The Rat Bastard Protagonist or How Long Can You Play a Reader About a Central Character?

I’m reading an old Michael Gilbert novel called End Game which has a rat bastard protagonist.  David Morgan is hard-drinking, insensitive, and immoral, a man who comes in late to work, late to dinner, and stays late to search the boss’s office.  He picks fights with his girlfriend who supports him financially, deliberately upsets a fussy, older woman at work who rightfully suspects him of slacking off and drinking on the job, sleeps around, and picks the locks of people who trust him to read private files about a business titan named Blackett.  He’s a creep.  The first time I read the book, I thought, “Why am I reading about this guy?” and kept reading anyway.  The next time I read it, I looked at the plot which was as finely tuned as any of Gilbert’s stories.  This time I read it just for that bastard protagonist: Why would any reader (especially a woman reader) stay in a story with David Morgan?

After the beginning, David gets worse.  He takes his boss on a pub crawl where he insults a big client of the firm, and because he insists on many drinks, they arrive late at the girlfriend’s apartment to find dinner ruined.  The girlfriend, Susan, is not amused, there’s a big fight that David starts and then ends when he packs and walks out, leaving a fuming Susan and an embarrassed boss.  And of course, he gets fired.  Well, he outraged a powerful secretary, insulted a major client, and burgled his boss’s office, what else did he expect?

But by then I knew that David was smart.  Very smart. Which means that he must have wanted to get fired.  He blackmails the big boss to get a much worse job in a travel firm, and by the time he’s making waves there you know that whatever David is, he’s got a plan. Meanwhile, as David falls in society, Susan rises, promotion after promotion in the business empire run by a man named Blackett.  In her spare time, she fields angry, self-pitying phone calls from David that she tapes and then listens to again with pen and pencil.   By the time I realized that David and Susan were in something Big together, I couldn’t put the book down.

But that was good third of the way through the book.  How long can a writer expect a reader to stay with an obnoxious protagonist who apparently has no redeeming value?  I’m not talking about anti-heroes, say Moist in Going Postal, although David clearly is an anti-hero.  I’m talking about a protagonist you read about and think, “Ewww.”

I really studied that this time, and I think Gilbert does some subtle things that kept me reading.

  • David is not universally mean; he never picks on the weak or the vulnerable, and he always insults up at people in power over him.
  • David’s smart; the stupid things he does turn out to be a path to an outcome he wants.
  • David is competent; he can pick locks, understand financial files, speak at least three languages, and see trouble coming a mile away.
  • David plays fair with women; he doesn’t seduce, he suggests, and while he does tend to suggest sex to women who have information he wants, he makes sure they’re happy about it. My last qualms about David as a womanizer went when he saw a woman in trouble in a bar fight and took her out through the kitchen and escorted her home to her husband without so much as a leer. 
  • David has a lot of good people who like him; his former boss sticks by him, his old friends rally to him when he needs help, and Susan not only keeps taking his phone calls, she analyzes them closely. If smart, efficient Susan is part of David’s equation, then David is not a rat bastard.

While none of those things excuse his lousy first impression, I think they undercut it subtly enough that I kept reading as the plot began to knot up nicely, following David’s descent into homelessness and Susan’s rise to the top of Blackett’s empire. The narrative clips along and David becomes that gift to story, The Protagonist You Worry About.   David is playing a very dangerous game for very high stakes and his antagonist is watching his every move, much more powerful than he is, incredibly wealthy with hundreds of men at his disposal all over the world.  All David has is brains, an exhaustible supply of fast talk and faster action, and, of course, Susan.  

I’m trying to think of other I-don’t-like-you protagonists I’ve read and stuck with, and David’s the only one I can remember.   Moist, as I mentioned before, is likable from the get-go, plus he has a marvelous redemptive arc.  I’ve never been able to bear Scarlet O’Hara. Macbeth is fascinating, but you keep reading his story to see him fall, and by the end, I have sympathy for him.   I don’t think I ever felt sorry for David, he’s too much of a cocky smart-ass for that, but I was rooting for him, and I think it was a combination of all those buried cues at the start that made me want to read more, with the jet fuel boost of competence porn and an antagonist who was prepared to kill him to stop him. 

So here’s a question: What protagonist did you dislike that you stuck with for a whole book?  And beyond that, why?  How did an author keep you reading an unlikable character?  Where do you draw the line as a reader?

 

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98 thoughts on “The Rat Bastard Protagonist or How Long Can You Play a Reader About a Central Character?

  1. I can’t really think of one specifically, but I do know that a lot of romance authors turn secondary, not very likeable, characters from earlier novels into heroes in subsequent books.

    I guess that’s not really the same thing as you are talking about, because these characters are “redeemed” and made likeable in their own books.

    They don’t stay slimy.

    2+
  2. Great question because I started Game of Kings and Francis Crawford is leaving me cold. So many people I know loved the book that I want to give it another chance but only because I keep telling myself that he has to be playing a bigger game.

    Because people who know me would not suggest I read a book where the hero is an English spy. Either that or they really, really don’t know me. (No spoilers please)

    I love Scarlett but I love Scarlett because she is the antithesis of a heroine – she wants to be a traditional romantic heroine so she actively works towards that goal and yet every action she takes means she can’t be that traditional heroine. She is neither slut nor virgin- and she’s not waiting around for a knight on a white horse. She wants the knight on the white horse but she doesn’t see that her role on that scenario would be to sit helplessly by and wait for him to rescue her.

