Publetariat Dispatch: Why Are Sleazy Protagonists So Popular?

Publetariat: For People Who Publish!
In today’s Publetariat Dispatch,  L.J. Sellers, author of the bestselling Detective Jackson mysteries, muses on antihero (with a capital ANTI) protagonists, and why readers seem to like them.

Alcoholics, sex addicts, porn stars, thieves, and kidnappers. In today’s crime fiction, these characters are often the protagonists, and as a reader, I’m expected to root for them. I rarely can. I’ve put down many well-written and well-plotted novels lately because the main character was not someone I could relate to.

For example, in one story, the protagonist—a reformed criminal, living a good life—participated in a kidnapping to keep himself from going to jail. If I had not been reading the book for discussion, I would have put it down immediately. For me, there was little point in reading about a protagonist I wanted to see caught and punished, especially since I knew he would not be.

In another story, the character was well developed, resourceful, and good-hearted and I really wanted to like her. But the world she inhabited was sleazy and everyone she encountered gave me the creeps. Despite the terrific writing, I finally gave up, because spending too much time in her world was a little hard to take.

Don’t get me wrong. I love crime fiction! And I’m certainly not a prude. I write a mystery/suspense series, and the first book is called The Sex Club. My main character is a homicide detective who’s a hardworking family man. Not perfect, by any means, but he’s also not a cynical, pill-popping alcoholic with dysfunctional relationships. I’m tired of that cop stereotype, and I want my character to be someone readers can relate to.

But it’s not a clear-cut issue. Two of my favorite books last year had protagonists who were criminals…or at least they had been. In Beat the Reaper, the main character is an ex-hit man who becomes a doctor. But he’s trying to redeem himself, and it’s a terrific (and often funny) story. The Lock Artist, another novel I loved, is about a psychologically mute safecracker. But the reader knows from the beginning that Michael goes to jail and hopes to change his life. So I rooted for both characters all the way.

For me, good characterization for a protagonist, especially a recurring character, means creating someone readers will care about, like, and/or respect in some way. (I make an exception for Elmore Leonard’s stories, in which everyone is shady, but often likeable, and I can always cheer for a charming thief, especially if he’s played by George Clooney.)

I realize I may be somewhat alone in this thinking. In my book discussion groups, many other readers say they don’t have to like the protagonist to find the story compelling.

How do you feel about protagonists who are unlikable, deeply flawed, or simply not someone you’d ever spend time with? Does it spoil the story for you? Can you name a novel you thoroughly enjoyed even though you didn’t like the protagonist?


2 Responses to Publetariat Dispatch: Why Are Sleazy Protagonists So Popular?

  1. M. Louisa Locke November 16, 2012 at 4:13 pm #

    Dear L.J.

    This was a very stimulating post, really made me think. As with most issues it is a matter of taste, but I do know that I usually need to feel empathy or at least sympathy for the main protagonist to enjoy the book. They can be deeply flawed, and I can enjoy discovering why they are so flawed, but then I generally like to see some character development in the story (as they gain insights into their own behavior, try to change, etc). But if I don’t see this, and there aren secondary characters that I like, then I don’t really enjoy spending my time with them. I might finish the book, but would be very unlikely to read another in the series.

    On the other hand, I am struggling with not making my protagonists too likeable. I tend to be a pretty optimistic upbeat person, so my characters, while flawed, are pretty benign. Since I write a historical mystery series that is definitely a cozy, this isn’t too much of a handicap, since readers are explicit that they enjoy the books in part because they aren’t too dark. But I do think that this can get boring, and I am working on this. The book I am working on now has added another female protagonist’s POV, and this is forcing me to stretch myself in making sure that her voice is sufficiently different from that of my main protagonist (given that the two women are similar in age, class, etc.)

    So again, thanks for the post.

  2. Walt Rosenfeld December 3, 2012 at 7:02 pm #

    This blog entry really resonates with my own writing efforts. In my book, Slain in the Spirit (, my protagonist is an ex-GI with PTSD that he uses marijuana to cope with. My book is sci-fi noir, but isn’t wildly futuristic. The setting is the near-future where marijuana is now legal. I worked very hard to craft a main character with an edge without being completely unlikable.

    I also read Beat the Reaper, and – if recollection serves – the author there handled his character’s more unsavory aspects by putting them, more or less, into his past. Of course, they remained part of the present day character, and show up when, for example (without giving any spoilers away), someone threatens to mug him. I struggled with how the author tried to meld the one person with two different persona.

    In my book, readers see my main character as he was before his service through the eyes of his cousin, who is hiring him to investigate the murder of his lover. Then readers are able to see this reclusive vet – through the process of solving the mystery – challenge his PTSD and reclaim himself and his life.

    So – yeah, long story short – I agree with you. 🙂 Nothing wrong with protagonist who has issues, or is troubled, but – for me – I also don’t want to inhabit the thoughts of a truly deviant “hero”, or even a hero’s deviant culture.

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