Analysis

Five Stories Hurt by Unlikable Protagonists

Why be good when you can cheat?

Likability is a critical aspect of storytelling.* If the audience doesn’t like a character, they won’t become invested in what happens. This investment is especially important for the protagonist. If the story has an unlikable protagonist, many people won’t finish it. Let’s look at some blatant offenders.

1. Leviathan Wakes

James Holden from the Expanse TV show.

Leviathan Wakes, the first book of The Expanse series, pairs idealistic Holden with jaded anti-hero Miller. The story is about Holden losing his idealism and realizing he has to make hard choices in order to prevent a greater evil from triumphing. On its own, this is a great character arc. The problem is how Holden’s ideals manifest.

Holden believes in freedom of information, or at least a warped version of it. Several times, Holden brings the solar system to the brink of war by broadcasting sensitive information without any thought to the consequences. He defends this by saying that people have a right to know.

Holden’s arguments are obviously flawed, and they have to be that way so that Miller can shoot him down and explain that sometimes you need to keep information from the public for people’s own good. This is incredibly frustrating for anyone who actually cares about freedom of information; Holden’s arguments sound like a caricature of their position.

Even for readers who don’t particularly care about information transparency, Holden’s obsession with it gets annoying fast. No one else in the story particularly cares about the issue, except to shake their heads at Holden whenever he blasts incendiary information over the airwaves without a second thought. It feels like he’s out of step with the rest of the universe and preaching about a problem that isn’t important to anyone else. That’s a recipe for annoyance if ever there was one.

How to Fix It

Fortunately, I don’t have to think too hard about a solution because the Expanse TV show already made one for me. In that version of the story, Holden is idealistic in a more general sense. He doesn’t want to kill his enemies, and he’s eager to risk his own life and the lives of his comrades to save others, even if the chances of success are remote. This way, when he gets a rude awakening about the realities of life, it isn’t a commentary on whether or not governments should be transparent in their dealings.

2. Little Witch Academia

Akko from Little Witch Academia

In Little Witch Academia, protagonist Akko is the only girl from a non-magical family attending a witch school. If that sounds like the “what if Hermione was the main character” scenario you’ve always dreamed of, I’m sorry to disappoint you. The only thing Akko and Miss Granger have in common is how useless their friends are.*

Akko’s primary motivation is to be the greatest witch of all, despite how bad she is at magic. I know that because she keeps repeating it. All the time. Every episode. Seriously, it’s like there was some rule in the writers room that they couldn’t let a scene end without Akko loudly proclaiming how she’s going to be the best at magic that there ever was. Even though her motivation is inherently sympathetic, it gets annoying through sheer repetition.

Worse, Akko is unwilling to put any work into achieving her goal. Instead, she constantly tries to cheat. In one episode, she decides that she needs to be the best at broom racing in order to follow in her idol’s footsteps. The problem is that she doesn’t know how to fly a broom, something the other girls all learned before they even came to school. Instead of putting in extra practice, Akko goes out and buys a super powerful magic broom to give her an edge.

This isn’t an isolated incident. In another episode, when Akko is having trouble with her spellwork, she goes on a quest to find a magic artifact that will make her the best witch ever. Over and over again, she neglects her schoolwork and tries to find shortcuts around her problems. It’s unclear if she thinks all this cheating will make her a good witch or if she’s lying about her goals.

How to Fix It

Akko’s problem is that she’s combining two elements that don’t work well together: extreme earnestness and sketchy morals. When a story is about the protagonist trying super hard to get what they want, it’s critical that they seem deserving of that goal. The best way to fix Akko would be to make her a legitimately hard worker and then reward her for her efforts.

The occasional story where she tries to cheat could still work, but only if it’s clear that the system is unfair. Returning to the broom race, Akko’s parents might not have the money to keep her in school, and Akko could think that the only way for her to keep learning magic is to win the first-place prize.

3. Enterprise

Jonathan Archer from Enterprise.