    She rescues him – she rescues all of them, and gets despised for doing it.

    10+
    1. Once you get to book three Francis drags you along, but if you don’t like “spy” stories you might not care for either Francis or Niccolo.

      I wanted to be as strong as Scarlett. But I also liked Amy more than Jo in Little Women.

      2+
  3. I really didn’t like Sugar Beth in SEP’s “Ain’t She Pretty.” Even by the end of the book I wasn’t totally sold on her. But Colin is a match for her, and even Winnie has some sharp edges, so it wasn’t like she was picking on people below her. It was only on my second read that I really started to understand her, and now it’s one of my favourites.

    Which is why I love to re-read books. 🙂

    1+
    1. I think it helps with Sugar Beth that you meet her at her lowest. Also, I love how the Gorgette Heyer quotes at the start of the story situate it within that regency romance tradition where I expect that heroes and heroines are clever, competant, not always kind or straight forward archetypes who become more human as the story goes on. The quotes signal to me this will be worth the wait.

      2+
      1. Sugar Beth is my pick from the romance world. I was on the fence about her. I remember thinking, when she was verbally abusive with her dog, “Chick, I’m not sure I can hang with you.” Then, in the first scene with Colin, when he grabbed her breast and stuck his tongue down her throat, and she just stood there, taking it, thinking, “I had this coming,” I was sold. Anyone with that strong a sense of justice was someone I could support.

        The other book that comes to mind is A Long Way Down by Nick Hornby. It has four awful protagonists for the price of one. Jess, the teenager, may be the worst. Just as you’re starting to really empathize with the rough breaks she’s caught, she turns to the camera and says, right to your face, “Take your sympathy and shove it up your saggy old arse.” Okay. They’re fascinating, though, and the community they form is compelling.

        1+
    2. I didn’t like Sugar Beth or Colin. I liked her a bit better than him. I think it was the other characters that pulled me along & through that book. I haven’t reread it and am unlikely to.

      0
  4. I like Sharon Shinn’s Elemental Blessing series, and it followed through to a character who I really didn’t like in previous books. I put off reading her book for a while, but when I did, she was redeemed. Corene is a child in the earlier books, one who is angry, scared, and mean. She still has sharp edges and is impulsive in her book, but she grows into herself and being inside her head helped me understand her reactions better.

    2+
      1. So did I. Although in the first book, I saw the better person she could be when she thanks Zoe for saving her.

        0
        1. Corene ended up being one of my favourite characters in the series, only just behind Zoe and Darien. She may have been hard to like in the first book, but she was always interesting, and once I started to see glimpses of the good heart and the motivations driving her I loved her.

          0
          1. I think for me, Corene doesn’t count as an unlikeable character, because when you start out with her at her worst she’s an ancillary character in Zoe’s story, and by the time Corene got her own book I’d seen enough redeeming facets in her that I was very on board with her journey.

            1+
  5. Yes! Francis Crawford is the very anti-hero I went to first. In fact, despite my sister (and favorite book pimp) recommending it strongly, I stopped reading Game of Kings many times before finishing the first book. And then reading the whole series. And then the whole series 2 or 3 more times. And then obsessively re-reading and discussing with others online and buying the music and poetry etc. of the period etc. In short I lost months of my life to him. And then to Dunnett’s other series.

    What I’m saying is he is a perfect example of a person who starts out very badly (throws a knife at an old lady in his mother’s parlor) but is playing a long game.

    4+
      1. Its a hard book to read. Some people start with the last book in the series – Checkmate. And some recommend starting with Queens Play, the second book.

        1+
  6. I think the closest I come to is Cormoran Strike from Galbraith/Rolling’s The Cuckoo’s Calling. He’s an ass, but then again he has a plan.

    3+
  7. I haven’t read these books myself, but friends rave: evidently Ilona Andrews put up a fake cover and blurb as an April Fool’s joke for one of her most awful and universally loathed villains, Hugh d’Ambray, who evidently left a scorched earth policy across several books, killing and pillaging the beloved protagonist’s community. And then readers got interested in the fake cover and blurb, and Andrews wrote the book for real. It’s the Iron and Magic series, and I think the first book is “The Iron Covenant.” Many five-star ratings. I’m not sure a reader would get the full force of the turnaround if they hadn’t read the previous books.

    4+
    1. Yes, I was going to say Hugh. She managed to make him likeable in Iron and Magic. Though he’d already hit a low in the previous Kate book, I think. But he’d been horrible. He’s still not necessarily nice but you root for him in Iron and Magic. And the heroine is his match.

      0
    2. No,, they wouldn’t. The great thing is that I just reread the whole series, and the pieces are definitely there. He’s awful and horrible, but you can see an arc, even in a character they never intended to take farther. It’s fascinating. I definitely recommend reading the Kate Daniels series first, though.
      And isn’t that a great story? Right up there with “I was watching this dumb tv show and think8ng about how to fix it….”

