Dislike the Protagonist, Like the Novel

From the miniseries based on The Truth About the Harry Quebert Affair novel.

When we dislike or have mixed feelings about a novel’s protagonist, the author usually has to work harder to attract and keep the reader’s interest. Obviously, it’s easier for the public to love a book whose main character is a great human being. Yet there are many cases where novels with less-than-admirable lead players are well worth our attention. Why? Let’s offer some examples that show some of the ways.

The latest example for me is The Truth About the Harry Quebert Affair (which I’ve read 90% of so far). Swiss writer Joel Dicker’s translated-from-the-French, U.S.-set novel stars Marcus Goldman — a brash, abrasive, egotistical, rabidly ambitious, at-times-mean young author. But the book remains appealing for the most part, because the mystery plot is wrenchingly compelling and the majority of secondary characters are well-drawn, with some likable. Plus Goldman himself has some positive qualities — including doggedness, a measure of courage, and a measure of integrity as he demonstrates his loyalty to Quebert when that novel’s second-most-prominent character is accused of a long-ago murder in a small New England town hardly as idyllic as it first seems. Also, Goldman has some insecurity beneath his obnoxious exterior.

Of course, there are often reasons why a person develops into someone less than likable. In the case of Marcus, his pushy nutcase of a mother might have had something to do with it. The fictional Goldman family is from…Montclair — the New Jersey town where I live! 😲

Speaking of murder, Crime and Punishment protagonist Raskolnikov is undeniably guilty of a double homicide. But Fyodor Dostoevsky’s iconic novel is compulsively readable because it’s brilliantly written, has a riveting hallucinatory vibe, and contains tons of psychological nuance. Plus we feel at least somewhat sympathetic to Raskolnikov because he becomes guilt-ridden, depressed, and haunted.

The title of the novel I read immediately before Dicker’s book — The Brethren by John Grisham — refers to three former judges who are less-than-savory men. They’re all in the same prison for serious crimes, and are running a nasty scam from inside jail to try to get hush money from prominent closeted gay men in various parts of the U.S. — a scheme helped by a low-life lawyer on the outside. While the corrupt “Brethren” have a good quality or two, they’re jerks overall. But the book has Grisham’s usual page-turning allure, helped by a separate yet interrelated story line involving a Central Intelligence Agency-backed presidential candidate.

More memorable novels with unlikable main characters? Among them are The Custom of the Country by Edith Wharton, Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy, House of Sand and Fog by Andre Dubus III, and A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole. In that last book, protagonist Ignatius J. Reilly is buffoonishly hilarious enough for a reader to feel better about him than he might deserve.

Any novels you’d like to mention that fit this theme?

My 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 2003-started/award-winning “Montclairvoyant” topical-humor column for Baristanet.com every Thursday. The latest piece — about Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci visiting my town before it even existed πŸ™‚ — is here.

122 thoughts on “Dislike the Protagonist, Like the Novel

  1. Some admirable protagonists in classic novels included Jane Eyre, Margaret Hale “North and South”, and Gabriel Oak “Far from the Madding Crowd” (although Oak was the most important male character rather than the protagonist in the novel). These characters were not written as perfect but they had courage, integrity, and generosity.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you! I like it when admirable characters are not perfect; that definitely makes them more believable. Jane Eyre is a fabulous character creation who has some flaws but overall is indeed an exemplary person.

      Like

  2. Dave let`s travel to Dublin, Ireland .
    So many world famous authors were from there.
    How about ” Dracula ” by Bram Stokers , then Oscar Wilde author of ” A Picture of Dorian Grey” Both of the Authors are still international best sellers.

    Bram Stoker wrote the 1897 Gothic horror novel Dracula. Stoker worked as a theatre critic for an Irish newspaper, and is still a revered Journalist in Ireland.

    Then Oscar Wilde , when we travelled to Doblin, saw the residence from where he wrote ” A Picture of Dorian Grey “, a complicated Novel. His statue is across from his residence in the park on a huge stone, looking at the World with a smirk on his face.
    None of the subjects of the Novels were likable characters, that’s saying mildly !

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, Esther! Yes, Jean Brodie was rather unlikable, and had some problematic views. Fortunately, most (not all) fictional and real teachers are better people than her.

      References to characters in plays are definitely allowed. πŸ™‚

      Dorothea Brooke? I had mostly positive feelings about her in “Middlemarch,” so I guess we differ a bit on that. πŸ™‚ Maybe part of my view of her is in contrast to her husband, who was very unlikable.

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  3. Unlikable protagonists in a likable novel?

