Sometimes when we’re following a story we come to the startling and awful realization that our protagonists are horrible characters. Maybe they’re not written very well, or given a good role in the story, or maybe they’re just terrible people. Whatever the case is, some protagonists are just unlikable. And that most certainly is not supposed to be the case as often as it is. The other day while replaying Star Ocean, I got to thinking of all the horrible protagonists out there that I am supposed to like, and I came to a not very startling conclusion: most of them are cishet, white men who are also full of entitlement. This is not the case for all unlikable protagonists—but it is the case for enough of them. And it really goes to show just how boring and generic our stories are, since there is very little variation in this character type. As such, I decided to compile a list of my Top 5 worst protagonists who I am supposed to like, but who are really just giant assholes.
5. Anakin Skywalker (Star Wars Prequel Trilogy)
I doubt most of the characters who made this list will come as a surprise to many of you, and that’s probably true for Anakin Skywalker’s character as well. To be honest, I almost didn’t include him, and instead wanted to put both Jim Gordon from Gotham or Rick Grimes from The Walking Dead on here, if only because I don’t absolutely detest Anakin like I do them. But I just wrote a couple posts on why Rick and Gordon are horrible and would only be repeating myself.
Overall, I don’t think that Anakin’s character from the prequel universe is unsalvageable. In fact, there are a lot of things I like about him. For instance, Anakin is a much more emotional protagonist than many other male leads—how often do we see him cry? He’s not the overdone, typical example of masculinity. He’s very in touch with his own emotions, and is in fact, ruled by them.
Unfortunately, Anakin’s character also suffered from bad writing and a lack of development. Many of his actions throughout the movies make no sense, and while his motivations are clear to us, they are not expanded on or explored in any meaningful way. By the time the movies end, he’s doing evil acts for the sake of doing evil acts, regardless of whether or not those acts will save Padmé or even make sense to him. When attacking the Temple, why did he murder the Younglings? How did turning on his fellow Jedi help Padmé? Why didn’t he question how Palpatine knew where the Separatist leaders were? And why did he go kill them? At no point when he was marching armies to murder people did Anakin not think that maybe Palpatine was the power-hungry jackass who wanted to take over, not the Jedi?
While we all knew that Anakin was going to turn evil, Vader was never a character that we were meant to hate. He was someone we were meant to pity. Despite his strength and ruthlessness, there was a vulnerability to him and still some sense left to do good. But according to the prequels, that’s not true. He’s just evil and pointlessly slaughtering people. We learn in A New Hope that Vader was supposedly seduced by the dark side, but that’s not what happens. He’s tricked by it, and it was a pretty obvious trick. This could have still worked—as I said, Anakin is a person ruled by his emotions, and his fear for Padmé’s safety would be a pretty strong motivation for him. The problem is that by the end, nothing made sense, and the prequels wasted a really good opportunity to explore Vader’s past. They turned a likable character into a cliché evil asshat.
4. Edward Cullen (The Twilight Saga)
I suppose if I’m going to complain about Edward, I should also give an honorable mention to Christian Grey, since they’re both essentially the same person. I do give Twilight props in that it is a popular story starring a young woman and Edward is not the main character; rather, he’s the love interest, and we don’t often get to see that kind of role reversal, especially in such a popular series. However, Edward plays such a big role in driving the plot forward that I feel justified in talking about him here.
Unfortunately, Twilight does not live up to its own potential and fails spectacularly when it comes to Edward’s character. We are supposed to like Edward—he’s the perfect boyfriend who’s considerate, old-fashioned, looks out for the interests of his love, and he literally sparkles in the sunlight. I don’t know about the rest of you, but if my boyfriend sparkled in the sunlight, I might force him to go on picnics with me every day.
