1. Vern of Fortree

    Vern of Fortree New Member

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    Unlikeable, Bad-Person Protagonist?

    Discussion in 'Character Development' started by Vern of Fortree, Jan 17, 2017.

    Okay, so I'm working on a novel. It's set in present-day, in a small city. I'm not gonna go into a plot summary here, but in short, he gets involved with the 'God' of the present world due to his ability to see human emotions as physical threads connecting people together, something shared by only very few people across the entire world.

    My first worry about him is that he checks a few 'stereotypical protagonist' boxes. For one, he's got unnaturally coloured hair (really bright red). He lives alone, and his parents send him money (his real parents are dead, but that's another story). He's a loner, is super-smart, and has special powers. He's missing a very specific two years of his memory (wiped by 'God'). You kinda get what I'm saying? I even sort of joke about this in-story. But I think it's all right, and I reckon I can justify all of it (besides the hair).

    My main worry about him, however, is that he's not a very good guy. He even checks a few 'villain' boxes. In fact, he sort of ends up becoming the villain of the story, out of no particular malice or bad intentions of his own. Especially when compared to some other characters, he just seems like a bad person. The story itself tends to emphasise some of these points a lot, being told from his own perspective - and he sorta hates himself.

    He's incredibly cynical, and has very dim views about society and people in general. He has no motivation, is passive (having spent most of the story until now locked away in his room playing video games), and is lazy. He's also manipulative and can even be cruel sometimes. He is capable of ignoring someone's emotions and feelings entirely, hurting every single one of those few people that are close to him over the course of the story. He has a very low opinion of himself, and uses it to justify his own actions (I'm a horrible person, so it's OK), while still believing himself to be the 'hero' of the story, at least until near the very end. And even then, after he realises he's been an asshole throughout the entire narrative, he pulls a gambit, putting the fate of the world (as well as his own life) on the line in order to give his friends a chance for happiness. He's only partially successful.

    Of course, he's not just a bad person. While he ends up hurting them, he is very loyal to the people he's close to and everything he does over the course of the story is in order to help them, and to find out more. In a way, he does kind of accomplish it. He's also very willing to sacrifice himself for the sake of others, and just generally doesn't care about his own well-being (although I guess this can also be seen as a fault).

    So yeah, I guess I just want some thoughts. I don't mind if people think of him as a bad person, but I don't want people to hate him either.
     
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  2. Tenderiser

    Tenderiser Not a man or BayView

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    A lot of this seems contradictory. He's so loyal he'll sacrifice himself for those he loves, but he's also entirely callous to their feelings and can be cruel without remorse.

    He has a really low opinion of himself and doesn't care about his wellbeing but considers himself a hero.

    He has no malice or bad intentions but he's manipulative and cruel and doesn't care.

    He's passive but he spends a book trying to find things out and protect his friends.

    It's very hard to enjoy spending time with a character whose motivations you don't understand. The narrator of Lolita is a child rapist, but Nabokov makes him sympathetic in a way, to the point that millions of people have happily spent a novel in his company. That's because we see and understand his motivations even if we don't agree with them, or the action he takes. I don't understand your character at all, so I'm probably not going to connect with him and so won't want to spend 80,000 words in his company.
     
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  3. Vern of Fortree

    Vern of Fortree New Member

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    Thanks for your feedback. I'm not very good at choosing the correct words, or explaining things in general. I kinda get what you're saying, so lemme try and clarify a bit - thanks for putting that there.

    Let me put it this way:
    - His self-sacrifice is less of a 'I love you so much I'll kill myself for you' kind of thing, but more of a 'my life is worth nothing anyways, so I might as well die to save you'. In other words, it's not because he attaches a massive value to other people's happiness, but because he attaches a very low value to his own. I'm not sure if that makes sense?

    - When I say 'Hero', I don't mean 'hero' as in 'heroism/other attributes associated with a hero', but more as a sort of status within a story, like 'main character', or 'love interest', or 'final boss', or 'main character's sidekick'. I guess a more accurate description would be that he sees himself as being the centre of a story he is part of, and that everything else is in relation to himself. So, 'I'm the protagonist of this story, and I am a horrible person'.

