Characters We Might Not Hate Despite Disturbing Affiliations or Histories

A good novelist can make a character appealing even when that character is on the less-than-moral side of things — though it helps if there are extenuating circumstances.

That came to mind last week when reading Charles Frazier’s absorbing, melancholy novel Cold Mountain — which co-stars Confederate soldier Inman. He’s brave and likable, but fighting for the South in defense of the abhorrent institution of slavery clearly places him on the wrong side of history. (The actual Cold Mountain is pictured at the top of this blog post.)

Then there’s Ernst Graeber, a World War II soldier for the genocidal Nazis in Erich Maria Remarque’s A Time to Love and a Time to Die.

One thing helping to make those two men sympathetic is that they were basically forced to join the military — for geographic reasons (Inman is a southerner and Ernst is German) and for survival reasons (they probably would be shunned, jailed, or killed if they didn’t). Of course, they could try to flee — and a wounded Inman does desert in an effort to make his way back to Cold Mountain and the woman he loves, Ada Monroe. Also, Inman is not a raving racist and is clear-eyed about the evil plantation owners and other rich people he had gone to war for — as this passage during his long flight indicates:

“Inman looked at the lights in the big houses at night and knew he had been fighting battles for such men as lived in them, and it made him sick.”

Meanwhile, Ernst cares nothing about Nazi ideology and just wants to live a happy life. He falls in love with Elizabeth Cruse while on furlough, and the last thing he wants to do is return to the front. When Ernst is on his way back there, he tries to help a soldier captured by the Nazis and…

Then there are characters who are murderers or possible murderers. Raskolnikov of Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment is certainly one of them, but somehow maintains some reader sympathy. Perhaps it’s because one of his victims was so unlikable, and/or because Raskolnikov has such an agonized outlook on life, and/or because he murdered as almost a philosophical experiment. Plus there’s some redemption ahead. Still, the two victims obviously weren’t happy about things.

Grace Marks is one of two people convicted of murder in Margaret Atwood’s historical novel Alias Grace, but it’s uncertain if she actually was an accomplice to the act. Readers develop some sympathy for her during and because of her long imprisonment.

In Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch, protagonist Theo Decker takes home the hugely valuable painting of the novel’s title. But the theft is sort of understandable — it happens when a terrorist bomb hits New York City’s Metropolitan Museum of Art while a young Theo is there with his beloved mother, killing her and leaving Theo traumatized. Once he takes the painting, returning it seems out of the question.

Then there are characters who start off nasty but later become more mellow and nicer as the novels go on. For instance, L.M. Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables includes Anne’s adoptive mother Marilla Cuthbert, who’s initially cold and mean to the desperate-for-love orphan; and Rachel Lynde, the at-first nosy, judgmental, busybody neighbor.

Of course, many characters are clearly villains from start to finish, yet have enough charm and fascination for readers to kind of/sort of root for them — or at least not want them to fail for a while. One example is Count Fosco of Wilkie Collins’ The Woman in White.

Some characters you remember who fit this topic?

I unfortunately will again be skipping a blog post — next Sunday, June 24 — because I’m traveling to Florida to continue dealing with my late mother’s estate. As always, I’ll reply to comments when I can, and will return with a new piece on July 1!

My 2017 literary-trivia book is described and can be purchased here: Fascinating Facts About Famous Fiction Authors and the Greatest Novels of All Time.

In addition to this weekly blog, I write the award-winning “Montclairvoyant” topical-humor column for The latest weekly piece — which discusses a creative solution for a too-small commencement setting — is here.

