top 5 wednesday: Problematic Faves

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.

November 8th: Problematic Faves: Characters you don’t want to love, but you can’t help liking.

Before I get to my list, I just want to talk for a second about how much I hate the word ‘problematic’.  It’s a pointless catch-all word people use when they don’t want to think too critically about the things they’re criticizing.  I think it’s so important to engage critically with media, but I find that ‘problematic’ barely skims the surface of the issues that lie beneath it.  We shouldn’t be afraid of words like ‘racist,’ ‘sexist,’ ‘transmisogynistic’ – these issues are too important to write off with the lexical equivalent of a vague wave of the hand.

Moreover, I cannot tell you how much I hate the false equivalence between fictional characters and real people.  I feel like there’s a lot of very bad discourse on the internet which condemns the actions of fictional characters (and worse yet – condemns people who consider themselves fans of these characters) as though they were real.  Here’s the thing – flawed characters make good stories.  What’s the point of reading about a group of faultless individuals?  Stories need conflict, they need characters who exist in moral grey areas.  Characters like Snape and Dumbledore are fantastic examples – you don’t need to ‘like’ these characters (I sure don’t), but before dismissing everyone who does, consider that ‘I like Snape’ does not necessarily mean ‘I condone every one of his actions, and if he were a real person I’d like to shake his hand and take him out to dinner,’ but rather, ‘in a fictional universe populated by people who are mostly Good or Bad I enjoy examining the nuances of this character who exists somewhere in the middle, whose ambiguous loyalties provided a stimulating element that the Harry Potter series would be rather lacking without.’

So with all that said, I love ‘problematic’ characters.  I love books about horrible people.  I love fiction that digs into human imperfections.  Here are some problematic faves who I embrace, whose narratives would be nothing without these characters’ fascinating flaws.

41cigepew5l-_sy344_bo1204203200_Henry Winter (The Secret History by Donna Tartt).  I could easily have comprised this list entirely of characters from The Secret History, but if I had to choose just one, I have to go with Henry.  Henry Winter is one of the most intriguing characters from anything I’ve ever read.  The fact that he’s a murderer barely scrapes the surface of his faults, and yet….. The Secret History would be nothing without his evil genius propelling the story forward.  From the second he’s introduced, how utterly frustrating and enigmatic and ruthless and unknowable Henry Winter is becomes one of the most compelling things about this book.

29441096Ryan Cusack (The Glorious Heresies by Lisa McInerney).  Ryan Cusack begins this story as a teenage drug dealer, and it only gets worse from there… but still, he breaks my heart.  What The Glorious Heresies does so exceptionally well is depict the nuances of inter-generational crime and poverty in Ireland – how it’s such a difficult cycle to break.  Ryan finds himself right in the middle of that, striving to be a good person and only failing because his socioeconomic status is preventing him from succeeding.  Add that to That Thing that we find out happened to him at the end of the novel, and it’s no wonder he’s so messed up.  But never beyond redemption.

22299763Kaz Brekker (Six of Crows/Crooked Kingdom by Leigh Bardugo).  Kaz is the leader of a ruthless gang, driven singularly by a need for revenge that stems from a tragic childhood.  Though he has a reputation for being monstrous, the more Leigh Bardugo reveals about this character, the more we discover how tragic circumstance has made him the way he is.  The softer side he shows with Inej also makes it difficult to utterly condemn him as heartless.  I have to say, I have such a weakness for characters who lash out or pull up a wall around themselves only because they’re hurting – from the minute Kaz was introduced I knew he was going to be my favorite, and even had the thought ‘I’m probably not supposed to like this character at this point before I reach the tragic backstory, am I.’

33253215Julian Woodbead (The Heart’s Invisible Furies by John Boyne).  I was initially going to choose the novel’s protagonist, Cyril Avery, but I’m writing this post rather late and Chelsea already did a great job writing about Cyril, so I’m going to instead choose Cyril’s best friend and the object of his affections – Julian.  Julian is ostensibly awful.  He’s a bit of a womanizer, he doesn’t really care about anyone but himself, and yet, he’s so funny, so charismatic, you can’t help but to fall a little in love with him the way Cyril does.  The real strength of The Heart’s Invisible Furies is how simultaneously hilarious and aggravating all of the characters are, and Julian is such a good example of Boyne’s brilliance in this regard.  If Julian were a ‘better’ person, this book wouldn’t be what it is: such a startling reflection of life’s imperfections.

