Protagonists you don’t like

I recently watched The Social Network, and if you read my glowing love letter to Scott Pilgrim vs. The World you can appreciate the weight of meaning when I say that The Social Network was the best movie of the year. I know it didn’t win the “big” Oscars, but I’m a writer, so the only Oscars that really matter to me are the writing ones, and in that category The Social Network had no serious competition. The dialogue and pacing and storytelling in that movie crackle with more life and energy and creativity than any movie in recent memory, which is pretty amazing for a movie about socially inept people looking at computer screens. The first scene sold me, practically the first line of dialogue; it had an organic ebb and flow to the language that we use all the time in real life (though not with that level of rapid-fire cleverness), and yet most books and movies are never able to catch. In an entertainment industry where most characters speak because they have important plot elements to reveal, these characters speak because they have things to say. It was refreshing and brilliant and depressingly rare in writing.

And yet–and yet–no matter how much I loved the characters and their story and the things they said to each other, I never actually liked them. They are not likable people. Peel back the excellent writing and this is a movie about mean, dishonest people being jerks to each other, often for no real reason other than “we’re jerks, and this is what we do.” I’m not making a comment on the real people involved, just their characters as portrayed in the film. This is a movie without any good guys, and yet somehow I was pulled in and absorbed and emotionally involved. Interesting.

Meanwhile, on cheap cable TV, the movie Jumper came on one afternoon, and because I was bored and because I have an ongoing quest to like Hayden Christenson in a movie, I watched it. It was better than I’d been told, with some very interesting ideas and a fantastic performance from the perpetually undervalued Jamie Bell; Hayden Christenson was, as always, stiff and incomprehensible. Jumper, for those unfamiliar, was about a boy who can teleport, and the mysterious organization that tries to hunt and kill him. And here’s the thing: just like the Social Network, there are no likable characters, and no good guys anywhere to be found. The protagonist is a thief and a leech without the slightest pang of conscience, and the mysterious organization is completely justified in hunting him down, and yet they’re kind of viciously overzealous about it (and needlessly homicidal in at least one scene) so you don’t really like them either. When the movie switches gears in the second half, focusing full force on its “let’s stop this mysterious organization from killing our kind” finale, you just don’t care because you’ve never become invested in them. You don’t actually want them to win, because the first half of the movie drove home so solidly the fact that these guys are all bad. Hayden Christenson bears a lot of the blame, definitely; if the kid who played his younger self in the opening scenes had stuck around, we would have liked the character a lot more. But this goes far beyond that–even Jamie Bell, who as I said was excellent, still wasn’t likable.

So: two movies with unlikable protagonists, and in one I get sucked in and one I don’t. In one movie I can’t get enough of the little twerps–I don’t like them, but I love them–and in the other I just keep watching my clock and wishing it were better than it was. What’s the difference? This is of special interest to me for obvious reasons: I write about a sociopathic proto-killer, a classic example of “unlikable but we like him anyway,” and figuring out how people create characters like that, both successfully and unsuccessfully, is part of my job. I’ve come up with several theories:

1) The characters in The Social Network are never depicted as heroic, yet the characters in Jumper are obviously portrayed in a heroic role–despite never actually being or feeling heroic. In other words, I like the characters in The Social Network more because they feel like they fit their own story. They’re not trying to manipulate me, through the contrivance of the plot structure, to cheer for a “hero beats the bad guys” ending that doesn’t make any sense in the story.

2) The characters in The Social Network are hard workers. Whether you like them socially or not, you can’t help but admire their work ethic–everything they get, they earn. They are good at what they do and they dream big, always trying to make something bigger or better than it was before. The characters in Jumper, on the other hand, work for nothing: their teleporting powers are innate and accidental, their wealth is stolen, and the most ambition they can summon is to spend their days roaming the world, stealing surfboards and eating fast food. Every single person who watched that movie could think of a better use for teleportation than the characters did. If they could at least embrace their role as supercrooks–if they had any lasting impact on the world in any way–we could get behind it. Instead we see the misuse (and even worse, the non-use) of unearned power. The characters were spoiled and boring.

3) This goes along with the last point, but the characters in The Social Network are competent. The third scene of the movie shows the protagonist hack a series of photo databases and construct a complicated website from scratch in the time it takes a group of older, richer, more successful students to get drunk at a party. The comparison is explicit: this guy is really good at what he does. The characters in Jumper, on the other hand, are competent enough with their actual jumping, but not really good at anything else: when the bad guys show up the protagonist is completely outclassed and barely escapes with his life; when he decides to take the fight to them he proves inept at evading them, tracking them, fighting them, and pretty much everything else he tries to do. Your characters have to be good at something, even something stupid, or the audience just won’t care about them.