63 thoughts on “Characters We Might Not Hate Despite Disturbing Affiliations or Histories

  1. Dave, I’ve tried really hard to not say anything about current politics or Donald Trump this week, but I can’t help myself. I fear that I’ve moved into Trump country and not sure what I should do about it, if there is anything at all I could do. We met a new neighbor this week who asked Bill’s help in dropping off his car for service, and Bill told me that this guy was definitely a Trump supporter, but didn’t want to offend him if I should ever need help from this guy. Even one of Bill’s daughters today was railing about one Texan rancher who claimed that all of the Mexican immigrants were ruining America and killing people supporting the rancher. If it’s the one I saw on TV today, his last name was Escobar, so he must have benefitted from immigration policies himself, but now he doesn’t want anyone else let in because he got his. I know I don’t know all the circumstances, but it doesn’t take much to go back a generation or two to realize that most people in the US were immigrants themselves. I know I’m first generation of Swedish immigrants, and second of Swedish/Finnish immigrants to be allowed here. Sorry, Dave, but I’m so distraught over these missing 2,000+ children who may never see their families again. This column was after all about evil, but there is nothing to like about the President, his family, and all of the other characters embroiled in this scandal.

    Liked by 1 person

    • So sorry, Kat Lib, that you ended up in an area with so many Trump supporters. I’m still hoping you meet more than a few like-minded, compassionate people there.

      Part of me doesn’t get it — even if people voted for Trump, how can they continue to back him after his cruel, disastrous presidency? Then again, Trump’s campaign was cruel, so people knew what they were getting. I guess Trump makes people feel better about their racism and narrow-mindedness.

      The splitting of families who may never see their kids again is so vile and evil it takes one’s breath away. 😦 😦

      And, yes, we are all immigrants or the descendants of immigrants Other than Native Americans, of course. And other than those African Americans who were dragged here against their will during the slavery era. (Whose families were also often split up.) It’s a shame many Trump-supporting immigrants or descendants of immigrants want to pull up the ladder after they were able to climb it.

      I agree — absolutely nothing to like about Trump, his family, his cronies, etc. No redeeming qualities at all.


      • If I read everything I’ve received, then it appears that there are six (and only six) seats available in this township. So of course you know that there are only six up for grabs and they are all Republicans. I wish I had the guts to run against them, but I don’t think physically I could do this — there must be something I could do, but not sure what quite yet!

        Liked by 1 person

        • A town with an all-Republican council — depressing. 😦

          “…there must be something I could do, but not sure what quite yet” — you’ll eventually figure something out. Good luck! In the meantime, I’m glad you have a nice house and a beautiful view to enjoy.


    • Miss Kat: Just a word about the Texan rancher you mentioned above. I am a native Texan, and I must say it never ceases to amaze me when Texans have issues with Mexican immigrants and/or Mexicans. Was only 150+ years ago that Texas was Mexico (pre1836), and the situation was reversed, e.g. all Texans were Mexicans, lol! In fact, I don’t see why anyone can’t cross the border. If someone were to say to me “well we just can’t allow all these immigrants to come into America”, Sure you can, lol! And why not? Believe me, not many individuals can respond to that question without sounding batshit crazy. If the Trumpists are afraid of the drug cartels than legalize drugs. Before anyone gets twisted about that comment, let me add this: In your wildest dreams you can’t even imagine what you can buy over the counter in Saudi Arabia, lol! This is the deal: the drug cartels have always been big ol’ cash cows for US govt (Noriega et al), and I’m sure they want to keep it that way. Follow the money 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

      • SW, I realize your comment is addressed to Kat Lib, but I wanted to mention that what you said is very interesting and well stated. Yes, given the history, the attitude many (by no means all!) Texans have about Mexicans is really unfortunate. 😦


        • Then there’s the sorry early history of Texas re Black Americans. The original white Anglo settlers of a land grant in the Mexican territory of Tejas decided to rebel and claim the land for themselves because Mexican law made slavery illegal, and the Anglos were determined to have slaves, regardless. A few short years later, and a larger war behind them (the Mexican-American War, fought in part for Texas, and the land it had taken)– Texas seceded from the US, so as to preserve its precious right to slavery.

          Liked by 1 person

          • Well said, jhNY, and excellent information! Yes, Texas history is a lot more complicated than the version many of us learned in high school. White Texans, and many other whites, can spout whatever they want about “freedom” and such, but a lot of it involves the “freedom” to oppress, be racist, etc. (Sorry for the delayed response; long day at my late mother’s Florida condo dealing with her stuff.)