While Edward seems to have a pretty long list of decent traits, he is also a controlling, manipulative, abusive asshole. What’s so horrible about this is that no one behind writing or publishing this book seems to realize that. Twilight thinks it lives in some world where certain old-fashioned traits were romantic and not part of a misogynistic infrastructure that perpetuated abuse and rape culture. Edward kidnaps Bella, isolates her from her friends, and attempts to control every aspect of her life. As this is a love story, the only people who question his relationship with Bella are people we aren’t supposed to agree with, even if they make decent points. For instance, in New Moon, when Charlie gets pissed at the psychological torture Edward put his daughter through and complains about it to Alice, Alice turns around and gets mad at him, because Edward also hurt, as if that pain somehow justifies his actions. It is incredible the lengths to which the Twilight books will go to excuse the bullshit Edward does.
3. Dean Winchester (Supernatural)
I love the first five seasons of Supernatural as much as any other fan, but let’s face it, Sam and Dean are horrible people. The fact that they risk their lives to help others—which is, admittedly, really noble and selfless of them—doesn’t change the fact that they are both ableist and sexist. Furthermore, helping people should not excuse the bad behavior they do have, and it doesn’t help that their good deeds are framed in the most egotistical way. Often the story wants us to pity Dean and Sam, since they’re the only people who could ever possibly hunt monsters, unlike all the other hunters out there, while also allowing them to act as if they know better than the people they’re helping and portraying them as justified for it.
There are more than a couple moments in Supernatural’s never-ending run that stick out to me. The episode where the brothers willingly institutionalize themselves to hunt a monster preying on the mentally ill is one of the first things to come to mind. As a mentally ill person, it was really not enjoyable watching Dean make an ass of himself by throwing around words like “crazy” and “nuts”. And then, continuously, throughout the seasons, we see Dean, and sometimes Sam, make awful sexist comments about women and lie to them in order to get laid.
However, for me, the worst thing that happens is when Dean attempts to retire from the life of hunting and settles down with his ex Lisa and her son, Ben. Even though their relationship more or less works out, Dean eventually decides to leave because he thinks his presence is dangerous to them. While this wouldn’t be a problem, Dean doesn’t just call off his relationship with Lisa. He has her and Ben’s memories of him and demons erased without their permission. Essentially, he has them mind-raped. I’ve mentioned this before, but it bears repeating. This is done to show how selfless he is, because he’s doing it for their own good. But this decision doesn’t take what they want into account, and they should have had a say in what is and isn’t best for them. Furthermore, how does removing Lisa’s and Ben’s memories of all the monsters that want to kill them going to keep them safe? Things still want to kill them, only they cannot recognize those threats anymore, and they no longer know the one person they could contact for help should something bad happen. Also, what the hell’s going to happen when Lisa and Ben go back home and their neighbors ask them where Dean is? They’re not going to have a clue what’s going on.
2. Edge (Star Ocean: The Last Hope)
I recently decided to replay Star Ocean: The Last Hope, because in the two-year period between now and the last time I played it I clearly forgot how aggravating the game is. I can think of video games that I dislike, I can think of ones that I hate, and I can think of a few that annoy me, but I have never played a game more frustrating than Star Ocean: The Last Hope. Playing this game is suffering. And that is made all the worse by the fact that Edge, its main character, is a completely horrible person. Not only is Edge a gifted swordsman with spikey blonde hair for no reason other than that he needs to conform to Western beauty standards, like any other shonen protagonist, he has almost no character development. And he also does some pretty shitty things.
During a subplot that makes no sense, Edge winds up on an alternate version of Earth circa the 1940s–50s. Back then, the planet had a population of somewhere between 2–3 billion people. I bring this up because, due to Edge’s poor leadership skills, he manages to start a chain of events that leads to the murder of every single person on the planet.
After Edge realizes what a horrible shithead he is, he spends the next third of the game moping around and being an even worse leader than he already was. But what makes this even more horrible is that he doesn’t learn anything from his mistake, so there’s no character development. The Edge at the start of the game is exactly the same as the Edge at the end of the game. When Edge eventually comes to terms with what he’s done, he doesn’t grow or become a better person—he doesn’t learn ways to not fuck up so badly (nor does he face any kind of punishment for being the worst murderer in existence). Instead, his growth comes from his internal belief that he still can be a good person and do the right thing, just like he did before committing genocide. After this realization, the murder of human race is never mentioned again.
