Protags work when, even if they are awful, they are RELATABLE.
There must be something about them, despite the things they do of which WE CANNOT APPROVE, we UNDERSTAND (and this is the important part) because we have had THE SAME EMOTIONS.
It’s tricky, and you have to show it to sell it by demonstrating how the feelings happen for them, and how they are the same as yours and mine.
An unbelievably good example of how this trick works is this guy, from a movie I really liked, Harsh Times. Hello, Jim.
Jim’s crimes are innumerable. He is almost a complete sociopath. You absolutely don’t want him to succeed in his goals, because he’s a violent, crazy, angry, explosive, sadistic asshole and he wants to be a cop.
How could you take that protagonist and make anyone RELATE to that guy?
- VULNERABILITY. He has severe PTSD from a wartime experience that even his own sociopathy could not protect him from.
- LOYALTY. His close relationship with his (totally lovable) best friend.
- HOPE. His whole heart and sense of himself and his future is pinned on getting into the police academy.
- FAILURE. He is rejected by the academy for psychological issues.
You still would never want to meet Jim, even in broad daylight, even if he had one of those Hannibal Lechter masks on. But because he is set up well as a layered, flawed person who FEELS many of the things we feel, we can experience his (terrible) choices as people who know him intimately.
When you write a baaaad protagonist who does really baaaaaad things, and skip all of this beautiful, difficult character development by shorthanding in that it’s okay because the people they’re dismembering are even WORSE…
it’s just a bucket of blood.