Fiction writing advice is awash with exhortations to write protagonists audiences can root for. Yet some of the best novels, films, plays, and television dramas feature protagonists whose actions aren’t meant to be cheered. Walter White in Breaking Bad, Patty Hewes in Damages, Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver, Amy Dunne in Gone Girl, Mark Zuckerberg in The Social Network, Daniel Plainview in There Will Be Blood, Alex DeLarge in A Clockwork Orange, Humbert Humbert in Lolita, Richard III, Macbeth… These are just a few examples. What techniques have the authors deployed to guarantee audience engagement?
A cautionary tale
The mst obvious reason to write a story with an unsympathetic protagonist is to deliver a moral lesson. Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray, and Vladimir Nabokov’s aforementioned Lolita are two cases in point, as warnings against obsessive hedonism and pedophilia respectively. Dorian Gray and Humbert Humbert are both complicated protagonists, but their tales are page-turning for two main reasons: Firstly, reader outrage at their actions demands satisfaction, and in both cases, their deeds lead to satisfying, serves-them-right disaster. Secondly, despite the transgressions of both characters, the reader is gripped with the suspense of how long they can hide their sins before they are discovered.
The danger to be avoided in such stories is editorializing. The author should respect the intelligence of the reader, resisting the temptation to do the moral heavy lifting for them. Events in the narrative should speak for themselves. There is no need to create artificial supporting characters that serve as the author’s mouthpiece, treating the story as a sermon and the audience like nitwits.
A second category of unsympathetic protagonist is found in one whose circumstances are relatable, even if their actions are not. Walter White is a superb example. At the beginning of Breaking Bad, he discovers he has cancer. That gives him a tragic, traumatic, relatable problem, and initially at least, audience sympathy. But his subsequent actions — deciding to utilize his chemistry expertise to create high-quality crystal meth and become a drug dealer — are criminal. Furthermore, the web of lies and manipulation he spins around his family, the cycle of violence and death into which he is drawn, and his prideful refusal to back down at any point, creates a compelling, suspenseful reason to keep watching.
Walter insists he is doing it all to fund cancer treatments and to help his family, but as the drama escalates, we become less convinced of this. Furthermore, the tragedies suffered by supporting characters, such as Jessie, are an important counterpoint, and illustrate another key principle in writing an unsympathetic protagonist: Surround them with characters that aren’t necessarily good, but who elicit our sympathy, or even pity. This principle is at work in everything from Citizen Kane to The Godfather and Uncut Gems. Even among the vicious loonies in Reservoir Dogs, some are more relatable than others (for example, Mr. White’s attack of conscience whilst Mr. Orange slowly bleeds to death).
Satire and social commentary
An unsympathetic protagonist can be an ideal vessel with which to make satirical social commentary. For example, the recent film I Care A Lot features a monstrous central character in Marla Grayson; a predatory woman abusing her status as state-appointed legal guardian for the elderly, frittering away their assets as they languish in care homes, whilst family members fume at their lost inheritance. Marla bites off more than she can chew when her next target turns out to be the mother of a Russian mafia boss.
In less skilled hands, this story could have been an indifferent mess of horrible people being horrible to one another. However, J Blakeson’s screenplay cleverly satirizes the dark side of the American Dream, whilst also inviting the audience to admire Marla’s sheer bloody-minded determination, even as we long for her comeuppance. Said comeuppance is delivered in a very satisfactory fashion, in an ironic final twist of the knife.
Irony and allegory
Having an unsympathetic protagonist is also a great way to explore ironic themes. For example, in The Social Network, Mark Zuckerberg is initially seen on a disastrous date with a girl who outlines his egomaniacal character flaws in no uncertain terms. This could have been a teachable moment, but instead, Mark deals with rejection in a way that is sexist, misogynist, and narcissistic. That the world’s most famous social networking site is born of such vile negativity is irony enough. However, in the film’s final scene, despite his wealth, fame, and notoriety, Mark tries to “friend” the girl from the opening scene on Facebook, waiting for a response that will almost certainly never come.
Occasionally, an unsympathetic protagonist can be allegorical, as in the case of oil prospector Daniel Plainview in There Will Be Blood. His feud with preacher Eli Sunday is fascinating, not because we root for either character, but because they each symbolize two major pillars on which America was built: capitalism and religion. The rivalry between these two forces, and later the tragic consequences of their unholy alliance, resonate because they are inherent in what is often seen in everything from televangelism to corporate greed in modern America.
Another reason to write an unsympathetic protagonist is simply to have fun exploring themes, ideas, and actions that would be unconscionable, immoral, or illegal in the real world. This can prove transgressively cathartic for readers when explored with iconoclastic wit and thrillingly dangerous moral relativism.
The femme fatale trope in the noir thriller genre is a good example of this. Memorably sociopathic seductresses including Phyllis Dietrichson (Double Indemnity), Bridget Gregory (The Last Seduction), and Amy Dunne (Gone Girl) are deliciously amoral characters to savor from a safe distance. Period melodrama The Wicked Lady features a similar gleefully criminal protagonist in Barbara Worth, whose boredom leads to a thrill-seeking double life as a highway robber.
Classic black comedy Kind Hearts and Coronets features a serial killer protagonist in the form of Louis Mazzini. Throughout the story, he gradually murders his way through every member of his family that prevents him from inheriting a dukedom. His wit and cunning compel us to stick with his tale; not to mention the ill-treatment of his mother, and the way his wealthy, snobby, cruel family cut her off without a penny.
A final suggestion
As a parting thought, when writing a novel or short story with an unsympathetic protagonist, a great technique is to write in the first person. Alex DeLarge commits unspeakable crimes from the very start of Anthony Burgess’s A Clockwork Orange. Yet because he narrates his story, we become fascinated by his twisted character. Point of view sometimes makes all the difference, so the use of first-person is a great starting point, in addition to the other possibilities mentioned in this article.
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