Of course, after a supposed hero murders a couple billion people, it’s really hard to find a protagonist any worse than that. But for me, my next choice comes down to nostalgia. For those of you who’ve been following this blog for a while, you probably already know that there is, in fact, only one character that could’ve beaten Edge on my list.
1. Eragon (The Inheritance Cycle)
It has, once again, been way too long since I’ve harped on this series, and once again, I highly doubt that this will be my last post getting on The Inheritance Cycle’s case. I will never stop. This series is a beautiful clusterfuck of bad idea after bad idea, and I love it so much. I’ve already talked about what a horrible character Eragon is before, so I’ll try not to repeat myself too much.
But to start, the narrative forgives his sociopathic tendencies, regardless of whether or not they hurt other people, even though he’s supposed to be a hero and the shining hope of the people. We can see this in Eragon’s lack of empathy and guilt. He murders people, such as an unarmed man in Brisingr begging for his life (after Eragon kills him, he shrugs), and he has a habit of trivializing the pain and suffering other people have gone through in order to focus on himself. When Murtagh is kidnapped and mind-raped, Eragon pretty much tells him that he should just let himself be killed or change his true name—because those things are just that simple.
Then, there’s the incident with Sloan, a man Eragon greatly dislikes. After Sloan is tortured—he’s starved and his eyes are eaten out—Eragon still punishes him for a crime no one can prove he did. They only assume that he’s the culprit. Eragon’s status as a Dragon Rider goes to his head, and he becomes very entitled because of it. Despite being the worst person to objectively judge Sloan and weigh his potential crime with the torture he’s already gone through, Eragon assumes being a Dragon Rider gives him the right to do so. And he chooses the cruelest punishment possible. He determines that Sloan will never be with his daughter again (which also unfairly punishes the daughter as well by denying her the right to be with her father in turn).
This is only one of the many, many instances where Eragon’s actions unfairly hurt someone, and the badness hardly stops there. We also have the horrible magical cure in the second book and his creepy stalkerish obsession with Arya. Eragon is one of the worst protagonists of any series, and I still think that he and all the other good guys in The Inheritance Cycle are just as bad as the bad guys.
There are, obviously, plenty of other horrible supposed-to-be-likable protagonists out there, many of whom are probably worse that the ones I’m familiar with (though I will be surprised if one of them has a higher kill-count than 2 billion people). And I’m sure there are plenty who are neither cishet nor male as well—Bella almost made this list instead of Edward. If you disagree with any of my choices or think I should have included someone else, let me know in the comments!
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You make a really good point about the Winchesters, although I was never under the impression that Hunters were supposed to be sympathetic characters. I thought they were supposed to be a**holes and that was the point. I feel like you can still dislike a person and be sympathetic to their life pains without excusing the crap they do. We do this with family members all the time.
And to be fair, I absolutely hated Dean, in the first two seasons. Like a lot of people in my life I waffle back and forth between hating and loving him.
As for Lisa and Ben, I wholeheartedly agree on that. My first question was how does erasing their memories protect them. It was a BS excuse by the writers to write these two characters out of the story. The real irony, is that this is behavior from Mr. Team Free Will. Yeah, his free will, I guess because he certainly didn’t take any of what you just said into account when he mind-wiped these people.
My other question is how is that a surprise. Dean has been shown time and time again, since the beginning of the series, violating other people’s free will for their own good, most especially Sam. Lisa was just the latest recipient of this attitude.
I’ve found that Philippa Gregory – who writes Middle Ages historical novels – has a tendency to write horrible protagonists. One of her books begins with the protagonist waking up to find her convent being burned down – and she just runs out of there, without even trying to raise the alarm, leaving all the other nuns to burn to death.
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