My Reflections on Writing Excuses 13.04 – Protagonists Who Aren’t Sympathetic

So, there is always the possibility of stumbling when you’re trying something new and for me this is the episode where things just didn’t work. I’m not sure exactly why it didn’t – perhaps for the same reason books sometimes don’t work: I’m not the target audience.

Episode Rating: 🌟 🌟

Humor: 🌟 🌟

Usefulness to me right now: 🌟

The discussion was lively and the new guest host Valynne Maetani was fine. But it’s possible the subject matter just wasn’t for me. Perhaps it’s because I haven’t yet tried to write, or even felt the desire to write, an unsympathetic protag. In fact, I’ve have hard time writing an antagonist or villain that isn’t sympathetic in some facet.

So, my reactions are going to focus more on what I could take away from the episode rather than riffing on anything in particular the episode itself said.

Brandon spoke again about his “sliders” or “knobs” analogy with regards to protagonists – you can make them likable, competent, and/or active, with levels of each varying from character to character. So, I’ve been trying to think of different protags that I like and seeing what levels their various sliders were set to.

In Person of Interest, John Reese starts out very much as hyper-competent, but not active (has to be pressured into doing the work) and not terribly likable. We find out his past is checkered with darkness and not nice things. As the series goes, those levels change. In the media I consume, he would be the closest to being an unsympathetic character that I personally enjoy. And in reality, he’s only partially the protag – it’s definitely a team protagonist and John is balanced by Harold who is competent in a different realm, likable, and active. If you haven’t seen the show, none of that likely makes sense, but oh well.

In the Discworld books by Terry Pratchett, perhaps Sam Vimes is – to an extent – unsympathetic in his first appearance in Guards! Guards! A world-weary drunkard, Sam though is inherently honorable, as the book shows him to be – he isn’t unsympathetic through any real fault of his own except his drinking. Everything else is somewhat circumstantial – his life isn’t one of ease, so he’s had to grow hard enough to deal with it, but isn’t in himself hard. In fact, the whole point of his growth throughout the series centers on the fact that he doesn’t let his honor or basic character be compromised through eventual marriage, money, prestige, or rank. So again, not what I’d call unsympathetic.

Where have I seen unsympathetic characters work well? In making a very unlikable antagonist.

Steve (Edward Norton’s character) in the remake of The Italian Job is wonderfully awful. He manages to be unlikable, relatively un-active – it’s even a plot point as they make him re-active – and he’s not overwhelmingly competent. And every time I watch that film, I enjoy seeing him get it in the end. Ed Norton did spectacular in that role and it’s part of why I like watching him in other roles.

I think the big take-away for me would be similar to any advice about writing something new – consume it first to make sure you know how it works. If you’re going to write unsympathetic protagonists, be reading and consuming media that use them. Learn how those feel before trying to go down that path as a writer.

I’m quite convinced I would muck it up as I don’t consume media that uses unsympathetic protagonists, so I don’t know why they work. They aren’t something I particularly like and so don’t particularly care to understand.

Which is why I enjoy Writing Excuses so much – they give plenty of opportunities for writers of all stripes to find something useful for them. So, while I may not be in the target audience, perhaps you would be.

What unsympathetic protagonists have you enjoyed? Perhaps I’m just missing out on them. Share below in the comments.

Also, if you’re listening along and want to share you own reactions to the episode, feel free to drop them in!

2 thoughts on “My Reflections on Writing Excuses 13.04 – Protagonists Who Aren’t Sympathetic

  1. Richard in Shakespeare’s Richard III, Cal Lightman in Lie To Me, Tanya in Yôjo Senki, a good chunk of the “Baccano!” main characters, Dr Bones in the first season of the series… Actually I think the whole point with unlikeable characters is that they flesh out the world they evolve in. They prevent the author from falling into pure manicheism and possible clichés, they give grounds for the main “likeable” cast to also put words to their will, they also prevent the reader from drawing too many traits from the characters (often by questioning their sense of ethics).

    The problem with unlikeable characters is they’re harder to profile than your average character, because sometimes you may end up with either some sadistic idiot (Joffrey Baratheon) and they require high maintenance if the author don’t want them to decay in the antihero role. It’s an everlasting balance to the author who must use many little tricks to keep the reader wanting to see the narrative unfold before their eyes, while not having the support of the unlikeable character to rely on.

    On a completely different line, I appreciated the first few episodes of Person of Interest for the concept of these two having to stop a murder without the help of any authority and without even knowing whether the No. they had was the murderer or the victim. As soon as they got that detective involved, I bailed out. What a waste of potential.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Ooh! I hadn’t considered Shakespeare. Though for most of the protags I’m familiar with in Shakespeare, they are still sympathetic as they fall into tragedy. I admit, Richard III I’m not familiar with, so I’ll take your word for it.

      And I agree completely with unlikable characters sprinkled through out. Truly unsympathetic protags, I just have trouble understanding.

      Liked by 1 person

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