Miss Congeniality

Do protagonists need to be likeable? A flawed hero is one thing, but an obnoxious principal character can be a challenge for the reader. I happen to enjoy central characters with less-than-pleasant personas, but many readers either want to identify or picture having a coffee (or a beer) with the fictional friend.

Like-ability is the issue.

On television, prickly characters always have a soft/loveable core. The experience of inviting the characters into your home (via your eyeballs and a screen) seems to require buffing the rough bits off until the character is easy to like. Yes, there was DEXTER and HOUSE, but they are the few losers in the Miss Congeniality competition among lead characters on TV.

Mystery fiction has produced some ornery protagonists. Some of these characters grow easier or nicer or simply less peculiar when they become the central figure in a series of books, as opposed to one-offs. Some of these characters grow on the devoted reader despite their difficult natures. My cat is named Morse after Collin Dexter’s Chief Inspector Morse. I don’t expect the cat to do crossword puzzles in ink, love opera, drink beer and continually fall for the wrong Kitty, but when he hid behind the refrigerator the first few days in my apartment, I knew he had a Morse-y side.

Still for every Morse, Dexter, House, Hercule Poirot, etc. there are many candidates for Miss Congeniality in serial fiction. Who is your favorite un-like-able character?


    • Candy Korman

      Luther and Smiley are definitely in that category of protagonists who will never get awarded Miss Congeniality — and with whom a “regular Joe” might not enjoy a beer.

      Since I named my cat Morse, I guess I’m tolerant of ornery characters in fiction AND ornery cats. Still those less-than-heroic characters can be tricky to write. In a world of heroes, that have to come through in the end to be admired — Or do they? That is the big question for mystery writers.

  1. For me the central issue is their moral compass. I don’t watch Dexter, but the premise is that he knocks off serial killers, right? While I can’t condone his actions I do applaud his wanting to do something. I stopped reading one of Philip Kerr’s novels because his German detective character, who, in previous novels had been one (almost the only) of the Good Guys, shot someone who was also a Good Guy. Right and wrong can get muddied, but this was too far for me. Besides, the book was set in Eastern Europe towards the end of WW2, so you can imagine that it was very bleak any way.

    • Candy Korman

      Yes, it is about having some kind of moral compass. I think that’s what kept me reading Colin Dexter’s Chief Inspector Morse books (& watching the BBC TVs shows)for so long — same for Dexter, House and even the prickly Poirot. Each of these basically unlikeable characters had his own true north of morality. They lived in worlds full of moral ambiguity, but they had their own direction.

      The trick for writers is to strike a balance between the intriguing and less-than-adorable/heroic protagonist and a truly unlikeable and unworthy character. Most writers seem to float toward the flawed, but heroic. I’m cool with the hard-to-love, anti-hero. I trust that readers are willing to go along on the rocky ride this kind of protagonist experiences.

  2. I tend to write unlikable characters, which can make it hard to seek feedback at time when the person giving the critique is stuck on the protagonist needed to be likable. It’s quite possible to feel empathy for less than congenial characters, plus they come across as more human as well.

    • Candy Korman

      You characters are flawed and sometimes unlikeable BUT they are so human. I remember wanting to throttle the young girl for doing stupid, and typically teenaged things, and realized that instead of identifying with her or wanting to invite her to talk, I felt protective of her. Interesting experience and one that was born of some kind of deep identification.

  3. Brenda

    What Anne Lawson said exactly about them having to have a moral compass…. Sometimes I have looked at books that couldn’t get noted and that was it. Very unlikeable.

    One awful book I almost bought just for its cover had a protagonist who harmed the guy who tried to save her life with a gun ’cause she hated guns… Weird and bad and she thinks she is a great writer.

    I quite reading one otherwise great novelist because her protagonist did something unforgiveably mean to an uncle. I haven’t returned to that series yet….

    • Candy Korman

      Doing something unforgivable can be the start of a great novel — if the protagonist is dealing with their unforgivable actions as part of their make-up/personality/vision of the world.

      Still, I sometimes enjoy the incorrigible or unrepentant protagonist. I can enjoy them on the page, but won’t invite them over for dinner. There are classic characters, most often not the lead voice or POV, that are completely unlikeable and yet I think about them, muse about them and try to imagine them as the focus of the novel. Charles Dicken’s creation Miss Havisham is one. She’s a compelling character with a twisted moral compass. It’s there, it’s just way off kilter. Interesting reading, but again — not going out for coffee with HER.

  4. I like Monk. Quircky to a point that it drives normal people nuts. Granted in real life people like that grate on my nerves but on the screen I find it comical.