    - When I say that he has no malice or bad intentions, what I mean is that he isn't actively seeking to, say, destroy the world, or to assassinate the princess, or whatever. All he wants is to a) know why weird things are happening around him, and b) make his friends happy. In the process of figuring these things out, he does some nasty things.
    It's like the difference between slamming an 'I hate you and you suck' speech on someone because you hated their guts and wanted them to feel bad, and giving someone the same speech because you thought you needed to make them hate you so you could go off and fight in a war without them stopping you. The action taken and the other person's emotional response is the same, but the motivation is different. He wants the best for his friends, but is willing to hurt them, and others, to get them there. Kinda like 'The ends justify the means'.
    When I say that he doesn't care about hurting people, what I mean is that he will go and, say, cut someone's hand off and subject them to torture (OK, that's an extreme example), and not bat a second eyelid, as long as it met his objective. He isn't pointlessly cruel, but can be when he needs to be. So he wants his friends to be happy, but is willing to be cruel to them in order to reach that goal. But he wouldn't go and actually do that unless he has a reason for it. I hope that makes sense.

    - I'm not sure about 'passive' either, to be honest. I just put that there because I showed the story to some friends and that was one of their criticisms of his character.
     
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  4. Tenderiser

    Tenderiser Not a man or BayView

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    Hmm... I'm still not sure I can understand or relate to his motivation. In general, people like characters who care about something and work towards a goal - like Humbert Humbert pursuing Lolita. The only hint of a goal I get from this character is that he wants to know why weird things are happening to him. That could make a great book if he had a really engaging voice and a quirky take on the world, which can turn mundane events into fascinating ones, but it sounds like his worldview and voice is pretty negative.

    I think he can definitely be a sympathetic character (and by that I mean someone we're invested in) but he needs a strong motivation and character arc.
     
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  5. Simpson17866

    Simpson17866 Contributor Contributor

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    Welcome to the site!
    The best word for that is "Villain Protagonist," and I write a lot of those too ;)

    Basically, you have to either a) make the villain sympathetic by having them go about noble-appearing goals in hideous ways (The Godfather), and/or b) make the villain's plan intellectually stimulating enough that the reader doesn't care how unsympathetic the villain is (House of Cards). Preferably both, I love Death Note and Breaking Bad more than either House of Cards or The Godfather, but definitely one or the other.

    My own WIP starts with my narrator Alec robbing a bank. His best friend Amy is robbing another one at the same time, and their boss Charlie is robbing a third with Amy's brother Jason as her getaway driver. When Alec leaves his bank (having been confused by thunder on a sunny day) and sees smoke rising from the part of town where Amy was "working," he rushes over to the scene of a bombing, refuses to help a lot of injured and dying people because he's "already looking for someone," and threatens two paramedics at gunpoint to bring them to Amy and leave the man they were about to take to the hospital first.

    When you write a Hero Protagonist, you want them to succeed at the thing they're doing. When you write a Villain Protagonist, you still want them to succeed, but not at the thing that they're doing.
     
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  6. ChickenFreak

    ChickenFreak Contributor Contributor

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    If we were talking about a real person I'd immediately say, from the above, "Obsessive Compulsive Personality Disorder!" (Not the same as OCD.) But, well, we're not.
     
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  7. Abraham First

    Abraham First Member

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    Yeah, I agree. Kira/Yagami Light of Death Note really a good example of bad-person Protagonist, I still feel anguished by the fact he kill his own father.

    There is another one, but he is not a protagonist though. Hanibal Lecter. My friend girl friend idolizes even tough he is antagonist. I don't know why but maybe you should check Hanibal out.

    But, If you ask my opinion, as reader if find the character to be a bad-person I want to root for everything that he will do, instead of "don't do that! damn it.". I if could root for the protagonist until the the last page, maybe I would still love them even after I close the book.
     
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  8. Simpson17866

    Simpson17866 Contributor Contributor

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    ... Huh :eek: I'll have to finish watching, then.

    But then, aren't they not the bad guy anymore?

    With a Hero Protagonist against a Villain Antagonist, you want the hero to succeed and the villain to fail. Hero Antagonist against Villain Protagonist seems like the same thing to me, you're just doing it as a suspense instead of as a surprise.
     
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  9. big soft moose

    big soft moose An Admoostrator Admin Staff Supporter Contributor Community Volunteer

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    When I was writing "the bad guy" (which is currently resting at first draft complete) my protagonist 'Duster' was unsurprisingly a bad man , he kills people for a living when he isn't robbing banks.

    However I wrote him as a likeable guy who's taken a wrong turning in life since leaving the army, and the basic premise of the book is that even bad men have lines they won't cross and the story takes place around what happens when he is pushed towards those limits.
     
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  10. jannert

    jannert Retired Mod Supporter Contributor

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    The trick, as always, is to make your readers understand why he does what he does. We need to understand why in order to identify (and probably like) him. Don't step aside to tell us why, though. Instead, show us how he behaves, let us see how other characters react to him, let us in on his past history as needed, and let us draw our own conclusions about him. If we're in his head we'll identify with him to a certain extent anyway.

