As a reader, I've always had difficulty rooting for a "bad guy" protagonist in fiction; very rarely do I find one I can stand - Westlake's Dortmunder character, mainly because he's a just a likeable/unlucky schlub; maybe Doc in Thompson's The Getaway, though offhand I can't think of why.

I'm currently stuck on this problem with a character in my latest short story. He's an interesting guy, a pretty intense fellow, but I can't find a reason for readers to really connect and agree to follow him through the story... Anybody have any advice?

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This is very timely for me because I just completed a novel where the protagonis, a woman, is not that sympathetic. She's selfish and calculating and cold. I thought I could surround her with warm males but apparently it;s not enough because the first agent that read it wants me to make her warmer. In a short story, I think you can get away with it. I've done a couple where it worked, I think. Try "Hole in the Wall" or "Quality Operations" in Hardluck Stories and you can tell me if it worked. Maybe not. I think the nasty femaile is very hard to bring off. Oh, well.
I don't have to LIKE a protagonist, but I have to care what happens to them. I love noir fiction and many of the main characters are sleazy/unlikeable/losers. James M Cain's Frank Chambers in THE POSTMAN ALWAYS RINGS TWICE isn't exactly a nice guy, and Jim Thompson's Lou Ford in THE KILLER INSIDE ME is one of the most chilling characters imaginable, but it's one of my favourite books. I had to find out what happened to him. Horrible person, great character. I love spending time with Ken Bruen's Sergeant Brant, but if I met him in the pub I would probably end up throwing a pint of beer in his face. It's all in the skill of the writing I think.

With the exception of the 'evil serial killer' - a character which usually bores me senseless - there's usually something appealing about every character. Most nasty characters that I enjoy have something 'nice' about them. And most 'nice' characters I enjoy have some sort of dark side. All nasty or all nice is pretty dull. I find the 100% 'good' characters generally have nothing that I connect with either.
Yes! What Donna said...

As long as your reader cares about/is interested in what happens to the bad dude/dudette, the character doesn't have to be someone we'd like to hang out and have coffee with.
I forget where I read this (as anyone who knows me can attest, I certainly didn't think it up on my own), but it's not important for the reader to like the protagonist. It's imperative for the reader to empathize. There needs to be something in the character that strikes a chord with the reader, allowing her to at least be able to rationalize the objectionable behavior. Unless the writer is of the Cain or Thompson level, and can draw you into the story without it. Even then, I think the attraction to noir stories such as POSTMAN and DOUBLE INDEMNITY is to see the bad protagonist get his in the end.

I don't know if I agree with your use of the term anti-hero. To me, an anti-hero is still a good guy in his way, often doing the right thing even though he doesn't want to. The actions may be similar, but the motivations are very different from a true noir protagonist. That might be just my interpretation.
My personal favorite Charming Psychopath is Rupert of Hentzau in novel The Prisoner of Zenda. An endearing SOB who got a real humorous kick out of being evil if ever there was one, and played beautifully in the film by Douglas Fairbanks, Jr.
Perhaps it's not whether the character is bad or good but the context in which they're presented. I'll use the tv show The Sopranos as an example. By no stretch of the imagination could you call Tony Soprano a good guy, but he does have his own set of values and loyalties and tries to stay true to them. When he has to depart from them is when he has the most trouble dealing with things. Hope that gives you something to think about.
Sometimes an anti hero can gain our love by acting on his impulses in a manner that satisfies those of us who pretend civility. He/she gets to grab and toss the guy who cuts in line at the coffee shop. He/she spins the wheel and follows the jerk in the car that cuts him/her off in traffic. Maybe he cares for an object or a creature that strikes a chord with many of us. He empties his victims' wallets into the church collection plate between murders. Balances contract killing with the occasional pro bono vigilante work.
I agree with Donna. Evil serial killers bore me senseless. I once asked an actor known for his bad guys how he got into the proper mindset to play such horrific people. He said that he needed to create a full backstory so he knew why the character was evil. And that he preferred the "charmingly creepy" bad guy to the slasher.

I took his words to heart. I'm currently working on a series with a very calculating bad guy. We don't even know his real name, but he's cool nonetheless. He's an assassin and he kills people with style. It's about the "art" of execution with him, not blood lust. This thrill comes from a 'bit of drama at the end', as he would say. He's oversexed, arrogant and, I have to admit, amazingly easy to write. Very complex, with lots of layers. You just know he has one heckuva backstory.

You'd expect him to be heartless. Instead, he cheerfully knifes an aristocratic bully who kicks a mangy warehouse cat. Yet when he realizes the heroine is difficult to kill, that earns his respect and he tries to find ways not to fulfill his contract. Creating the "perfect" psychopath (what a thought) is like adding icing to the cake. It makes a story come alive.

As to your problem -- does your character like going to the zoo and feeding the marmosets? Is he into yoga? Does he collect different colors of jelly beans? Give him more human traits so readers can see the paradox (like empathy for the mangy cat). It shows the readers that this crazy has a lot more to him than just a desire to destroy.
You think maybe that is the appeal of the House character on the television show. He isnt likable, he isnt a caring guy, he is a selfish, self centered ass....and I love him for it!

Nowadays, for me anyway, it isnt that I must root for the guy, or want this or that to take place, I just want to be told a good story and maybe one that makes me want a little more. For instance. I recently read the maltese falcon, and then the big sleep....i totally wanted to read more of sam spade, but the marlowe story i wasnt as impressed with...both guys are pretty cold, but that is what is so great about them.

just my two cents, but I think having a likable guy isnt as important as someone that you want to see what happens to them...not sure if I would call it caring, but lets say I would be interested in their outcome...
Some good advice. Thanks everybody!
It's easier to be sympathetic if your bad guy can communicate WHY he is doing what ever it is that he is doing. If he has a good reason, even if it makes sense only to him, at least you understand. Also, as previously mentioned, he may have moments of goodness. No one is ALL bad. or he may be some trait that you respect, even if it is that you can't kill him or get rid of him.You have to admire someone that won't lie down and die.
I was instantly drawn to this subject. I'm working on a manuscript for a young adult audience. The "bad guy" is a man even I can't stand. I need to bring in some sort of sympathy for him. The story takes place in 1846, so the culture of the time wouldn't make him seem so bad these days. He is lazy and verbally abusive to his wife and son. He sets his sights on an 18 year old girl. Can I use his poor childhood and current drastic need for food and money? Can I give him a low self-esteem?

Wish I could offer more to you about your own character. Your own question echoes mine.

Winona Cross


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