4) The quality of the dialogue in The Social Network is, as I said, stellar. You can sit and listen to them snap at each other for hours because they’re just so frakking entertaining as they do it. When Jesse Eisenberg tells a lawyer that no, he’s not worthy of his attention, yes he’s being a jerk but you still want to stand up and cheer because he was being a jerk so well. He gives that lawyer a verbal slap across the face that every one of us has wished we could give to a similar pompous windbag at some point in our lives. This is the same as the “he’s funny” principle I talk about with John Cleaver: if my sociopath can make you laugh, you’ll like him no matter how dark and creepy he gets. The characters in Jumper don’t have anything like that–they’re not clever, funny, charming, or anything else that would help get you on their side. The closest it gets is when Hayden Christenson gets into a bar fight and ends up jumping the other guy into a bank vault and flashing a truly awesome evil smile right as he jumps back out. That’s the kind of “look how awesome I am” attitude that could really win over an audience, but it’s the only one in the movie, and it still doesn’t work because it’s surrounded by so many weird things: a bar fight with a drunk guy is not the best way to show yourself in a good light; Christenson himself started the fight; the other guy was just drunk, not evil (ie, he didn’t “deserve” it); the moment was dark, but the movie was not prepared to go any further down a dark path with Christenson’s character and thus the moment was squandered; and perhaps worst of all, the girl in the scene immediately distracts us from the moment by demonstrating a superhuman lack of believable motivations.

Any ideas of your own? Any other examples you’d like to share? What makes an unlikable character likable, memorable, and more?

25 Responses to “Protagonists you don’t like”

  1. Your point #2 goes along with something that a critic (maybe CS Lewis?) once observed about Milton. People find Milton’s Satan compelling not because of his evil traits but because of the many good traits that he still possesses.

  2. I definitely agree with your estimation of the movie Jumper, but I still loved the movie. I tend to love movies and books that are crap simply because I see what it could have been and enjoy that image. Jumper could have been amazing and watching it lets me contemplate what changes would have made it such. The book “Jumper: Griffin’s Story” does a much better job. He only becomes a thief after the Paladins start hunting him, and he does it because he can’t stay anywhere long enough to get a job. He starts frequenting a few places and it almost gets him killed. I really enjoyed the book (which is on Audible) and you should give it a shot.

  3. André says:

    I completely agree.

    Personally, I think that what makes an unlikable character (or any character, really) likable is whether or not they are something that we, the reader, want to be or can admire. Not the WHOLE character, of course, but some part of them. For example: competent. We like a character who’s competent because part of us wishes we were competent like that. If, as you said, John Cleaver is likable because he’s funny (personally, I like him more because the psychology is fascinating), that’s because the reader wants to be funny or admires his humour.

    The characters have to make use of that aspect, though, in order for it to work. As you pointed out, anyone who watched Jumper could think of a better use for that ability than what the characters did wit it. If it hadn’t been for that, we could have watched the movie and liked the characters because, goshdarnit, I WANNA DO THAT. But when the characters fail to do anything with their abilities, that just annoys the audience. And what makes us REALLY like the characters is when they take that trait or ability and don’t just do what we would do with it (or something of equivalent awesomeness) and go beyond that and do something so awesome we hadn’t even considered the possibility of it happening.

  4. Jace says:

    Humanity and fallibility are one way to make a guy more likable. Having them show that there’s compassion or some other sympathetic emotion to them. Having them legitimately fail. Not using a plot contrivance that forces them to be just too stupid or incompetent to succeed, but actually trying, failing, getting up and trying again. Making mistakes and suffering consequences. That’ll be more likely to get some sympathy and understanding, if nothing else.

    I’ve been trying to think of a _protagonist_ who is unlikable yet likable, but without much luck. I mean, I can name Xanatos from the Gargoyles cartoon as an example of a character that fits. He always has his own agenda, he works against the gargoyles (who are generally very likable and heroic), and for a long time he’s a major villain, behind most of the events that happen, even if he’s not directly involved. He should not be likable. And yet he’s so suave, so unflappable, so cool, he’s very likable. And he fails. He doesn’t always get what he wants, but he accepts the consequences and moves on.

    Or what he SEEMED to want was a cover for something else that he gets through having the obvious plot foiled.

    Mostly, Xanatos is a charming rogue, but he is human, he is funny, he does fail and pick himself up.

    Hmmm, I’ve just thought of an unlikable-yet-somewhat-likable protagonist: Sand dan Glokta from the “First Law” books by Joe Abercrombie. Glokta is a crippled wreck of a man, a prisoner of war who was tortured and maimed by his captors, who, after being rescued and restored to his homeland, now works as a torturer himself, often employing the same methods once used on him.

    He’s bitter, hateful, despises the world around him. There’s little compassion in him when dealing with the people he’s given to torture for confessions or information, and he has no compunctions about inflicting pain. We’re also left in no doubt that he’s a bit hideous and hard to look at… well, he thinks so, and sometimes he wallows in his misery.

    And yet at the same time he can be funny, even if it’s generally in an acidic, often self-mocking, sort of way. He’s very much human, too. As cringe-inducing as it can be to read about his pain, about the constant suffering of his maimed body, it makes him very sympathetic at times. He’s also quite fallible, too. Not everything goes his way, but he survives and moves on to the next challenge.

    He does have some compassion, and there’s a scene in the beginning of the second book where has a little ‘badass’ moment dealing with people who think he’s nothing more than an ineffectual cripple. He doesn’t fight them, of course, but he out-maneuvers them really well.

    As much as Glokta makes me cringe, I still find myself reading on, wondering what will happen with this fascinating creep next.

  5. Adam says:

    Pretty much any of the main characters from Hubert Selby Jr’s books kind of fit this idea. For the most part they are completely despicable characters but you’re drawn through the books following them because they’re believable even if you shouldn’t like them.

    Requiem for a Dream is probably his most famous book and it’s a story about 4 drug addicts, characters that most people wouldn’t normally feel sorry for or even care about. In most of his books, Selby writes about the darker side of life, but he still is able to draw you through stories about people doing horrible things.

  6. Matthew Watkins says:

    Going to outright disagree with you about the Social Network. Here is my problem: it was interesting, but it wasn’t good. Yes, part of that is because the characters were not heroic at all. But my problem was that the movie wasn’t emotionally satisfying. The writing was good, the acting was good, the cinematograpy was good, but the story didn’t have enough meaning to it to really carry the movie across. The characters were well rounded, but they were too human.

    The story was too real. Its like looking at all the new video games coming out. They have incredibly realistic graphics, but they just all look the same. I am much more interested in stylized realism when it comes to my movies or my videos or my games. If I just wanted to watch or play or read real life, I would dump those things and stick to my own life.

    I guess, to me it seemed like The Social Network was one of the best “documentaries” that I have ever seen, but it wasn’t really anything more than a glorified documentary.

    The execution was flawless, but sometimes you just need to question whether the story is really that much worth telling. Are we really better served by an elaborate, expensive, but flawless encyclopedia entry than by a wikipedia entry? Facebook is a culture unto itself, and one of the most important phenomena in the world, but that doesn’t mean that the story of the people behind Facebook is really worth telling. There is a difference between a story that is fascinating and a story that is compelling.

  7. Christoph says:

    I must admit, at the “set-cat-to-fire”-point (sorry for spoilers, but I will not mention where and in which book, so I hope that goes okay) I set down your book and had to sort through the conflicting emotions concerning John. In that moment I really hated him. I do not know whether my emotional investment might have been lesser if some other animal had been involved, but I don´t think so. However, it took a long time for me to fully get back into the story afterwards.
    So I really liked him before that point, and I started liking him again some time afterwards, with a culmination at the end of IDWTKY, where he was most broken, and most likable.
    I have not seen The Social Network, and Jumper bored me so much I never got past the first 20 minutes, so I refrain from commenting on that.

  8. Betsy Long says:

    I love to hate Artemis, the main character in Eoin Colfer’s young adult series, Artemis Fowl.

  9. Sean - Texas says:

    To echo much that has been said already, part of what makes a character likable is making them “human,” and what that means to me is that you make them or their actions understandable, but more than that, admirable to some extent. We don’t just want human. Like you said, the characters in Jumper were completely useless, squandering their powers doing nothing of value, but if you think about that, I’d lay pretty even odds that a vast majority of the world’s populace would do something similar. We’d waste it. So Jumper’s character’s are realistic and understandable, just not admirable.

    Now, on the other hand, you have the lovely Dexter Morgan, who of course is a real piece of work, but strangely likable. ****Spoilers Ahead If You Haven’t Seen Dexter Season I**** An example of Dexter’s character that I think reflects his dichotemy perfectly came in Season I, episode 5, where Dexter is in the process of killing a couple involved in human trafficking. Right as he is about to do so, the couple express love toward each other, and Dexter holds off their execution because he realizes they know something that will make his life better: how to be a remorseless killer and still love people. So he takes the time to talk to them and find out their secret before ruthelessly slitting their throats.

