Unlikable vs. Unrelatable Protagonists

I’m sure you must’ve heard about unlikeable protagonists, such as deranged ones, morally inadequate ones, sadists, killers, criminals and other beasts of all shapes and sizes. In modern day fiction unlikable protagonists are no longer a minority. Many writers go for them in the hopes of making an impact on readers, and giving an extra edge to a common plot.

Don’t get me wrong, unlikeable protagonists are very much okay, and sometimes even a lot more interesting than their unsoiled counterparts. They keep the reader’s curiosity engaged because, even if we claim otherwise, we’d all love to be the bad guy sometimes.

Unrelatable protagonists, on the other hand, are still a rare breed. They come in two shapes: annoying ones, and weird ones.

The annoying ones we all know; they’re the lame, the lazy and the whiny protagonists that make readers use the book as a doorstop. No one likes to be stuck in the head of a crybaby for more than a page, and a protagonist whose thoughts are as coherent as a Flava Flav monologue won’t have you surrounded by groupies either. Annoying protagonists end up being unrelatable because they lack admirable qualities as well as fascinatingly despicable ones.

The weird ones are the truly different protagonists who challenge the way we perceive reality. They can be mentally disturbed (but not completely dysfunctional), belonging to a different culture or time period with completely different value systems, they can be otherworldy such as fantasy creatures or aliens (I mean born and raised in a vastly different model of society), or they can even be inanimate objects brought to life by extraordinary circumstances.

Such “weird” unrelatable protagonists attract the readers because they offer something that’s unattainable otherwise, and they maintain engagement by the exotic and strange perspective they have, by the absurdity and extravagance of their experience and point of view.

Now, if you think writing unlikable protagonists is hard, you’ve probably realized that writing unrelatable protagonists is even harder. You must navigate the treacherous waters that flow between silly exaggeration of known views and utterly unintelligible foreign ones, between going overboard in trying to be off the POV-chart on one hand, and not doing enough on the other.

If you succeed in creating an utterly different, normally unrelatable persona in your protagonist, and bring the reader into this exceptional character’s mindframe, you can be very proud of yourself. It’s a rare accomplishment, and one that’s not attempted often enough in my opinion. And I totally want to read your book!

Have you ever read such an unrelatable point-of-view character? Or written one?



This blog post is part of theย A to Z Blogging Challenge, April 2012

Published by Veronica Sicoe

Science Fiction Author โ€” I deliver the aliens.

19 thoughts on “Unlikable vs. Unrelatable Protagonists

  1. I just finished reading Stolen by Lucy Christopher about a teen girl who’s abducted by a guy from an airport and taken to the outback of Australia. The author gave me Stockholm Syndrome. I couldn’t believe how MUCH I cared about this guy by the time I finished the book. Amazing.


    1. That sounds like a very interesting read, Jaye. There are indeed some protagonists out there that are truly vile and one would never like in person, but they make for an awesome read. I guess it’s like Chuck Wendig said, you don’t have to identify with the protagonist, you just have to like watching him work for the length of the book.


  2. I have a confession to make. Recently, I cracked my knuckles and dove into the very first “real” story I ever wrote, knowing full well it was probably going to be cringe worthy. To my surprise, the writing wasn’t quite as bad I was expecting. But, oh boy, did I write an annoying protagonist. Lame, lazy, whiny–I’m pretty sure he hit all of your benchmarks. He was unlikable and unrelatable, and neither in a good way.

    I think whenever I’m having those doubts that tend to creep in when you’ve been absorbed in work on a story for a while, I’m going to take a gander at that old manuscript again and remind myself how much less I suck now. ๐Ÿ˜›

    Another awesome post, you.


    1. Oh I love that bitter-sweet feeling when you look back on something you’ve written in blood and sweat and realize you’ve outgrown it.

      You wouldn’t believe how horrible the first version of the story I’m writing now was at the beginning. I knew what I wanted it to “say”, and that hasn’t changed at all, but everything else has, the plot, the characters, the setting, everything. And I couldn’t be prouder on that initial piece of shit because its awfulness forced me to step over it and move on.

      And I’m not even mentioning the others before that. *shudder* What matters is that we’ve gotten past that, right? And that we’re improving. Yeah!



  3. You wrote,”Many writers go for them in the hopes of making an impact on readers, and giving an extra edge to a common plot.”

    Does that even work if you’re “going” for something?

    I’m just writing, and I’m doing it in the hopes that some readers out there will like what I’m writing. I’m not, however, going for anything. At least I don’t think I am. There’s something artificial about aiming for a reaction. I have a strange mind. My mind produces what it wants. If I tried to “go for” a sweet little romance, for example, in hopes of attracting the large number of romance readers out there, I’d completely fail.


    1. Every writer functions differently, some outline others don’t, some aim for certain reactions and employ tricks consciously to achieve that, others wing it. No one way is better, only the way that works for you.

      You don’t have a strange mind, Jolie, you’re just doing it the way that comes naturally to you and that’s perfectly fine. Being true to what feels right to you is very commendable. ๐Ÿ™‚


  4. I did read about a short story the other day that Asimov was the best example of this ever, but I’ll have to look up the name again. Unfortunately, the author died of lung cancer just one year after he started writing.

    I’m still not finding a way to follow your blog, by the way. Is there something I’m missing?


    1. Thanks for the comment, Andrew.
      To subscribe go to the top right corner and click on the cup, or click on this link and subscribe through the Google reader option. ๐Ÿ™‚


  5. Unrelatable protags… (The good kind.) That’s a new one on me – but interesting! I know I haven’t written one, and I off-hand I can’t pull a character from the books I’ve read. Wait… I take that back. MAYBE Tana’s French’s protag in “The Likeness,” Cassie Maddox. (I loved that book.)

    Unlikeable protags: I started a small novel with one. (But on hold for now.) He’s a real bastard, but oh, he’s so much fun to run with. *giddiness*

    Ahem. Thanks so much for your AWESOME support, Vero. Your comment on my “T” post made my day! ๐Ÿ˜€

    And then I saw my name in the right-hand column over there. I might have pee’d myself. ๐Ÿ˜‰

    Thanks Vero! I’m honored!


    1. Thanks, Tracy! Your comments always make me laugh. ๐Ÿ˜€

      Writing unlikable protagonists is a blast, and if you have so much fun writing them, the readers will much rather like spending time with them too. They are definitely worth trying your hand at, even if they don’t end up in a published piece. Practice is always good.


  6. Kay Kenyon’s The Bright of the Sky (Entire and the Rose Series) does this VERY well. The main character is a guy you don’t like very much because he’s conceited and a jerk. But then you realize how much suffering he’s gone through, and you start to empathize with him a lot.


    1. I haven’t read Kay’s Bright of the Sky, but it’s good to hear that you found an unlikable character so fascinating. Thanks for the comment, Jay!


  7. A friend of mine wrote a novel with a hired killer as the protag. He’s had a lot of trouble getting representation because agents keep refusing to believe such a character could be sympathetic. He actually did a great job with it. He has experience being in combat. While I see the agents’ point, I think they’re being short-sighted. Maybe they read so many bad writers they hear a challenging concept and immediately dismiss it?

    Dunno, but you’re definitely right, Vero. Good writing can take the reader anywhere.


    1. I think you’re right, Leslie, I think they don’t consider it to be an option because of the many sucky ones they’ve read. This sounds just like the reason self-publishing is considered an unprofessional choice, because of the hundreds of poor quality self-pubbed books.

      Thanks for stopping by and commenting! ๐Ÿ™‚


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: