Thursday, December 9, 2010

Sleazy Protagonists

L.J. Sellers is an award-winning journalist and the author of the Detective Jackson mystery/suspense series. The Sex Club, Secrets to Die For, and Thrilled to Death have been highly praised by Mystery Scene and Spinetingler magazines. Her fourth Jackson story, Passions of the Dead, has just been released. All four novels are on Amazon Kindle’s bestselling police procedural list. L.J. also has two standalone thrillers, The Baby Thief and The Suicide Effect. When not plotting murders, she enjoys performing standup comedy, cycling, social networking, and attending mystery conferences. She’s also been known to jump out of airplanes.

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. I skimmed through the rest, uncaring. For me, there was little point in reading about a protagonist I wanted to see caught and punished. Especially since I predicted the book wouldn’t turn out that way (and it didn’t).
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 revolting.

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 for me either. Two of my favorite books this 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 (except for the George Clooney part). 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 agree with you and if I read a mystery/suspense/thriller, I especially must like the protag - and maybe why I love Laura Caldwell and Marcia Muller - I can relate to the main character.

    We also seem to love books with the word "club" in it - "The Sex Club" - now that's intriguing (mine is "The Tom Jones Club" - lol).

    The only heroine I can think of that I loved and hated at the same time was Scarlett O'Hara. :)

  2. For me, the compelling (and likable) protag. is what will keep me coming back to a series. If I don't have that connection with him/her, I probably won't keep reading. Likable and compelling are not the same thing, though, so really it's about finding something redeemable in the characters, even if it's just a sliver or an occasional glimpse.

  3. Mostly I want to see a hero/heroine that is mostly good. One hero that fascinates me and really isn't all that good is Dexter. How can you like a serial killer--even if he does kill the bad guys and sometimes makes a mistake? He still has redeeming qualities.


  4. LJ: Thanks for stopping by today! I, too, loved The Lock Artist--I found that main character to have some redeeming traits. I have a hard time with unlikeable protagonists and like you, will put a book down if I can't root for the person. Interesting post. Maggie

  5. I totally agree. I have to like the main protagonist or the book remains unfinished. I mean, what's the point of reading about unpleasant people when there are so many available in real life? I read to escape :)

  6. I agree! I don't have to like a main character, but I do have to be able to relate to them. If they're perpetually doing things I find repulsive, then I resent being put in their shoes. I guess I'm just one of those readers that goes deep into the mind of a main character... if it's a place I don't want to be, I won't.

  7. Thanks, everyone, for commenting. The other question is: If readers, in general, don't like or finish books with sleazy protagonists, how do some of those books end up as award nominees and winners?

  8. I remember my mystery group reading a book that started with the protagonist getting out of the bed of his brother's wife, snorting lines of cocaine and going to a bar to get drunk. Everyone in the group's immediate reaction was hoping someone would shoot this guy.

    For me, there does have to be something about the protagonist I like, or can understand. Even with Ken Bruen's Jack Taylor, there is a sense of possible redemption; and the writing is just so good.

    The crooked cop, the dirty DEA agent, the protagonist who operates for their own gain; those are not on my self which is probably why I don't read noir. I don't need a protagonist who is "pure as the driven snow," but I do want one with some ethical center.

  9. This post is oh-so-relevant to me now, because I've been batting around this exact topic of unlikeable protagonists with writer friends of mine who have novels on submission. It seems that the publishing world agrees with you, LJ: a protag should be likeable--not unflawed but still someone you can...

    What? Relate to? Root for?

    Personally I don't mind disliking a character, even a main character. I enjoy figuring out why I dislike him or her, and whether the dislike is a reflection of my issues or personality, or if there's such a thing as objectively unlikeable.

    I don't think this would extend to someone who would hurt an innocent person--as per your kidnapper example.

    Everything else for me though is fair game.

    Great post!

  10. I write historical fiction and my first novel, a medival story of Vlad the Impaler's wife, is currently being marketed by my agent to publishers. A rejection I frequently hear is that Vlad is not likeable.


    You realize this is Vlad the Impaler, right??

    So...I'd love to be able to quote your statement that "In my book discussion groups, many other readers say they don’t have to like the protagonist to find the story compelling"...sadly, publishers don't let authors mouth off to them. Especiall rejected authors.


  11. Oh, and PS I think ever since Stephen King hit the scene way back in the 70s, authors have mistaken porn, pill-popping, and abuse for "verisimilitude."

  12. My last book published had the main character as the antagonist, who was also the protagonist. It was a tricky line to walk, but of course the reader had to like the antagonist enough to root for him until he did the change of heart thing.

    Sapphire Savvy, your book sounds really fascinating. Maybe Vlad wasn't likable but what about his wife?

    Also in the WD interview with Harlan Coben, he said essentially the same thing. That the protagonist doesn't necessarily have to be someone the reader relates to, but he/she has to be real.

  13. I'm really surprised--at the original and at many of the comments. I don't equate hero/heroine with protagonist. Since I believe that all useful and interesting people, whether real or fictional, are complex. They have needs and pressures which drive decisions and actions. Good and evil. Few individuals are totally good or evil. Hence I can follow well-written protagonists who have logical motives for what they do, good or bad.

  14. Carl, that's interesting comment. For me, protagonists don't have to be heroes but I do want to be able to root for them as they pursue their goals.

    In well written stories, protagonists usually have flaws and antagonists have good points. Whether I relate to a protagonist depends on the balance, and for me, a protagonist needs to have more good qualities than bad.

  15. In a screenwriting class I took once, the instructor told us to make sure we gave the antagonist what he called "the Moses factor" - something redeeming so the antagonist was not all bad. That goes for protagonists that are less than stellar, too. And I agree that they should aspire to something better to be endearing.

  16. The beauty of a wicked protagonist in a novel is that you can hang out with this person for as long as it takes you to read the book (maybe a little longer), enjoy the charm, go along for the evil adventures, and then close the book and not find yourself in jail, facing a lawsuit, bilked out of all your money, pregnant out of wedlock or any of the number of other things that can happen to people who cultivate the wicked as personal friends in real life.

  17. I have to like the protagonist too. Exception: Elmore Leonard has a gift for writing protagonists one would dislike but for some reason they are usually terrific fun to read about. Or watch in the movie.


  18. What a great discussion!

    It certainly helps if the protagonist is someone you can relate to. But what we may be objecting to is a flawed character that gives us nothing but bad habits.

    Macbeth is a tragic figure, a multiple killer, but Shakespeare makes sure we can understand him, what motivates him, what frightens him, what makes him bold. It's so well-written, we identify with someone we could never be. This kind of anti-hero is as compelling as a car wreck, and you cannot look away.

    The key is being able to understand why the character does what s/he does. If it feels honest, the reader will go to great lengths to stay with that character, IMHO.