    A similar incident occurs in Season 1, Episode 8 as Dexter is meeting with a homicidal psychologist. Again, Dexter realizes the psychologist has something to teach him, and so he puts off the man’s execution in favor of learning how to be a better person, more connected to those around him.

    This theme culminates in the finale of Season I when Dexter must choose between the sister he wants to love but with whom he feels no real connection, and the brother who understands him perfectly, but represents the severing of all ties to normal, human life. Dexter chooses to remain with humanity.

    In Dexter, the elements are all there: we understand dexter, he behaves realistically, and he has some admirable traits: he wants to improve his life and he wants to learn to love people even though a part of him is not capable of that kind of emotional connection. Even with that inability, he still strives for it, works at it, even if his efforts are most often inept. He’s a horrible person, but we love him anyway.

    Oh and I have to say this, although you probably already know: You have to read the book Jumper. It is amazingly good, and the movie didn’t spoil anything for you. The only thing the book and movie have in common is that a boy learns how to teleport.

  10. Jace says:

    …. huh.

    I am ashamed to admit I forgot about Dexter. But yes, he’s the perfect example. He’s a murdering sociopath. And we like him.

    He is funny. We understand him. He makes mistakes. He tries to be human, and, in his own way, he is very human, with fears and joys and all the rest. They may not be the same priority as everyone else, sure, but we get to see inside his head and so we find something to relate to.

  11. Steve D says:

    The Dexter example only applies to the TV version of the character. His character becomes more and more human as the series goes on, and thus more and more sympathetic. If you want to see the flip side of how NOT to do the exact same character, read the novels–they get progressively worse with each volume and make it hard to care less about the character.

  12. Jace says:

    I’ve only read up to the third Dexter book, and that one… really shouldn’t have been written. At least, not as a Dexter book.

  13. Matthew Watkins says:

    My favorite examples of an protagonists that are horrible, but still sympathetic are from George R.R. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire. There are only a few characters in that book who should be sympathetic. The rest do horrible, horrible things, but you still can’t help but find yourself rooting for them. Jaime Lannister, Clegane, Theon, Tyrion, Cersei. Even Arya, Sansa, Daenerys, and Jon push some boundaries. But I find myself identifying with them so well.

    Part of this is because these people are so capable. Part of it is because they are funny. Part of it is because they are so interestingly complex. But I think the biggest part is that even though Westeros is a place full of terrible things, it is also a place where anyone can gain redemption, or where anyone can fall. Worrying about whether they live or die is stressful, but it is even more stressful to worry if they will become good, or give in to evil.

  14. BC Woods says:

    “Arrested Development” springs to mind. I’ll forgive a lot for awkward humor and charisma, apparently even weirdly incest-driven story lines.

  15. Alaina Evans says:

    FYI – copied this clip over from Deseret News. For anyone who may be interested.

    Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg to speak at BYU
    Published: Wednesday, March 9, 2011 1:19 p.m. MST

    PROVO — Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg will host a Q&A session at BYU together with U.S. Senator Orrin Hatch on Friday, March 25 about the technology and policy changes shaping our world.The joint visit was instigated by Hatch, who as chair of the U.S. Senate Republican High-Tech Task Force, met with Zuckerberg and discussed the challenges of today’s digital age, and then extended an invitation to come speak at BYU.

    Questions for the discussion are to be submitted in advance through BYU’s Facebook page and are due by Tuesday, March 22.

    Zuckerberg founded Facebook while studying at Harvard and in 2010 was named TIME magazine’s Person of the Year. He currently sets the company’s overall direction and product strategy.

    The discussion at 11 a.m in the Marriott Center will not be broadcast anywhere else on campus or to the BYU Broadcasting network. However, video of the technology forum will be posted later on the BYU and BYUTV Facebook pages.

    — Sara Israelsen-Hartley

  16. AB says:

    I think The Social Network pulled off the non-likeable protagonist because it came in with entirely different audience expectations. In most stories, the protagonist is trying to accomplish something. Most people watch to figure out whether they succeed–usually more ardently if they identify with that character. In the Social Network, we already know that Mark succeeds in his goal because most of us have facebook accounts. “Journey not destination” is the quote that comes to mind. We know that the protagonist will become insanely rich, but we don’t know how he goes about doing it–to me that’s what makes it work. In Jumper, I watched without any investment in the character’s goals or personality, because I didn’t really care about either.

    And for what it’s worth, I thought the King’s Speech blew Social Network out of the water. I didn’t like Colin Firth’s character at the beginning, but I did as the story wore on–to the extent that I found myself rooting for him to be victorious. Social Network had no catharsis–Mark is a jerk at the beginning, middle, and end–whereas in The King’s Speech, your perception of him develops with his character.

