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.
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.
Ryan 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.
Kaz 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.’
Julian 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.
Medea (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!