coming to town to commit a crime with his partner, who'd got there earlier. Partner nowhere in sight. So the story is about him trying to track down, ultimately, his partner's killer and deliver vengeance. It ends up with him dying in flames in a shoot-out with the cops, with you rooting for him. Not evil without remedy, effectively he dies because he's trying to do right by a friend and DOESN'T do the selfish thing of just committing his crime and going on his way.

    Nonsense. Why should every story be a "journey" of improved knowledge? That would mean you could never write a story about Hitler. There, the theme would be more like his descent into madness and evil-doing. I can remember a chillingly plausible TV show about WWII where the protagonist ended up justifying increased brutality to the Jews on the grounds that to stop now would be an admission that they'd been wrong in the first place.
     
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  12. thatoneauthor
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    thatoneauthor Member

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    Why do you want to make the protagonist a jerk in the first place? Isn't that the antagonists job? You can make a jerk likable if his goals are to be nicer to people...
     
  13. jannert
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    jannert Contributing Member Supporter Contributor

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    In a nutshell, I suspect the way to make "bad" characters sympathetic (without changing their behaviour) is to concentrate on what they think and feel, rather than what they do. A character can do any number of bad things, but if the readers understand why, or learn the events that led the character to behave as they do, you can get a reader to accept the character.

    As a writer, you can do this if your bad character is also your POV character, which allows you to exploit the advantages of being in that character's head. You can let the reader in on inciting incidents in the character's life—things in the past that made this character the kind of person her or she is. You can do this whether your flawed character is the POV character or not. And if you portray this character subtly through the eyes of another POV character, you can also achieve a degree of acceptance.

    The trick, as @izzybot suggests, is to explore motivation, one way or another. And be clear in your head what you want your reader to take away from the story. Do you want them to sympathise? Or condemn? Or ride the fence on the worth of this character?

    Be careful here ...this is the kind of thing that can change for you, the writer, as you write your story. You can start out writing a blacker-than-black villain, but if you do it intensely enough, you can find yourself in sympathy with this villain. Which, of course, makes a more interesting story, doesn't it?

    I think that's one thing many fantasy authors who concentrate on 'Good versus Evil' miss out on. I mean ...consider Sauron. He's just 'Evil.' Not interesting as a character at all. Contrast him with Saruman, who used to be a good guy and fell under an evil spell, and you've got a much more interesting character to work with. So I'd be cautious about writing somebody who is the embodiment of Evil into your story. That's too simplistic in most cases. Rarely do we encounter pure Evil in real life. And yes, that even means Hitler. By all accounts, the guy was mentally ill, with all sorts of definable disorders and delusions. The real story of Hitler should be about the people who voted for him, and the ones who kept him in power. Without their cooperation, he would never have amounted to squat.
     
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  14. Quixote's Biographer
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    Would you say Dexter Morgan (from both the Dexter books and TV show) is a good example of what you're talking about? If you just saw what he did, stalking and killing people, you would have no sympathy with him at all and would consider him evil and wanting someone to stop him. But because there's some sort of explanation (even though it's very weak and doesn't make much sense in the real world) you have sympathy for him or at least understand why he's the way he is and why he's doing what he's doing.
     
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  15. Link the Writer
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    Link the Writer Flipping Out For A Good Story. Contributor

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    Would the Joker from Batman be considered Evil Just Because? He never has a clear rhyme or reason for why he does what he does, but still people love reading about him.

    One of the worst offenders of the 'He's just evil' thing came from DragonSpell. Dar, one of the companions explained the villain's evilness with a simple, "Because he's Risto! He doesn't do good things!" I stuck with that book just enough because of the main character's semi-understandable goals, but when that came up, I just quit. Boring "because he's evil" villains are just as uninteresting as goody-goody "because he's pure of heart" protagonists.

    That said, I think it just depends on where the readers draw the line. Some might find a character still sympathetic after he/she just knocked down a city while others will mark them as a completely unforgiveable monster.
     
    Last edited: Jul 20, 2015
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  16. Song
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    Song Active Member

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    For me I think its not about whether they are likeable or unlikeable, its about the why. Look at books based on the likes of Manson, Hitler and any other historical mega-jerk and you will see that people can and do read stories where the main guy is completely irredeemable. As someone mentioned above, it's about is the character interesting, believable etc. You can get buy in from your reader in other ways, it's just that most people use the MC to draw people in. You can use the setting, the plot itself etc to do the same job.
     
