Points for the Protagonist: Our Unyielding Devotion to Character # 1

Ed Davad → in Toys “Gotta love Harry”

A devout fan of the television series Breaking Bad, I became disgusted with myself one evening while viewing an episode with my husband. At a commercial break I began ranting about ‘what a bitch’ Skyler White, main character Walter White’s wife, was for wishing her husband dead. How dare she deliberately smoke cigarettes in his presence in hopes of his cancer returning? How could cause her lifelong partner such intense bodily harm?

Then it hit me: Why wouldn’t she want him dead?

He became a crystal meth proprietor behind her back. He murdered people. He poisoned a child. Truth be told, Skyler’s husband inadvertently dragged her into serious and potential legal problems. He endangered the lives of their children…and yet, I’m calling her the bitch?

More like Walt himself is the son of one.

It’s an interesting notion to ponder, because I’m definitely not the first, nor will I be the last viewer to deem Skylar the enemy. The thing is though, the story is not centered on Skyler’s point-of-view, if it was, then we’d certainly be ragging on old “Heisenberg” a bit more. But since this tale belongs to Walter, and we as an audience are following his journey from lowly high school teacher to number one drug lord of the American Southwest, we’re simply always going to be on his side. End of story.

*Some other examples from the networks:

1. Nucky Thompson from Boardwalk Empire

2. Don Draper from Mad Men

3. Tony Soprano from The Sopranos

*Notice all these protagonists are of the male variety?

Ed Davad → in Toys

Why We Always Root for the Main Character

Outside of television and inside of literature, this is nothing new. We can argue to the death that Odysseus of Homer’s The Odyssey fits the ancient Greek profile of a hero, but in reality, he was a cocky, philandering, manipulative, and war mongering individual. Yet, we love him. For centuries now, we’ve been giving him importance. We discuss his adventures at length. We analyze his motives. Why? Because The Odyssey is a great story. And whose story is it? That’s right. It’s Odysseus’s story.

Have you ever truly hated a protagonist’s guts? I don’t think it’s possible. Yes, I have encountered some disappointing protagonists (see examples below), but otherwise it seems most character-loathing is saved for villains, antagonists, or other secondary characters.

The protagonist though, despite her many shortcomings is basically the person we’re hanging with as we read the story. She may do some wicked and selfish things, but as readers we’re so appreciative of the story she’s telling us that we’re willing to forgive and forget. Besides, if someone (whether it’s told from first or third person) is essentially spilling her guts, we’re likely to find at least some redeeming qualities.

Examples of characters we hate to love:

Rachel: Protagonist in Emily Giffin’s novel Something Borrowed. Rachel has slept with her best friend’s fiancé. Yet as readers we find ourselves rooting for Rachel to get the guy. She does a great job telling us how she’s always been second-rate next to her alluring friend, Darcy. Plus, we come to discover that Darcy’s done some evil deeds on her own. Rachel basically becomes your buddy. Wouldn’t you take your buddy’s side?

Edna Pontellier: Protagonist in Kate Chopin’s The Awakening. She simply up and left her family behind (anyone can be forgiven for leaving an unsatisfying marriage, but to nix your parenting responsibilities?) simply because she was having inner-yearnings of something better out there. Yet she was bold, honest, and fearless. And since we’re hearing about her grief on such a deep level, we’re supportive of her decisions.

Ed Davad → in Toys

Examples of disappointing, but not hated protagonists:

Amir: Protagonist in Khaled Hosseini’s The Kite Runner. Amir watches Hassan, the son of his father’s longtime servant, go through a horrendous experience. Amir, however, does nothing to intervene and then proceeds to feel guilty about it the rest of his life. An underlying motive may be jealously as Amir’s powerful father, Baba, takes an unusual liking to Hassan. Amir is not to be despised, but he proves himself to be a weak character throughout most of the story. It is arguable at the end whether or not the amends he makes does proper justice.

Gene Forrester: Protagonist in John Knowles’s A Separate Peace. Gene is studious and introverted—which is fine in and of itself, but he’s also insecure. Very, very, insecure. So insecure in fact, that he sabotages the athletic abilities of his sprightly friend, Finny by basically pushing him off a tree limb. Gene spends the remainder of the novel contemplating in an obsessive, incessant way whether or not he intended to do his friend harm.

Both Amir and Gene act on jealous instincts, which are essentially, human. They aren’t evil-minded guys, just vulnerable to life’s natural hierarchy. Despite their actions or lack thereof, they are both phenomenal storytellers, and without their keen perspectives, the books would not be nearly as enjoyable to read.

The truth is we let our protagonists get away with quite a bit, but if we want to hear the story, if want to be entertained, enlightened, mystified and moved, well then, we’re just going to have to put up them.


Filed under Books and Literature, Characters

6 responses to “Points for the Protagonist: Our Unyielding Devotion to Character # 1

  1. Great post! I’ve caught myelf thinking the same thing about Walter in Breaking Bad and Tony in the Sopranos, rooting them on the sidelines, and then realizing WHO I was rooting for! How could I? Because, as you said, he’s the protagonist and the author has created a lovable bad guy. Makes you really appreciate what a good author can do, and what we need to do as writers!

    • Exactly my thoughts! I have no clue why I root for these bad guys, but somehow I do. More than I even realize that. Yes, I do believe that this has everything to do with the writer. It’s not easy but somehow we have to show our characters as being divided. I like it best when I both love and hate a character.

  2. I love the story at the beginning of the post.

    Your post interested me, as I used to love the type of main characters you describe above. But then something happened in my brain. Now that I’m headed towards 40, have my own family, etc., I CAN’T root for characters like Edna Pontellier or Humbert Humbert or the central character of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. (whatever that horrid man’s name is). And I HATE James Bond. My moral compunction just gets in the way of appreciating characters like these.

    Characters who are morally ambiguous, who are fighting their demons, I like. Very much. But there’s a difference between a character (like Katniss Everdeen in The Hunger Games) who is aware of their flaws and wants to overcome them, and someone whose flaws are romanticized or idealized by the author.

    I’m not saying nobody else has a right to follow sketchier characters; I’m just saying I no longer read about them myself.

    • Thanks for your thoughtful reply! I’m not familiar with the Hunger Games, but I know the type of character you are referring to.

      I hear you, there are some characters that are just too hard to like or root for. I guess if you like a story enough you’ll put up the main character.

      And I personally am ambivalent about Edna Pontellier. I see it both ways and that is why I put up with her. Maybe when I have my own children I won’t see it the same way.

  3. I struggle with this a lot, and really appreciate your perspective. I want to write characters who are decent people faced with rotten choices, and now I understand much better why their choices won’t necessarily turn a reader off. In fact, if a protagonist is too perfect I’m not all that interested–I’d rather see the story test them, and have him/her fail before finally overcoming a weakness.
    I have got to check out Mad Men one of these days!

    • I don’t like perfect characters either–in fact, I don’t believe there is such thing as one! I like it best when characters are unlikable at times, but overall cherished. This is what makes them people. And I like reading about people.

      Please check out Mad Men! Some of the best character portrayals I’ve ever seen on TV.

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