One of the things that will get you an automatic rejection from most agents—and a swift toss to the DNF pile from a lot of readers—is an unsympathetic character. Especially an unsympathetic protagonist. Personally, I have to admit if there’s nobody in a story I care about, I’m out of there after ten pages or so.
But what do we mean by a “sympathetic character?” What makes us care?
The truth is the protagonists of our most popular books, plays and films are often people we wouldn’t like to hang out with in real life. Some are pretty toxic.
From “wily” Odysseus to Don Quixote, to Heathcliff, Becky Sharpe, Scarlett O’Hara, Dexter Morgan, Walter White, Lisbeth Salander, and the “Girl on the Train,” we are fascinated by morally ambiguous characters who make bad choices.
But don’t these successful works negate the dictum that a protagonist must be sympathetic? Nobody wants these people as their BFF.