      0
  8. How about Humbert Humbert in Lolita? Or Nick and Amy from Gone Girl? Or Briony from Atonement? In fact, I think what I’m looking at is a pattern of unreliable narrators, and the author somehow finds a balance between making you want to see the narrator get their comeuppance, at least at first, and letting you figure out the missing pieces yourself.

    2+
    1. I so utterly loathed Nick and Amy. And I still loathed them at the end of the book– felt as if I had to go and have a shower when I finished reading. So for me that wasn’t a book where I ended up liking the protagonist.

      4+
      1. Hmm. I guess I wasn’t reading the question as being about books where you have to like the protagonist by the end. I agree with you about Nick and Amy not being likeable, but they sure kept me reading–and when I’ve taught it (in Intro to Lit, e.g.), I’ve had many students tell me that Gone Girl was the first book they’d ever read for a class that they were so into that they actually read ahead in the book beyond the pages I’d assigned. In one case, I had a student tell me that it was literally (and I’m using that word in its rigorous sense) the first “chapter book” that she’d ever finished for school. And this is despite the fact that the students strongly dislike or hate both Nick and Amy by the end, even if they didn’t at the beginning, so I do think Flynn does something pretty amazing in motivating readers to stick with her.

        2+
        1. I don’t think you have to like the protagonist by the end necessarily, but you have to be happy with the ending (not a happy ending, but the reader has to be satisfied), and if you hate reading about this stupid/evil/boring protagonist, you’ll probably never get to the end. I really did not like David Morgan, so the mystery to me was what kept me reading. And the answer was David Morgan: competence porn, strong motive, active, etc.

          So my question was, basically, why do we keep reading about awful people?

          4+
          1. I wish I had better insights to offer, but here’s what comes to mind.

            The first technique I’d cite would include wanting to find answers on the micro level as well as the macro–I think part of what kept me reading, in the Gone Girl example, is the stellar way she has multiple tiny mysteries in play simultaneously so that even before one mystery is solved (Aha! That’s what’s going on with Nick’s second phone!) three more are in place. That drive for completion is a powerful force. GG is a less-successful example of the kind of work you’re talking about in that the ending is not widely beloved. (I offer my students the chance to rewrite the ending if they didn’t like it, and it remains one of my most popular assignments ever.) Endings are tough, though.

            But then there’s Humbert Humbert. There isn’t the same kind of mystery there, but the language and observations about America lure me onwards, especially in conjunction with my feeling of responsibility for Delores without the ability to do anything to help. (When I gripe about a book, my husband will ask, “Why don’t you just stop reading?” and I’ll often answer, “I need to make sure the characters make it home all right.” It’s completely illogical, but I tend to feel a sense of obligation to characters who are in trouble to at least witness their story. In a way, I guess this answer to your question would be that we might put up with an awful person in a story because we have a stronger connection to somebody else that overcomes the aversion to the awful one.)

            When the protagonist is a real jerk, it probably makes it easier for the author because then the reader’s motivation can be to stick around to see whether they get what they deserve, but to me that’s less interesting.

            Also, a lot of people simply like to read about unlikeable people because they’re trying to figure them out, often with the goal of better understanding people like that in real life. That doesn’t work for me, but I’m not really typical that way. I have a good friend who can happily watch the most brutal and bloody of gore-fests and who would read about Hitler and the S.S. officers with the motivation of trying to understand what can make some people behave so horribly but who cannot force himself to watch a realistic movie about people being small-minded, mean, and petty. (I don’t know how that would help answer your question, but I’ve always thought it was interesting because I’m the opposite.)

            0
      2. I wanted them both to “actually” die. I saw no redeeming features and they deserve each other, only if they kill each other!

        1+
    2. I hate Nabokov for making Humbert Humbert palatable. Great writing. Great book. But such evil, making excuses for itself. The last third was so heartbreaking, but one couldn’t put the book down by that time.

      2+
  9. The only one I can think of is Darcy in Something Blue by Emily Giffin. That’s actually a sequel to Something Borrowed, so most readers are familiar with her before they even pick up the book. I can’t remember why I kept reading; it’s been years. Possibly because I was curious about whether Giffin could make me interested in someone so awful? There was definitely character arc. I haven’t re-read it though, so maybe that says something.

    1+
    1. SAME!–and I think she did something similar in Something Blue, too, because I was VERY dubious that I’d be able to like a bok where the protagonist sleeps with her best friend’s fiance o_O but I sure ended up loving (…Rebecca? Rachel?) anyway.

      0
    2. The real scumbags in that series are the fiance and bestie, who justify cheating under the guise of “it’s TRUE love though,” and the author, for romanticizing cheating.

      *shudder*

      2+
  10. I don’t think I’ve ever stuck with a protagonist I didn’t like. But it’s not so much as not liking so much as not connecting.

    I don’t have to agree with every aspect of a character, but I do need to feel a connection. If I don’t feel an investment in the character, I have no interest in his or her journey. Also, for me reading is an interactive experience and I need to want to spend time with the character and get pulled along for the ride. A story that unfolds as the one you describe may indeed eventually reveal a character to root for and a layered storyline, but it if I’m not connected to the MC then it would feel more like someone’s telling me a story once-removed. And that’s not what I look for in a fiction read. If I had to give it a timeline, probably I’d give the book one chapter to know if it’s working for me or not. But honestly, sometimes that may be reduced to one page–I tend to know pretty early if something’s clicking with me or not.

