Writing The Unlikeable Protagonist: How to Craft a Great Antihero

The Role of the Unlikeable Protagonist

‘Unlikeable protagonist‘ sounds like an oxymoron. However, they’re a common occurrence in all forms of storytelling. The antihero protagonist is an increasingly prominent presence in drama, particularly in modern television. Crafting your protagonist into an antihero may be exactly what your script needs. After all, some stories are best told from an antihero’s point of view.

Contrary to the term, unlikeable protagonists should still be likeable. Being likeable is much more complex than being “good”. Viewers will root for even the most flawed characters if they display certain characteristics.

Despite who the protagonist is or what they believe, they serve the same role in every story. Protagonists should have justified motivations for overcoming a high stakes obstacle. During their journey, they should experience a character arc, a transformation over the course of the story. This can be good, bad or neutral, but something has to change. If a protagonist is lacking in these crucial elements, the viewer will lose interest.

There’s a fine line between likeable and unlikeable. Too much of either will turn viewers away. It’s unrealistic to have a perfect character because people aren’t perfect. We all suffer from flaws. However, character flaws shouldn’t be used as write-offs for unjustified evil. Ultimately, it’s frustrating watching a purposeless character make decisions based on nothing.

Unlikeable Character Flaws

All characters have flaws. Uniquely, these flaws add necessary depth and realism that help viewers empathize. They’re vital to getting an audience invested. They can come in the form of limitations, negative character traits, addictions or moral shortcomings. For example…

  • Lou Bloom from Nightcrawler is a manipulative and thieving sociopath.
  • Rick from Rick and Morty is a reckless and cynical alcoholic.
  • Walter White from Breaking Bad trades his flaw of being a milquetoast for violence, greed and crime.
  • Jordan Belfort from The Wolf of Wall Street is a greedy and self-serving white-collar criminal.
  • Arthur Fleck from Joker is a criminal and sociopath.
  • Don Draper from Mad Men is a cynical and egotistical cheater.
  • BoJack Horseman from BoJack Horseman is a selfish, addicted and over-indulged celebrity.

Writing flaws for antiheroes can be especially difficult for fear of writing a character everyone will hate. However, a lack of character flaws will result in that same fear. Without flaws, you lose out on meaningful conflict and audience connection.

So go ahead, write your protagonist as the scum of the earth. As long as it makes sense to the story. Every flaw, no matter how small, must play an active role in how the story progresses. Think about how it affects their decisions that leads to the conflict they must overcome.

Motivations of the Unlikeable Protagonist

Antihero Walter White

So, how exactly do you make criminals and sociopaths likeable? Two words. Sympathy and identification. Both of these come from the motivation of a protagonist. Character motivation is the reason behind a character’s behavior or actions.

It’s all about intention. If the audience can understand why a protagonist chooses to do bad things, then they’re much more inclined to side with them.

Dexter

Take Dexter for example. The premise centers around a serial killer who only kills other murderers. A true antihero.

The common conscience agrees his actions aren’t just. Yet we perceive the people he targets to be much worse. Therefore, we accept Dexter’s flaws. We sympathize and identify with him.

Breaking Bad

Motivations can change over the course of a story. It should be a natural process that corresponds to the character’s arc. For Walter White in Breaking Bad, his motivations begin by wanting to make enough money to leave for his family once he passes. However, with his success, he gets caught up in violence and greed.

When Walter breaks bad he leaves behind the motivation that started it all. By the end, his new persona isn’t likeable at all. The only reason this works is because we can sympathize with his need for transformation.

Walter lets the world walk all over him. As his confidence builds slowly over time, there’s an understanding of why things took a turn for the worst. Motivations and intentions bring a humanizing aspect to unlikeable protagonists.

High Stakes for Unlikeable Protagonists

Antihero Saul Goodman

The best character motivations are backed by high stakes. These stakes add another layer of purpose to the protagonist‘s actions. Something has to be pushing them to make these decisions that ultimately label them as antiheroes. And what could be higher stakes than life or death itself?

Barry

Looking at yet another killer, Barry is facing life or death. Sure, he’s a hitman that kills innocent people at times, but he wants out. We understand that Barry Berkman was taken advantage of at his lowest point in life. He’s making an effort to change for the better.

