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The Power of the Unlikeable Protagonist

Kevin Spacey as Frank Underwood

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: [1] “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?

No, what keeps me watching House of Cards is Underwood himself; despite how much he repels me, I’m drawn back to him again and again. So, what is it about the way he’s written that gives him the dual power of attraction and repulsion? What techniques are being used to keep me engaged with an unlikeable protagonist?

Note: Doubtless Spacey’s excellent portrayal of Underwood plays a part here. A lesser actor wouldn’t be able to pull this character off with so much charisma and authenticity. But for the purposes of this article, I’m be focusing on the way the character is written, rather than how the role is performed.

Clear Motives

“Power is a lot like real estate. It’s all about location, location, location. The closer you are to the source, the higher your property value.”
– Frank Underwood, House of Cards, Season 1, Episode 1

There is never any doubt as to Underwood’s motives. No matter how Machiavellian his schemes, there is a clear and established motive behind them–and that motive is revealed to the audience. Now, I may not like Underwood’s motives–they may rattle against my own values and ethics to the point of discomfort–but I understand his actions as an expression of his goals.

Throughout the series, Underwood reveals his motivations to the audience by breaking the fourth wall. (In a book, it would be done with internal monologue, but that’s harder to make work in a visual medium.) These breaks are short, pointed, and irregular. They reveal something about Underwood’s character–specifically about his goals and motivations–that wouldn’t necessarily be obvious from his actions.

The result of this clear communication of motive is that although I may not like Frank Underwood, but I can’t for a moment pretend that I don’t understand him.

Consistency

“That’s how you devour a whale… one bite at a time.”
– Frank Underwood, House of Cards, Season 1, Episode 1

Frank Underwood is eminently consistent. He’s consistently manipulative and self-serving, yes, but he’s consistent. There is never a time when he takes an action that doesn’t serve his personality and his goals. This consistency means that even his most outrageous, immoral, and “evil” actions are authentic and believable.

Consistency goes hand-in-hand with the point above. He has clear motives, he acts on them consistently, which makes his motives clearer, and his actions more consistent, and so on and so forth. As each arc of the story plays out, it’s clear how it’s going to end–this builds suspense as we wait to see it happen, so that every twist and turn of the plot is so obvious that we’re surprised we didn’t see it coming.

Even when Underwood takes an action that is completely unforgivable, I find myself accepting it because it’s clearly something that Frank would do. This creates a sense of cognitive dissonance; a push-and-pull sense of dislike and understanding that makes it impossible to look away.

Genuine Relationships

“I love that woman. I love her more than sharks love blood.”
– Frank Underwood, House of Cards, Season 1, Episode 1

Frank Underwood lives his life as though every other person is merely a pawn to be used in a game of chess that no one else knows he’s playing. Friends, lovers, colleagues… all are mere playing pieces to be manipulated so he can achieve his goals. He demands loyalty from his underlings, but would destroy them without regret if it would benefit him to do so.

The one exception to this is his relationship with his wife, Claire.

Frank and Claire Underwood have a beautiful relationship based on love, respect, and honesty. They are equals–both in their marriage and in their commitment to their joint goals. From the very first, it’s clear that Claire is the one person Frank will never betray.

Mind you, Claire is no more likeable than her husband. She’s just as ambitious, manipulative, and controlling as him–and even out-maneuvers him when their individual goals clash. But Frank doesn’t seek revenge on her–as he would certainly do if it was anyone else.

Despite everything, when Frank and Claire sit together, sharing a cigarette and their thoughts after a long day, I find myself relaxing and even liking Frank Underwood. After all, if his wife loves him unconditionally, there must be something good about him, right?

Right?

Unlikeability

An unlikeable protagonist works when they have clearly communicated motives and goals, act consistently with those motives, and have at least one genuine relationship with another character. There are plenty of other literary tricks we can use to keep readers engaged, but that’s a good starting place.

Not surprisingly, they’re aspects that are important to all protagonists–likeable or not. Which just goes to show that possibly the hardest thing about writing unlikeable protagonists is treating them just like we’d treat anyone else: with care, compassion, and respect.

Who is your favourite unlikeable protagonist? Do they share these traits? Are there any other ‘tricks of the trade’ you’ve learned about writing unlikeable protagonists?

 

About Jo Eberhardt [2]

Jo Eberhardt is a writer of speculative fiction, mother to two adorable boys, and lover of words and stories. She lives in rural Queensland, Australia, and spends her non-writing time worrying that the neighbor's cows will one day succeed in sneaking into her yard and eating everything in her veggie garden.

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