The flawed Protagonist

There is an interesting tendency in new television series in the past few years to present a flawed protagonist that is not only dark, but often, downright pathological.

The chief difference between the flawed protagonist and antagonist seems to lie in degrees of mental instability, criminality, corruption. Dr. Chance, Walter White, and Hannibal are not only the central characters in their own stories, they are clearly darker and more dangerous than their opponents.

Dr. Chance as the flawed protagonist

Why, then, do we still identify with such characters? Why do we like the flawed protagonist in some shameful and not-so-secret sense? In his book, Writing Screenplays that Sell Michael Hauge makes the point that a writer must create a likable protagonist to avoid failure at the box office. But how does the writer pull this off?

Part of the answer lies in the notion that the protagonist already has the deck stacked in his favour by virtue of his role in the story. It is his tale, after all. We read it because we find something redeeming in it. That, at least, is the tacit implication.

Furthermore, the protagonist is the character we spend most time with. We experience things through his eyes. He is the person we know most about. Familiarity may breed contempt, but it also builds empathy and understanding for his dilemmas and motivation.

Flawed protagonists are gifted individuals. They are cleverer than their enemies, more persistent, resilient. 

Dr. Chance keeps outsmarting his opponents, with his side-kick’s (D’s) help, while Breaking Bad‘s Walter White is the best meth cook in the business. 

Hannibal may be a terrifying villain, but he is rich and smart, and a great chef and nifty dresser to boot. The array of wannabe protagonists who oppose Hannibal pale in comparison. Not only is he the main character in his own story, there is something darkly attractive about him. He succeeds in staying ahead of his opponents and surprising them with his ingenuity. 

But ultimately, even a flawed protagonist needs to have positive, likable traits that entice us to emapathise with him. Dr. Chance loves his daughter deeply, and the people he kills, are, after all cruel abuser’s and killers themselves. Walter, too, loves his family until the end where his obsession to succeed rides roughshod over any values he may originally have had. 

Making the flawed protagonist likable

Michael Hauge stresses that a writer must introduce the protagonist’s positive traits early in the story, before showing us his flaws. This is even more important in a dark protagonist, where the negative traits outnumber the positive. We have to grow to like the protagonist first before we see him drag himself through the mud.

Of course, you wouldn’t like to meet any of these characters in the real world — have a Hannibal over for dinner, or ask a Dexter to baby-sit your child while you spend a night out.

But within the safe world of the story? Flirting with danger may even be cathartic, as Aristotle noted in his Poetics centuries ago.


To foster empathy, introduce your flawed protagonist’s best traits first, before showing us his worst.

4 thoughts on “The flawed Protagonist

  1. Crystal Holsopple

    I appreciate this analysis. Though I disagree with the sentiment that we need good character traits upfront. Jamie Lannister is my favorite character from Game Of Thrones. If you would have told me that were to be the case after episode one, I would probably not have finished the show! Short of the (spoiler alert) dead uprising, Jamie was the cause of the major conflicts of the show. Game of Thrones is unique in the sense it doesn’t have a single protagonist. It has a whole family you follow and spend time with and learn to empathize with. Then also follow a whole antagonist family. Though I know it might be an unpopular opinion, I know I am not alone in empathizing with the Lannisters. We learn why Jamie did the thing he did and watched him mourn, suffer, legitimately change, and then still die with his menace of a sister. Which I (this one really just might be me) was still constant and showed positive charter and love for Cersi his family and lover.

    1. Stavros

      Thanks for the comment, Crystal! In most cases, though, we do need to be introduced to empathetic character traits from the start—specifically with regard to a single hero. (My article is focused on the protagonist, not on supporting characters, no matter how strong they might be.) Again, Michael Hauge makes this point very strongly in his book, Writing Screenplays that Sell. The examples are too numerous to mention, but Tony Soprano and Walter White are the most obvious. I do agree with you that the Lannisters, and more specifically, Jamie, is an example of someone for whom one grows to feel empathy during the course of the story. This is made easier because we tend to grant villains more leeway since we expect them to be bad. We are pleasantly surprised to find potential within them. Jamie’s case works because he is given ample screen time for us to discover the fine grain in his character.

  2. Gerhard Pistorius

    Interesting post. Ask yourself – which character is your main protagonist and why have you chosen this particular character above all other secondary characters. Before the first episode of season one where was the protagonist before all this – because that determines where he is going . Detective James Gordon is the son of a former chief of police of Gotham and he is also a war hero. Gordon was born for a career in law enforcement. However James is new to the city and does not understand what it means to really work at the GCPD. What would have been interesting is to watch Gotham where detective Harvey Bullock is the main protagonist. James is a boy scout which makes him slightly irritating and he is also reckless . The show would have a much different tone if Harvey were the lead character. Harvey understands what it means to build relations between the GCPD and the mobs and is also good at diplomacy. Harvey understands that there are lives on the line and he does what ever it takes to maintain a lasting peace – even if it means dancing to the tune of Don Falcone. Harvey is flawed in the sense that he has submitted the code of Don Falcone : You can’t have organised crime without law and order. BUT Gotham is the story of how James Gordon saved the GCPD and how he will one day clean up the city. The purpose of the story is manifested when James says Gotham is a city worth saving.
    Harvey story : business as usual – Number one rule of law enforcement is to come back home alive.
    James story : Clean up the GCPD – Make the criminals face justice no matter the cost. (Makes lost of enemies – hens he’s the more interesting character)

    In short : Before selecting your main protagonist determine the purpose of your story.


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