The myth of the unlikeable protagonist

by Jess

I’m about a third of the way through The Count of Monte Cristo, and I’m finding it delectable.  I’ve just left off as M. le Vicomte Albert de Morcerf and M. Franz Epinay are meeting with M. le Comte in his luscious rooms in Rome in preparation for the Carnival.  Monte Cristo is every bit as thick a tome as Swann’s Way, but it has much more swashbuckling than Proust’s meandering impressionism.  Don’t get me wrong, I love Proust, but Monte Cristo is sexy and thrilling, and it’s hard to put it down in the mornings to come to work.

Matt made an interesting comment the other day when we were talking about the wacky Sinbad the Sailor sections of the narrative.  He opined that I won’t like the book by the time I finish it because Dantes is not very likeable.  I had to puzzle over that for a bit, because it never occurred to me that liking the protagonist should be prerequisite for liking the work as a whole, but it’s not surprisingly a very common line of thought.  Jonathan Segura, in an interview with Guy Savage, put it this way:

It is tougher, I think, to write an unlikeable protagonist, because a lot of readers will put down a book if they can’t relate to (oh, how I hate that phrase) or sympathize with (also hate that one) the protagonist. It’s sad, really. Many, many, many of the great characters in literature are traditionally unlikeable. They’re also complex and wonderful to read about. But, really, if a person’s reading tastes are so narrow that they’re only into narratives and characters that reflect their own limited worldviews, well, what can you do? I just wish there weren’t so many of them out there. And they all have blogs.

Some of my favorite fictional characters have been roundly disliked by general readership — Holden Caulfield, Sherlock Holmes, and the scathing Olive Kitteridge from Liz Strout’s Pulitzer Prize-winning book come to mind.  Novelist Frank Schaeffer says a “character needn’t be likeable, but it must be compelling.”  What’s important is that all the characters are well drawn.  In fact, I’ve run into the opposite problem in my own writing — I set out to create a unlikeable antagonist who ends up falling flat, crippled by archetype or perhaps simple lack of imagination.

People are complex.  Trying to represent fictional characters as anything less than that is illogical.  But the quality of the work as a whole should be paramount, not how much you liked the main character.  That’s like deciding your presidential vote based on which candidate you’d rather go out for a beer with (yes, it would still have been Obama).  Who cares if Dantes turns into a dick?  The enjoyment and the adventure of the novel will not have been a waste.