An Unsympathetic Protagonist – Meditation 1.0

I recently attended an author reading of a humorous supernatural fiction novel that shall remain nameless. After hearing several chapters from the beginning and middle, I found my self thinking, “The main character’s voice is hilarious, but the dude is a douche, a parasite who makes a living ruining other people’s lives; he never shows remorse for it, never justifies it, nor in fact does he ever give us the sense there is need for justification.

It brought up a question I have as a writer that is still not fully resolved. It is based on the assumption that a protagonist must be a sympathetic character. I used to think this meant the reader has to like the main character, or identify with her/him. A wise writer friend of mine suggested that we don’t have to like them, per se–nor particularly identify with them–but we do have to be able to sympathize with them, at least in some small way.

Breaking Bad

I suppose that’s why the protagonist of Breaking Bad was able to keep people with him for x seasons; he was despicable in many ways–more and more as the seasons passed–but viewers sympathized with his troubles and miseries. Likable? No. Sympathetic? Quite.

If I Laugh, Do I Sympathize?

Back to the supernatural novel. The only thing this protagonist had going was that he was funny as hell. His snarky voice made me chuckle. But sympathize? I don’t know.I suppose the roots of the word sympathy mean literally, “to feel with.” I guess if this unlikable protagonist is making jokes and I’m laughing, I’m sympathizing with him–literally “feeling humor with him.”

But that reasoning makes me dizzy and I still don’t feel I sympathized with him.

Not Funny Enough

So I bought the book based on the chuckles I got from the reading, but only read halfway through before I put it down. NOTE TO SELF: Turns out, funny isn’t enough to form that emotional attachment with a protagonist I need to want to spend a lot of time with them.

To be fair, the author seems to have cherry picked some of the funniest passages in the book to read to us, so maybe I lost sympathy simply because the rest just wasn’t funny enough. I was there for the cherry passages of hilarity, then…the ick showed through.

Until I meet another such character who is much funnier, I won’t know the answer.

Corollary Observation: The Comic Get-Out-of-Jail-Free-Card

A funny narrator can get away with much that would spoil a story with an ordinary narrator. for example, info dumps of exposition cause readers to skim ahead, or sigh and doggedly push through in hopes such dumps won’t come often.But I’ve read info-dumps that were so funny I didn’t care at all. My friend Craig has that knack. I could read his exposition all day.

So I remain undecided as to whether an unsympathetic protagonist can be similarly redeemed by being very, very funny.

If you know examples of characters that fit that bill, let me know! I’d love to hear your thoughts below.


8 thoughts on “An Unsympathetic Protagonist – Meditation 1.0

  1. I’m trying to think on characters or works that had terrible protagonists and won with humor. The two greatest examples I can think of are Frank Underwood from House of Cards and Dexter Morgan from Dexter. These are two morally irredeemable characters well aware of their own evil. Oh, and Richard, from a web comic.

    For Frank Underwood, I think this works because of the show’s absolute adherence to making Frank a Machiavellian wet dream. The man has a quick wit and humanized by his sense of humor and off the cuff observations/lines he makes in soliloquies. And the sideways glances at the audiences when he finds something ridiculous. It’s self serious enough for a drama, but Kevin Spacey injects enough camp as Frank Underwood to keep it from feeling too realistic. It almost ends up feeling as satire. I cannot sympathize with him, but he has his human moments too keep him from being too much of a caricature.

    Dexter is, of course, a serial killer. We are kept from being too morally aghast due to his target of killer criminals. He has a few humorous dry observations of the world and the people around him, but I suppose that takes a backseat to the dark reflection of humanity the writers try to embody with him. Each season typically had him deal with some aspect or normal human life that most people go through without a second thought. Friendship, family, faith, love, fatherhood. etc. I suppose you could sympathize with him in that you felt sorry that these things we all do don’t come naturally to him. A hole carved in our hearts for a character without one. So I guess he doesn’t work as well.

    And then there is Richard. He works because he isn’t the main protagonist in this story, and usually plays as the dark foil to Cail’s naive nature. Almost every action is driven by his own dark amusement that can be appreciated by black humorists the world over. His every action is deplorable, but I can’t help but love him for it. Partly because it is so extreme it can’t be taken seriously. Possible stand in for a more mainstream icon would be Deadpool, but I’m less familiar with him.

    I guess it comes down to the tone/intent of the series. A morally bankrupt and unsympathetic character is balanced by good humor as long as the tone of the medium is acceptable. As in, satire or parody. It can’t be too self serious because then we have to take the character too seriously to accept their deplorable actions, no matter how amusing or funny they are.

