Sympathetic vs. Interesting Protagonist

In the latest feedback episode of the Cybrosis podcast novel an email I sent sparked a conversation about writing your protagonist as sympathetic vs. interesting and the challenges therein.

In my own writing I tend to try and make my main characters likable (or at least sympathetic/understandable). I’m not necessarily looking to make someone who you’d want to go out and have a drink with, but I want them to at least have something appealing about them. If you can’t like them then you should at least be able to say “I can see how they got there”. I want you to want to know them better or at least care about them and what they’re going through.

When they were talking about characters that are more interesting than likable/sympathetic, they seem to fall into talking about the ones that you love to hate/hate to love. I find Cyris, P.C.’s protagonist, to fall more into this category. While not the most interesting character in the story, she is interesting and that does save her and the story. It sounds like he’ll be transitioning her into a more sympathetic character as the novel progresses. That will be a nice trick if he can pull it off. I say that, not because I doubt P.C.’s skill, but because making that change without losing who you’ve built her to be in the course of one novel would seem to be quite the challenge.

So, sympathetic or not, your main character has to be interesting. As I said, I want my protagonists to be both interesting and sympathetic and I think that’s what most writers are really shooting for and what most audiences want to see. On the other hand, writing/watching anti-heroes or real shady characters can be a lot of fun. But if you go that route, the more unlikable they are the more interesting they have to be to strike a balance.

Some examples of unlikable, but interesting protags from my tweet stream are Grendel, Thomas Covenant (yes!), Sandman, Perry Dawsey (yes and yes!), Tony Soprano, Dexter, Francis Urqhart, Cal Mcaffrey. Looking at that list, the ones I’m familiar with, definitely show that to take the real chumps/rotten apples and maintain your audience’s interest in them you definitely need to make them interesting. I recently wrote a short story for Great Hites and I’m not sure which camp Bogdan falls into. (Maybe you can give it a read and tell me?) I don’t really like him or what he stands for, but I can at least see why he is what he is and feel sorry for him. My hope is that that tension makes him interesting even if you hate him.

So what’s your experience here? Can you think of some (un)sympathetic protags that weren’t interesting enough to save them? How could they have been improved?

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