    “Ethan Frome” springs to mind, as do many, many others, come to think of it. Didn’t like anybody overmuch in “The Sun Also Rises”, nor even in The Great Gatsby, though my heart warmed up a wee bit for that doomed romantic gangster mentioned in the title. Read two Elmore Leonard books recently, “Touch” and “The Hot Kid”,each a departure from his usual, and each identical in that I found nobody in either my cup of tea– but the books delivered on the premises. I don’t think I quite liked Julian Sorel in Stendahl’s “The Red and the Black”, nor any of the lesser characters a lot, but again, a very good novel. “The Charterhouse of Parma”, which I’ve read 3 times in 2 translations, has its charms no doubt, but they reside most of all in the heartfelt seeking out of one’s desires that seems to be the common drive of all the principals involved, however temporary the desire, however temporary the victories in the face of implacable mortality.

    Recently read “Eugene Onegin” in several translations, and all of Nabokov’s copious notes on that novel-in-poem-form, and honestly, thought Onegin was a careless, even cruel egoist who, at the moment defending his personal honor in a duel, behaved boorishly, arriving late, firing first, and generally conducting himself in a less than gentlemanly fashion, given the meticulous etiquette of the duel then current. Yet I am happy to have spent so much time in the company of Pushkin, and again, I think “EO” is well-realized, engaging and essential reading for anyone even vaguely interested in the development of Russian literature.

    Even more recently, read Lord Byron’s “Don Juan”, and found little to love about the protagonist, though he was in all scenes and climes able and just and more or less prey to feminine wiles and stratagems more than he was himself a wily manipulator of maidens and other sorts of innocents. Juan’s main fault is his under-development as an individual character, which may or may not have been fleshed out in greater and more particular detail, had Byron not died before he finished the work.

    Byron, by contrast ranged, as narrator, over contemporary British social mores, his own foibles and controversies, disparate locales from Spain to Russia, eternal topics such as fame and war and monarchy, and all while employing a lively, even occasionally hilarious style, a Classical education and an easy acquaintance with Shakespeare.

    What I think I like best about reading fiction is neither characters nor storylines, but rather, the voice of the author, the narrative style, the insight and perspective, and even, sometimes, the poetry that goes all the way to the right hand margin of a page of prose.

    Liked by 3 people

    • Thank you, jhNY! SO many great mentions of characters we dislike or have mixed feelings about!

      And, yes, as you noted at the end of your comment, there are numerous potential reasons to love a novel in addition to what we think of the characters. “Eugene Onegin” is definitely an excellent example of that — a superbly written “novel in poetry” with the protagonist being an entitled jerk in various ways.

      Re Ethan Frome, I had a lot of sympathy for him despite him despite that character being a dour, sour guy. He might always have been that way, but there was certainly a reason why he became even more dour and sour.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. I really like flawed characters, Dave. They either have one redeeming quality that makes them sympathetic (like loyalty), or I just can’t wait to see them taken down. Dark Fantasy has a lot of these. Two of my favorites are The First Law by Joe Abercrombie – the main character is a torturer, and Prince of Thorns by Mark Lawrence – the main character is a gruesome murderer. I found myself sympathetic toward both!

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  5. There are many deeply flawed protagonists in fiction (novels, drama, movies and television etc.) who were not conventionally heroic but weren’t exactly villainous either. They are generally called anti-heroes or anti-heroines but I don’t know if these terms have been overused to describe very different types of characters.

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      • Changed.

        Very true about many characters falling into a sort of middle ground between heroic and villainous. Which basically makes them more realistic. Of course, some characters do good things for not necessarily 100% good reasons, and so on.

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    • The cynical, alcoholic Sydney Carton who squandered his talents in Dickens’ “A Tale of Two Cities” was a rather unlikable protagonist when he first appeared in the novel although he redeemed himself by his act of self sacrifice.

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      • That’s who I was going to mention! It’s one of my favorite novels.

        I loved Crime and Punishment, too.

        Is it weird that I rooted for the monster in Frankenstein? I think I liked him more than anyone else. Maybe “liked” isn’t the right word. I certainly felt bad for his struggle to find love. (Though I didn’t support his murderous response to rejection.)

        Liked by 1 person

        • Thank you, Staci! “A Tale of Two Cities” is indeed worthy of being a favorite novel. I also love “Crime and Punishment” — one of my top three novels along with “Jane Eyre” and “The Grapes of Wrath.” And I totally agree about the monster in “Frankenstein”! A very sympathetic character in many ways — and a protagonist in a way, I think. And, yes, a reader has mixed feelings about Scarlett O’Hara.

          Liked by 1 person

    • There are countless numbers of protagonists in novels who were not particularly likeable nor good role models. They include Quasimodo and Esmeralda from “The Hunchback of Notre Dame”, Emma Bovary, Raskolnikov from “Crime and Punishment”, Dorian Gray, Jay Gatsby, Clyde Griffiths from “An American Tragedy”, and Winston Smith from “Nineteen Eighty Four”.

