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.