Based on a scientific analysis conducted by consulting my own opinion, I have determined that protagonists are typically good guys or heroes.
Except when they aren’t.
It’s easy enough to like a likable character (Einstein wrote a paper on this), but less easy to like a jerk. Why would you want to read an entire book about someone unsympathetic or nasty? Creating compelling stories where the reader cares about a psychopath or a twit is a challenging undertaking.
I seem to have run across my fair share of such stories of late, and here are a few unlikable people you might like to meet.
The Spellman Files by Lisa Lutz
This book is the first in a series about a family of detectives, the Spellmans. Izzy, the middle daughter, is the protagonist, a self-destructive, defiant, irritable and sarcastic example of humanity. David, her eldest sibling, is annoyingly perfect in every way which simply highlights Izzy’s shortcomings. Their parents, in misguided attempts to reign in Izzy’s destructiveness, resort to techniques (i.e. planting listening devices in her bedroom) which are not found among Dr. Spock’s parenting tips. The only person unaffected by the family’s general craziness is Izzy’s much younger sister Rae. And in this highly dysfunctional family, Izzy is the queen of maladjustment, seemingly lacking in all virtuous qualities.
The narrative ricochets through time, starting in the present with Izzy at age 28 and Rae missing. The author admirably fills in backstory in a non-linear fashion as we learn family history and the events leading up to Rae’s disappearance. Izzy matures along the way but never really becomes a likable character.
Yet I still found the book hard to put down. This family might be crazy, but they’re interesting and the drama around finding Rae, which stretches through most of the book as the narrative jumps around in time, is compelling. Author Lisa Lutz makes me want to read about her unpleasant hero.
Fast One by Paul Cain
This little-known gem, written in 1932 and currently on-order at EPL, was referred to by Raymond Chandler as “… [representing] some kind of highpoint in the ultra hardboiled manner!” What Ray meant is that the writing style is extremely choppy and pared down. There is dialogue and action, action and dialogue, but very little description. Although you learn about the characters, it is through (wait for it) dialogue and action only.
Our protagonist, Gerry Kells, is a man who is ostensibly a detective, but who in the past had intimate connections with the slimy underbelly of society. As this story of crime lords vying for control of Los Angeles unfolds, Kells throws his hat in the ring and rapidly shifts from a seemingly good guy to a really bad guy. It’s difficult to say much more without giving the story away, but suffice it to say that Kells is perhaps the least sympathetic protagonist you’ll ever meet. Yet once again I couldn’t put the book down until the end.
You can listen to some of Cain’s other writings in The Black Mask Audio Magazine Volume 1.
Shovel Ready by Adam Sternbergh
A final example is found in Spademan, a former sanitation worker living in a near-future New York City that has been devastated by a nuclear bomb. Most survivors leave the city, but those who stay behind do whatever it takes to stay alive. Spademan becomes a guy-with-a-box-cutter-for-hire. Perhaps it’s harder to define hero and anti-hero in this world where the concepts of right and wrong no longer rigidly apply, but a guy killing people with a box cutter for money is not someone you’d bring home to meet your Meemaw. Moving amongst poor people living in tent cities and rich people plugged into a happier virtual world, Spademan searches for his latest target, a famous televangelist’s daughter. While hunting he falls in love with her and transcends the role of assassin, but never fear, there is still plenty of brutality and violence.
Books are filled with other great anti-heroes such as Dexter and Serge Storms, and what fascinates me is that we want to read about these people. So, “Bravo!” to their authors for creating stories where we readers connect with these undesirable types. If only I could feel so well-disposed towards their real-life counterparts.