  2. Anne of Green Gables! Oh I’m so happy you mentioned that because just the mention of that series cheers me up 🙂 Seems like you enjoyed Cold Mountain – it definitely is one of those “it’s complicated” novels that shows war in all its complexities and the many layers of the human heart and mind. Another great fit for this topic I think is “The Women in the Castle” by Jessica Shattuck. It takes place in post-war Germany and definitely has some characters with dark pasts – especially Her Mueller, a German POW that crosses paths with the main characters. Give it a read if you have the time! Safe travels, hope everything goes as smoothly as it can.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I agree, M.B. — “Anne of Green Gables” and its sequels are ultimately upbeat, even as they don’t shrink from life’s realities (death, war, nastiness, narrow-mindedness, etc.).

      “Cold Mountain” was excellent — thanks again for recommending it! Took me a while to get absorbed in it, but then it gets a strong hold on a reader. And that sort-of-ambiguous-but-not-really-ambiguous ending! Intense. You’re absolutely right when you eloquently said that novel “shows war in all its complexities and the many layers of the human heart and mind.”

      Thanks for the mention of “The Women in the Castle,” and for the safe-travels wishes!

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Dave, this is a very minor example of people hating a character, this from Louisa May Alcott’s “Little Women.” I loved this book and reread it now and then, but I’ve talked to women who absolutely hate the character of Amy, who can never forgive her for having burnt Jo’s writings. Amy has always been my favorite character, and what she did was wrong, but I think she redeemed herself in the rest of the novel. She was banished from her home (a la the children from the border today), and sent to live with her Aunt March. She made the best of the situation and from it got to go with her aunt to Europe. I’ve somewhere read about how Jo was writing for money, while Amy was the one who painted for art’s sake. Regardless, this is a very well-written and thought-provoking novel.

    Liked by 1 person

    • What Amy did is an action tough to forgive, Kat Lib, but, in many cases, people (fictional or real) shouldn’t be defined by only one action if the rest of their life is mostly exemplary.

      And I agree about “Little Women” — an excellent novel on several levels.


      • I suppose the point is that Jo forgave Amy, and isn’t that the main takeaway from the entire episode, in which Jo and Laurie saved her when she fell through the ice? I don’t remember how old each one was during the events of the novel, but they were mostly young girls, not women. After all, if you ever saw the movie “Little Women” in 1994, Amy was first played by Kirsten Dunst when all this happened, then as Samantha Mathis when she grew older and married Laurie. 🙂 Btw, I can’t watch either the movie or read the book without crying when Beth dies!

        Liked by 1 person

        • Excellent point, Kat Lib — Jo being forgiving in that case. And, yes, the four sisters were all young.

          Beth’s death was indeed heartrending, and Louisa May Alcott depicted it with a lot of writing skill. One of the memorable, incredibly poignant deaths of a young person in mid-19th-century literature — along with Helen in “Jane Eyre” and Eva in “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” to name just two.


          • It’s amazing how there aren’t more deaths of young, or even older, people in the literature from that era, what with all the poor hygiene, lack of antibiotics or other meds that weren’t available at the time — and I’d assume the lack of all the information about the diseases that were prevalent, especially with no vaccines I’m aware of.

            Liked by 1 person

            • Great observation, Kat Lib!

              I wonder if there was a conscious effort on the part of some authors (and some publishing houses) of that time to not depress readers TOO much with the quantity of death they were already experiencing in real life.


  4. Dave, wow, you have a huge readership. Congrats. Nice column. Dave, if you still have my email, email me. We’ve moved to Manhattan, and I’d love to invite you guys over for dinner sometime soon. It’s been too long. Your long-lost buddy and reader, Mark Teich

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Ebenezer Scrooge by Dickens first comes to mind. He was a miser most of his long life then at end gave away shillings and crowns with reckless abandon, thankful to be alive.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Great post and subject, as always, Dave! And some excellent examples. I’m suggesting Hadji Murad, Tolstoy’s war hero, who fought against the Russians in the Caucasus and changed sides. He’s obviously a ruthless killer, in defence of his people, but Tolstoy makes us see a well educated gentleman, whose principles many Russian can learn something from.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thank you, Elisabeth! Excellently stated!

