5 Tips for Writing an Unlikeable Protagonist (According to Final Space)

The main character of a story does not have to be likeable. By “likeable,” I mean characters who do not necessarily fit the hero mold, who do unsavoury things to get what they want or have unattractive characteristics. Classic novels are filled with protagonists we love to hate, such as Oscar Wilde’s Dorian Gray and Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina. Recent media also features these type of characters—think Michael Scott from The Office, Kratos from God of War, young Luke from Star Wars: A New Hope, or Light Yagami from Death Note.

Readers can enjoy a story without wanting to be the protagonist’s best friend. We are fascinated by human character, even if that character is unpleasant. Many stories that start with an unlikeable protagonist include an arc of character growth (such as Luke Skywalker experiences as he becomes a Jedi in Star Wars). Others simply tell the tale of a damaged character and the terrible choices they make (such as Light Yagami’s descent into evil in Death Note). In either case, when that character is the protagonist, the audience still needs reasons to root for them. They should be unable to look away from the consequences of the protagonist’s decisions and the responses their negative characteristics receive from other characters.

In the space opera comedy Final Space, Gary Goodspeed is as unlikeable as they come. In the first episode alone, he comes off as rude, selfish, oblivious, and dense. He steals an Infinity Guard uniform just so he can impress a woman. He accidentally destroys “92 star cruisers and a small family-owned Mexican restaurant” and doesn’t seem too phased about it. He constantly speaks down to others. I had trouble connecting with him at first because I just didn’t like him. 

However, the show uses humour and other techniques to encourage sympathy for Gary and garner interest in the plot surrounding his character. Here are some methods Final Space uses to makes an unlikeable protagonist worth watching:

1. Give them a reason to be unlikeable.

A character doesn’t need to be likeable, but should be understandable. Gary spends five years aboard the Galaxy One alone, completely devoid of human contact. This would stunt anyone’s social skills and character growth. Gary is thirty-two in the show, which means he boarded the Galaxy One at age twenty-seven. The flashbacks demonstrate he wasn’t a great person to begin with, but the years spent alone would not have helped. 

2. Have someone likeable care about them, and vice versa.

Mooncake, a small, adorable alien that Gary encounters in space, loves Gary. Because Mooncake is adorable, innocent, and loveable, we have more incentive to stay with Gary’s story. And since Mooncake sees Gary as a rescuer, hero, and friend, we can start viewing Gary from that perspective as well. 

Gary does do some incredibly heroic things for Mooncake, even if his motives are often selfish. When he first encounters Mooncake, he brings the alien aboard the Galaxy One and they are almost immediately accosted by space pirates. When the ship’s A.I. informs Gary that it is likely Mooncake the pirates are looking for and they should comply with their wishes because it’s not their fight, Gary responds, “HUE, we make it our fight. You’re Infinity Guard. Your whole motto is to protect life.” Gary commands HUE to lightfold the ship to escape, even though doing so will lengthen his prison sentence.

This decision to protect a being he’d only just met changed, and Mooncake’s high opinion of him, altered my perception of Gary. I started to like him a little more, even if I still found him annoying.

3. Put them in difficult situations.

Each episode of Final Space’s first season begins with Gary floating in space with his oxygen tank running low and his spacesuit leaking. We know this scene likely takes place in the future, but we don’t know when are why. We only know Gary’s death seems imminent and watch his chances of survival decrease with every minute. Through the retrospective dialogue, it’s clear that Gary isn’t happy about the situation, but he also faces it with bravery; he doesn’t seem to regret the actions that brought him there, even though he’s about to die.

Throughout the show, Gary is also chased by the Lord Commander, the villain who is determined to capture Mooncake. I am able to set aside dislike of his character as he faces an enemy far worse than he is. My attention is grabbed because of the life-threatening situations Gary encounters; I want to know how he will get out of them and can admire his fearlessness in the face of danger.

4. Give them redeeming characteristics.

A lot of Gary’s personality is wince-worthy, but he’s got some good qualities that the show brings out. He might be arrogant, but he’s also brave. He might be ignorant, but he’s also honest (when he’s not impersonating an officer to impress Quinn, I mean). He means well even though he says stupid things. Though he’s thirty-two, his social skills are those of a child’s, and he seems willing to learn to be better. He protects Mooncake and his friends even if it means risking his own life. These are not the characteristics of a villain, but of a hero.

5. Make them grow.

As Gary finally gets to interact with people again after five years alone, he learns, changes, and grows. Slowly. His monologues give us a glimpse into how he learns to love and respect those around him. Starting with an unlikeable character means there’s lots of room for this type of change. And that change can (and should) happen without totally removing flaws or altering personality.

One of the aspects I particularly dislike about Gary is his misogyny. He treats Quinn like an object to be won, like someone who couldn’t possibly resist his “charms.” Be careful if you include this type of discriminatory character flaw in your own work; the danger is that your text itself becomes discriminatory. Creating an unlikeable protagonist is not an excuse to be racist, misogynist, or otherwise discriminatory.

Final Space avoids this because it does not present Gary’s actions as acceptable. For example, In episode four, Gary calls Quinn a “sly fox.” She could have giggled or ignored the comment (which would be supportive or dismissive of his words) but instead she punches him. When he apologizes and then calls her an “icy minx,” she punches him again. (This drastic response works in a comedic cartoon; it doesn’t come across as overly violent like it would in a live-action movie, but is more akin to an anvil dropping on Wile E. Coyote’s head. A more serious novel will require something different to reject discriminatory behaviour.) Everyone around Gary knows his attitude is childish and inappropriate, and they don’t allow him to get away with it when he goes too far. His flaws are obvious, and he has opportunities to learn and grow throughout the story. 

If you decide to feature a less-than-likeable main character in your story, consider using some of these techniques to draw your readers in. Make sure to give your readers reasons to want to stick with that character, even if they are as oblivious as Gary Goodspeed, as annoying as Luke Skywalker, or as manipulative as Kratos. Mooncake will thank you.

[This article was revised on October 3, 2019]

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