Frustrating Protagonists Are Good

Yup, I just came out and said it.

So … end of post, yes?

Kidding! About it being the end of the post. I stand by my statement/post title. And here’s why:

The people you love most also annoy you the most at times. And yet, you still love them, yes?

Obviously, this is a no-brainer for people we live with. When you share a bathroom with a person, they’re going to drive you up the wall from time to time. But I daresay you even have a best friend who drives you positively batty at times, but you still call them and hang out with them and watch the Hunger Games with them because you really love them more than they annoy you.

Well, protagonists should get on your nerves sometimes.

I had this realization the other day when discussing Mockingjay with a friend. She’d just read it, and when I asked her what she thought, she said Katniss got annoying in this book. And I thought to myself, “Why, that’s a good thing.” As authors, we can’t please everyone. (As people, we can’t please everyone.) If we try, we end up a) being a big fatty fake fart and b) failing. So, it stands to reason that even the stars of our books should frustrate the reader sometimes. They should make bad decisions, and get angsty, and call their mother bad words (which the protag of my thesis totally did in what is now one of my favorite scenes in the whole not-quite-a-full-book-yet). Hello! You’ve heard of a little boy named Harry Potter right? And you’ve read the 5th book, right? In which Harry is the most annoying and angsty 15 year-old out there and OHMYGOSH there’s hundreds of pages of him being annoying and angsty!

And then there’s 17 year-old Harry Potter, who totally kicks butt and kills Voldemort and makes us cry and kisses Ginny Weasley and saves the day. And I contend that his triumph is all the greater because we’ve seen him progress. We root for him even more because we know that Harry has his flaws and can draw conclusions and get his feelings hurt easily, but MYGOODNESS, he’s a real person and he’s complicated and we love him for it because his goodness wins out in the end.

And also, I think it’s better to be absolutely pissed off at a character than to feel ambivalent towards them. FEELINGS are good things. APATHY is never a good thing.

So let your characters–even your beloved protagonist–make bad decisions and be mean. Because in the end, we will love them all the more for it.

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I write speculative fiction inspired by mythos from around the world, complex family dynamics, and my own experiences living with mental illness. After earning my BA in Linguistics from Brigham Young University in 2008, I received my MFA in Creative Writing from Converse College in 2012. I live in Denver, where my husband and I spend countless hours chasing our three young sons (and sometimes catching them!). I collect tarot decks, dye my hair mermaid colors, and procrastinate by decorating my home. My debut novel, Feathers Sharp as Knives, releases on May 2, 2023.

5 thoughts on “Frustrating Protagonists Are Good

  1. YES YES YES. Think of all the “perfect” people you know. They’re annoying, right? They’re too goody-goody and sweet and it leaves a sour taste in your mouth. And if they’re not that, they’re boring.

    The ones you end up talking about most, in real life and in fiction, are the ones who do things you don’t like on occasion, the ones who have flaws. The ones who give you something to talk about. They’re more realistic and rounded and interesting. They’re the ones who get remembered.

  2. It’s really interesting that you should say that because I’ve definitely been struggling with a frustrating protagonist! I also think having a difficult protagonist has something to do with how much of yourself you put into the character because you’re seeing all the things about you that you’re frustrated with.

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