    Really, though, when a writer presents an unlikable character up front, these are the easy choices. What I have trouble with are books that pull me in with a great protag and then turn that character into someone unlikable later on–like it’s a plot twist or something. Then I feel a bit cheated.

    3+
  11. Oddly enough, the examples I think about are kids books. In The Queen of Atolia, she cuts off a thief’s hand, and by the end the thief is in love with her. In Artemis Fowl, the hero is horrible, but he’s also brilliant and powerful and you find out he’s trying to save his parents.

    I think the asshole hero is more palatable when they’re from a group that doesn’t normally have power (kids, child queen in a male controlled universe) or they’re someone who’s suddenly in a situation where their power doesn’t apply (Cade Corey desperately wanting to belong in the Paris Chocolate world in The Chocolate Thief, when the thing that makes her powerful everywhere else – her fortune from cheap American chocolate – means none of the Paris chefs take her seriously).

    I’m also thinking of some of Christopher Buckley’s heroes – the lawyer in How Not To Treat A First Lady, who takes a case defending his ex the first lady so that he can secretly make sure she’s convicted. There’s definitely competance porn, and the fact that he switches his plans once he falls for his ex again. It also helps that it’s vengeance, not taking down a random woman for the sake of it. And they go back and forth on which of them has the power. I think there’s also an element of high risk – if he loses a case on purpose, he could ruin his reputation, not to mention bigger professional consequences. This is a trick you can only pull once. And because it’s a one time thing I want to know a) will it work and b) why is he willing to risk everything? Why this ex? Why this revenge?

    4+
      1. Yes, that’s a good one. Though I argue they aren’t kids books. Gen is somewhere around 16 in the first book maybe but after that they are all adults. And I could say something spoilers here but they’re such great books that I won’t.

        2+
    1. Artemis Fowl is a really good one. I didn’t like him at first and then when I kept reading I liked him better.

      1+
  12. Hmm, I’m really enjoying everyone’s answers. I also have a really hard time with protagonists I don’t like or like CateM said, don’t connect with.

    I also find “don’t like” is such a subjective thing. I didn’t like in the heroine in “The Hunger Games” and I did finish the first one (b/c it had a great break neck plot and I couldn’t put it down), but when I started the second book I just couldn’t take any more of her. The plot was a little slower and I couldn’t be in her head a minute longer. And everyone who loved it was like “but how can you not like her?! She’s brave and strong and self-sacrificing!” But I found her. . . kind of pill? and whiny, overly earnest, and judgmental in a (very believable) teenager way. Give me a funny, self-deprecating rat bastard over that type of character any day.

    Flashman by George MacDonald Fraser is about a totally awful character and I enjoyed the first book in the series but the author made it very clear he’s writing a comedy and mocking Victorian values. I also haven’t read any of the other books, for what it’s worth.

    I wish I could remember where I read this, but someone once said something along the lines of “worry more about your characters being fascinating than likeable.” I think they gave Hannibal Lecter as their example.

    5+
  13. I realize he’s only the protagonist for the middle third of the book, but Adam Trask in East of Eden (my favorite book as a teen, but sadly as an adult extremely problematic re: racism, misogyny, general Steinbeck dickishness) is intolerable to me. He’s vague, narrow-minded, weak and annoying as all crap. When his wife, the egregiously evil Cathy, shoots him and leaves him for dead, I did NOT feel sorry for him or hope he would life. That he did was somewhat disappointing.

    3+
  14. Min in The Duchess War (my least favorite Courtney Milan). Because she feels so damn sorry for herself while taking advantage of the kindness of her ‘aunts’ who put up with her moods and give her the damned egg money on top of it. /grinds teeth/

    1+
    1. I feel like that’s a different category of unlikeable hero. A lot of Min’s weaknesses and selfish choices – if I remember correctly – stem from her genuinely traumatizing childhood, and from not having the self-esteem to believe that other people will continue to treat her well once they know the real her. If it works for you, it’s this incredibly vulnerable, intimate story of a very human heroine. If it doesn’t work for you, you’re stuck spending half the story with a heroine who comes off as whiny and selfish.

      When characters like Min don’t work for readers, I feel like they’re often unlikeable almost more for what they aren’t doing (bucking up, getting over their issues, going out and solving their problems) than for what they are doing.

      I think the other category is characters who are unlikeable more for what they are doing – insulting people, picking fights, challenging people they shouldn’t challenge, etc. And I think maybe it’s easier to keep reading active bastardy-ness than passive bastardy-ness.

      I’m also realizing that when I think of examples of the main characters who are unlikeable for what they fail to do, they’re more often women. And when I think of characters who are unlikeable for what they do, they’re more often men. Which may say something about expectations readers have, or biases writers bring, or just that it’s past my bedtime and I’m making up patterns that aren’t there.

      2+
  15. Hi Jenny, I have read “end game”but I read it differently from you, having read Michael Gilbert before and noticing the title, I kept waiting for the “double cross?” to happen I figured Susan was too smart to go for such an S.O.B and felt vindicated when it all worked out. M G is very good at twists and turns. I am glad you’re reread it. Have you read Manning Coles? His early books are very good.

