top 5 wednesday: Favorite “Unlikable” Protagonists

Hey guys, I’m back! Before I get to this week’s T5W, just a quick note: I haven’t spent very much time online these past 10 days, and it’s probably going to take me a couple of days to get caught up on everything and I’m sure there’s a lot I’m still going to miss, so if there’s anything you really want me to see for whatever reason – your reviews, tags, awards, comments I haven’t responded to, etc. – just leave a comment here with the link, I would really appreciate it. Thanks!!!

Now let’s get to it.

Top Five Wednesday was created by Lainey from gingerreadslainey and is currently hosted by Sam from Thoughts on Tomes. Check out the goodreads group to learn more.

June 21st: Favorite “Unlikeable” Protagonists: People always tear down “unlikeable” protagonists. But tell us the ones you pulled for!

I love this topic. I have to admit, I find myself often defending books with ‘unlikable’ characters. To me, a good character isn’t someone I necessarily want to be friends with, but rather, someone who’s well-developed, intriguing, and multi-faceted.  I love each and every one of these characters, even when I don’t particularly like them.

30900136Ava Antipova (Dead Letters by Caite Dolan-Leach). The first thing I tell people who are considering whether or not to read Dead Letters is that if you can’t deal with unlikable characters, you’re going to hate this book. Dead Letters features one of the most dysfunctional family dynamics I’ve ever seen, and this story is filled to the brim with characters who are compelling but at times rather loathsome. The protagonist Ava is no exception. She’s occasionally selfish, hypocritical, and holier than thou… and yet, she is one of the most compelling characters I’ve ever seen.  For all her flaws, she has just as many virtues, and she’s three-dimensional enough that I found myself relating to quite a few aspects of her character, even when I didn’t really want to.  For all fans of literary fiction who like their characters as aggravatingly realistic as possible, Dead Letters is a must read.

29441096Ryan Cusack (The Glorious Heresies by Lisa McInerney).  Ugh, my heart hurts just thinking about this character.  At a glance, Ryan is hard to love.  He’s a teenage drug dealer who’s apathetic about his future; he cares deeply about his girlfriend Karine but doesn’t always know how to show it, and ends up making some stupid mistakes.  But what Lisa McInerney does so expertly in this book is depict crime and poverty as a vicious, multi-generational cycle.  It’s clear that Ryan is the way he is because of the way he was raised – and his father is the way he is because of the way he was raised, etc., and it’s heartbreaking because of how unavoidable it all seems.  But there’s still so much good in this character who’s somehow managed to not be irrevocably damaged by everything he’s gone through, and for that reason, I managed to root for Ryan through all his many ups and downs.

41cigepew5l-_sy344_bo1204203200_Richard Papen (The Secret History by Donna Tartt).  My knee-jerk reaction to thinking about Richard Papen is ‘ugh, Richard,’ but when I think about it – what would The Secret History have been without him?  Richard anchors this story together in a way that’s absolutely essential to the narrative.  He’s the outsider coming into this tight-knit group of friends, and his instant idolization of their group dynamic is what really allows the story to be set into motion.  Richard’s mere presence in a lot of ways was a catalyst – his idolization in some ways being the justification they all needed to do the things they managed to do.  Richard is self-centered, and willfully blind to horrible things that he had been in a position to prevent, but still he makes for a compelling protagonist.  Surrounded by wealth and luxury, Richard himself comes from a poor background, and this class difference plays heavily into the way he interacts with this group of friends, and it’s difficult to fully condemn him when the temptation to do what they did is laid out so clearly for the reader.

220px-the_girl_on_the_train_28us_cover_201529Rachel (The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins). I’m still somewhat conflicted about this book, but amid all my mixed feelings, there is one certainty: I love Rachel. I love her. Maybe I was predisposed to like her because we share a name, or maybe I just appreciated seeing such an openly flawed female character in such a mainstream novel – I’m not sure what exactly it was, but I was instantly drawn to Rachel.  Make no mistake, she is frustrating as all hell.  She’s an alcoholic who doesn’t care much about how her addiction affects the lives of those around her, she’s a complete busybody, she’s obsessed with her ex to a positively annoying degree… and yet, all of these things make for one of the most realistic protagonists I’ve ever encountered.  At times I want to take her by the shoulders and shake some sense into her, but at the same time, I found it so refreshing to read about a female character who’s been afforded the same depth as so many famous male protagonists.

tender-by-belinda-mckeonCatherine (Tender by Belinda McKeon).  Catherine is so easy to loathe… almost too easy, in fact.  Because to loathe her is to distance yourself as a reader from her many complexities, and I for one would be hypocritical to not own up to the many ways that I related to this character.  Her obsessiveness is almost frighteningly realistic – Tender is told in terse, frantic prose which deteriorates the further you read, as Catherine becomes more and more mentally unstable.  She does some things that are morally reprehensible, and I want to condemn her for them, but I really can’t in good conscience.  This is a book about all the ugly sides of human nature, and you have to be willing to own up to them, because Catherine is almost unnervingly real.