    Different actions have different resonances for different people, so you probably won't get everybody to like him (or root for him) no matter what. If he's violent, for example. (I'm not saying he is; this is just an example of a character trait.) Some people hate violence, so a violent character is going to put some readers off. Some people are drawn to violence and are drawn to people who are handy with dishing it out, so these readers will like a character like that. Or if he's a moody, unsociable sort, some people will identify with this, while others will be put off by what they see as him being unpleasant and uncooperative. His personality won't have the same effect on everybody, no matter what it is. However, don't let that hold you back.

    I would concentrate less on trying to define what is good and what is bad about your character. Instead, let him be what he is, and build the story around what happens to him, and what his actions (or inactions) bring to the story. His character will evolve, one way or another. The more ambiguous he is, the more interesting he will be.

    On another note, I read somewhere recently (I can't remember exactly where—it might have been somewhere on that thread about tropes elsewhere on the forum) that a 'bright red-haired young person with supernatural powers' has become quite a cliché these days. You might want to think about how stereotypical you actually want your character to be.
     
    Last edited: Jan 17, 2017
  11. Infel

    Infel Contributor Contributor

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    Hey there!

    Something I think worth considering:

    If you want a character to be loved by an audience, make him enviable. Make him someone the reader wishes he could be. Not in EVERY aspect, mind you--nobody wants to be Dexter, or have the horrible disfigurations Deadpool has. Nobody wishes they could be the Joker from Batman (up for debate). But something about those characters entices readers to like them. Charisma, personality, a concrete outlook on life. The Joker's nihilism brings out the feelings of life's meaninglessness that people sometimes feel when they're desperate. Deadpool's devil-may-care attitude and fantastic charisma is something a lot of people WISH they could have. So no matter how much of an edgelord you want your MC to be, as long as he is enviable about it, your readers will follow him.

    Bonus points if he has courage, and ends up doing the right thing at the last moment.
     
  12. making tracks

    making tracks Active Member

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    It sounds very interesting and I agree with what has been said in these replies. Letting us get to know the character and understand him, giving him some depth, will allow us to empathise with him even if we think he's doing awful things, as @Tenderiser , @jannert and @Infel have said.

    These are some of the questions about the character I would have as the reader. Does he have any emotional reaction to what he's done? You have mentioned that he acknowledges his actions are those of a 'horrible person' and already thinks lowly of himself, but what emotional repercussions does this have for him? Does it turn to self-loathing, does he get a feeling of freedom from being able to shrug everything off as being the horrible person he is and pretend it's not his fault, is he in denial about how guilty he actually feels? Have people treated him like that in the past and what effect has that had? Maybe an incident could occur where he is cruel to one of his friends and realises later that there was another way out of it all along, as his reaction then would say a lot about the character. Getting to know these kinds of thought processes would help me to identify with him.
     
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  13. Vern of Fortree

    Vern of Fortree New Member

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    Wow, thanks for all the feedback! It's given me a renewed energy and sense of direction when it comes to figuring out how to write for him.

    I'm surprised about how specific the 'bright red-haired' part is. Never thought that'd be a thing. I did intentionally craft him to fit certain stereotypical-protagonist tropes (live alone, superpowers, amnesia, etc), since that's a main part of what makes him view himself as the 'villain protagonist', something that's sorta crucial to the plot line. It's all part of God's plan. Maybe I will change his hair colour, or maybe have him dye it red at some earlier point in his life (I don;t think it would be out of character). I've just gotten so used to thinking of him with red hair that I have a hard time picturing him without it.

    Again, thank you all so much for the feedback.
     
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  14. 123456789

    123456789 Contributor Contributor

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    Look.

    I cannot tell you the number of times I have read about a character with this description on WF (taken from the OP). "He's incredibly cynical, and has very dim views about society and people in general. He has no motivation, is passive (having spent most of the story until now locked away in his room playing video games), and is lazy."

    Not only is this character incredibly unlikable, he's incredibly common in real life, and, apparently, in amateur writing.

    How many times do you see this character in major novels, films, or television shows?

    Cynicism has certainly become a popular flavor these days, but you enter dangerous territory when you want to make your character a lazy, unmotivated gamer.
     
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  15. matwoolf

    matwoolf Banned Contributor

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    If you weren't so very old @123 you might admire the 'lazy, unmotivated gamer.'

    Remember, Star Wars has changed everything. The modern people don't care for your South Pacific, or your Frankie Avalon & The Four Seasons, or your Singing In The Rain, soundtrack to Deutsch Grammophon egcet.