With the exception of the brand new Discovery, every Star Trek show has focused around the captain. Even in the ensemble cast of Deep Space Nine, the captain gets more screen time any any other character. As such, careful attention was paid to making each captain likable. Kirk and Sisko are both dynamic, highly competent action heroes. Picard is a contemplative diplomat who will fight any injustice he encounters. Even Janeway, despite her inconsistent writing, projects compassionate authority. It’s always been easy to like a Star Trek captain. That is, until Jonathan Archer.

To call Archer a “flawed” character is the world’s greatest understatement. He is always sure that he knows best and never listens to anyone unless they say exactly what he wants to hear. His arrogance is matched only by his incompetence, as he gets his ship into deep trouble over and over again. He sends people to uncharted planets without checking for dangerous environmental factors. He causes diplomatic incidents by barging in on aliens who don’t want to be disturbed. He advertises Earth’s location to hostile aliens. And that’s all in the first season!

If arrogant incompetence wasn’t enough, Archer is also racist. He hates Vulcans because… they didn’t give his father technology fast enough. That’s it. With this weak motivation, Archer treats the Vulcans like they murdered his entire family. Even the slightest bit of unpleasantness or difficulty from a Vulcan is enough to set him on long rants. Not only is he racist, but he’s a bully to boot. He delights in belittling his Vulcan science officer for everything from her meditation practices to her dietary requirements.

To top off Archer’s list of unlikeable traits, he’s extremely petty. Any time he doesn’t get his way, he whines like a small child. The world’s just not fair to precious little Archer! Not only is Archer unpleasant to follow as a protagonist, but he’s also so bad at his job that it damages the world’s credibility. It’s impossible to believe that Starfleet would choose this guy to captain their first deep space vessel. We know from later episodes that they had plenty of other qualified candidates, and even if they didn’t, several members of Archer’s crew would have done a better job.

How to Fix It

Let us assume that the goal was to make Archer a flawed character and that the writers just went overboard with the flaws. In that case, the best option would be to focus on just one flaw, rather than the bucketload Archer has. It’s possible to like a character who’s in over his head, makes arrogant decisions, or harbors prejudice toward another species, but not all three. Making Archer act like a petulant child shouldn’t even have been on the table.

Once a flaw is decided on, Archer needs some context to justify why he was chosen for command despite his flaw. If he doesn’t know what he’s doing as captain, he could have a backstory where he performs some heroic deed that got him promoted before he was ready. If he harbors prejudice toward Vulcans, it could be because he fought in a border skirmish against them and was the only survivor.

Finally, Archer’s flaw should be something he struggles with. In the existing show, he embraces them. Instead of bullying his Vulcan officer, he should make every attempt to keep his prejudice under control. He might not realize that he’s been subconsciously assigning her away from important projects.

4. The Magicians

Quentin and Alice from the Magicians

The Magicians TV show is meant to be a dark story, and darker stories can handle some unlikability in their main characters. Unfortunately, protagonist Quentin goes over the line. He’s not edgy or even realistic; he’s just unpleasant.

Quentin’s first problem is that he’s a jerk. He doesn’t care about what happens to other people except for how it affects him. When he gets into magic school and his childhood friend doesn’t, he cuts her out of his life. Even as she spirals into despair and dangerous black-market magic, he shows no concern. In fact, the only emotion he does show is annoyance that her problems might reflect badly on him.

But nearly everyone on The Magicians is a jerk, so that alone isn’t enough to make Quentin stand out. What really does it is that he has fake spinach. Proper spinach is very important for making a character likable. If the character is tormented by a bully on the first day of school, that makes them more sympathetic to the audience. Unfortunately, Quentin’s is just nonsense.

You see, Quentin has very few friends, and not much of a social life. That could be explained by the fact that he’s a jerk, but no, that would be too easy. Instead, the show tells us that Quentin is a social outcast because he reads fantasy books. That’s right, it’s the lonely nerd trope, trotted out like it was the 1980s, which is just ridiculous. Misplaced ’80s nostalgia is clearly the domain of Stranger Things; the Magicians needs to stay in its lane!

