We get hung up on the word “hero” and make inaccurate assumptions about what that means. As a result, some writers (and writing teachers) assume a hero must be heroic; a hero must be likable; a hero has to be the good guy.
If that works for your story, super. We can all root for a heroic likable good guy, can’t we?
And that’s the point: the reader has to root for them to achieve their goal, or we’re all wasting our time.
We’re rewatching the entire TV series Lie to Me. Cal Lightman (brilliantly portrayed by Tim Roth) is not heroic. He makes mistakes, needs a team to get the job done, and bases his drive on a negative experience. He’s not likable, that’s for sure. An arrogant jerk, a manipulative chronic liar, he’s impossible to get close to. Okay, he’s the good guy, in the big picture. But in any give scene, he might be the one you want to kick in the ankle. Or worse.
But every moment of every show, I want Cal to get what he’s looking for, because he’s always on a quest I can feel.
Forgetting the movie version in favor of the book, Scarlett O’Hara isn’t always likable and is rarely heroic. Stealing her sister’s beaux is nothing a good guy would do. And yet, her quest to keep Tara informs every page of Gone with the Wind. It’s a classic, because it touches that place where we all feel that if we can do this one thing, we’ll be immortal. For Scarlett it was her father’s love of the land. Whatever it is for us, when we read her quest, we unconsciously substitute our own.
After Bilbo disappears from his own birthday party in Lord of the Rings, Frodo sits idly at home for decades before Gandalf shoves him out the door on a quest of his own. I find myself frustrated with the lazy homebody. And in the end, he fails. Frodo fails his mission to save the entire earth.
But at any point does any reader root for Sauron, for the orcs, for darkness? Nope. We will Frodo up Mount Doom, one step at a time.
Your readers must have the same fellow-feeling with your protagonist or they won’t remember your book five minutes after they put it down — and they may not even finish it before they do.