My protagonist is a very shitty person that makes bad decisions for the wrong reasons. They do eventually redeem themselves, not because of their own decisions, but because the supporting characters push the protagonist in the right direction. Will a protagonist like that alienate the reader?

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    My only suggestion is that the protagonist must be the author of his/her own redemption. Being nagged into being good doesn't count. The protagonist him/herself must own up to his/her bad deeds and want, genuinely, to change. Otherwise it's just an informed attribute, the protagonist cheated, and everyone else did the work. – Lauren-Reinstate-Monica-Ipsum Mar 13 '18 at 22:16
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    Lolita is considered one of the greatest books of all time, and it has its protagonist intentionally written as an anti-hero. You're not supposed to like him. – forest Mar 14 '18 at 5:08

It is not and never has been about making the protagonist likable. It has always been about making them recognizable. If you want a great example of an unlikable protagonist, try Graham Greene's Brighton Rock. Pinky is in no way likable and in no way moral. He is, however, recognizably human.

When people ask for a character to be likable, what the really mean is a character that they approve of, that exemplifies their ideology or embodies their life lie. These reader's don't want real humanity. They want a plaster saint.

For all other readers, though, it is all about making a character who is recognizably human and whose frailties we can sympathize with and whose career we can follow with interest (even if with horror).

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    I think likable has a specific meaning to a lot of people that actually incorporates several spectrums of "real" humanity. And while a lot of the qualities may be subjective, the dictionary does offer some helpful hints as to what people might mean when they use that word: pleasant, friendly, nice, agreeable, affable, amiable, personable, charming, popular, good-natured, etc. It's a very broad word for someone who has positive attributes which others identify with and therefor like. Which, isn't really a "plaster saint" at all; maybe what you'd really call it is "friend". – Kirk Mar 14 '18 at 1:19
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    Did you mean “life line”? Anyway, I think you’ve got it exactly backwards. Most readers prefer a character they can sympathize with, and a small minority prefer realism. Not that this is a dichotomy - I personally prefer a story with both. – Obie 2.0 Mar 14 '18 at 8:05
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    That’s why characters like Superman or Bella Swan are so popular. Are they well-characterized? Three-dimensional? In other words, are they “human”? Nah. But do they embody the traits that their respective audiences value? Yes. Anyway, that said, you actually hit on it: “frailties we can sympathize with.” Most of the time, that just means traits that we view as positive. If we sympathize with cowardice, say, it’s because we view it as acceptable for ourselves (otherwise we’d be heroic, mmm?) I think talking about “humanity” is simply taking an atypically ecumenical view of who’s likeable. – Obie 2.0 Mar 14 '18 at 8:37

It doesn't have to. Even if the guy is a unlikeable and a jerk, make him human. Give him reasons for his flaws. The reader will be connected to the character at least on this level.

I recently read a detective story where the main character wasn't very likeable. Yet, the author had reasons for all of the character's flaws. The character was interesting and deep. As the story progressed, the character became more likeable as you realized why he had his flaws.

However, if you are going to take this approach realize that your readers likely won't be there for the characters. There are some stories that focus around character more than the plot. If you have an unlikeable character, I would caution against focusing on the characters too much.

I think this approach (unlikeable character who eventually redeems himself) can create a much more memorable story than if your followed the common pattern of a likeable protagonist.

In summary, I think it can definitely work, but give the character reasons for his flaws and try to have an captivating story to make up for the lack of a likeable character.


You want a character to be engaging, not necessarily likable. Breaking Bad doesn't have a likable or even sympathetic protagonist; it has a competent one and an engaging mystery. An unlikable character is a handicap, so everything else you write will have to carry the dead weight; but it is possible to turn that dead weight, that liability, into an asset.

The seven deadly words of a book are: "I do not care about these people."

Note, it's not "this person", but if a reader doesn't care about anyone in the story, they are likely to put it down and often correct to. Engagement/Caring doesn't mean like; but you should be answering the question "Why does the reader care?" often and strongly. Books that undersell often have this problem.

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    this, yes. I felt this way about Fablehaven. I got to the end of book 2 and literally said out loud "I do not care about a single character in these books." And I never read the rest of the series. The MCs were two kids, siblings, plus fairies and grandparents and blah blah blah and everyone was just. so. boring. I didn't care if anyone lived or died. – Lauren-Reinstate-Monica-Ipsum Mar 13 '18 at 22:14
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    Minor correction: there are eight deadly words and they are: "I don't care what happens to these people." – F1Krazy Mar 14 '18 at 10:15
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    @F1Krazy, Variations on a theme; I acquired mine from a friend who was in a usenet group at the dawn of the internet. Given 30 years of telephone we could find many deadly numbers I'm sure, 7 or 8 or 13 the point is largely that the biggest killer of books is characters which readers don't feel invested in. – Kirk Mar 14 '18 at 15:25

Give the reader something to connect to early on, and the protagonist doesn't even need to redeem themselves. (No reason why they shouldn't, it's just that it isn't necessary for not alienating the reader.

My favourite example is Humbert Humbert from "Lolita". The man is a paedophile. He's despicable. Yet he's so intelligent, so sharp, so engaging, you keep reading.

Another example: Satan in "Paradise Lost". His pride, his independence, his leadership, even his language, evoke not only empathy, but admiration. "The mind is its own place, and in itself / Can make a heav'n of hell, a hell of heav'n." or "Better to reign in Hell, than serve in Heaven" - it's beautiful, and easy to identify with.

Nonetheless, I find your description troubling.

a very shitty person that makes bad decisions for the wrong reasons

If your character is petty, cruel, stupid, and doesn't have any desire to change, what engaging quality does he have that I can connect to? He might have one, but if so, you haven't mentioned it. You've got to give a reader something.

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