WARNING: The following post contains plot spoilers from the movie Iron Man.
It's easy to get a reader to sympathize with a likable protagonist. We can get behind someone who is kind, generous, thoughtful, or compassionate.
But what if your protagonist is inherently unlikable? How do you generate sympathy so that your reader doesn't hate your protagonist and throw your book against the wall?
An Unlikable Protagonist
Tony Stark, played in the movie Iron Man by Robert Downey, Jr., is an unlikable protagonist. He's got almost nothing going for him in the “positive attributes” department.
Sure, he's good-looking, but that's not going to be enough to convince viewers to like him, let alone sympathize with him, especially when he's also immature, rude, uncouth, discourteous, selfish, womanizing, and making millions of dollars off the manufacture of weapons of mass destruction.
It's not even enough to put Tony into the military cavalcade that comes under attack and nearly have him blown to smithereens. If he wasn't likable or sympathetic in some way, viewers would have cheered his demise and moved on.
So how do you get viewers to root for someone so unlikable?
The answer is: Show glimmers of hope for the character.
The writers of Tony Stark's character probably suspected that he wouldn't be an easy person to relate to. With that in mind, they reached for a character attribute that most people can connect with.
He's got a sense of humor. Better still, sometimes it's even self-deprecating.
In the very first scene of the movie, with its in media res opening, everyone in Tony's Jeep is stiffly silent. Finally, he speaks up. “I feel like you're driving me to a court-martial. This is crazy. What did I do? I feel like you're going to pull over and snuff me.”
He looks at the others, whose focus is beginning to crack, and adds, “What, you're not allowed to talk? Hey, Forrest!” to the nearest soldier.
“We can talk, sir,” the soldier says.
“Oh, I see. So it's personal?” Tony says.
“No,” says the female soldier driving the Jeep, “you intimidate them.”
“Good God, you're a woman!” Tony exclaims. “I honestly … I couldn't have called that. I mean, I'd apologize, but isn't that what we’re going for here? I thought of you as a soldier first.”
“I'm an airman,” she says, but with a smile.
“You have, actually,” Tony continues, “excellent bone structure, there. I'm kind of having a hard time not looking at you now. Is that weird?” He looks around again. “Come on, it's okay, laugh.”
Within seconds, it's clear that Tony is used to being the odd one out, but doesn't mind. It bothers him when people are stiff and formal around him because that's not his style, despite his status and wealth. His sense of humor and his ability to poke fun even at himself breaks the ice and makes people warm to him, even when he’s being uncouth.
That, right there, is what saves Tony from being a hopelessly unlikable protagonist.
Then, when the Jeep comes under fire, viewers are worried.
How do you make your protagonist likable? Have you ever played with the idea of an unlikable protagonist? What attribute could you give that protagonist to help readers bond with him/her?
Even an unlikable protagonist needs to have one likable attribute readers can bond with.