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Dave Astor

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When a Novel's Main Character Is Unlikable

Posted: 12/29/11 11:18 AM ET

With all the bad people in real-life politics and big business, do we really want to read about bad people in novels?

It's one thing if a hateful book inhabitant is a crucial but secondary character who might serve as a foil to an appealing main character. For instance, it's impossible to imagine J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter books without the ominous Lord Voldemort. But what if He Who Must Not Be Named But I Just Did had been the primary protagonist rather than the affable, courageous Boy Who Lived? Ouch!

Yet the world has plenty of evil, so why shouldn't some novels reflect this with a loathsome lead character? And, if done right, such books can be quite absorbing. A good example is Edith Wharton's The Custom of the Country, which focuses on the beautiful but heartless, shallow, materialistic, social-climbing, never-satisfied Undine Spragg.

Undine has almost no redeeming qualities, yet -- partly for that reason -- The Custom of the Country is a fascinating read. I just finished the 1913 novel, and my eyes practically bulged as I waited to see what this amoral person would do next. Adding to the interest was the way Wharton used Ms. Spragg to symbolize the dearth of ethics among many of America's rich (I'm sure the character's "U.S." initials were not a coincidence).

What also made the novel compelling was that Wharton provided at least some explanation for why Undine turned out the way she did (her weak-willed parents were much too doting and women had limited options in those days). Also, the author gave readers a few sympathetic supporting players to glom on to -- especially the sensitive Ralph Marvell, one of Undine's husbands.

In short, The Custom of the Country is almost a case study in how to make a book that stars a bad person a satisfying book to read.

And if loathsome literary leads get their comeuppance, well, that's very satisfying. (I won't say if that happened to Undine, in case you haven't read the book.)

Wharton's novel made me try to think of other titles with totally or mostly unlikable stars. Three that immediately came to mind were the "murderers' row" of Bret Easton Ellis' American Psycho, Norman Mailer's The Executioner's Song, and Thomas Harris' The Silence of the Lambs. But I haven't read those books, so I can't say much about them.

There's also Gone With the Wind, though the not-nice Scarlett O'Hara does have that admirable "I will survive" thing going.

Becky Sharp in Vanity Fair? It's been a long time since I read William Thackeray's novel, but I think Ms. Sharp had a decent quality or two. Octave Mouret in Emile Zola's Ladies' Delight? He's a retail magnate from hell, but -- unlike Ms. Spragg -- he could genuinely fall in love and appreciate the person he fell in love with (the not-wealthy Denise Baudu).

Captain Ahab in Moby-Dick? This maimed, obsessed character is more tragic than rotten. And one could argue that the star (or at least co-star) of Herman Melville's classic novel is the narrator Ishmael, who I can imagine saying: "Call me likable."

Then there's a novel with a fairly unlikable narrator but a sympathetic star. That book is Junot Diaz's The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, which features the womanizing, often-selfish Yunior telling the story of the troubled but lovable nerd Oscar.

The Robber Bride (Zenia) in Margaret Atwood's The Robber Bride? She's certainly one nasty, scheming person, but the three women (Tony, Charis, and Roz) she treats so badly are the novel's stars.

How about the stars of some Cormac McCarthy books? Anton Chigurh in No Country for Old Men is monstrous, but he's one of several main characters. "The kid" in McCarthy's Blood Meridian arguably has top billing -- and he can be violent. But he's somewhat more sympathetic than the vicious men he goes marauding with. That said, it's hard to find a better novel featuring such an unlikable cast.

Amir in Khaled Hosseini's The Kite Runner? He certainly does some hateful things to his friend Hassan, but eventually makes up for it to a certain extent. The book's real villain is the Taliban sociopath Assef, but he's a secondary presence.

Then there are the characters who start off relatively sympathetic but lose their moral bearings, as with the Huey Long-like Willie Stark in Robert Penn Warren's All the King's Men. "Absolute power corrupts absolutely," and all that.

In short, I'm having trouble coming up with many great novels starring (not just co-starring) a person who is totally or mostly hateful. Can you name any books that fit this category? And how do you feel about novels with an unlikable lead character?