752900Medea (Euripides/classics, Bright Air Black by David Vann).  In one of the most harrowing climaxes in literary history, Medea murders her children.  So.  I don’t think we’re gonna get more problematic than that.  But to write off her character as a monster is to entirely miss the point of how tragic this character is – she leaves her home and betrays her family to help Jason, who she falls in love with, only in turn to be betrayed by him.  She’s wild and ruthless but not utterly soulless, which is the most haunting thing about this character.

Who are some of your problematic faves?  Comment and let me know!

36 thoughts on “top 5 wednesday: Problematic Faves

  1. I totally agree with what you say at the beginning! I love Snape as a character because he’s interesting, but he’s also a horrible person and I hate him as a person. But I hate when people assume that me saying I like him as a character means that I like what he does. Like, no, he’s manipulative and abusive and obsessive and an asshole and I will always believe that, but he’s such a complex character and added so much to the story. But I know some people who are like “he’s a good character so everything he did is fine!!” and like no, he’s still the worst, please stop excusing his horrible behaviour

    Liked by 1 person

    • YES exactly!!! The fact that Snape is complex is ENTIRELY THE POINT so I will never understand why fandom wants to be so reductive of his character as either ‘perfect saint who did nothing wrong’ or ‘irredeemably evil.’ The shades of grey are what makes his character so fascinating, and the series as a whole would be bereft without a character to play that morally ambiguous role.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Great list, Rachel! I absolutely agree with you on Medea… and to shamelessly plug one of my favourite books: have you read “Medea” by Christa Wolf? I do not know what the translation is like but I adore it in the original German so much.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you!!! Ahhhh I’ve actually got that one on my shelf (as well as Cassandra) but I have yet to read them! My German is pretty rubbish so it’s going to have to be the English translation for me… but now I’m really curious, I’ll try to read Medea sooner rather than later. I forget, have you read Bright Air Black by David Vann?

      Liked by 1 person

      • I am obviously biased but I really think you’d enjoy both of them (I think I personally prefer Kassandra, but Medea is more accessible). I read and enjoyed Bright Air Black but it suffered from me comparing it to Christa Wolf’s version that I found more impressive.

        Liked by 1 person

      • Ooh, high praise!!! I hadn’t read any other Medea retellings, but I loved Vann’s characterization, how she was sympathetic without losing any of her ruthlessness. I’m really looking forward to checking out Wolf’s interpretation now.

        Liked by 1 person

  3. YES to this! I have the same issue whenever I say ‘I like Heathcliff’ (from Wuthering Heights). I don’t mean that I think he’s a great guy and I’d be his best friend in real life, I mean that he’s an intriguing character who adds depth to the story. Great post!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Oh my god that’s so funny, I literally just started Wuthering Heights last night! I have a feeling I’m also going to ‘like’ Heathcliff, the same way I like a character like Rochester who’s decidedly terrible but terribly interesting. Thank you!!

      Liked by 1 person

  4. I totally agree with you in the beginning, especially the second part. There’s so much negativity online about liking certain character and it’s so stupid. I am perfectly capable of being a critical thinker and discussing the actions of a character WHILE still liking them because that’s fiction. I also really like your picks, even though I haven’t read most of the books! 😊

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you!!! I agree completely… one of my friends follows this Harry Potter confessions blog on tumblr and sends me the particularly dumb confessions which essentially take a terribly multifaceted character and reduce them to one characteristic, and it blows my mind. How terribly boring it must be if all of your favorite characters need to be actual saints!!!

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Yaaass, I’m so with you on this. Saying something is ‘problematic’ is all well and good if you then go on to explain what those problems actually are, but using it as a cop-out because you don’t want to admit or acknowledge that a book/author you like is bigoted is not okay. Problems need to be fixed, and you can’t fix something unless you know what’s wrong with it.

    Liked by 1 person

    • YES thank you, it’s like certain people are waiting for a pat on the back just for using ‘problematic,’ as if that actually addresses anything. I am all about advocating for diverse lit and bringing attention to offensive elements in books, but the ‘problematic’ discourse is often so stagnant and self-congratulatory. We need to do better than falling back on this cop-out.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. I really enjoyed reading your thoughts about the term problematic and flawed characters. You expressed my thoughts on it better than I could. Flawed characters are my favorite characters.

    I can’t believe I didn’t think to include Medea on my list, such a good pick! I’m adding The Heart’s Invisible Furies to my tbr, it sounds very interesting – and what a title.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks so much! I agree completely, the more flawed, the better. The Heart’s Invisible Furies is such an incredible book – it’s simultaneously hilarious and devastating and I’ve never read anything quite like it. I hope you enjoy it!