    1+
    1. It wasn’t my first Gilbert, but the other protagonists were presented much more sympathetically, so I wasn’t prepared for it. Thinking of Peter, the mild-mannered young insurance guy in The Empty House who gets ends up being chased by two terrorist groups, the cops, and the army. Or James in the Black Seraphim, the pathologist who keeps trying to do the right thing, or even Mercer, the thuggish cop in Body of a Girl because you know from the beginning he’s too smart to really be a thug. All of his protagoniss had been such decent human beings up until then, and David was clearly a rotter until he clearly wasn’t. So I was surprised.

      2+
  16. The male protagonist in one of Georgette Heyer’s mysteries – I can’t recall which one off the top of my head, I read them in quick succession – wasn’t likeable on the surface, but there was enough sly humour to carry you through, and besides, it was Heyer, so there was faith in the outcome.

    On the other hand the day I started feeling sympathatic towards Jamie Lannister was was peculiar and uncomfortable – an antagonist I unequivocally despised, who becomes a protagonist that I felt bad for liking, and then when he does something shitty again I want to make excuses for him.

    1+
      1. Randall is rude, but he’s surrounded by awful people, and in comparison, he’s funny and smart and active. I liked him, and he’s Krissie’s favorite Heyer hero, I think.

        2+
  17. I’m in a book club that often seems to choose things I hate and hate-read. ONE THOUSAND WHITE WOMEN was one (ask me about my disappointment when there *wasn’t* a big twist at the end where you find out the narrator was mentally unhinged/imagining the whole thing–that was my theory to explain all of the batcrap nonsense in the story).

    Bella Swan in Twilight was too bland to hate or root for, in my opinion, but I read the whole series anyway because I teach English to teens and at the time Twilight was their obsession. That may be more like what CateM and Jill W were taking about, though–just a lack of connection (Because there’s no “there” there). Has the same problem recently with Crazy Rich Asians.

    It’s TV and not a book, but I watched what little of Sex and the City I’ve seen despite hating Carrie.

    2+
    1. I am SO glad I decided not to read Thousand White Women. it was given to me by someone who isn’t super picky about what she reads so I always have to do my own screening and I decided to pass but I wondered. Now I don’t, so thank you!

      0
    1. Albert Campion. I loved him from the start, but I didn’t start with the earliest ones, and I think that makes a difference. He’s kind of an ass in the earliest ones, isn’t he?

      1+
      1. Donchaknow I looked up Campion’s first name in the set within reach of my computer machine. Evidently a shiny silver bird flew through the book room about that time.
        Argh!

        0
  18. That sounds like a fascinating book.

    I feel like I have read a book with a protagonist such as you are describing but it’s not coming to me right now. And none of the books I own are that way.

    But I thought of Dr. House in the show house House. I don’t like him overall. He’s basically mean most of the time and doesn’t care who he hurts in the interest of his curiosity. He is rude to patients, lazy and backstabbing to coworkers and toys with his interns just to watch them act how he predicts they will. However, they show motivators for why he is the way he is and they glimpses of kindness here and there. I think I kept watching for so long because I hoped eventually he would be redeemed and get a happy ending (the other characters’ stories were good too). His intelligence and Hugh Laurie’s acting and good looks helped too. 🙂

    I stopped watching when I lost hope that he would spiral up instead of down.

    1+
    1. I think vulnerability plays a big part there. House was occasionally vulnerable, especially given the pain he was in, and that makes it easier to sympathize with him. Also a lot of the people around him were annoying.

      1+
    2. Oh, I do like House! It must be that competence thing.
      Dr Martin in Doc Martin though doesn’t have the same appeal for me.

      0
        1. Martin is (my interpretation at least) somewhere on the spectrum and had horrors for parents. He does change slowly but it’s frustrating sometimes that he doesn’t learn faster. He’s smart and a doctor so it stretches disbelief that somewhere along the line, no one has floated the idea to him.

          2+
      1. I actually like Doc Martin better than House. The people around Martin would try my patience too! I like how good he is at his job, even when people are being obstructive.

        0
  19. I remember reading “Babbit” by Sinclair Lewis while I was in high school. It is supposedly a satirical book about the evils of go-getterism, but I found it and its main character so loathsome that when I finished it I threw it in a trash can.

    Then I remembered that it was a library book, so I fished it out and cursed a little. Next chance I could, I bought the book at a rummage sale, took it home, and threw it in a trash can, this time for good.

    Now that I am way past high school, I just stop reading books with protagonists I can’t stand, and avoid the author in future like the plague, which I think works quite well.

    4+
    1. Me too. Life is too short to read about people who annoy me. There are enough of those people IRL that I can’t just close the book on.

      0
  20. Anne McCaffrey’s Killashandra series. Eventually I stopped reading her books altogether, but I finished the Killashandra ones partly because the world interested me and mainly because I wanted to know what happened to the male sidekick. The protagonist was a 2D arrogant women and I didn’t sympathize with her at all.

    1+
    1. In fact, I stuck with Anne McCaffrey far longer than I should’ve because I really liked her earliest books. Once her protagonists turned arrogant, it took me quite a few books to admit that this was the way she was writing now and it didn’t work for me. So trust in an author will keep me reading, for a while at least.

