I just finished reading Ian McEwan’s Solar, which is smart, spare and unlike most McEwan novels, funny. At its center, however, is a pompous, self-absorbed, appetitive Nobel Prize winning physicist, whose faults are many and endearing qualities few. That he is painted as such a unredeemably selfish guy, a serial philanderer (five wives, countless affairs), flagrant plagiarist, and a monstrous—even criminal—liar, means that readers are not encouraged to develop much of a rapport with this great man of science. Instead, his weaknesses and flaws are anatomized with devastating accuracy. His self-justifications, moral elisions, and robust self-esteem are completely recognizable. That a man who is a poster child for all seven of the deadly sins does not come across as a caricature of Vice in a morality play is impressive. Yet much as I admired McEwan’s mordant wit and obvious flair for satire, Solar points up the problem of the unsympathetic protagonist. Though I don’t require my main characters to be likeable—the prickly, the badly-behaved and the wicked are usually more interesting than their more blameless counterparts—when the point of view rests entirely on the limited perceptions of the Unsympathetic Protagonist, it takes a skilled writer to craft a satisfying, engaging, emotionally resonant novel. The thought of spending so much time in the company of so unpleasant a person (even when said person is imaginary) can be off-putting.
This is a conundrum that agents and editors encounter most every day. An agent or editor’s inability to connect with or “root for” a main character is one of the most frequently cited reasons that he or she will pass on a submission, so be advised that placing a thoroughly awful person at the center of your narrative will likely make your job even tougher (though mostly awful can work). Even a critical darling like McEwan seems to have trouble managing his creation—most reviews were lukewarm at best, and while McEwan’s thieving glutton was not the novel’s only problem, most critics cited his odious personality as a considerable hurdle, so keep an eye on your own Frankenstein’s monster.
This is not to say that fiction should be peopled by the virtuous; there are plenty of wonderful, awful characters that carry a novel. Becky Sharp from Vanity Fair, Tom Ripley from The Talented Mr. Ripley, Max in Where the Wild Things Are. Fans of Lolita point to Humbert Humbert, or Bret Easton Ellis’ titular American Psycho, though these two fellows leave me cold. What do you think? Is an unsympathetic heroine a turn off? Who are some antiheroes worth getting to know?