How to Write an Unlikeable Protagonist
The main character of a story does not have to be a likeable person. After all, classic novels are filled with protagonists we love to hate, such as Oscar Wilde’s Dorian Gray and Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina. More recent media also features protagonists with questionable morals—such as Michael Scott from The Office, Kratos from God of War, young Luke from Star Wars: A New Hope, or Light Yagami from Death Note.
Readers can certainly enjoy a story without wanting to be the protagonist’s best friend, though there are some techniques to keep in mind when writing an unlikeable protagonist.
Some unpleasant characters grow (for example, whiny Luke Skywalker becomes a wise Jedi). Others continue to make terrible choices (for example, Light Yagami turns into a villain). In either case, the audience still needs a reason to root for them or, at least, to keep watching their story unravel. They should be unable to look away from the consequences of the protagonist’s decisions.
In the space opera comedy Final Space, Gary Goodspeed is as unlikeable as they come. From the first episode, it’s clear that he’s rude, selfish, oblivious, and dense. He steals an Infinity Guard’s uniform just so he can impress a woman. He accidentally destroys “92 star cruisers and a small family-owned Mexican restaurant” and isn’t broken up about it. He constantly speaks down to others. I had trouble connecting with him at first, because I just didn’t like him.
However, the show uses humour and other techniques to encourage sympathy for Gary and to garner interest in the plot. Here are five methods Final Space uses to make an unlikeable protagonist worth watching:
1. The character has reasons for being unlikeable.
A character doesn’t need to be likeable, but should be understandable. Gary spends five years alone aboard the Galaxy One, devoid of human contact. This would stunt anyone’s social skills and character growth. Gary is thirty-two in the show, which means he boarded the Galaxy One at twenty-seven. The flashbacks demonstrate he wasn’t a great person to begin with, but the years spent alone sure didn’t help.
2. Someone likeable cares about them.
Mooncake, a small, adorable alien that Gary encounters in space, loves Gary. Because Mooncake is innocent and loveable, we have more incentive to stay with Gary’s story. And since Mooncake sees Gary as a rescuer, hero, and friend, we start viewing Gary from that perspective as well.
Though his motives are often selfish, Gary does some heroic things for Mooncake. When he first encounters Mooncake, he brings the alien aboard the Galaxy One, and they are almost immediately accosted by space pirates. The ship’s A.I. informs Gary that the pirates are probably looking for Mooncake, and they should give up the alien; it’s not their fight, after all. Gary responds, “HUE, we make it our fight. You’re Infinity Guard. Your whole motto is to protect life.” Gary commands HUE to lightfold the ship to escape, even though doing so will lengthen his prison sentence.
This decision to protect someone he’s only just met, plus Mooncake’s high opinion of him, alters our perception of Gary. We start to like him a little more, even if we still find him annoying.
3. They're in danger.
Each episode of Final Space’s first season begins with Gary floating in space with his oxygen tank running low and his spacesuit leaking. We know this scene likely takes place in the future, but we don’t know when or why. We only know Gary’s death seems imminent. Gary isn’t happy about the situation, but he also faces it with bravery; he doesn’t regret the actions that brought him there.
Throughout the show, Gary is also chased by the Lord Commander, a villain who is determined to capture Mooncake. We can set aside our dislike of his character as he faces an enemy who’s far worse than he is. We can admire Gary’s fearlessness in the face of danger.
4. They have redeeming characteristics.
A lot of Gary’s personality is wince-worthy, but he’s got some good qualities, too. He’s arrogant, but he’s also brave. He’s ignorant, but he’s also honest (when he’s not impersonating an officer to impress Quinn, I mean). He means well, even though he says stupid things. Though he’s thirty-two, his social skills are like a child’s, and he’s willing to learn to be better. He protects Mooncake and his friends even if it means risking his own life. These are not the characteristics of a villain, but of a hero.
5. They grow.
As Gary finally gets to interact with people again after five years alone, he learns, changes, and grows. Slowly. His monologues give us a glimpse into how he learns to love and respect those around him.
Starting with an unlikeable character means there’s lots of room for change. And that change can (and should) happen without totally removing flaws or altering personality.
One of the aspects I particularly dislike about Gary is his misogyny. He treats Quinn like an object to be won, like someone who couldn’t possibly resist his “charms.” Be careful if you include this type of character flaw in your own work; the danger is that your text itself becomes discriminatory. Creating an unlikeable protagonist is not an excuse to be racist, misogynist, or prejudiced.
Final Space itself does not come across as misogynist, however, because it doesn’t present Gary’s actions as acceptable. For example, In episode four, Gary calls Quinn a “sly fox.” She could have giggled or ignored the comment (which would be supportive or dismissive of his words), but instead, she punches him. When he apologizes and then calls her an “icy minx,” she punches him again.
Everyone around Gary knows his attitude is childish and inappropriate, and they don’t allow him to get away with it. His flaws are obvious, and he has opportunities to grow throughout the story.
If you decide to feature a less-than-likeable main character in your story, consider using some of these techniques to draw your readers in. Make sure to give your readers reasons to want to stick with that character, even if they are as oblivious as Gary Goodspeed, as annoying as Luke Skywalker, or as manipulative as Kratos. Mooncake will thank you.