On Having An Unlikable Character

The first three novels in The Thaddeus Marcell Chronicles are finished, available on Amazon in Kindle and paperback formats. I’m making progress on the fourth entry, Mercenary Ascent, and thought I’d do a little mid-series analysis. Don’t worry, there are no serious spoilers here, though I do vaguely outline the future direction of the series.

Is Thad An Unlikable Main Character?

There’s one piece of criticism that I consistently receive on my first novel, Rescue at Waverly. Main character Thaddeus Marcell is an unlikable character.

I don’t let reader criticism work me up too much. Sometimes it’s valid, sometimes it isn’t, and I don’t set out to confront negative readers. But whenever I hear this one, my initial thought is, “Well, yeah, that’s the point! In that novel, Thad Marcell is supposed to be an unlikable character! Morally-speaking, the series starts with Thad at his lowest point.”

Making him unlikable was unexpected to some readers. And the book’s ending is also a bit sour, but I still think it was necessary for the overall story arc. However, when I hear that some readers never advance beyond the first book for these reasons, it tells me my execution could have been better. They see who Thad Marcell is at this early stage, and they think the rest of the series will be the same. If you don’t like the main character, why would you read the sequels? Maybe the first novel doesn’t adequately answer that question. I tried to address that by including a preview of Rebellion at Ailon, but was that enough?

In hindsight, I’d say my approach to Rescue at Waverly was experimental with mixed results. But it was also my first novel, and a writer’s first novel almost always stands out as different.

A New Beginning, Not a Baseline

Book 1 is just the starting point. It’s not meant to set the norms for its sequels, it’s there to bring about significant change. It establishes who Thad was, then it violently shakes him up and changes his status quo. He begins to change, and by the end of the series he’s a very different character. His plotline over these six books is more-or-less about redemption. If not redemption, at least transformation.

So it’s my intention for the reader to feel somewhat conflicted by him, at least during the first two books. There’s both good and bad in him. There’s satisfaction at seeing him change his ways and become a better person. But I also don’t let him get away with his old evils because that feels unjust, so there’s a thread of tragedy as a result of things he’s done–the worst of which occurs in the second book, Rebellion at Ailon. Yes, he’s changing into a better person, but his past will always haunt him.

A Sequence of Themes

If I intentionally started my hero as an unlikable character, where does he end? I think literary critics (and especially teachers) put way too much emphasis on themes in fiction and often read things the author never intended. I hesitate to go there because I’m just trying to write something entertaining and I don’t really have any serious theme or purpose to this. But if I look hard enough, I can see some themes in this series, and as the writer I guess I have final say in that matter.

This six-book arc can be broken up into three sections, each with two books that have a common theme. I think I can describe this without serious spoilers.

Books 1 and 2: Self-Awareness and Introspection

In the first two books, Rescue at Waverly and Rebellion at Ailon, Thad finally realizes that he cannot continue operating as he does. He must change his ways, and as the writer I’m incredibly hard on him to force this change. As a result, there really are no strong antagonists here because it’s all about inner conflict. Sure, he faces a variety of enemies, but the important thing is that Thad must overcome himself.

These two books are by far the most tragic in the series. But there’s some light in that you clearly see the beginnings of Thad’s transformation during the second book. The first book might make you hate him, but hopefully the second book makes you feel for him.

Books 3 and 4: Changes and Growth

In the second section, The Prince’s Revenge and Mercenary Ascent, Thad is clearly changing. His goals are different. His priorities are different. The way he runs his mercenary company is different. And there are lines he refuses to cross now. Many of his men have backgrounds as outlaws, pirates, and other nefarious types, and they’re starting to worry because their boss isn’t really one of them anymore!

There’s less introspection and inner conflict at this point. There’s no need for it anymore. Thad is overcoming himself, so I let the conflict turn outward. Now he faces powerful external antagonists, which is a stark contrast to the sequence of mishaps in the first novel and the mostly-faceless Avennian overlords of the second novel.

Books 5 and 6: A Hero with Honor and Integrity

Thad’s transformation is completed in the third section, Mercenary Justice and Conspiracy at Earth. I can’t say much about these two novels yet, not without spoiling the plotline, but at this point Thad is a very different person. If the Rescue at Waverly-era Thad is unstable, self-obsessed, and unlikable, willing to run over anyone or anything that gets between himself and his own selfish goals, the Conspiracy at Earth-era Thad is strong, reliable, and wields his power to do what’s right and help others. They’re practically two different characters!

As you can guess from Book 6’s title, this one involves finding Earth. Had the Rescue at Waverly-era Thad found Earth, it would have ended in disaster. He was too selfish and too much of a loose cannon. But the Conspiracy at Earth-era Thad is able to deal with the situation honorably. It just took six books to change him into the right person for that!

Lessons Learned: So What About Future Series?

The readers who quit after the first novel have a valid point about Thad Marcell being an unlikable main character. That was the story I came up with, and that was the story I wrote, and I don’t think I could have done it any differently without invalidating the entire series. But it’s an experiment I do not plan to repeat. The sequel series to The Thaddeus Marcell Chronicles, titled Secrets of Earth, is more straightforward. It follows a new main character on a wild adventure that serves to tie up loose ends I just wasn’t able to solve in the first series. I expect it to stand fairly well on its own, though a few details will be clearer if you also read the first series.

This time, I don’t expect the reader to feel as conflicted about the main character. He’s one of Thad Marcell’s sons, and he’s unambiguously a good guy, free of the dark past and baggage that weighs down his father. So despite the tragedies and battles in this story, it’s far easier to feel sympathetic towards the main characters and the tone is usually more lighthearted.

Conclusion

I guess my point is that if you read Rescue at Waverly and thought Thad Marcell was an unlikable, unredeemable character, this was intentional. Yes, the first two books are dark, but it gets better if you’re willing to keep reading. And if you don’t like The Thaddeus Marcell Chronicles, maybe you’ll like the upcoming Secrets of Earth because the tone and approach are very different.

And if not, that’s okay. As with any writer, my work isn’t for everyone. I write the story I want to write. Some people will like it and some will not. That decision rests with the reader, not me.

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