Joking aside, the idea of someone facing social isolation because they read Lord of the Rings and Narnia is absurd. Whatever problems nerds faced in the past, nerd culture is now unarguably mainstream. Reading titans of the genre like Tolkien and Lewis will be neutral at worst, and most likely earn a person social capital. Claiming that Quentin’s problems come from his choice of media is a transparent attempt to make viewers feel sorry for him without giving him a real flaw.

How to Fix It

The Magicians is often marketed as “Harry Potter for adults,” and if that was the intent, the writers could certainly have learned a thing or two from Rowling. Harry Potter is a blank hero with generically admirable traits because his purpose is to let the audience vicariously experience the wonder of Hogwarts through him. The same could have worked for Quentin, even in a darker story meant for older audiences.

But if making Quentin a social outcast needs to stay, then it should be for some actual reason. The writers could have gone with the old standby of Quentin being from a non-magic family and given him the stigma that goes with it. Or they could have made Quentin so devoted to his studies that he doesn’t have time to make friends. Or perhaps Quentin performs some absurdly dangerous magical experiment on his first day, not knowing the implications. Then people might avoid him because of his scary reputation.

5. Borne

Cover art from Borne. When the cover of a book is a strange blob-creature, you know things are gonna get weird.

In this novel, protagonist Rachel is a veteran scavenger in a bizarre post-apocalyptic world. She’s spent years avoiding deadly chemical spills and dodging bio-engineered monstrosities. One day, while out on a scavenging run, she finds a strange creature and brings it home. When the creature demonstrates intelligence, she names it Borne and decides to raise it. Now this hardened survivor must deal with the perils of raising a child, a child with an ever-changing list of powers.

That’s a great premise for a story, but Rachel herself drags the book down. First, despite her years of experience, she seems completely incompetent when it comes to scavenging. Over and over again, she is outmaneuvered by her enemies, and it feels like she could have avoided these failures by taking basic precautions. It makes sense that she doesn’t know how to raise Borne, but surviving in the city is her profession. When the city is threatened by patrols of mutant soldiers and packs of mutant bears,* she’s taken completely by surprise. You’d think that would be something she’d keep tabs on.

Rachel is also immature. Much like Archer, she gets petulant when things don’t go her way, often to the point of throwing tantrums. At one point, she tries to punish Borne by farting on him. I swear I’m not making that up. Even though that sounds like something a five-year-old would try, Rachel is theoretically an adult. If she’s supposed to be younger, then it makes her sexual relationship with another character really creepy. Pro tip: Don’t make your characters act like children if they’re in sexual relationships.

From the opposite direction, Rachel also has a deep repository of knowledge that doesn’t make sense with her backstory. She seems to know everything about the pre-collapse world, even though she was only a child when it happened – a child without much formal schooling at that. Somehow, she manages to be both frustratingly ignorant and a know-it-all at the same time.

How to Fix It

I suspect that many of Rachel’s likability issues can be linked back to the author’s writing style. Jeff VanderMeer at least seems to be a discovery writer, meaning he writes the story as it comes to him, without a plan or outline. That style is totally valid, but it requires many revisions. Otherwise, it leads to situations like Rachel not knowing the city was overrun with mutant bears because VanderMeer hadn’t written them in yet. It also means Rachel has to know everything about the pre-collapse world because VanderMeer is inserting those details as they occur to him.

More revisions could have cleared those problems up, but we’d still have the issues of Rachel’s incompetence and her immaturity. The easy option would have been to show her being a good scavenger and to tone down her childlike outbursts. If those were important to the story, then she should have actually been a child, perhaps one that recently lost the guardian who was keeping her safe. Of course in that scenario, her love interest would have to go, but no story can have everything.


No protagonist will ever be likable to all audiences, but the more people like your hero, the greater appeal your story will have. Take care when giving your protagonist traits that reduce their likability. A few can make the character more relatable. Too many, and audiences will flee from the story in droves.

(Psst! If you liked my article, check out my magical mystery game.)

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Comments

  1. SunlessNick

    Once a flaw is decided on, Archer needs some context to justify why he was chosen for command despite his flaw.

