There are two types of unlikeable characters in books. The first is the kind that you genuinely don’t like– the kind that leave you gnashing your teeth, tearing out your hair, and groaning in disgust whenever you read about them. These are the people you secretly hope will get eaten by lions or pushed off of a bridge, and when something bad happens to them, you sit back with a satisfied smirk and a sign of contentment before turning the page.
But, there are other unlikeable characters that you actually kind of like. You may not want to be their friend, and you don’t feel especially bad when something unfortunate happens, but if you saw a large carnivore chasing them, you would feel guilty about tripping them or locking them out of the cabin. In fact, you secretly kind of like them. And even though it might be fun to watch them squirm, you don’t want any real, permanent misfortune to befall them. It’s this second group of characters that I want to talk to you about today. They’re not necessarily villains, but they’re not the good guys either. Whether you want to call them “morally grey” or “antihero,” or even just “kind of a jerk,” these are those people we love to hate.
Confederacy of Dunces introduces one of the most despicable characters in all of literature–the grotesque, boorish, and larger-than-life Ignatius J. Reilly. This thirty-year-old man-child is an aspiring author who is forced to look for a job after a series of unfortunate events occurs, one after the other. Ignatius is quite simply a terrible person, but he’s so well-written, so colorful that it’s hard not to become completely fascinated by him. This buffoon’s quixotic quest to find himself a job (he finds several, but none are quite right for him) will have you splitting your sides with laughter. And even though he’s hardly the sort of person you’d want to associate with, within the pages of a book, he makes an admirable companion.
Johannes Cabal is a necromancer of some little infamy. What we need to know for our story, however, is that he’s a necromancer who made a very unfortunate deal with the devil, and now he has to figure out a way to weasel himself out of a very damning contract. But, here’s the thing… Johannes is not a nice guy. He’s got drive, he’s got knowledge, but he does not have a lot of compassion, and by extension, does not breed a lot of compassion in the hearts of his readers. In fact, he’s pretty rotten. This is a man who will do whatever he has to do to get what he wants–threats, violence, backstabbing, and more. But, what makes him such a fascinating villain is that underneath his tough exterior, his coldness, his blatant disregard for human life, that prickly little thing called a conscience starts to nag at him. This is a fascinating character study into the nature of good and evil, and how far a person can go before they are truly beyond saving. I would not trust Johannes any farther than I could throw him, but I love following this character through his adventures. This is the first book in a series (with five books and seven short stories as of this writing).
Jason Fitger is a stressed-out, sarcastic, and overworked creative writing professor whose personal life and career are starting to come apart at the seams. Told entirely through letters of recommendation for a variety of students and colleagues, Dear Committee Members showcases Jason’s tortured state of mind, as he contends with damaged relationships, budget cuts, and a series of increasingly involved renovations in the Econ department upstairs, which results in increasing damage to the already struggling English department. What makes this book so fascinating is Jay himself, as he shares his honest and often painfully blunt opinions on a variety of topics and people. While Jay is not the worst person on our list, he’s often not a great one, and some of his poor students and colleagues get letters that rather hurt their chances rather than help them. All in all, the book paints a fascinating portrait of a very complicated, difficult man, all told in a roundabout way through these letters, that while they are not about him, in reality reveal more about him than about the person he’s writing about.
I’ve featured The Alchemaster’s Apprentice on a list before, but considering that this is one of my favorite books, with one of my favorite characters in literature, I think I’m justified in including it again. Echo is a Crat (a catlike creature) living in the sickest city in the world. Starving in the streets after the death of his mistress, Echo is discovered by the town’s Alchemaster, Ghoolion. Ghoolion makes Echo a deal: he’ll feed and house the Crat, teaching him his alchemic secrets for an entire month. In exchange, Echo will allow the Alchemaster to slit his throat and rend him down for his fat, which is desperately needed to further his experiments. Echo accepts, but of course, soon realizes how awful this deal really is, and starts scheming for a way out. Alchemaster Ghoolion is one of the best-written characters I’ve come across in a very long time. He’s a beastly person who loves to cause pain and suffering (he’s the reason that the city is the sickest in the world), but Moers writers him in such a way that you find yourself fascinated by him. The writing is absolutely superb, the characterization rich and well-developed, and this horrible, horrible man kept me completely glued to the page.
Another excellent book that I’ve shared before is the first Warlock Holmes book: A Study in Brimstone. But, the unlikeable character we’re going to talk about today is not our titular detective (who’s not actually a genius, but a really stupid sorcerer), but his good friend (or unwilling victim), John Watson. In most versions of the story, Watson is smart, daring, and eager to help his friends. In the Warlock Holmes series, Watson, while a good man at heart, is also very selfish and a bit of a hot-head. He’s also not above scheming his new roommate, Warlock Holmes in order to get money, food, and a place to stay. However, we’re willing to excuse him some of his flaws when he’s thrown head-first into the horrible mess that Holmes inhabits. Vampires, demons, a looming apocalypse… Watson soon finds himself in over his head, but only together will the two be able to thwart the threat of Moriarty. This series is a side-splitting dark comedy, with each chapter focusing on a different Sherlock Holmes story…albeit with a supernatural twist. Watson might be a bit selfish and Holmes incredibly stupid, but these books had me laughing until I cried!
The Mark of Zorro has everything you could ask for in an adventure story–action, romance, and just a touch of mystery. Spanish colonizers are taking advantage of the native Mexican people, so a masked man steps in to put a stop to the abuse. Zorro (The Fox) is the dashing romantic hero that the people need. And Senorita Lolita Pulido laments that this mysterious man is everything her own fiancé, Don Diego Vega is not. Don Diego is tepid and timid. He’s exhausted by short rides on his horse, does not know how to properly woo a young woman, and cannot stand the sight of blood. This wimpy pushover also happens to be Zorro, but of course, no one knows that–not even Lolita! Don Diego is good friends with Sgt. Gonzales, a blustering, boorish, brute. Despite his callousness and bad behavior, you can’t help but like the big oaf (even if you are secretly–or not so secretly–hoping that Zorro will give him the sound thrashing that he deserves!) In this book, I’d say it’s a bit of a tie between Don Diego and Sgt. Gonzales for unlikeable characters. Diego may be Zorro, but he’s whiny and insufferable!