Unsympathetic Versus Unlikable Protagonists

Did you know, readers mine, that humans naturally feel an urge either to pick fights with or get away from people they do not like?

Because, apparently, a statistically-significant percentage of writers are too dense to understand that.

Both in my work as a script reviewer and elsewhere, I see the same problem appear far more frequently than it should: writers engaged in a ceaseless crusade to make us read, watch, or play through narratives centered on assholes. Let me draw a distinction here: I mean assholes, not scumbags. And I apologize to any of you who have a particular love for anal sex–

–look, we all know I write erotica into my books. It’s established. My work is, in fact, not safe for work–

–but some people are just assholes, and assholes of the person-sized variety are not enjoyable to deal with. Being unenjoyable to deal with is, in fact, what makes them assholes. This is the key distinction between an unsympathetic and an unlikable protagonist: the unsympathetic protagonist is, frequently, not a great person. Marvel’s gun-toting edgelord vigilante, The Punisher, exemplifies this. Though I’m by no means an expert and his exact morality–or bloodstained lack thereof–changes from comic to comic, Frank Castle is a textbook unsympathetic protagonist.

I love everything I’ve ever seen about him.

Should I like The Punisher? Perhaps not. He is, objectively, a murderer. He goes outside the law to kill people. He’s a ruthless vigilante with a body count higher than a number of full-scale wars. Batman with the limiters turned off. He was first introduced as a villain! Yet, as Frank himself frequently asserts, he kills people who need killing.

It’s also an unavoidable truism of superhero comics that, while they exist in the first place to show us an ideal reality where the good guys win sooner or later and doing the right thing is both easy and reliable, many of their lessons fall apart if applied to our own world. Yes, it is essential to characters like Batman, Spiderman, and other conventional vigilante heroes that they do not kill. At least, not except in extreme circumstances.

If he’s so gung-ho about violence, why do some of us still like The Punisher so damn much? Because, while Frank is–or at least, is intended to be–unsympathetic, he’s not unlikable. Even in his original appearance (if my research is correct; I never had the chance to get into comics), The Punisher still talks in terms we can respect. He disses the Jackal for taking a cheap shot at Spiderman even though this cheap shot benefits him, and when his ally, The Mechanic, is murdered, The Punisher sets out to avenge him immediately.

The Punisher is often brutal, sometimes even by edgelord standards, and far beyond the norms of the Marvel Comics universe. Despite this, he has enough admirable traits that we can like him. And for those like myself who can’t help but wrinkle our brows about the overly-rosy approach of conventional superheroes, characters like Frank are deeply cathartic: the ones who are more interested in making a difference than looking squeaky clean. The ones who Get Their Hands Dirty.

This blog is still called Northborn Sword. My custom background’s borders are made of different sword renders. If you thought I wouldn’t identify with the edgelord over the constantly-quipping paper-delivering good boy with his harem of Feisty Independent* Women, you must be new.

So, that’s all well and good. But if The Punisher is my definition of an unsympathetic protagonist, then what’s my definition of an unlikable one?

If you aren’t already familiar with it, then I apologize, readers mine, for now I will inflict upon thy once-innocent synapses the accursed lore of that entity know as Alex, protagonist of YIIK: A Postmodern RPG. That’s pronounced “Why-two-kay” by the way, not “YEEK“. It should be pronounced Yeek.

Alex is a piece of shit. I’m sure you expected my trademark Gothic Mom swears, something along the lines of “fripperous doggerel-swaddle smearing the unhappy cosmos with his atrocious brat-sputum”, but I write that phrase in this instance solely for our benefit. It will ease your torment, my children, in tolerating my lexical dissections of a piece of shit.

For, truly, Alex is a piece of shit. Over the first few hours of YIIK: A Postmodern RPG, he persistently makes reference to much better RPGs while also having numerous lines of self-indulgent–the most grimace-inducing, obnoxious kind–dialogue in which the game’s creators effectively pleasure themselves over their own purported musical talents as well as the other games they’ve created. Games which shouldn’t exist within this plot’s timeline, since YIIK: A Postmodern RPG–I will keep posting its name so you have to experience the same pretentiousness-spawned headache I do–takes places in the late ’90s when its creators hadn’t yet created those other games.

This by itself would be annoying, but redeemable. However, over the course of the first five or so hours of gameplay, I watched Alex’s countless infuriating character traits persistently punish my good friend Luka Étoile for her attempts to give the game a second chance. And a third chance. And a fourth chance. And… you get the idea. Eventually, after several streams on her Twitch channel in which she did everything possible to keep a positive attitude, she abandoned YIIK: A Postmodern RPG in favor of Final Fantasy XIV Online.

