Thursday, July 01, 2010

The unsympathetic protagonist

by Jessica

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?


  1. I wasn't even thinking along gender lines until you asked about unsympathetic heroines. I'm having a hard time thinking of one at the moment, knowing that one must surely exist and will come to my mind right after I press "Post Comment". But no, even the ones I can think of that have been heavily criticized aren't supposed to be unlikeable, and their flaws are more the result of bad writing or poor characterization or not realizing the ramifications of making a character behave in a certain way. Or their flaws are balanced with traits that make the reader sympathize with or root for them. I can think of a few examples of novels or even television shows where the female protagonists are unabashedly bitchy or spoiled, but that doesn't seem quite in line with this post, and those examples are usually "guilty pleasures" anyway: we like the drama. Also, they usually seem to be part of an ensemble cast, so they don't have to carry the novel alone.

    This probably illustrates some underlying sexism in our society, on which many treatises can be written, but I'm not going to add one here because I'm still trying to come up with a good example...

  2. Honestly, I think it really depends. Some of the unsympathetic protagonists you cited aren't really that unsympathetic. For example, "Max" from Where The Wild Things Are is still sympathetic, because we know that inside he's a nice kid. The only time when an unsympathetic protagonist really doesn't work for me is when I want bad things to happen to him or her. In "Nothing But The Truth", I hated the main character because he was stupid and shallow and I was having a bad day because you would not believe what happened to my ice cream that morning, it was like - ahem. As I was saying. As long as the main character isn't so awful that the reader wants him or her to die in horrible pain and agony, it can work.

  3. As a reader, I don't feel as though I have to "root for" or like the protagonist. I just have to care what happens to him/her. That caring can take a lot of forms. That's why "American Psycho" worked for me. So did "The Drinker" by Hans Fallada. These narrators are unreliable and loathsome, but they are INTERESTING.

    Those examples aside, I think writing in the third person (as opposed to the seemingly ever-more-popular first) can sometimes help with this problem.

  4. I don't have to be 'rooting for' a character to get to the end of a book, but the character does have to charm me in some way.

    Some my favourite anti-heroes and heroines would include: Roskolnikov, Heathcliff, Jean Brodie, Scarlett O'Hara. And, of course, Macbeth and Iago were both anti-heroes, as was Milton's Lucifer.

    Jessica - I can't find a list of novelists you represent. I'd love to read some.


  5. Samuel just mentioned two heroines whose unsympathetic characteristics didn't keep me from loving the books: Scarlett O'Hara and Jean Brodie. I loved Becky Sharp, too. I guess I find it fun to get into the head of a dark personality. But they all have charm. As does Mr. Ripley. Maybe McEwan's character does not?

  6. Flannery O'Connor comes to mind. Of course, I'm thinking short stories.

  7. The antagonistic protagonist makes for some of the best reading that can be found and is greatly undervalued by agents and publishers. How many books with an antihero protagonist have bombed? I can’t think of any that I have read that haven’t been big sellers.

    Though she is only a second string protagonist, that nasty-girl, Lisbeth Salander is the only worthwhile thing in Larsson’s Dagon Tattoo, that you all seem to love so much, and when you think of that story you think of her and not Blomkvist.

  8. (Hello, by the way - I'm Lance Parkin, I'm an author who's now one of Jessica's clients, long time reader, first time caller).

    I think when it comes to a protagonist, 'sympathy' doesn't mean that you agree with them about everything, but you understand why they make the choices they did.

    I put my (warning: lengthy!) thoughts on this here:

    I root for protagonists when I understand what it is they want, and enjoy seeing them surmount obstacles to get there. And it's fiction, it's a safe space to get into a character's head without endorsing their views. It's a puzzle box, not a political manifesto.

    Most of the characters I really like are pretty useless as human beings. Keeping it pop cultural: Flashman, Arthur Dent, Lyra Belacqua, Sherlock Holmes. And there are characters who the author stacks the deck for who I just can't stand and actively root against, like Harry Potter and Scarlett O'Hara.

    That said, my recommendation for an anti-hero: the first volume of the Alan Clark Diaries, In Power. Alan Clark was a (real) Conservative MP under Thatcher, his diaries were a smash hit in the UK because they revealed a hitherto fairly colourless MP to be a philanderer, gambler, schemer and gossip who fantasised about standing at the window of his ministerial office and urinating over the passers-by. He loved vintage cars, lived in a castle and was committed to animal rights, writing lyrically about the birds that played outside his kitchen window, and just when you starting falling for the charms of this real-life Mr Toad, he takes out a signed picture of Hitler and kisses it for luck. It's a brilliant book, even if you're not interested in British politics.

  9. The first two wonderful awful heroines that came to mind were Blanche DuBois from Streetcar Named Desire and Martha from Who's Afraid of Virginia Wolf. Perhaps there is something about the stage that frees up some space for women that we would run from in real life. I also thought of Gwendolen Harleth in Daniel Deronda,though it's been too long since I read that to remember if it's right to call her quite awful. All of these characters are certainly worth getting to know.

