A likeable, relatable protagonist. It’s what every writer is taught that all books, comics, movies, and TV shows must have. But if Breaking Bad and the Hannibal Lecter novels by Thomas Harris have shown us anything, it’s that we don’t have to admire or even like awful characters to want to spend time with them.
What I mean by awful characters are those that, depending on how you look at them, could or would be a villain. The fact is, in a lot of modern books, many characters walk on the razor’s edge of being a good or a bad guy, popularly known as the so- called “anti-hero.” We’re charmed by the clever leads in Fritz Leiber’s Fafhrd and Gray Mouser books, but that doesn’t make them any less a pair of thieves, drunks, and swords for hire. John Constantine of Hellblazer fame tries not to be a world wrecker, but people around him keep dying. In fact, early on in his adventures, he (spoiler alert) walls up a friend alive to keep the evil spirit that’s possessed him from escaping. But John tries to be good and he’s always witty, so we let him slide. And let’s not forget Michael Moorcock’s gloomy Elric of Melnibone. Aligned with chaos gods, Elric pretty much can’t eat a sandwich without killing off someone, often someone he knows. But he’s an interesting, tragic character with a modicum of conscience, so we keep going back for more.
It’s often a mental game between a writers and readers. Writers edging into this area will let their characters think and do things that ordinary protagonists might not do, but it’s a balancing act. How much do the writers try to restrain their characters and how far off the leash can they let them run? Readers get to play a different game. They get to wonder how they would act in the situation these sometimes awful characters find themselves. How far would they go? How appalled will they let themselves be, but keep reading? And readers get to wonder if, at the end of the day, the awful character will learn something that will lead to redemption.
Here are five novels with fascinating protagonists that on no planet whatsoever would be called “good guys.”
Frank in The Wasp Factory
The Wasp Factory is the first book from novelist Iain Banks, best known for his Culture SF book series. The Wasp Factory is very different sort of book. The protagonist is Frank and Frank is something of a psychopath. But a strangely sympathetic one partly because he’s so open and pleasant about his gruesome obsessions, which include “sacrifice poles” sporting animal parts, plus the occasional murder. But it’s hard not to feel some sympathy for Frank because he’s surrounded by a family that in some ways is even crazier than he, especially his brother, Eric, who’s recently escaped from an asylum and is making his way home. The book is almost a parody of the kind of cozy pastoral novel in which we watch a callow youth grow into manhood. Frank does grow and change in the course of the story, but not in expected ways, and the climax of the book leaves him somewhere utterly new. Not redeemed so much as on the edge of a whole new life.
The Narrator in Fight Club
While Fight Club isn’t specifically a fantasy novel, its off-kilter worldview, created by the narrator’s inability to sleep, places it in a realm that’s not entirely our own world. Fight Club tells the story of an unnamed insomniac who, after a three sleepless weeks, begins attending disease support groups because other people’s suffering helps ease own. When the support groups lose their effectiveness, he runs into a mysterious, charismatic man named Tyler Durden. They create a secret underground fighting society together which is also a recruiting center for Tyler’s anarchist master plan to, basically, destroy all modern consumer-oriented society. The core of the book is the often strained relationship between the narrator and Tyler. It’s a tricky one because as the story proceeds, we discover that our innocent narrator isn’t nearly as innocent as he first appeared. Author Chuck Palahniuk uses dark satire to test our ability to empathize with a set of interesting, but truly screwed up characters.
Alex in A Clockwork Orange
During WWII, author Anthony Burgess’s wife was robbed and raped by a group of US Army deserters. A Clockwork Orange is Burgess trying to understand who those young attackers were, what would lead them to do what they did, and to see if he could find any redemption for them. The “hero” of A Clockwork Orange is Alex, an utterly amoral young man who spends his time with a close group of friends—“droogs” in the book’s futuristic slang—robbing, raping, and destroying anything that catches their eye. Alex is a happy go lucky monster until he’s arrested and undergoes an experiment in which it’s hoped he’ll be unable to act on his violent impulses. However, while Alex isn’t violent anymore, is he cured? Like Frank in The Wasp Factory, Alex is a charming killer, welcoming us into his world. And like Frank, Alex grows up. Burgess’s central question is can someone like Alex find any true redemption or is destined to remain a gleeful psychopath his whole life? In the end, only Alex can tell you.
Johannes Cabal in Johannes Cabal, the Necromancer
Johannes Cabal is a different kind of awful character than some of the others I’ve mentioned. Johannes isn’t a psychopath—he’s merely a bastard, in the best, funniest British sense of the word. Before the novel has even started, Johannes has sold his soul to the Devil, believing it will help him with his necromantic experiments. As the book opens, he’s trying to get his soul back, not because he’s repented, but because he realizes that he needs it to continue his work. As it turns out, the Devil is perfectly prepared to give Johannes back his soul—if he’ll deliver a hundred other souls to him in one year. Johannes agrees because basically, he enjoys his work and doesn’t like people very much. But he isn’t a true monster. He’s merely a bastard. And a hilarious one. It’s fun to watch Johannes break pretty much every code of civility he can, with humans and fiends alike. He’s helped along the way by a surrogate conscience, his brother Horst, who happens to be a vampire. Oh, and Horst’s condition is Johannes’s fault too. As far as monsters go, Johannes is small time, but when it comes to being a good old fashioned Awful Person, he’s solid gold.
Judge Holden in Blood Meridian
I’ve saved the biggest, most awful character for last. If there’s a truer monster than Holden in modern American literature, I don’t know who it is. The judge isn’t the protagonist of Cormac McCarthy’s novel, but he is unquestionably the central character. And while not technically fantasy, this surreal tale of mid-nineteenth century marauders and scalp hunters along the Mexican border takes place in as complex and richly self-contained world as anything conjured up by, for instance, Tolkien. You could describe Blood Meridian as a western, but by its language and imagery it’s a western written by a mad and vengeful Old Testament God. Over the course of the book, the judge murders, rapes, leads hideous raids on bands of Indians and towns, and collects scalps as trophies. Judge Holden is up there with Ahab in terms of obsession, but instead of a white whale, what the judge is seeking is horror itself. He is the personification of endless, mad violence. It’s hinted that the judge might not even be quite human. His strength is phenomenal. His appetites and knowledge are boundless. Near the end of the book we see him dancing in a saloon, “He dances in light and shadow and he is a great favorite. He never sleeps, the judge. He is dancing, dancing. He says that he will never die.”
Richard Kadrey is a freelance writer living in San Francisco. He is the author of dozens of stories, plus ten novels, including the Sandman Slim series. The seventh novel in the series, Killing Pretty, is available now from HarperCollins.