Dark protagonists. Heroes who are evil, pure flaws, or exhibiting only weakness or darkness, rather than strength or light. There is one basic assumption I would like to make about such characters: they are unsympathetic, meaning the reader loses patience and interest with them quickly. I believe the majority of us can agree on this.

That being said, there are ways to write such a character so that the reader remains engaged. The method I have always used, which I learned from Donald Maass's book Writing the Breakout Novel, is to give the reader hope. Supply a small shred of evidence that the protagonist is not as dark as they seem, and are trying to be better. Essentially, the hero knows they are dark, and wants to change. This turns their darkness into a powerful sympathy-creating tool, and makes them much more interesting.

But not all novels follow this standard. In the Artemis Fowl series, the protagonist is a mastermind thief genius. He is undeniably dark and evil. However, he is not as dark as he would like to think. Certain subtle hints show that there is certainly hope for him.

Here's the problem: he doesn't want to change. If anything, he wants to be more dark and evil than he really is. This flies in the face of the above suggestion, which indicates that Artemis Fowl should generate impatience and eventual disinterest in readers. This is certainly not the case, judging from the sales, and my own reactions as a reader.

Obviously simply showing that a character is not as dark as they seem (even though they are still plenty dark), is a valid method for writing a dark protagonist. I am interested in how.

By all rights, Artemis should be abandoned by readers because he is evil and wants to be more evil. Yes, he is not entirely evil, but does he embrace the few redeeming qualities he has? No, he hides them. Certainly Artemis is conflicted, but that cannot possibly be enough. A reader should eventually get disgusted with a character who repeatedly drives himself into more and more evil. Shouldn't he?

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    Perhaps the appealing dark hero wants a thing we readers feel deprived of, and an unappealing dark hero wants a thing we don't typically want. Perhaps it is the object of their desire that is important. In current global politics, for example, a dark hero who wants a more just society (etc) and is willing to be evil to manifest that end might be more interesting than a dark hero who wants to enslave all of humanity.
    – SFWriter
    Oct 4, 2019 at 15:07

1 Answer 1


Interesting points. I tend to disagree that readers lose interest in antiheros. The main character in Dexter comes to mind (along with most teenagers I know, hehe). I think it’s not just a character’s striving for self improvement that hooks the audience, altho most people can relate to that concept, but equally compelling is to get into the mind of the antihero to learn what makes them (or made them into) what they are? How do they see themselves? Does their kith and kin, friends and family, know what/who they are, and how do they respond? How do they get along in society and how does society respond to their choices? I agree with your premise that readers should care about the characters, but it isn’t strictly necessary if there is an equally interesting aspect that compels you to keep reading. I can think of a few books that don’t contain a protagonist, Confederacy of Dunces and Gone Girl are two that spring to mind. Interesting characters doing interesting things is, to me, what drives me to keep turning the page; not every character striving for self improvement.

Another way to spark reader engagement with characters is making them sympathetic due to some adversity that wasn’t their doing, but ended up as their undoing (say a speech defect or physical deformity that led to ostracism). Having an antihero who believes he is doing the right thing, but whose beliefs don’t conform to those held by the mainstream would be an equally engaging premise. I found the story of Russ Albright, Libertarian creator of Silk Road, fascinating for just this reason. Someone who is fervent in their beliefs, and lives life according to strictures that may be alien or anathema to most folks, not only kept me turning the pages but led me to read multiple works by different authors to see how his actions were interpreted by the mainstream.

I think a story that features an unapologetic antihero is vastly more interesting than the done-to-death antihero trying to better himself. This is a fascinating literary area that has alot of room to be creative and unique, instead of the same-old-same-old. Just my humble opinion as a reader.

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