      2+
      1. I gave up on McCaffrey because she had such weird biases. Loved the first Pern book and then they started to slip. I think the one she lost me on was a book where the bad people were all large and muscular and ugly and good people were all thin and beautiful (two different races) and I thought, “Nope.”

        1+
        1. McCaffrey lost me when she had a gay character turn straight due to the love of a good woman. Nope. Nope. Nope. Esp. when she’d implied the Rowan had stolen her husband’s sperm to get pregnant. And she’d written a short story/novella about invitro fertilization that she’d written in the 60s or 70s. I think it’s called Exo-Genesis. Nope.

          I think she was writing with her son for a much longer time than she and her publishers let on. At least that’s my take.

          0
  21. Another Gillian Flynn example that’s top of mind for me at the moment (probably because of the HBO show) is Camille from sharp objects. I was so stressed out by the choices she was making and questioned her reliability as a narrator to the point that I was questioning if I could continue to spend time with her or if nothing she was saying or doing mattered, and her story would bring me nothing but frustration. But her boss was clearly in her corner (although at one point jI started wondering if he actually really existed or was a figment of her imagination), and the pace of the plot was brisk and I think that one-two combo kept me reading long enough to decide I could trust her.
    So maybe the whole at least one advocate plus a compelling plot is part of the secret sauce for getting a reader to stick with an initially unsympathetic protagonist until they start to show signs of redemption

    1+
  22. There’s a book called Baggage where the protagonist is loathsome. And her self-centered mentality keeps her from seeing what’s going on around her, including murder. I’ve never hated a character so much, yet all I wanted was for her to stop being awful. I knew she could do it!

    Ughhh but also engrossing.

    0
  23. Sherlock Holmes springs to mind. Objectively he’s an arrogant gut. You just end up liking him because competence p0rn and Watson likes him and he uses his awfulness to do good.

    I have a higher tolerance for unlikeable characters in books as usually there is some sort of redemption arc or long game. But I get impatient in TV series and with so much ‘dark and edgy’ TV around (which seems to be code for ‘these people are just awful’ a lot of the time), I struggle to find shows these days.

    6+
    1. Well, I’m four episodes in on Kevin Costner’s Yellowstone series and have no idea what it is about. It certainly is no Bonanza and that is being kind. My husband on the other hand calls it the west version of The Sopranos. I read a review on it yesterday and the reviewer wrote that he thought the writer must have left the plot line in with his notes.

      1+
      1. I said earlier this evening that I sincerely hope we’re not supposed to actually like /anyone/ on Yellowstone because they’re all horrible people! I mean, I keep watching, but at the end of each episode I still find myself asking ‘what did I just see?’

        0
  24. I think I have to trust the writer, and I have to trust the voice, and the thing I call mode, the space in which the story is being told. If the narration feels smug and approving about the protagonist’s actions, I’ll bail — unless I trust the author not to be being a jerk and doing this to me without a good reason. And this can be a problem if it’s the first book by that person I’ve picked up it can put me off forever.

    I’ve thought a lot about complicity with adorable but awful protagonists — like FU in the original UK House of Cards, and like Richard III for that matter, and how and why we love them anyway, we sympathise with them. So if a protagonist is being awful but confiding in me the reader, there’s a dynamic there. Or when they do something to get you on their side, so you want them to get away with it, and you also don’t because “it” is awful. and you’re torn — you’re torn because you care. But how did you get to care in the first place? If I care I’ll keep on reading, it’s if I don’t that I give up. And how long I give it to see if I care — it depends. A few chapters? Maybe? I have also been in the position where I’ve read half a book, more, and something interrupts me and when I go to pick it up again I realise I don’t care and I never finish it. If I hadn’t been interrupted I’d have kept reading out of inertia.

    There’s a book that a lot of people love and which I theoretically ought to love from the description but I just can’t get into it. I’ve read the first half three times, and always stopped reading asking myself “Do I have to read this?” And it’s because I dislike not just the protagonist but all the main characters, and the only thing I was reading for was the worldbuilding (it’s fantasy) and that just isn’t enough. I have a lot of incentive to read that, or I’d have given up sooner. But John Barnes’s Kaleidoscope Century, which has a really nasty first person protagonist, I couldn’t put down, even though I can’t say I exactly like it. The contrast of those is what made me realise how important voice is to me personally when it comes to this kind of thing. And the corollary of that is that you can use a voice that would normally be used for one kind of story and use it for another, and create a space of dissonance. In fact, like you do in Agnes and the Hitman, where you have some actually quite disturbing violence, especially near the beginning, but you don’t use a romantic suspense kind of voice or a thriller/mystery voice but a funny one — it’s just that she so often has a pan in her hand — to defuse and resettle our expectations.

    2+
  25. Gone Girl was the example that sprang to mind for me. Both protagonists were awful, although one is, I think, *supposed* to be somewhat redeemed by the end. They were unlikeable in the most screwed-up way and fascinating to read. (Less so to watch, IMHO).

    Since others have talked about TV series, Dexter comes to mind. It’s very dark and definitely not for everyone, as the protagonist is a serial killer. But the creators did such a good job of showing that while he’s totally unable to connect to others, and therefore every action outside murder is a total lie for him, he’s also desperately wishes to learn how to connect and be a normal person. And in his non-killing life, he takes care of everyone around him, despite not understanding the social aspect of humanity. And the people he murders are really terrible murderers themselves, so he’s channeling his ‘dark passenger’ to do good in the world, in his own twisted way. It’s based on a book (or book series?) I’ve never read, but I might give it a try sometime. Or I might just be lazy and rewatch the series.