    • Thank you for that thoughtful contribution. I love your description of Spacey’s character in House of Cards. And I love that soliloquy is back! (Your description of him reminds me of Richard III.) I must watch that show!

  2. The Wolf of Wall Street features another despicable protagonist/narrator. He wasn’t deliberately using humor in his narration, but the audience was laughing throughout the film. This morally corrupt character was never trying to be funny, but the frequency that the audience guffawed at his antics resulting from his sex and drug addictions made me wonder- were they laughing with him or at him? I couldn’t tell.

    • Another film I need to see. If he is punished in the end (like I think he is), is there redemption in that? Or change? Does he own it, as Vivian describes Berg’s character in the Lighthouse Duet?

  3. I’ve never been a huge fan of snark. I find the voice tedious and over used, particularly in YA.
    As for unsavory characters, I like characters with flaws. Too many times, I believe authors try too hard to make their Protagonist likeable they leave no room for personal growth. But sympathy is a must and best presented as part of the hook. Sympathy alone is not enough to keep me reading. I want to see the flawed character wrestle personal demons and, if not victorious, at least keep trying to make themselves better.
    Truthfully, do any of us have time for people in our own lives that are unsavory and don’t want to do anything to better themselves?
    My answer is no.
    I will lend a helping hand, like feeding a stray animal. But the person has to walk up to the plate and eat.
    Carol Berg’s Lighthouse Duet, Flesh and Blood and Breath and Bone, has such a character.
    When we meet him he is a deserter from his King’s army, a thief, and he is mortally wounded and left to die by his partner in crime. In essence, we start with him receiving the punishment he so aptly deserves. But he is given a chance at redemption. Lying in the mud, dying, a young monk rescues him and he is nursed back to health by the brothers. Throughout the rest of the book he tries to return to his old ways, only to find he has gained a conscience.
    Breaking Bad’s protagonist works because our sympathy with him erodes as his morals erode. Viewers feel closure when he receives his punishment, because there was the element of redemption. What started out as a illegal venture to take care of his family, became the protagonists uncontrolled ego mania. Most importantly, he owns it.
    “I didn’t do this for you, I did it for me.”
    Punishment. Redemption. Closure.
    If the screenwriters had not made their protagonist own his bad behavior, I doubt the series would have the impact it did.
    Only sociopaths want to see the bad guy get away, snarky or not.

    • Great descriptions of the book. Sounds like a great character arc, and I can see how that would sustain interest.
      Regarding Breaking Bad, once again, a TV show I haven’t watched, but I know a bit about it. The show ran for many seasons, right? At what point in the span of episodes does he sort of hit rock bottom in terms of viewer sympathy? I have to imagine it was at some point in the last season, or it would be hard to maintain interest in a character that became so bleak.

  4. It’s a very gradual erosion through the 5 seasons it ran. To know our starting point, I’ll give some minor spoilers from S1. Walt is confronted with possibly having to kill someone in cold blood. He gets to know the man and finds out that they likely crossed paths in the past. To help deal with it, Walt makes a list of pros and cons. Starting with the cons, he writes killing is immoral. We find here a grounded and largely moral individual wrestling with gray area morality. The first time he did something that I couldn’t forgive or understand was at the tail end of S2. And the only time he ever did something purely out of spite, just to hurt someone, was in S5. That was probably the bottom, but we peered into the abyss as far back as that unforgivable scene in S2

    Thing is, though, I still had sympathy for the man, even at the end. Despite his evils and immorality. This isn’t just the story of a man’s descent, but also of living. This is a man who left a company he co-founded that is now worth billions. A man who’s only child has cerebral palsy. Who’s brother in law is pushy and energetic. Who feels empty in his job teaching science to kids who don’t care. Who’s marriage lacks passion. The meth turns this all around for him. He finds a surrogate son in Jesse Pinkman. He is amazingly good at making and running his meth empire. It injects life into his dessicated marriage. Suddenly able to start holding his own against the brother in law. His cancer was a trigger that caused him to live in a destructive spiral.

  5. I think this is why I enjoyed playing Vampire: the Requiem so much. Even though the characters in it are clearly evil– you’re going out every night and forcibly taking a piece of a victim, and one night, when you get a little too hungry, you are going to kill one–they are sympathetic because not only was this thrust upon them without their permission, they show remorse for their actions. Every vampire walks away from a feeding feeling either a little less human or a little more inhuman–in some cases, both. We feel their struggles, their pains and their guilt, and we understand–and see– what a great burden that places on their psyches.
    All said, I feel you hit the nail on the head. We can hate a character, we can feel detached from a character, but if you cannot sympathize with a character, you have no hope of them being a good protagonist for [insert gregarious page length].

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