      Hadji Murad is definitely a complex character, as depicted by Tolstoy. Educated, charming, charismatic, loyal to his family, etc. And when you mention that he’s “a ruthless killer, in defence of his people,” it brings up the whole question of whether killing in reaction to oppression is justified.

      Thanks again for recommending that terrific Tolstoy work — which I guess can be considered either a long short story or a short novella. 🙂


      • Yes, it does bring up that question. Towards the end of his life Tolstoy was a convinced pacifist, and yet he wrote this extraordinary novella or story (featuring 151 different characters, I counted them 😄). Of course the message overall is that war is bad and pointless, but there are many scenes where warfare (on both sides) is glorified. To me it’s a manifestation of Tolstoy ‘s own hugely complex character. As if he started out to tell a story preaching pacifism and denouncing war, but got carried away and told us a fantastic war story instead.

        Liked by 2 people

        • One-hundred-fifty-one characters? Wow, Elisabeth!!! I didn’t realize the cast was that large when I was reading “Hadji Murad.” I guess I was swept along by Tolstoy’s amazing writing, the interesting plot, and the expert character delineations. 🙂

          I agree — it’s a complex work created by a complex man. War is so dramatic that some novelists can’t help but glorify it a bit even while showing how horrible and pointless war usually is. Thankfully, there are certain novelists (great ones but not as great as Tolstoy) who don’t fall into that trap: Erich Maria Remarque, Jaroslav Hašek (“The Good Soldier Švejk”), Dalton Trumbo, etc.

          Liked by 2 people

          • Thankfully, yes, war shouldn’t be glorified too much. I have always in fascinated by the title “The Good Soldier Švejk”, but never read it, I’ll pick it up next time I see it in the bookstore.
            So, if there’s a cast of 151 characters, can it still be a story? 😉

            Liked by 1 person

            • “The Good Soldier Švejk” is absolutely hilarious as the title character passively-aggressively tries to avoid serving in World War I. A great antiwar novel.

              LOL — yes, with a cast that size, “Hadji Murad” has to be a novella! 🙂

              Liked by 1 person

  7. Then too, there is the entire novel, “Gone with the Wind.” I know we’ve talked about this before, but while I never got over my antipathy for Scarlett, I did end up having some respect for Rhett. Melanie was the one who seemed to be the only moral voice throughout the novel, as I recall. I was quite young when I read the novel, but I was beguiled by the whole plantation/beautiful dresses in the movie. My feelings changed quite dramatically when I was about the same age, and spent my first time in a Southern city, the beautiful Savannah. The thing that stood out to me the most though was going into town and there were people there protesting about the Jim Crow laws, and the Woolworth’s had separate seating for whites vs. blacks. Quite the life lesson.

    Liked by 3 people

    • Thanks for that excellent/sobering comment and for discussing your personal experiences, Kat Lib.

      Yes, glamorous depictions of the Jim Crow or antebellum South are/were quite the lie, though I suppose the white people at the top of the heap experienced some sick glamor thanks to the oppression and exploitation of African-Americans.


      • Yes, well, even up here in the Poconos there is still a lot of prejudice. I went to my first (and probably last) meeting of the seniors group last week, and after having to stand for the Pledge of Allegiance (shades of grade/junior high school), sing God Bless America (which I didn’t stand for), then sit for a prayer from I think a priest. I could perhaps have been OK with all that, but then 3 people at my table started trashing “dumb Hispanics” and “dumb blacks” in the NY school system, and one said that she is a true American or something to that effect. Bill didn’t even have to listen to any of that, but when we left there, he said, if you ever try to make me go to another one of those meetings them I’m leaving here. 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

        • Kat Lib, so sorry that many people were narrow-minded, over-the-top “patriotic,” and church-and-state mixing at that meeting. Such a shame, and very disturbing. I am so sick of white people considering themselves the only “true Americans.” They couldn’t be more wrong. When one begins to wonder how anyone can support Trump and his stupid, cruel policies, one gets the answer to that when meeting the kind of people you described.

