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In Defense of Unsympathetic Protagonists


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I wasn’t much of a reader in high school. In fact, other than sports books about my beloved New York Yankees, I doubt I read more than four or five novels in my three years of high school. Why would I waste my time on books when there were girls to chase and time to waste? In college that started to change. For various English classes, I read some of the classics: Grapes of Wrath, Great Gatsby, The Sun Also Rises, Catcher in the Rye, and so on. Then I came to The Stranger by Camus, and it was love at first sight. Not because of the heavy themes of existentialism or absurdism, but because about halfway through the novel, the protagonist, Meursault, turns into a cold-blooded murderer. There we are, reading about him plodding through this indifferent world when, seemingly out of the blue, he aims his gun at the Arab on the beach and shoots him once and then four more times. And how the narrator describes the killing—so matter-of-factly—is equally chilling. “…like knocking four quick times on the door of unhappiness.” Right then and there, I learned something crucial about myself: I like my narrators a little crazy.  

A few years after reading Camus, on the recommendation of some coffee shop hipster, I got a taste of Jim Thompson. If you’ve never read Thompson, fix that immediately. Known as the “Dimestore Dostoevsky,” he wrote pulpy paperback novels in the 50s and early 60s, a time of overwhelming repression in America, which only makes his stories that much more shocking. In The Killer Inside Me, his most famous novel, the protagonist is a small-town sheriff named Lou Ford. Initially, Ford seems friendly and good-natured, if a little odd (he speaks almost entirely in clichés), but it doesn’t take long for the reader to realize that Ford is a complete psychopath. By the end of the novel, the bodies pile up in gruesome fashion and in sickening detail. How did Thompson get away with that in the 1952? Did his publisher even read the book? In any case, after reading The Killer Inside Me, I decided I wanted to become a writer. And, more importantly, I wanted to write from the point-of-view of a psychopaths, just like Jim Thompson. 

Over the years, friends and family—as well as my therapist and parole officer—have asked why I insist on creating these unsympathetic protagonists. Why aren’t my protagonists more relatable? Why aren’t they more heroic? The simple answer is that, for me, unsympathetic protagonists tend to be more interesting and dynamic than those heroic everymen. Not to say I want to follow in their footsteps and live a life of crime. I often remind my students that it’s important to separate the author from the narrator. My narrators have killed dozens of people. I’ve only killed two. 

While reading and writing about sympathetic and heroic protagonists is comforting, doesn’t leaving our comfort zone force us to grow as readers and writers? Shouldn’t we enjoy the challenge of discovering how this wounded (or psychotic) character became who he or she is, how the darkness overwhelmed the light? 

Aside from this fascination with evil and violence and how they got to that point-of-no-return, there are other reasons why I must defend the unsympathetic protagonist, the undesirable. I insinuated that “relatable” characters are boring, but that isn’t quite right. Because, if we’re being honest, these violent and evil characters that I love are relatable in their own way. Not because they steal. Not because they kill. Not even because of their traumatic pasts (although it is true that many of us have faced our fair share of trauma). No, we can relate to them because we share the same feelings as them. We’ve experienced overwhelming anger. We’ve experienced loneliness. We’ve experienced isolation. What better way to remind ourselves that we’re not unique in our darkness than by reading about Meursault or Lou Ford. True, we’d like think of ourselves as Atticus Finch or Jo March, but often we fall short, often we feel the pull of malevolence, of sin. As Tom Waits sings (in certainly one of the less optimistic moments in music history): All the good in the world you can put inside a thimble and still have room for you and me.

Naturally, there is no better genre for these unsympathetic protagonists than crime fiction, even more so than horror. Sure, horror has plenty of terrifying characters, but they tend to be antagonists, presented to us at a safe distance from our sympathetic storyteller. For all of Stephen King’s terror and dread, his stories tend to be moralistic with clear good guys and clear bad guys and, generally speaking, the good guys win. Not so with crime fiction. I mentioned Jim Thompson, but also think about early crime writers like James M. Cain and Patricia Highsmith, as well as more recent writers like Jake Hinkson (read Hell on Church Street) and Patrick McCabe (PLEASE read Butcher Boy). And then you’ve got crime fiction’s unkempt cousin, Southern Gothic, and its undisputed queen Flannery O’Connor. Take Wise Blood. Or the short story “A Good Man is Hard to Find.” Sympathetic characters? Hardly. But unforgettable ones. 

Years ago, when I was trying to find an agent or publisher for my debut novel, The Disassembled Man, I was told the same thing over and over again. The novel is too over-the-top. Your protagonist is too unlikable. I needed to tone things down. For many months, I thought about what they told me. And then I began the rewrite. 

And I made my protagonist, Frankie Avicious, even more terrifying. 

Jim Thompson would have been proud. 

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Michael Neff
Algonkian Producer
New York Pitch Director
Author, Development Exec, Editor

We are the makers of novels, and we are the dreamers of dreams.

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