hubris — the missing component of the unlikeable protagonist

this post contains up to season 5 Rick and Morty spoilers.

I was listening to a video about the Moscow murders in November 2022. It sounds like the cops quickly knew exactly who they were looking for. The super-genius Ph.D. student had been pulled over in August in his white Elantra and gave the cops his cellphone number. One of the first things investigators would have done was check the area for traffic or parking citations.

It was how they caught Son of Sam. The criminology doctorate student had forgotten criminology was a field of study.

I’ve dealt with intelligent people making the most ridiculous mistakes in a high concentration of late. The worst thing a person can assume is that they cannot be mistaken. Cognitive dissonance is a very well-documented effect but the physical sensations don’t come with a: hey, your brain can’t handle thinking about what was just said so we’re going to make you feel like you’ve been punched in the gut and throat at the same time, just because this person is challenging you.

It’s why Dr. Expert hung up the phone, upset that I had asked them for their working definition of their field of study. If we’d met waiting for an elevator, they could have stated it in a sentence or two. It wasn’t the request that made Dr. Expert so angry they could only sputter as they slammed the phone down. It was their brain realizing before Dr. Expert could that if they just rattled their definition off, it would prove my point.

It’s why Dr. House, ultimately, failed as a protagonist despite being a well-written empathetic/unlikeable character. Unlikeable characters don’t care if the average reader likes them. The reader has gotten to the end of the book based only on their empathy for the journey the character has travelled. If it is the character’s hubris that keeps the reader from wanting to like them, it has to spur a change in them in any direction.

To leave the character exactly as they were, unaffected by what they had just gone through means the journey itself had to be memorable when the series was ultimately a case-of-the-week show. A character experiencing change is the most significant moment in any creative writing work. The quality of the character’s path to the end of the story has to make up for its lack of catharsis.

A movie (not directed by James Cameron) runs 90-140 minutes. A character who gets to the end of their story and isn’t changed by it isn’t impossible with great storytelling.

An episode of a TV show has a run time of about 40 minutes. In any given timeslot, a character’s lack of change is meaningless. But the length of an entire television series can rival the reading time of a blockbuster fantasy series. Dr. House had remained almost unchanged over the series duration.

Readers invest several hours to decades to finish a book or a series. If the hubris of the unlikeable character fails to impact the character in any significant way, the reader is reading a book about an unlikeable character doing unlikeable things and those actions cost them nothing.

They can’t do anything about the assholes who get away with bullshit IRL, but they can stop reading about fictionalized versions of them. Donald Maass said it best when he said a wounded protagonist has to give the reader some glimpse in the first scene that they want to be whole even if they couldn’t start on that path yet. His example starts with the drinking-buddy calling for a ride to rehab. I think the beginning of their story begins the first night they considered picking up the phone.

But for hubristically-centred unlikeable protagonists who aren’t wounded by it, their story begins the moment their hubris starts to bring about their downfall. How they escape it or surrender to it is the story. It’s why Rick from Rick and Morty will never be Rick from Rick and Morty again. Rick is only Rick when he is an asshole to his diehard fans. But by season six, Rick knows he can’t be an asshole around the people he likes. And Jerry…most of the time. But to the vocal fanbase, if Rick can’t be Asshole!Rick all the time, he’s not Rick at all.

I trust Harmon’s storytelling skills. In an earlier season, Rick surrendering himself to the cost of being the most brilliant man in all the universes to keep his family safe was the most haunting scene of the show. The image of him sitting alone on the toilet at the end of season 5 was Rick coming to terms with the cost of his assholery outside his immediate family.

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