      Liked by 1 person

    • I can think of some unlikable protagonists in classic plays also such as Macbeth, Hedda Gabler, Henry Higgins “Pygmalion”, Joe Keller “All My Sons”, and Blanche DuBois “A Streetcar named Desire”.

      Liked by 1 person

    • I looked up lists of fictional antiheroes in Wikipedia and it includes characters as different as Hamlet and Daffy Duck, so I don’t think the term antihero/antiheroine is that helpful.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Hi Dave, it’s just that I come across the terms antihero/antiheroine in literary criticism and popular culture so often that I had to mention this term. It can mean any protagonist who was ineffective in achieving his/her goals to someone who was downright evil. Characters who identify with this label can be comical or tragic. However, you and the commenters on your blog almost never use this term.

        Liked by 1 person

  6. Hi Dave, this really is an interesting discussion and its making me think. Some characters exhibit traits that I don’t like but which are common to many people, sadly. I always think that is what Charles Dickens worked so hard to expose and that hasn’t change. Actually, although we have a veneer of kindness in our modern, first-world lives, the treatment of humanity as a group by those with power is worse now than ever before. Our planet and home is literally being destroyed and there is little the ordinary man can do to stop it. I will think of more books as I have already shared my initial thoughts above.

    Liked by 3 people

    • Thank you, Robbie! Interesting, sobering, and thought-provoking observations. Negative traits of characters do feel recognizable, which can be a good thing in a work of fiction. And, yes, while humankind has advanced in certain ways, it has backslid in various other ways — and “better” technology means humankind can now do a lot more mass damage. 😦

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  7. I had to think some time, Dave, before I found in my memories a book or”Miss Garnet’s Angel ” by Salley Vickers” which I consider really worthwile to read and to think about, despite the sometimes very nasty protagonist.By the way, I read half of LE LIVRE DES BALTIMORES by JoΓ«l Dicker, but then I put it away, because I couln’t stand it anymore. Many thanks for this very special proposal.

    Liked by 4 people

    • Thank you, Martina! Great mention — I read “Miss Garnet’s Angel” a few months ago, and the protagonist did indeed evoke mixed feelings, at best, even as the novel was very good overall.

      As for Joel Dicker, I enjoyed the mystery aspects and ambition of his “Harry Quebert” novel, but there were definitely also things in the book that bothered me — including and in addition to the mostly unlikable protagonist.

      Liked by 2 people

  8. Dave, how about John Grisham’s “The Judge’s List “.
    An excellent thriller was one of his best sellers.
    Because of the story line I may not post any details of the book, otherwise it would take the thrill away.

    Liked by 3 people

  9. Thanks for this thought-provoking post about our reading habits. It’s one of those strange coincidences that you have chosen this as your theme. I believe that it takes a very skilled writer to keep us hooked with a despicable protagonist. I am currently reading The Committed: A Novel by Viet Thanh Nguyen (Canada/USA, 2021) in which the protagonist is a detestable character and the world he inhabits takes me to dark places I would rather avoid. Yet I continue reading. Nguyen’s craftsmanship captured my attention after reading his debut novel, The Sympathizer, for which he won the Pulitzer Prize. He continues to enthrall me with his masterful storytelling.

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  10. Another intriguing theme! It must be fun to think of every next one to expand you extremely enjoyable blog. Among Flannery O’Çonnor’s Collected Works (The Library of America) is the very peculiar and disturbing novel β€œWise Blood”. A web of complex relations is spun between a growing number of protagonists, the gradual lack of a central perspective being one of the peculiarities of the novel. And even though every single character has the potential to develop into a likeable person, or pitiable at least, someone whose travails the reader may sympathize with, O’Çonnor has each of them end up being irreparably repulsive to the rational and engaging mind. Of an entirely different order I mention Voyage au Bout de la Nuit and Mort Γ  Credit. Both novels are authored by Louis-Ferdinand CΓ©line, who manages wonderfully to position himself as a victim and a scoundrel at the same time. I’ve always thought of this as in keeping with his Nazi sympathies during World War II, which I guess I will never be able to forgive him for, regardless of the undisputable literary quality of his work.

    Liked by 3 people

    • Thank you, Dingenom! Very well said!

      Most of the times I read a novel, a theme occurs to me. πŸ™‚ Again, I appreciate you recommending Joel Dicker, whose work I wasn’t familiar with until you mentioned him under a previous blog post.

      I read “Wise Blood” a number of years ago, and it is indeed hard to really like any of the major characters. “Disturbing” is definitely the word for that novel, and for a number of Flannery O’Connor’s creepy/superb short stories.

      Yes, it’s hard to forgive anyone with Nazi sympathies.

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    • My ‘like’ button won’t let me, so I’ll like this comment with a comment.