      I’ve just glanced at your list and I love that you included Cersei, I nearly included her in mine but I cut her at the last minute 😦 There are too many flawed characters to choose from!!

      Liked by 1 person

  7. Yes, yes, and yes! You really hit the nail on the head. There is something about a ‘bad’ character that can be so gripping. I generally say that I love to hate them. I haven’t heard of most of the books you’ve mentioned, but after reading your post, I so want to read those books. Great post!

    Liked by 1 person

    • YES characters you hate to love is a very good way to put it. Except I just tend to love terrible characters. I hope you enjoy whichever books you check out!!


  8. I totally agree with you on Medea haha
    For my picks, I think Warner from the Shatter Me is problematic, and boy is he my favorite! He does some fucked up shit that people are hung up on, but he’s one of those characters that seem to be terrible people, but then you come to find out the reasons behind their actions – and then you’re in love with them…

    Liked by 1 person

    • YES that’s exactly it… I also see that a lot with authors who write morally ambiguous characters – people seem to think that by simply writing characters like that, the author is justifying their actions. Depiction =/= endorsement.

      I love how much love Medea is getting on this post!


  9. YES love that rant about the world problematic. Especially love how you brought up Snape because…I’m so tired of seeing him used as the end all be all of “problematic” characters.

    “Julian is ostensibly awful……you can’t help but to fall a little in love with him the way Cyril does. ” EXACTLY. I HATE IT AND I LOVE IT.

    I’ve really got to check out the Medea book….I’m sad that there were no women on my list D: But her story sounds fascinating.

    Liked by 1 person

    • UGH SAME I’ve never liked Snape but people are so annoyingly reductive of his character that I find myself defending him just because he’s so well written??? Not every character is supposed to be perfect????


      Omg yes you should definitely read Bright Air Black it’s so intense and Medea is amazing. I love the Euripides play too. Tbh I was 100% okay with having a mostly male list for once because I’m fine with men being more ~problematic~ 🤷🏻‍♀️

      Liked by 1 person

      • I KNOW SAME. Just because Snape did one good thing does not mean we have to love him!!! His thing for Lily always made me feel cringey but I love that the fact that he had love for ONE PERSON helped bring down Voldemort. Would I name my child after him? No. But do I love that plot point? YES.

        LOL I was thinking that….though whenever I thought of problematic ladies my mind kept going to Girl on the Train and Celeste Ng’s book. Kind of wish I had done Marilyn.

        Liked by 1 person

      • Omg right like I cannot IMAGINE the HP series without a character like Snape. He’s horrible and manipulative and abusive but the role he plays is so critical and fascinating???

        OMG Rachel from TGOTT would have been such a good one!!! ALSO MARILYN or Elena from LFE. I’m trying to think of who I’d include if I were just doing a list of problematic ladies… definitely Clytemnestra, Maude Avery, Goneril or Regan from King Lear… ok this is easier than I thought it was gonna be damn now I want to do another list

        Liked by 1 person

      • WE NEED A PROBLEMATIC LADIES LIST. I mean I don’t care to have to make separate lists by gender BUT I’d rather make 2 lists and 10 characters than consolidate.

        Liked by 1 person

  10. I really like your intro to this post and how you spoke of judgement towards people who like certain characters. It’s sad to read about the amount of hate people can get for liking a hateful character.

    I’m actually delighted that you included Medea! Like you love her but at the same time you can’t help hating the choices she made ><

    Have your read M.L. Rio's If We Were Villains? I think you might like it 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks!! I agree completely, you see a lot of horrible generalizations made about people who like morally grey characters, which is frustrating as they make for great stories!

      Totally agreed about Medea – I can hardly condone the murder of her children which was indisputably vile, but she’s such a fascinating and bizarrely sympathetic character nonetheless.

      I have read If We Were Villains and I absolutely loved it! Actually, I was considering a couple of characters from that for this post, but I ended up cutting them… too many great and horrible characters to choose from!!

      Liked by 1 person

  11. I am putting this damn post on my gravestone. I love problematic characters and I hate how people sub in the word because they’re afraid of saying racist. or homophobic. or just “an asshole”.

    Liked by 1 person

    • THANK YOU oh my goodness I get so tired of “problematic” being used in lieu of what they actually mean. If we want to address racism in literature, we need to start by using the word “racist.” But also I love morally ambiguous characters??? Something is only ~problematic~ if it is clearly being endorsed on a narrative level. Stories would be unspeakably boring if characters were always perfect.

      Liked by 1 person

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