    He does have one – well, not to justify, but to explain – he was the son of the Warp 5 engine’s inventor. He was appointed for the optics. Pretty much the worst reasoning to pick a captain, but I find it very plausible.

    hen he gets into magic school and his childhood friend doesn’t, he cuts her out of his life. Even as she spirals into despair and dangerous black-market magic, he shows no concern.

    Absolutely every facet of this show would have been better had Julia been the protagonist.

    • Oren Ashkenazi

      So I maybe should have clarified this in the post, but while it’s true that Archer does have a famous dad, as far as I can tell the show never even hints that’s why he got the position. The only time the writers ever indicate it was anything other than pure talent, it’s to imply he was chosen because the Vulcans didn’t like him.

      Though I still wouldn’t have recommended that as the reason, just because there are few things modern audiences hate more than a character who was chosen for something they don’t deserve because who who their parents were.

      • SunlessNick

        The show didn’t imply it, but I believe Scott Bakula thought it would be an interesting wrinkle, and deliberately played Archer as not really up to the job on the merits (or to put it another way, we have him to thank for whatever extent Archer’s flaws are portrayed as flaws rather than humanity’s special shining awesome).

        • Janet

          Archer was so inconsistent it’s hard for me to imagine Bakula deliberately playing him as not up to the job. As I said on another article, the problem is that the show tried to have it both ways. Is he a Mary Sue founding father of the Federation? Or a flawed character trying to find his space legs? Make up your minds people!

  2. Ty

    I couldn’t disagree more with Little Witch, and found Akko to be one of the most unique and likeable protagonists I’ve seen in a long time. Are we even watching the same show? I would recommend it to just about anyone.

    *spoiler alert*

    I’m not going to go back and watch it again to confirm this, but I don’t remember her *ever* saying she wants to be “the best at magic.” I could be wrong. I do remember her saying she wants to be like her idol, which is a much, much less grandiose statement. While I may concede that the show hits on this note often, I certainly didn’t find it too excessive, and even by the end of the show, Akko is reconsidering the validity of her copy-cat behavior and growing into her own person. I found it hard not to like that.

    Saying that she isn’t trying to get better at magic and or neglecting her studies is just flat out wrong. There are multiple episodes where she is struggling, despite help from classmates and tutors. In fact, a decent amount of episodes start with Akko struggling or failing. By the end, she’s celebrating because she can merely float on a broom, not even true flying, just floating. It feels like a huge victory. It’s a show about having a dream you inherently suck at, but struggling through despite everyone and everything telling you that you should quit, or that you’re pathetic, or that you’re not cut out for this. Even when she does cut corners, the show does a pretty good job of demonstrating that it doesn’t pay off, or that her goals were misguided in the first place, like in the broom race episode.

    • Daniela

      Hi! I agree with you! I know Akko can be really loud about her goals. But that’s the point AND the point of the series: She wants to be like her idol, she’s not interested magic the same way Diana is, or Croix. This goal is what makes her get close to magic in a different way that every other witch in the series has.
      She struggles with her studies and learns how to work like a team with her friends. She works hard.
      Yes, I know sometimes she’s so stubborn it can be tiring, but her friends made me watch the entire series and I was happy to see Akko’s and Diana’s development to the end. Sucy and Lotte are adorable too.
      Sorry for my weird english >–<

  3. Deus Ex Anthropos

    Kudos for giving a working definition of “likability” in the very first sentence! That probably preempted a lot of unproductive debate.

  4. Kathy Ferguson

    The side trip to visit El’s “sister” in the second season of Stranger Things also suffers from this problem. No one in the gang El meets is likeable and their motivation for committing unsavory acts is unpersuasive. I was indifferent to their problems because I didn’t really care what happened to them. Also there was little at stake since their contribution to the main story line was minimal.It seems odd that such a well-written show, where most of the characters are flawed while remaining likeable, would take this route.

    • Oren Ashkenazi

      The side trip to Eight’s gang is poorly thought out in a lot of ways. You’re right that they aren’t very likable, and there’s not enough time to get invested in their motivation of murdering everyone who used to work for Brenner. Plus the fact that it’s a big distraction from the main story.

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