Who are some of your favorite unlikable protagonists?  Comment and let me know!  And again, comment if there’s anything I missed these past 10 days that you’d like me to see!

22 thoughts on “top 5 wednesday: Favorite “Unlikable” Protagonists

  1. Rachel drove me positively INSANE during The Girl on the Train, but like you said she was so well done. And it really says something about a writer’s abilities when they can make their character that insanely frustrating. And Richard! Freaking Richard. I hated how I could relate to him sometimes, like you said, but that’s also what makes him so brilliant.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I TOTALLY get why people hate Rachel. She is one of the most infuriating characters of all time. I think I was just so overwhelmed with gratitude that I was reading about such an unapologetically flawed female protagonist! It’s something you see so rarely – women in fiction who have the room to be a complete mess, but still not be portrayed as 100% morally reprehensible. I loved that I was still able to root for her, even while I wanted to scream at her. There’s a lot I didn’t like about that book, but I do think Paula Hawkins writes female characters very well.

      UGH I HATE/LOVE RICHARD SO MUCH. He’s easily my least favorite (aside from Bunny, obviously), but I’d feel so hypocritical condemning him, since I was also sucked into that twisted world of theirs.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Yes!! I completely agree, and it’s so refreshing. All the women in that book were done really well and even though I wasn’t super crazy about that book I love how they were all so different but in the end the plot entangled them all together (albeit for a terrible reason).

        I definitely found Bunny to be the most frustrating character in The Secret History, omg, and I love how as we get nearer to the “death scene” I also was kind of like “yes….GET RID OF HIM.” I love how convincing that book can be.

        Liked by 1 person

      • Right?! The fact that Donna Tartt somehow managed to convince me to get on board with cold-blooded murder just because the dude was getting a bit annoying haunts me to this day. That book is the most insane ride. Have I asked who your favorite character is? Mine is Francis, but Henry is a very, very close second.

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      • Hmmmm this is tough, but I think my gut’s going with Henry. He’s so terrible but also fascinating?? Francis is probably my second though. As for Camilla and Charles…I dislike them so much but I also feel so sorry for them.

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      • (getting into spoiler territory in this thread, in case anyone is reading this who hasn’t read the book.) Ugh, I have all kinds of mixed feelings about Charles and Camilla. irt Camilla I’m mainly annoyed that the one female character in this book is so much less fleshed out than all of the male characters, and that she’s literally an object of desire for every single one of the straight men in this story. And I hate Henry/Camilla so so so much, it just made literally no sense, and it made Camilla’s entire narrative about the male characters – I feel like we were always looking at her through this rose-tinted lens of male sexual desire. I have a lot of feelings about Camilla’s wasted potential. And on the one hand I hate Charles, but on the other hand I find him so compelling and his relationship with Francis fascinates me. Henry is absolutely the best character though. I have to say Francis is my favorite because as a neurotic, overdramatic (fake) ginger hypochondriac I find him #relatable, but Henry is just the best.

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      • I agree 100000% about Camilla, while I was reading I kept waiting for her to really have her own thing, but her character just revolved around the guys and it really got tiring. I hated the way Richard lusted after her, and I could not stand that the Henry/Camilla thing happened. Her character had SO much wasted potential, she just felt so much more..far away than the rest of the characters? Even more than Bunny. But I think it’s because she’s less fleshed out, like you said. Charles is def super fascinating, and I hated the way my emotions kept yo-yoing towards him- I’d loathe him one moment and feel sorry for him the next. I think I found him the most pitiful of all of them. But I loved how that book made me feel that way for all of the characters, to different degrees. I just love how AWFUL they all are. And Julian…I DESPISED him, omg.

        Liked by 1 person

      • Oh my god YES to everything you just said. Camilla really did feel more far away than the rest of them, I just never felt like I could really get into her head and figure out her motivations the way I could with the rest of them. Ugh it would have been so much more interesting if Richard had been gay and Henry had been asexual, but instead we got straight dude after straight dude lusting after Camilla and it just got to be too much. Ugh I love this book so much but I still have so many Criticisms. And I definitely agree about Charles being the most pitiable. AND YES I HATED JULIAN SO MUCH, he was so fascinating but so HORRIBLE and even though he didn’t condone what the students did, imo he still holds a lot of the responsibility because of the values he forced onto them and his intensive and exclusionary style of teaching…

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      • Ahh YES, I think this book would have been so much better had their group not been made mostly of straight men, and of straight men who all lust after the Girl of the Group. Like even her own brother (which is an entirely different thing, but still). I SO wish Henry had been asexual, or at least the exception to the Camilla lust, and it would have been so much more interesting to read if Richard was gay. It would have just made their whole dynamic as a group so much more intricate. And I just wasn’t into the parts that consisted of Richard’s straight man lustful musings. Yes, I love this book so much but there is SO much to criticize. I do think it adds a lot to the experience of it, too. And I like to wonder if it’d be more shocking to have read it when it came out in the early 90s than now.