    3+
  26. I read a fantasy book that had a total lout as the main character. It was even stated up front that he was not very redeemable as a person. I stuck with it because I thought there would be redemption. There wasn’t, and there wasn’t any reason to keep the book in the end. So yearning for a satisfactory ending. Same as my current audio book, actually. But I’ve invested so much time, I can’t stand to not hear the ending. >. <

    0
  27. I love Scarlet O’Hara… I believe Emma by Jane Austen was another one I didn’t like.

    But by far the best worst protagonist I’ve ever read about is Joe Goldburg in You by Caroline Kepnes. Now, I tried to read the book but it is in second person which is a hard thing to read. But it was intriguing enough that I got the audiobook and, oh my stars. It’s the best audiobook I’ve ever listened to. Santino Fontana (he does the voice of Hans in Frozen) is the narrator and he does the most amazing job. So if you’re ever in the mood for a charismatic stalking serial killer, this is definitely a must listen.

    1+
  28. Collin Dexter’s Inspector Morse comes to mind, although Morse’s awfulness was more akin to Dr House’s in that their awfulness-es (haha) were just who they were (plus demons) not a means to an end. I haven’t read (or seen) Inspector Morse mysteries (the original Dexter ones) recently. Must put on re-read list; I really liked them long ago.

    Arrogant, awful, deeply flawed men “heroes” seem to be fairly popular in the thriller/suspense genre. But generally they aren’t downward mean, rather instead, upward mean or awful, i.e. toward bad guys and equally awful people. And then again, I stopped reading widely in that genre in the 90’s so maybe the current “hero” profile has changed.

    1+
    1. I like the Lewis TV show much better than the Morse; although the Morse series was interesting. he was such a crank that he wasn’t much fun (although seeing Lewis as a young man was fun; there’s a long-running role for you). Lewis can be cranky, but he’s also got a sense of humor, and I love his arc throughout his series. There’s a great slow-burn romance, too. I mean, it takes him YEARS.

      4+
      1. I’m enjoying Endeavour now but it is REALLY dark and I can only watch one at a time. Knowing how the Morse story works out does overshadow it but I love the actor who plays young Morse. Lewis has always been my favorite of the three. Of course, I have also watched every single espisode of Midsommer Murders, too. My husband is convinced that no less than three people in each episode are murdered – and I’m not sure he is not correct.

        0
        1. I liked Endeavor. But that makes me think of another series, set I think in Scotland (maybe Ireland) about the son of a cop who comes home to join the force. Damn, can’t remember the name, but I remember liking the series until the protagonist finds out Something Horrible that leads him to brutally dump the woman he’s just spent the night with, not telling her why he turned on a dime from a man in love to a man who can’t bear to look at her. I loathed him for that, I don’t care how well motivated it was, it’s cruel. Turned off the TV, never went back.

          The Midsommer Murder pilot is one of the most batshit pieces of British mystery television I’ve ever seen. I loved it. It never again attained that level of lunacy, but the characters were so endearing that I stuck with it for all two hundred (at least) seasons anyway. It’s like a nice cup of cocoa on a cold day, it’s just that the first one is full of booze, too.

          3+
          1. Could that have been Hamish MacBeth? (The lead was played by the lead in Full Monty, whose name escapes me.)

            If so, my sisters and I were mightily pleased when Hamish dumped the so-called love interest, an “Ivanka” type, annoying, selfish, and really boring. The show became more interesting when the town’s newspaper reporter took on a bigger role, and became a new, adult love interest not a schoolboy one that Hamish had with the annoying one.

            The pirate radio episode was side splittingly hilarious and so was the “cult” episode. (Although I’m the first to admit I might be confusing Hamish with a similar BBC series set in Ireland, rather than Scotland, with equally dark and light story lines, and the cult and pirate radio story lines.)

            I watched the episodes somewhat out of order so should go back to see if my first impressions hold up. And to make sure I have the right show, yikes.

            Of course if neither of us is remembering Hamish, then never mind 🙂

            1+
          2. Nope. Damn, what was the name of that show. It was dour.
            Okay, I googled. It was called Single-Handed. Well done, but grim as hell and then THAT happened and I quit.

            0
  29. I thought about this and I’m not sure. I tend to like a lot of protagonists other people don’t like, and dislike people who are supposedly “likable”.
    Most of what I’ve read lately is romance. I’ll keep reading usually if I like half of the pair, but then will be disappointed if they’re still together and the other person is still an ass. Roarke is one of the few protagonists who has grown on me, and I kept reading, because I adore Eve. (In Death)

    2+
  30. I watched a movie all the way to the end so I could make sure that the female lead died when the asteroid smacked into the Earth. She was annoying and stupid. I’ve managed to forget the rest of why I loathed her but when I came home from the movies, my poor mother got a solid 30 minute lecture on why she sucked while I dried dishes.

    4+
  31. Oooh, Bobby Flay on the Food Network. I always want him to lose. He’s annoying. So I watch to hope he loses. It’s even better when he loses to Alex Guarnaschelli, who I really like on TV.