This was some weeks ago, and Luka has not, to my knowledge, attempted a return to YIIK: A Postmodern RPG since. I applaud this decision; while the game’s worldbuilding contains some fun ideas, they receive minimal development, and nothing, nothing, is worth spending twenty hours with Alex. Let me list some of Alex’s many endearing behaviors:

-Persistently talking about the deaths, near-deaths, disappearances, and generally traumatic experiences of other characters purely in terms of how hard it is for him, poor Alex, to deal with these hardships which happen primarily to other people.
-Losing his temper at other characters any time they attempt to correct his behavior, then acting as if they’re right to do so when they apologize to him
-Raging at his mother for suggesting that he should also get a job after she loses hers, putting the family’s finances in jeopardy. She paid for his college, by the way.
-Belching forth every variation you can consider on the “Um, Akchually” exchange”
-Falling over himself to neg other characters if he can’t immediately connect with what they say they like
-Engaging in lengthy internal monologues where he guilts himself for not doing better… but never taking the tiniest external action or even speaking these supposed desires aloud, lest other characters be able to hold him to his supposed desire for self-improvement
-Adamantly refusing to find or develop a coherent, worthwhile motivation

I am given to understand the creators of YIIK: A Postmodern RPG wanted Alex to be unlikable. Wonderful. He is, indeed, unlikable, and I suppose insofar as postmodernism is engaged in fighting for the idea that art and beauty are arbitrary and subjective, with grand theories (such as basically every piece of writing advice I’ve ever shared) and ideologies being treacherous things to purge, this is postmodern. Indeed, having an unlikable protagonist for the sake of having an unlikable protagonist does flout traditional notions; namely, that stories should offer some form of entertainment to the audience.

I would like to point out that, under this interpretation of postmodernism, the only difference between a postmodernist and a 4chan troll is that the 4chan troll less frequently pretends to have a higher purpose. Of course, pretending that painting the pursuit of a higher purpose as deluded and undesirable is a higher purpose is a most asinine paradox, so maybe that’s just postmodernism all the way around.

I suppose YIIK: A Postmodern RPGs well-documented and infamously expansive plagiarism–look this up on your own time, it’s astounding in its shamelessness–could also be seen as postmodern; after all, it is a commonly-held ideology in every art that literally stealing from other creators is bad.

Enough; never mind abstract arguments and hoity-toity debates about the nature of postmodernism.

If you want the functional results of an unlikable protagonist, let’s return to what happened during those Twitch streams. As a script reviewer, I looked at everything YIIK: A Postmodern RPG presented us with and saw a wall of red flags: a protagonist with few actionable character traits and no compelling motivation, an unfocused plot with no central tension, overreliance on references to the work’s influences at the expense of its own characters and narrative–at one point Aerith Gainsborough, yes, That One–appears, with her name as the mistranslated Aeris and clearly copying her FF7 design.

Luka, even after this, maintained her resolve. Despite my cynicism, I was genuinely inspired by her determination to treat YIIK: A Postmodern RPG kindly. She put on a brave face against mediocre combat mechanics, frustrating level gimmicks and myriad time-wasters. She did her utmost to latch on to whatever high points the game offered her, to celebrate likable and effective characters and plot points, even though YIIK: A Postmodern RPG so consistently followed them up with a kick in the teeth that this became a running joke by the end of the second stream.

Yet, in the end, Alex’s hateful traits grew too grating to bear. Normally, an RPG can compensate for flawed gameplay with good writing and characters.

Let’s be frank, Baldur’s Gate could be very frustrating to play because trying to plan low time-to-kill combat around 1d20 rolls is a nightmare. We stuck with it for the world it created. And much of the writing in those older isometric RPGs, as well as that in, well, FF7, isn’t that innovative. It didn’t need to be; these games gave us broad casts of interesting characters with enough hooks and backstory to keep us excited. Even if, like me, you hated grinding and could never wrap your head around the tactical end, you could still have a great time.

A story’s protagonist is, by definition, one of its most important characters. Much of the action and drama revolve around them. Generally, because they’re the characters we spend the most time with, the ones through whom we experience the world, they’re the ones we as the audience are intended to relate to and project ourselves onto.

If we have a protagonist, they’re meant to play some or all of those functions. If a writer changes the character’s workings enough that they don’t, then the story doesn’t have a protagonist anymore, it has some oddball fluff-being who unjustifiably serves as the point of view while contributing little to the narrative, or a vitally-important character whose most crucial actions we don’t see because they don’t provide our point of view.

A writer can tell an unsatisfying story on purpose, but if they want to leave people without a satisfying narrative, they could achieve the same results by never telling a story in the first place. I advocate this second option for anyone who believes that what our world really needs is to be less fulfilling.

Otherwise, if a character still functions as a protagonist, then we as writers can’t just make them unlikable and still expect our stories to work. Their character is interwoven with its mechanics, which means–and I’m sorry for any postmodernists who still happen to be here— objectively, an unlikable protagonist makes for an unlikable story. Humans will pick fights with or seek to avoid a story they don’t like. That isn’t subjective, that’s psychology.

If that’s what other writers want, I suppose they might argue that there’s subjectivity in whether or not they wish to provoke that innate response. Maybe there are legitimate literary reasons for writing stories people either want to attack or avoid. However, I don’t believe such reasons would be found by going out of their way to anger their audiences. Because, again: that’s literally just trolling them.

Unsympathetic protagonists can serve as a vehicle for our darkest desires, or as a cautionary tale against giving into them; if we write the former, then the latter in sequence, we get seminal pieces like “Breaking Bad”. Unsympathetic protagonists can help to remind us that even the worst among us are human, can offer us hope for redemption from our own mistakes, can provide us vicarious closure over bitter portions of our own lives, and often highlight lingering toxic elements in our personalities.

Unlikable protagonists just piss everyone off.

Anyone may write whatever story they wish with whatever characters they wish; they have that right. If the story and characters they wish to write are ones custom-tailored to enrage others, then respectfully, I will exercise my right to avoid those works and read ones that offer a genuine reward for my emotional labor. I hope you do the same, readers mine; you deserve better text-friends to share your free time than, say, a frustrating, narcissistic man-child in an ugly outfit.

You've thoughts to offer, dear reader?

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