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      • Omg totally, I always wonder if there’s anything she’d have written differently if she wrote this book today… I also think that while she’s obviously a very intelligent and for the most part open-minded person, she grew up in the conservative south and then had a really insular white liberal arts education in Vermont and I think that kind of shows in the lack of diversity in that book as well as some of the ~internalized misogyny~ with Camilla. Like when Francis kissed Richard I was like OH, THIS IS INTERESTING! but then… nope, never mind, just more of Richard lusting after Camilla. Also Charles lusting after Camilla. Also Henry lusting after Camilla. Ugh. Enough!!!!! … all that said this is somehow making me want to reread this book soon lol!

        Liked by 1 person

      • Ahhh that makes so much sense! It’s a shocking book, but it does feel held back because of these things. If it had been given a push, the sexuality stuff could have been much more interesting. And the internalized misogyny with Camilla is such a shame because Tartt could have put so much more into her, especially as a female writer. But lol, it’s making me want to reread it as well!!

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  2. I’m so glad you put Rachel on this!! That was one of the things I loved most about The Girl on the Train–how unapologetically imperfect she is. It’s so realistic! And it made readers realize what it’s like knowing someone with an addiction. You root for them even when they keep disappointing you, because you want to see them succeed and you know they’re going to make mistakes first. I hate seeing people vilified for addiction and I feel like Hawkins did a pretty good job of conveying someone with an addiction in a light where they were deeply flawed, yet still a good person.

    Anyway, I’ll get off my soapbox. Great list! 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • That is a soapbox I will gladly join you on!!! It’s something I feel really strongly about as well. Addiction is an illness. It does not make you a bad person. Sure, it can be frustrating and at times unbearable to be around someone struggling with addiction, but it’s still important to offer as much support as reasonably possible. Rachel was such a great example of this – a character who’s deeply, deeply flawed, but still sympathetic, and still trying to do the right thing. I thought Paula Hawkins did a really tremendous job of never vilifying Rachel or placing too much narrative blame on her shoulders, while still examining her many imperfections.

      And this is an especially timely discussion given Carrie Fisher’s autopsy report and all the recent negative press about that, with the media trying to vilify this incredibly strong woman who happened to be the victim of addiction. Empathy is so important.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Yes that’s so true as well!! Luckily I’m surrounded by a lot of people who understand addiction so most of the posts I see are condemning the media for portraying Carrie Fisher in such a negative light.

        Liked by 1 person

      • Same here, thankfully!! I’ve only seen a bit of the negativity firsthand. It makes me glad that I’m surrounded by people who are more understanding and open-minded.

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  3. I really like this topic! I loved Rachel too, I thought her character was realistic. I totally agree with what you wrote about Richard from tsh and Ava from dead letters, although Ava definitely got on my nerves at times.

    Liked by 1 person

    • There was just something about Ava that really clicked with my own personality, and I’m not even sure what exactly it is, because there’s also a lot I didn’t relate to with her character. I can definitely see where other people may find her infuriating, but thankfully I managed to consistently enjoy her. That’s definitely how I feel about Rachel though – gets on my nerves, but I love her anyway. I like this topic a lot too!


  4. OMG Richarddddddd!!!! I don’t think ANY of the characters of The Secret History are likable. I only felt sorry for Bunny in the very end when the Greek Professor discovers the letter. I liked Richard in the vey beginning with his utter determination to get away from his family by going to college but his selfishness and absolute infatuation with the Greek group turned him into an abhorrent character, but it’s really Richard’s character which creates the most suspense in the novel.

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    • Agreed completely!!!!! I absolutely ADORE Francis and Henry, but neither of them are particularly good people. I never understand when people try to excuse their actions – the fact that they’re terrible is literally 100% the point. Richard is such a fascinating and compelling character and such a deliberate cipher for the reader – I just can’t imagine this book without him.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. I really wanted to do this week’s and then weirdly drew a complete blank on unlikable protagonists except for The Secret History and Tom Ripley from The Talented Mr. Ripley series!, so I’m glad you did it. Rachel is a really good choice, definitely a character who frustrated me, but I do respect how she was depicted as a flawed female protagonist and that was fine.

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