    3+
  32. I had completely forgotten End Game.

    I think the author’s competence got me through it as much as the characters.

    I might not have made it through if it was the first book of his I read.

    1+
    1. He’s so marvelous. One of my all time faves; he’s one of the few I keep hard copies of.

      1+
      1. At one point I think I had read all his books but I haven’t in years and I bet he wrote more. Time to read and reread.

        I’m reading it again and this book has so much narrative momentum. Plus Susan is enough to make you keep reading.

        1+
  33. What interesting comments! And I am thrilled to hear I am not the only person who can’t stand Scarlet O’Hara. I didn’t read it until I was in my 30’s for some reason, but I remember all the way through thinking “and people admire this woman because why???” I mean, I’ll admit she wasn’t a wimp, but that one characteristic was not sufficient to redeem the everything else.

    1+
  34. I read *Gone with the Wind* when I was 11 or 12, and thought she was supposed to be a role model of sorts. She did get shit done, and she often knew what she wanted. Rhett was also a lot of fun, even though he was obviously a Bad Man. I haven’t read it in decades but it was one of the first heroines I read who grabbed her agency with both hands. She ISN’T a role model. She isn’t even a horrible warning, really, except for the craptastic penultimate, where it looks like the author is saying, “If you don’t know yourself, you throw away happiness with both hands”.

    There’s a Stephen Fry book called *The Hippopotomas* which is pretty awful when you summarize it. After the first book, I’d even forgotten about the bestiality and the horrifying teen sex scene because the voice was so interesting. The protagonist (we can’t call him a hero) is very self-aware of his flaws, but also his virtues, which include a way with words. The setting was somewhat familiar as a country-house visit of several days (I just love that trope!), but plot was constantly full of surprises, all narrated by this Bad Man with a great voice.

    I don’t know how many books I’ve abandoned because it’s by a Nice Person with a weak voice. What’s even worse is a book about a Great Person with a whiny voice.

    4+
  35. I find this conversation fascinating. I don’t have any novels I can think of that fit, because – as others have said – I don’t generally keep going. But for tv/movies, Tennessee Williams comes to mind. His characters are generally awful but compelling.

    Suddenly Last Summer is possibly my favorite drama ever, largely because of the almost visceral reaction evoked when it comes into focus and you realize *why* Catherine is under attack and (the unseen) Sebastian a flashpoint and that neither of them are/were actually horrible. Despite disliking Catherine and everyone else, I was pulled along by the train wreck feeling and confusion (possibly because I was too young for it the first time I read it).

    1+
  36. I’m enjoying this discussion. Can’t say that I have an example like End-Game (I doubt I’d finish the book). Thinking of Jenny’s description of End-Game, generally, I don’t like switcheroo surprises that wrap up a story, so peeks at redemption are important to me.

    That’s why I’m not on board with The Thief series. Each is written as a narrative from one character to another, but the reader doesn’t know who the listener is. That means that info is hidden until the end.

    On the other hand, there are plenty of stories which I read without really caring about the plot turning points. I’m just enjoying the fun. Terry Pratchett’s books come to mind.

    0
    1. I think Gilbert gives you enough to go on to stick with David until you see the patterns emerge. Also, everybody he annoys is kind of asking for it, so that helps.

      0
  37. I just finished rereading EndGame (which doesn’t really have a surprise ending — at some point in the middle we are told explicitly what is happening).

    It all came back to me as I read it so I can’t say what kept me going with the hero the first time but I’m pretty sure the narrative helped sweep me along as did Susan’s competence. Every scene advances the plot. And I can’t tell where in the book I figured out that most of David’s awful behavior was actually him doing his job. I must have been really young because I think I was more appalled by his sleeping around after I figured that out…

    It also has a scene that stuck with me for decades and I could never remember what book it was from — the bit where the old woman describes how she and her husband held a Board meeting in bed once when they’d forgotten they needed one. I think it’s her joy in following the rules when so many people in the book are running roughshod over them.

    I also realized that there was one plot loose end that always bothered me—are we supposed to think Susan and David are really a couple, or are they work colleagues and he really was borrowed from the Welsh police and doesn’t even live in town?

    I cannot think of another book like this…

    0
    1. I think he was borrowed from the Welsh and paired with Susan as a team, and they recognized twin souls. They both are brilliant, nerveless, and charming as hell, and they’re both dedicated to the law, which is odd because David is such a rule-breaker. Susan manipulates people just as much as David, and they’re both ruthless–that ending pretty much shows that they’re completely ruthless when stopping bad guys–so I have no trouble believing they met and were pretty much twin souls. She also worries about him, that’s clear, plus the way he faces down the bad guy at the end with her and says, “If you’ve finished trying to frighten Susan–because I assure you that’s almost impossible . . . ” He’s so proud of her. Even though it’s all in subtext, I think they’re one of the great relationships in mystery.

      0
      1. Ok I’m going with that. (There is also the belief of the first woman he sleeps with that his mind is on the woman he lost.)

        0
  38. Agatha Raisin series by M. C. Beaton. She is so awful, and yet I read a number of the books. She is also really vulnerable, and her worst impulses usually get punished. Also, better people like her, as sign from beginning that there must be something more to her.

    0

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