    Awful female characters that do turn me off tend to be ones that are just snarky or shallow, who don't have big scheming ambitions but rather just want to get their man or a designer bag.

    I agree with the person who said that third-person is often much more effective for presenting an engaging anti-hero.

  10. Thanks for all the good feedback: there's obviously a fine line to walk in crafting an antihero, and in McEwan's book, his character's flaws are so recognizable and prosaic that he misses out the grandeur (or delusions thereof) of the many terrific antiheroes you point out. The physicist isn't capital-E Evil, he's awful on a human scale, which is to say petty, small-minded, vain, oblivious to the suffering or the pleasure of others. He's less colorful than many of the UPs you guys cite, and that might be the problem. Also, the degree to which the author is prepared to present his character in a sympthetic way is pretty key. McEwan is writing a satire here, and so Michael Beard is cast in a consistently unflattering light. I don't think McEwan was trying to make him likeable and failed, I think he was shooting for odious and succeeded. I'm not sure I'd say the same thing about Ms.O'Hara, Lyra Belacqua, Blanche Dubois or Heathcliff.

    I think I'm one of the ten remaining people who have not read the Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, so I can't comment on Lisbeth. I will, however, check out Alan Clark. Would be funny to imagine its American analog!

  11. > I'm not sure I'd say the same thing about Lyra Belacqua <

    Lyra's very young, but she's drawn very much, and very deliberately, as the opposite of the Pevensies. It's not just that she lies, it's that she gets away with it, so the lies keep getting bigger (I did wonder, last time I re-read the books if she can actually read the aleithiometer, or whether she's just got a natural talent for cold reading). She's at that age where it's beginning to be no longer a game, where it's not play-fighting when she starts a fight.

    I think she's a wonderful creation, and certainly I want to see her win, but I think she definitely falls into the category of someone I'd rather read about than be in the same room as. I think one of the great things about His Dark Materials is that Pullman gets across just how *horrible* children can be. Same as William Golding does in Darkness Visible (hmmm ... another Milton quote).

  12. How about Humbert Humbert in Lolita? The book is written in the first person, and he's mesmerizing--even if he is a yucky person.

    Another of my favorite "unsympathetic" protagonists is Tony Soprano. Of course that's drama rather than prose, but still a good example of a character we care about even if we don't necessarily like him, I think.

  13. Hmmm. The Tony Soprano example is intriguing, because I think it's wrong to say he's "unsympathetic". He's every sympathetic. He's just not admirable.

    Likewise Jean Brodie is so charismatic she excites our admiration and sympathy at first. Then when we get a good look at her, our attention is riveted by horror. When she is brought low, it is like when Dracula has a stake driven through his heart.

  14. Lance, you wouldn’t be so taken by Mr Clark if he were a politician in your country. Here in the UK murderers rapists and thieves are treated to better care than the elderly and disabled; a convicted murderer can serve less than 8 years. Mr Clark, who is now back with the party in power, has this week stated that prison is more than these poor, misunderstood unfortunates should have to tolerate and is pushing that they should receive a sentence of compulsory community gardening for their crimes.
    I agree his diaries are amusing, but when you have to live in a country were people can actually improve their lives by killing another person, it does tend to take a little of the shine of his charm.

  15. "Mr Clark, who is now back with the party in power, has this week stated that prison is more than these poor, misunderstood unfortunates should have to tolerate"


    I have three points to make:

    1. I am British.

    2. In his diaries, Alan Clark expresses opinions and describes behaviour that I'd find utterly appalling in any human being, but it's particularly awful when it's an elected representative saying and doing it. An anti-hero, by definition, is someone who is not heroic.

    3. A pedantic one, this, and I apologise for nitpicking, I don't know why I'm even mentioning it:

    Alan Clark died eleven years ago.

    The person who made the speech last week was Kenneth Clarke.

    You're not the first person to make the mistake. They were both ministerial colleagues in the Thatcher government, but from opposite wings of the party. As Clark notes in his diary: 'my podgy namesake, he's always been suspicious of me, and actually sued the manufacturers of Trivial Pursuits because they had muddled us up ... Clarke wasn't friendly at all. If he'd have said anything to me, I'd have answered "fuck you", so just as well ... wanker'.

  16. I can deal with unlikeable qualities, but there has to be something more there--some reason for me to care what happens to these people. I admit that McEwan's earlier work, Amsterdam, just had me feeling squicky about the two main characters. I read the book for McEwan's prose, but had a hard time getting over my extreme dislike of the central characters. At the same time, I find petty, conniving Scarlett O'Hara wonderfully engaging--perhaps it's the brief forays into her weaknesses, or perhaps it's just that she's so charming.


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