    Go, smoke your slippers.
     
  16. Abraham First

    Abraham First Member

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    Ooops, sorry if I spoiled you.

    No, what I mean is I (must) want to root the protagonist and his/her action even though it's actually a bad thing to do.

    Like there is this story that I read before, where the protagonist planed revenges on everyone who had done bad things to her. At first, she wasn't going too far as to kill, but she ended killed one of them. Because of that (first kill) she had too continue to kill, or her revenge plan would be all to night.

    Now while we all know killing is bad, which makes her a bad-person character, I actually supported her killing spree next in the latter chapters. Maybe because I sympathized with the protagonist, but she is the one of book bad-person main character which I wouldn't forget
     
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  17. nick820

    nick820 New Member

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    Funny, I have an idea about a very similar type of character. I'm planning, at some point, to write a novel (or possibly a series) with a psychopath as the main character. He seems to share a lot of what you're describing in your character. It may sound contradictory to some people, but I like to think of it as a "Neutral Evil" character with a tendency to be "Neutral Neutral" as well as "Neutral Good" at times. I mean, he has no qualms about killing people and doing horrible things, but he truly does understand what empathy is and how it's important and he fully embraces it. He loves making emotional/intellectual connections with people and bonding with them. He has a very nihilistic view of the world and he uses a lot of alone time contemplating what he's going to do next. He never lets his empathy get in the way of what he wants to do, but he feels for every person he kills. He looks at bullying as wrong, because you are victimizing someone else in a position of power where that person is unwilling to defend themselves, but killing someone isn't the same because he believes that most people have the capacity to be able to take care of themselves. He will never kill someone that he feels is inferior to him, so no killing children or naive/weak people/animals (he loves animals). He take a lot of pride in manipulating people and using them for his own benefit, but again, he must see them as an equal or better, otherwise he feels it's unfair. He looks at life as a game, and respects everyone who he chooses to take advantage of. His ultimate goal is to manipulate the world, because there is no stronger force in the world than...the world itself. He takes action and actively saves people from situations like a burning building because he doesn't think it's fair to have people die because of an accident (and also so that nobody suspects him as a killer). He has a fascination with being caught by the police because he wants someone to "outplay" him so badly. I like to think of him as a combination of The Riddler (his narcissism and addiction to "playing the game"), Max Cady (his ruthlessness, manipulation and psychopathy), Patrick Bateman (his internal thought process and charming exterior), and Norman Bates (he is able to be a likable, down to earth "nice guy" in most situations, with an occasional moral outlook). He goes on a lot of rants about the human psyche and how he prides himself in understanding what drives people and motivates them, which he finds fascinating.

    There's one scene in my book where he chats up a girl at a bar that he plans to kill, realizes she is weak and naive, and decides to leave. When she follows him he explains how easily she was duped and that she needs to be careful who she speaks to because there's a lot of terrible people out there who take advantage of the weak.

    He basically loves the world that he lives in, but he believes that it's all a jumbled mess of chaos, and he likes to see how far he can push the envelope, whether it's moral, psychological, etc...it's exciting for him. If you're familiar with MBTI, he's basically a very assertive INTP. He would easily be a hero if it gave him more excitement. As long as he can continue challenging himself and others, it doesn't matter to him what side he aligns with. New killer in town? 'I'll gladly help the cops take him down, this guy's out of his league". He would also be the guy to trust with protecting you, because he does feel that defenseless people need to be protected. If he feels you are inferior and defenseless, he won't deceive you or kill you.
     
    Last edited: Mar 11, 2017
  18. Forinsyther

    Forinsyther Member

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    I think this character sounds really interesting, and I don't see a need to fix him. When I watch movies or read books, the characters and stories that I tend to favour are the ones where the character is nor good or evil. Because it's more realistic, because no one's morals are black or white. I love it when the reader has to give it some thought as to whether or not they should be rooting for them. Because in real life, while we may admire someone, if they do something wrong we'll disagree and maybe even look at them differently. I think it's engaging when a reader has to do that with a character. If you've written it right they'll be committed to the story anyway, and with this character conflict they'll be on the edge of their seats the whole time wondering if they were right to give him the benefit of the doubt.
     
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  19. S A Lee

    S A Lee Contributor Contributor

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    I'd perhaps recommend reading the Dexter series, the author is a genius with Dexter Morgan being both protagonist and serial killer.

    My male lead starts out incredibly two faced, he can charm the people around him with his sharp wit and intelligence but he's very capable of things that would horrify most people and do so with little remorse if any at all. I mentioned it on here, but I do have the goal of wanting the reader to scream inside that the female lead should be running from him.
     

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