      I also have conflicting emotions re Celine, having read, though years ago in early translations, both of the titles you cite. I would add antisemitism, and a general hatred of the established order, to his Nazi leanings, but agree as to the literary quality of his work. Similarly, I admire the poetry and romance and mythic qualities in the Genet novels I read, but at a sort of shocked yet fascinated remove.

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  11. Another very interesting post that prompts the question – why should we read books we don’t like? Generally, when we place little value on the main character because he or she challenges our personal values, we view the book in the same light. The narrative may give us hope that there will be a change of heart or some form of redemption, much like Shey’s comment on Ebenezer Scrooge. But when that does not materialize, we are left with an unmistakable feeling that we could have used our precious reading time on something that makes us feel good.

    Over the years, I have found many reasons to read books I don’t like. Books, unlike movies, are with you for several hours, even days. You become involved in the story, are witness to the lives that are held within the pages. My β€œunliked” books have been long remembered because they have prompted me to reflect and engage in a inner conversation. They took me out of my comfort zone.

    I will always remember W.Somerset Maugham’s β€œOf Human Bondage.” I grieved at Philip Carey’s plight and became angry at what I perceived was utter weakness and senseless behaviour. I read that when I was 18, but the full realization of that narrative came much later.

    He did not care if she was heartless, vicious and vulgar, stupid and grasping, he loved her. He would rather have misery with one than happiness with the other.” W. Somerset Maugham, Of Human Bondage

    Another great post, Dave I will return for follow-up discussion,

    Liked by 5 people

    • Thank you, Rebecca! Excellent comment!

      Yes, some novels with an unlikable protagonist can make us feel like we could be making better use of our time. Some of those books course have appealing elements that at least partly make up for the bothersome main character, while others don’t. And, as you allude to, some novels we don’t like can still be memorable.

      Philip Carey is a very interesting example! He’s basically a sympathetic character, I think, but he is indeed weak in certain ways and makes some very bad choices — including that relationship with Mildred. Perhaps he “has issues” partly because of his problematic upbringing and his physical disability. It helps that he eventually/belatedly gets his act somewhat together. πŸ™‚

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    • I like the question you posed: there are books I didn’t like, like The Black Swan, that I’m glad I read nonetheless. Why? They are thought provoking even if one doesn’t like/appreciate the premise.

      And it’s a great question you posed, Dave. I’m thinking of different characters that I disliked, not quite the protagonists, but ones that are still memorable in the not-good way: Lydia (and Kitty) Bennett from Pride and Prejudice, and Bob (and Mayella) Ewell from To Kill a Mockingbird…

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      • Thank you, Endless Weekend! Yes, unlikable characters — whether lead or supporting — can be quite memorable even as we might hate them and their actions. Some are quite charismatic in their way. Wilkie Collins was among the authors great at that, with unforgettable villains such as Count Fosco of “The Woman in White” and Lydia Gwilt of “Armadale.”

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    • Hi Rebecca, I don’t think disliking a character is the same thing as not liking a book. A book with a less than pleasing character can be very enthralling. I’m thinking of Scarlett O’Hara and Rhett Butler, Pip from Great Expectations and Miss Havisham and Estella for that matter. These less than perfect, blemished characters make the books more interesting, don’t they? I think this is a writing technique. I used it in A Ghost and His Gold with Pieter who had done a terrible deed that blighted his past and his conscience.

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      • A very interesting point, Robbie. What a love most about reading and the reading experience is that we have unique ways of seeing the world through books. For example, for me, Scarlett and Rhett were not β€œreal” people but positioned around an evolving narrative which was entertaining and great for a movie script. My concern centered on Gone with the Wind’s many historical inaccuracies. What I appreciate about your books, Robbie is that your research is excellent and your books provide an excellent portrayal of the time in which your narrative in set.

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        • HI Rebecca, I do enjoy the history in historical novels but I am basically a people person and the characters are very important to me. Sometimes I DNF books because the characters (often female) irk me so much with their unnatural behaviours. I recently read The Second Mrs Astor and I just loved the writing and characters. I’m not sure how true to fact the books was, I can’t find anything on-line that indicates their relationship wasn’t as depicted in that book, but I really loved that book. Superb characterisation and writing. PS, thanks for your comment about my research.

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  12. Among the protagonists that I generally dislike among novels that I like are the adulterous title character in “Anna Karenina”, the arrogant nihilist Bazarov in “Fathers and Sons” and the selfish, immature Pip in “Great Expectations”. However all these characters had some positive personality traits and Pip became a better man by the end of the novel.

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    • A pleasure, Dave. If you find that gripping, you may continue with L’Affaire Alaska Sanders (The Alaska Sanders Case), with a lot of references to an ties with the Harry Quebert Affair. It drags you right into the action and develops the plot in a way that is unique to Joel Dicker’s crime mysteries. Enjoy reading!

      Liked by 1 person

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