The only reason he continues to kill is because he’s put in life or death situations. Even if he can’t escape his past, the audience will continue to invest in his journey because there’s a clear understanding of the stakes that prompt his actions. We want to see him change and therefore succeed.

Better Call Saul

Walter White isn’t the only antihero in Breaking Bad. In the spinoff series, Better Call Saul, we watch Jimmy McGill undergo a transformation in his own way. Jimmy is trying to lead an upstanding life as a successful lawyer, but can’t seem to leave his days of deception behind him.

The show itself may seem to have little to no stakes. Since we know what becomes of Jimmy, thanks to the Breaking Bad series, the stakes lie in the inevitable. It’s a different approach to the character’s transformation. Thus, watching how exactly Jimmy falls into the persona of Saul Goodman is exactly what’s at stake.

We understand the potential for good Jimmy possess and the forces that continuously push him back into his con artist ways. Because of this, there’s still an attachment to the character, even if his flaws deem him unlikeable.

Antihero Relatability and Context

Antihero Tonya Harding, Unlikeable Protagonist

Another great way to create sympathy and identification in an unlikeable protagonist is to make them relatable to the audience. In fact, antiheroes are much more likely to be considered relatable compared to overly perfect characters. Audiences are able to identify with dynamic protagonists and that includes their flaws too.

In the end, these characters are just trying to do what’s right for them. That’s something most people can relate to. Just look at all the antiheroes based off real-life people. These are characters which we might have a preconception of but whom we end up understanding.

The Social Network

Mark Zuckerburg in The Social Network is an arrogant know-it-all who ruins all his closest relationships for the sake of Facebook’s success.

Despite all that, an audience might relate to his determination or sympathize with his lack of social awareness. He’s a character trying to fit in and trying to find his place. He might go to questionable lengths to find his place, but we can’t help hold some admiration for the way he pursues his ambitions.

I, Tonya

I, Tonya portrays the disgraced figure skater Tonya Harding as someone who is constantly treated unfairly for her looks and reputation. On top of that, Harding deals with abuse from her mother and husband.

Her struggles make her relatable. She’s within a context that makes her success impressive, even remarkable. Everything is in the way of her progress. Therefore, her bad traits and the way she succumbs to the negative forces around her can be easily forgiven. She’s a victim of circumstance and many can relate to that.

The Wolf of Wall Street

Jordan Belfort Unlikeable Protagonist

Jordan Belfort from The Wolf of Wall Street is money and power-hungry. He isn’t afraid to take advantage of people to get what he wants. This isn’t an unfamiliar trait in a lot of people. In general, who wouldn’t trade it all for a life of riches?

Belfort conducts himself in a way that is repugnant. And yet, the film challenges us to not be impressed at his skill at rising to the top of a broken system. This is particularly done in how likeable he is at the beginning of the story. He’s ambitious but seems to have a moral compass. Wall Street corrupts Belfort, turning him into a ruthless and selfish individual.

Again we see how circumstance affects the character. Belfort has a choice in this. But in sowing seeds of likability early on, the film challenges the audience to see past the character and instead, on the corrupting culture of Wall Street.

Of course, these fictional characters are dramatic recreations of the real person, but their flaws are still there. Antiheroes walk among us in everyday life. Even you might possess these undesirable traits. That’s what makes these characters so relatable.

Moreover, dig deep into who your protagonist is. Figure out what their wants and needs are. Then figure out how far they’re willing to go to get them. This is at the root of the audience understanding the character.

Redeeming Qualities in Unlikeable Protagonists: Clutching at Straws

Antihero Rick

If an antihero is especially reprehensible, it can be difficult to spot even the slightest redeeming quality. Searching for their good aspects can feel like clutching at straws.

These wholesome traits can come about as unintentional slip-ups or a rooted good within them. Just like with overly perfect characters, overly evil characters won’t stick. They come across as unbelievable to the viewer.

Ultimately, unlikeable protagonists feel justified in their actions. Therefore, it’s up to the writer to make the audience understand where they’re coming from. While on their journey they’re likely to show some side of themselves that we deem acceptable. Some characters continually challenge the audience to like them. However, they still somehow manage to display redeeming attributes.

Rick and Morty

Although Rick from Rick and Morty is a reckless and cynical alcoholic, he still shows qualities that resonate. For starters, we can appreciate his scientific abilities. The man’s a genius and that’s pretty notable. Also, he shows sympathy for the lives of others and often regrets his wrongdoings.

