Fear in Writing: The Unlikable MC

Today in Literary History

Today in Literary History...December 14, 1907: Rudyard Kipling receives the Nobel prize for literature, the first English-language writer to do so.ud

Monday, February 21, 2011

The Unlikable MC

What if you don't like the protagonist in a book?  What if his redeeming features aren't redeeming enough?  What if you have trouble sympathizing with his situation because he just seems, well, smarmy?

Do you keep reading?

I understand the desire to write unlikable characters.  After all, they exist in the real world and we hear about them and/or meet them every day.  There are people we don't respect and people we don't even want to touch. Do we avoid them, or seek as much contact as possible?

I'm reading a book with an MC that fits this description.  It is very well written and compelling in its simple narrative.  It's also very short, which makes following the somewhat weasly protagonist a less than long journey. But is the story worth the effort?

A story has to be pretty darn good to outlast a weak MC.  Have you read a book like this?  Have you struggled with an MC who isn't likable, but demands to be written?


  1. This is a topic that's very interesting to me. Helen Ginger noted to me that while she could watch a *movie* with an unlikeable protagonist, it was more of a time investment to finish a *book* with one--so she usually didn't. I can completely understand that.

    I'm also interested in how FAR we can push a reader when it comes to MC flaws. I'm a fan of flaws, but don't want to alienate readers.

  2. I've read a couple books with anti-heroes, and I just couldn't get into them.
    Ironically, I had to make some adjustments to my own main character to make him more likeable. (Although he's not an anti-hero.)

  3. Smarmy? No, I wouldn't stay with him. I can take a flawed protagonist - in fact, who wants a perfect one - but if I'm going to invest my time, I've got to like him. At least a little.

  4. I'd rather have a flawed MC that comes around eventually. But, y'know, there's room for 'em all at the fictional table, I've found.

    Though someday I might take up the challenge of writing an MC I dislike intensely, just to see if I can. I'm ornery like that. :)

  5. All of my MC's had things to overcome, but the one in Book V of my series was the most ornery. It made for a better story, too.

  6. I love the idea of writing an unlikeable MC but not a weak one. There has to be something about the character that fascinates the reader, even if they can't like him/her.


  7. I don't think I could read too many stories with an unlikable MC, unless they changed their outlook, or had a learning experience...etc. But if there is no change by the end of the story, I'll probably feel let down and anything positive that happened to that character would seem undeserved.

  8. Michele - A really interesting question! I would say that I can keep reading about an unlikeable MC if there's something compelling about her or him - something that keeps me interested. For instance, if a MC is a complete jerk, but a brilliant mathematician or a gifted artist or a fine doctor. Something that gives me a reason to keep reading.

  9. Great question. I'm highly unlikely to keep reading a book with an unlikeable MC - unless, that is, the author is so good, by the time I realize I don't like the MC, I'm too involved in the story to put it down.

  10. If no hint shows of a redeeming quality I can't make myself finish. One or two that I did read to the were parts of a series and I never read more.
    I like flaws because we all have them but a MC that I want to see done in is way beyond flaw.