One of the questions that often plagues writers is: Is my protagonist likeable enough?
At some point in our writing career, we’ve no doubt been told that our protagonist should be someone readers want to spend time with–someone they’re happy to commit to hanging out with for 300+ pages; someone they will care about; someone they will want to triumph. And yet, there are plenty of great books out there with protagonists who are not just unlikeable, but actively unpleasant. From Humbert Humbert to Amy Dunne, literature is littered with protagonists we love to hate.
Over the last few weeks, I’ve found myself dwelling on why unlikeable characters can be so engaging. Why? Because I’ve been watching Netflix’s House of Cards.
House of Cards is an American political drama loosely based on a British mini-series of the same name, which was, in turn, based on a book by Michael Dobbs, set in post-Thatcher UK. As Dobbs wrote in 2014: “The US series is different, of course, but not that different than the book that started it all. It’s true to the spirit of the story I wrote so many years ago—a dark tale of greed, corruption and unquenchable ambition.”
The protagonist of House of Cards is one Francis “Frank” Underwood–a ruthless politician who will stop at nothing to achieve power. And when I say “nothing”, I’m not exaggerating. He is, by far, the most unlikeable protagonist I’ve ever watched. And yet I can’t stop watching him.
Some of that is undoubtedly the hope that he will one day get his comeuppance… although I’m not counting on it happening any time soon. But as I watched yet another episode where I found myself wavering between feeling uneasy and nauseated by Underwood’s actions, I asked myself: What is it about Underwood that keep me completely engaged in his story, even as I like him less and less?