  17. Cyndi says:

    Lie to me. Cal Lightman. He’s a protagonist that I hate to love or rather, love to hate. He’s awkward and embarrassing. I feel my skin crawl when I know he’s about to insult someone. Yet he’s brilliant. He, like those in The Social Network, EARNS respect. And the appeal to him, contrary to some beliefs, has nothing to do with his british accent.

  18. Abbe says:

    I haven’t seen The Social Network yet, but I’m not surprised to hear that the dialogue is great because, y’know, Aaron Sorkin. Of Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, we will not speak, but I love Sports Night to the depths of my soul. I also really liked The West Wing. Here’s a show full of characters I disagree with on almost every issue, but I admired their motivation to do what they thought was right.

    That leads back to what makes a character likable, especially one who in theory shouldn’t be, namely John Cleaver. I don’t mean to contradict his creator, but I don’t like him because he makes me laugh. I like him because he’s trying so hard to be a good person. Every thing in his life seems deliberately arranged to put even basic human decency out of his reach — and since he’s fictional, I suppose it is deliberately arranged that way — and yet, he keeps trying. It’s my admiration for those efforts that makes me care about him, root for his success, and worry when it looks like he’s going to fail.

  19. Christian Hand says:

    Your gift is incredible. I have been trying to email you and Howard and Brandon but I’ve had no luck. Do you have an email address you can give me? All of the links to listener emails do not work on my computer.

    Would love to hear back from you. email me at the email address I have posted.

  20. Chris says:

    I couldn’t help but think of Hannibal Lecter. He is evil–no question–but I find him at times, likeable. He appreciates the finer things in life, like so many admirable people do. Even if his mores are messed up, to him they are legitimate and he lives up to them. While doing his atrocious things, he often contributes to good endeavors and finally, he has a special bond with Clarice, a character we do like and cheer for.

  21. Sarah says:

    Let’s not forget Frankenstein’s monster in Mary Shelley’s classic. I often liked him more than Victor. Victor was a spoiled little kid who always got the best things in life and then turns around and denies this same happiness to his own “son”. I also loved the way the “monster” talked; he was always so eloquent.
    Also, the villain of season 5 of the hit show Supernatural is the Devil (here called Lucifer). For better or worse, you often sympathize more with him than with the good angels who are helping out Sam & Dean (w/ the exception of the hilarious Castiel) because the other angels are basically dicks so you get a sense of betrayal. Lucifer also ironically seems to be the most human of all the angels even though he hates humans. Also, as in a previously mentioned comment, Supernatural’s Lucifer is based on John Milton’s who is also sympathetic because of his many human traits.

  22. Brian Redd says:

    Alongside Cal Lightman from “Lie to Me” is, of course, Gregory House from “House.” What a b*stard! He is a drug addicted, self-involved, rude, border-line sociopathic doctor, yet he is, despite everything, REALLY likable. And I think Dan hit the nail on the head – the reason why we like these characters is that they are competent, human, with realistic (and relate-able) motivations.

  23. Chandler says:

    Doc Octopus, of Marvel Comics fame, is a character I’ve always found likable in spite of his tendency to put his wants above other peoples needs. Especially since he can banter with Spider-Man on an intellectual level. He’s witty and clever, etc. But in the same breath I have no respect for him. ‘Liking him’ as a character ends with my admiration of his wit and cleverness. I don’t like him as a person, per se. He’s not they kind of a guy I’d want as a neighbor, because chances are he’d level my house because it’s blocking his view.

    On the other hand I like Spider-Man as a character because he’s an every-man. He’s a shy, geeky kid who’s trying to do the best he can with what he’s got. And sure, he’s got super powers, but he’s also got every day problems of the sort we deal with day to day, for example: girl problems, meeting his rent, and employment issues. We can relate to him as a person, like the people we interact with day to day. It’s his flaws that make us say to ourselves, “He’s like me.” And it’s his super powers and determination to do good even when it’s difficult that makes him likable as a character.

    John Cleaver is a character we can relate to for the same reasons. He’s a kid who’s got every day problems, but does the right thing in spite of them. Yeah, he’s got sociopathic tendencies (which is hopefully something most of us can’t relate to) but he’s willing to do the hard thing, and challenge himself, rather than simply saying “I’m a born killer” and giving in to the urge to kill. For that reason we respect him, and even like him as a protagonist.

  24. Lisa R says:

    One of the other commenters mentioned that “Jump” is also a novel. Another novel from that series was made into the movie “Push,” which was *much* better than “Jump” the movie.

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