Although it’s difficult for him and his family to see eye to eye, there’s no doubt that Rick cares for his family. It’s shown that because of his tragic past and substance abuse it’s harder for him to differentiate what’s morally right.

The Sopranos

Tony Soprano, from The Sopranos, shows conflicting sides of himself. Although he can be a heartless predator, he still has a charming and charismatic side. He shows love towards his family but will show no mercy for others.

Significantly, Tony suffers from depression and anxiety. With his mental health alone, it can be hard for him to do the right thing. Especially when his goals center on respect, wealth and power. Throughout the series, we come to understand that Tony is shaped by his mental health and the lack of control he has over it.

In seeing a man that lacks control over his emotions and actions, we can empathize with how the character is at the mercy of a higher power. It’s one that he tries to resist but largely can’t.

tony soprano contemplative

The Handmaid’s Tale

Aunt Lydia from The Handmaid’s Tale is a complex character from the fact that she oppresses other women while being oppressed herself. She’s aggressively brutal towards other women. However, in many ways, she’s been forced into this behavior in order to survive.

Once again we see a character that is adapting to their circumstance and doing what they can to survive and thrive. By placing the focus on the context rather than the character, we can find empathy for someone that on paper is highly unlikeable.

BoJack Horseman

Throughout BoJack Horseman, the titular protagonist continually finds himself on the wrong end of outrage, both within the series world and the real world. A scandal is never far away as BoJack makes wrong decisions, alienates those around him and behaves selfishly.

BoJack is a victim of his own addictions and foibles. He’s his own worst enemy. In this audiences can relate, whatever end of the scale they’ve experienced this feeling. We may not like BoJack very much but he’s a sad figure. He’s lonely, self-hating and at the mercy of a ruthless and shallow industry.

Again, the more context given about BoJack, the more we empathize with him. In later series, we’re given clues as to his upbringing and family history. This goes a long way to explaining BoJack’s worst impulses and insecurities. His childhood haunts him and continues to shape the worst parts of who he is.

Crafting an Unlikeable Protagonist

So, when crafting your next protagonist, analyze closely how their flaws affect their actions. Certainly, give them complex motivations that are justified under high stakes. In the end, your unlikeable protagonist is just trying to overcome obstacles and achieve their goals.

How they do this is what challenges the audience to like them or not. But how much an audience understands the context a character is coming from or operating within is vital to finding them potentially empathetic. In this regard, an antihero has to have depth. Otherwise, it’s difficult for an audience to understand why the character is making the choices they are. This is perhaps why antiheroes are so prominent in TV, a format that allows context to be explored and behaviours to be scrutinised over time.

Ultimately, an unlikeable protagonist is one that reflects reality. Nobody is perfect. By getting to know an unlikeable protagonist we’re really getting to know ourselves, probing our own good and bad sides and challenging ourselves to imagine our lives in different circumstances. In lighting the imagination in this way, unlikeable protagonists are a deeply rewarding dramatic tool.

In Summary

What is the role of the unlikeable protagonist?

Unlikeable protagonists have justified motivations for overcoming a high stakes obstacle. During their journey, they should experience a character arc. If the protagonist is lacking in these crucial elements, the viewer will lose interest.

What are unlikeable character flaws?

Flaws add necessary depth and realism that help viewers empathize. For example, they can come in the form of limitations, negative character traits, addictions or moral shortcomings.

How do character motivations come into effect?

Character motivation is the reason behind a character’s behavior or actions. Therefore, if the audience can understand why a protagonist chooses to do bad things, then they’re much more inclined to side with them.

Why are high stakes important?

High stakes add another layer of purpose to the protagonist‘s actions. Given that, something has to be pushing them to make these decisions that ultimately label them as antiheroes.

How do you make an unlikeable protagonist relatable?

Audiences are able to identify with dynamic characters and that includes their flaws too. In the end, these characters are just trying to do what’s right for them. Truly, that’s something most people can relate to.

What redeeming qualities do antiheroes have?

Just like with overly perfect characters, overly evil characters won’t stick. While on their journey they’re likely to show some side of themselves that we deem acceptable.

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This article was written by Madison Kemeny and edited by IS Staff.

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