          I hope you can eventually find some likeminded people in your new community. And, yes, going back to that seniors group doesn’t seem to be an option.


  8. This is an example from a movie, not a book, but it occasioned furious debate in my classes when we watched it: the movie Franz + Polina is about a young SS officer who falls in love with a Belorussian girl in the village he’s supposed to “cleanse.” A number of my students, especially from Eastern Europe, were outraged at the idea of a sympathetic SS officer and some even refused to watch the movie. But Franz really is a sympathetic and tragic character, mainly because he’s so young and he changes allegiances—only to end up doing bad things for the other side.

    Other sympathetic German soldiers from WWII are the Finnish sniper Veikko in “The Cuckoo,” who was drafted and sent on a suicide mission wearing an SS uniform, and the title character in Bette Greene’s Newberry winner “Summer of My German Soldier,” about a lonely American Jewish girl who befriends a German POW. Depicting sympathetic German soldiers is controversial but I think important, since that could be any one of us. It’s surprisingly difficult not to be a nazi or the equivalent.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, Elena! Very well said! Yes, depicting a Nazi-era German soldier sympathetically can be a very fraught thing. I guess it helps to remember that some soldiers (whether in the Nazi army or in armies under other evil regimes at various times in history) may not be “true believers.” They’re fighting because they might be executed if they don’t, or they’re fighting for opportunistic reasons, etc. Thanks for the examples from that movie and those books!

      Seeing your comment made me think of the Nazi soldier who appears briefly in Elsa Morante’s fabulous/depressing novel “History.” He also seemed sympathetic — until he wasn’t.

      Liked by 1 person

          • I’ve read it, and I do agree with elenapedigo that the Nazi officer is “semi-sympathetic”, especially in the compromised and compromising circumstances of the occupation. But I don’t find the novel exactly “fabulous”– instead I find it to be a bit pathological, for what it doesn’t portray, though there is value in the novel, plenty, really, and there’s nothing like it in literature from the period.

            Nemirovsky was an emigre Russian Jew who came to Paris after the Russian Revolution and enjoyed a career, with some success, as a novelist before the war. Her most famous novel, pre-war, is an unsympathetic tale of a Jewish banker. She later wrote for French rightwing publications, though many might say her contributions to such periodicals is an illustration of the desperation and difficulty of her position under occupation…

            She features absolutely no Jewish characters in Suite Francaise, despite the fact that the novel is utterly concerned with the panic displacement and strategies of French citizens during and after the fall of France. Why?

            On the other hand, there is much to admire in many of the book’s scenes, and the pace and acceleration of panic that drives the first section of the suite is skillfully and memorably rendered.


            • Very interesting, jhNY. Elena, do you have a response (if you have the time and willingness)?

              Some authors definitely have to make compromises based on their time and place, their safety, getting published, etc. I’ve read that the great writer Colette — no friend of the Nazis and their French collaborators — might have made some compromising statements and might have did some compromising things to try to protect her third husband, who was Jewish. And wasn’t there something with P.G. Wodehouse?


              • As I remember things, Wodehouse stayed too long on the Continent, France precisely, and made a statement or two attesting to the cordiality and hospitality of his captors upon release, but I don’t think he did much besides display impeccable manners in an impossible circumstance.

                Gunther Grass— now there’s an author who compromised early and admitted it rather late, causing strange shadows to play over his oeuvre and reputation– not entirely deserved, given his youth.

                Liked by 1 person

              • I think artistically Suite Francais is a huge success, especially considered the circumstances of its composition. Standing on the sidelines it’s easy to criticize Nemirovsky’s (non)treatment of Jewish characters, just as I find it very easy to criticize the large numbers of female authors who write primarily about male characters (JK Rowling, MC Beaton, CJ Cherryh, and the early Ursula K LeGuin spring to mind), but I also think that it’s important not to demand that artists only write about people who resemble them.