  17. jannert
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    jannert Contributing Member Supporter Contributor

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    I'm afraid I'm unfamiliar with this Dexter character/book/show, so I can't answer your question directly.

    I'm not saying every character should be sympathetic, by the way. (I just don't buy the 'pure evil' idea, and I think it's too easy. It's the same as 'pure good' would be icky. It's the shades of good/evil that make people interesting to me.) I just thought, from what the OP was asking, that they were wondering HOW to make a 'bad' character somebody the reader would like and remember.
     
  18. Kallisto
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    Kallisto Active Member

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    I agree with the statement about motives and reasons behind why characters do things or act a certain way is key. You can have just "flaws" but having flaws for the sake of having flaws makes the characters boring and unoriginal.

    There's also a lot to say on how well written the character is and how well those flaws come off. A character with a bad attitude might still be annoying even if said character has an actual reason behind it.

    I think it's also important to realize that not everyone will end up liking your character. I, for example, don't like Katniss Everdean from Hunger Games. Don't misunderstand. I enjoyed the books. I found the character compelling and an appropriate protagonist for this kind of setting. I just didn't "like" her. She wouldn't be the character I'd have as a best friend.
     
  19. jannert
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    jannert Contributing Member Supporter Contributor

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    Well, again speaking personally, I didn't 'like' the Joker character at all. Heath Ledger's performance in the film was certainly memorable, I have to admit. Largely because the character was so nihilistic—a glimpse into how vandals and thugs enjoy power. (And pathetic for fleeting seconds as well ...you never got the feeling he was quite as happy in his evil wallow as he wanted you to think he was. The Heath Ledger performance made you wonder how he came to behave like that, and have such an anarchist's view of life.) However, I didn't particularly enjoy watching him in action.

    Mind you, I'm not a fan of comic-book heroes either, but Batman (the character played by Christian Bale in the same film) was interesting because we do see how/why he takes the position he does. And he's not supernatural either, not really. So I could buy him, to some extent. And the Superman legend was watchable on screen (most of the time) because of the Clark Kent element to the story—in other words, the human, fallible side to him.

    I think it all boils down to humanity, at least for me. If a character seems inhuman then it's hard for me to enjoy watching that character in action, whether he's supposed to be pure evil or pure good. It's the humanity of any character that makes them interesting to me.

    I feel there should always be a hint of potential bad, selfish, immoral behaviour in any 'good' character ...because it's watching them battle that side to themselves that makes them interesting. By the same token, every 'bad' character should also contain the potential for good, unselfish, moral behaviour—even if the bad side wins. Internal conflict makes a great story. Just pitting black against white ...not so much.
     
    Last edited: Jul 20, 2015
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  20. tanstaafl74
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    tanstaafl74 Member

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    This is a complex topic. To use Breaking Bad as my example, for those who have seen it here's a question for you: Would you have stayed with the show if we had started out with a season 5 Walter White? I would posit that, while a few people would, a good majority would not. He was a thoroughly despicable human being by season 5 and the reason most people stuck with him is that we were with him throughout his entire transformation.

    Basically what I'm saying is that you can make a protagonist or main character as unlikable as you want as long as you give the reader something to identify with or allow the reader to follow along into the depths with the character. Starting out with a horrendous character and not giving the reader something to hold onto has turned me off many books and shows over the years.
     
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  21. Solar
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    Would that be the pacifist type?
     
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  22. Daemon Wolf
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    Daemon Wolf Active Member

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    There's a line? Lol
     
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  23. jannert
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    jannert Contributing Member Supporter Contributor

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    Ummm ...probably not.
     
  24. SuperVenom
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    SuperVenom Contributing Member

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    Go as far as you like... as long as you can get the reader to empathise with the character through inner feelings, narrative of motivation. If you just make him a jerk then hes a jerk... open the reason why he behaves like a jerk u get a misguided flawed oerson but the reader goes . . "Well yes but i can kinda see why..."
     
  25. Burnistine
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    Burnistine Active Member

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    Stop when it doesn't serve a purpose. If there's no cause, then there's no effect. So, if it's not in response to an act or a cause, stop it and move on. Look for repetition as you rewrite. You might find that you've made your point already and enough is enough.
     

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