                Liked by 1 person

                • jhNY, thank you for that P.G. Wodehouse information! And, yes, quite a late-life bombshell about Gunter Grass’ Nazi involvement as a young man.

                  And thank you, Elena, for your thoughtful response! Yes, authors can and should write about people not like them. If I’m remembering right, the excellent contemporary author (Ms.) Lionel Shriver got involved in a debate about that a year or two or three ago.

                  Liked by 1 person

                • While I certainly recognize the extraordinary conditions under which the novel was written (and preserved: it’s a miracle Suite Francais survived) I stand by my comment, and I’m not quite sure what you are getting at with phrases such as ‘Standing on the sidelines it’s easy to criticize’– where else would I be standing, so as to have a point of view you might consider seriously? War-torn France? Can’t get there from here, and neither can you.

                  Also from Nemirovsky, I I did not ‘demand’ anything, least of all ‘that artists only write about people who resemble them.’

                  I do not believe Nemirovsky was happy in her own skin, which is mostly what I wrote above, apart from the praise I happily give to what was actually in Suite Francais.


  9. There is “Silas Marner,” (by George Eliot) who starts off being a very unsympathetic character who cares about nothing except for his pile of gold, and is distraught when it is stolen from him. Then he finds a toddler who he names Eppie, and that changes his entire life, for the better, and raises her as his own. He loves her enough that at the end he will let her go live with her wealthy biological father, but happily she chooses to stay with Silas.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thank you, Kat Lib! Very nice summary of that novel! Silas is a GREAT example of a character who becomes more sympathetic as the book goes on, though one understands how he became bitter after being badly betrayed by a “friend.” “Silas Marner” might ultimately be George Eliot’s most upbeat novel — it’s a real pleasure to read, and very moving.


  10. To reverse this…I cannot fathom for the life of me why folks like Heathcliff and Catherine in Bronte’s Wuthering Heights. In that same vein…Rochester ala Jane Eyre.

    But to stay on topic, there’s Sethe from Beloved. I mean, the best/worst part of that whole novel is the idea that, while we cannot say we would have done the same as Sethe in her situation, we can understand her murders and why she made that choice. Then we must look in the mirror and question ourselves as to why we find ourselves excusing a murderer. Understanding it, even. Sympathizing with her. Morrison is a master!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, Quest Quilts! Excellent, eloquent comment!

      Great points about those three Bronte characters. Emily’s Heathcliff and Catherine and Charlotte’s Rochester are not particularly likable. I guess the appeal is that they’re haunted (by their pasts), interesting, emotional, passionate, and, in a way, charismatic. Plus the writing in those novels is so good.

      Sethe from Toni Morrison’s “Beloved” is VERY relevant to this topic. Slavery created all kinds of horrors, and it’s no surprise that it took a huge psychological toll on Sethe. “Protecting” one’s child can take on a whole new meaning in that context.

      Liked by 1 person

  11. I can’t say I LIKED Ellen Jaspar, the willful and intriguing young woman in Michener’s “Caravans,” but she was fascinating. Either a woman far ahead of her time or perhaps one who had somehow been damaged. Either way, a strong character who leaves a lasting impression.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, Susan! I totally agree with your description of Ellen Jaspar. I think she was both ahead of her time and damaged. An amazing character considering when James Michener wrote “Caravans” (1963), when he set the novel (just after World War II), and where he set the novel (Afghanistan).


  12. These characters are often antiheroes. Ignatious J. Riley in Confederacy of Dunces comes to mind (you perhaps appreciate him, but never really like him). Rooster Cogburn in True Grit is my favorite example: morally questionable, or maybe morally complex, but incredibly sympathetic.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thank you, Sharol! Yes, characters like that are often antiheroes. And you mentioned two EXCELLENT examples. In the case of Ignatious J. Riley, it helps that he’s absolutely hilarious — even as he’s not very admirable. And you perfectly described Rooster Cogburn. A great novel by Charles Portis, and the two movie versions were pretty good, too.

      Liked by 1 person

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