Jesse Bullington’s problematic protagonists

I’m briefly coming out of retirement today to introduce Jesse Bullington, one of my favorite “new” authors. I like  classic Fantasy, a lot. However, I like it more when a writer takes Fantasy to places where it doesn’t belong. Jesse takes Fantasy into those Dark places. He writes stories  filled with macabre humor, twisted characters, and uninhibited violence. Jesse’s writing is disturbing, comedic, and most certainly brilliant. The mixed feelings that The Sad Tale of the Brothers Grossbart brought out amongst our staff is a testament to his qualifications for writing questionable characters. I cannot think of anyone better suited to lead our discussion of today’s topic: problematic protagonists. 

Jesse BullingtonFor my money, characters, whether we’re meant to root for or against them, are more interesting when they’re flawed in some way. I suppose I find it more intriguing — and more realistic — when people act out of some motivation other than altruism all of the time. After all, this world is full of people who do the right things for the wrong reasons, and the wrong things for the right reasons, so why should fictional worlds be any different?

With my debut, The Sad Tale of the Brothers Grossbart, I put readers in the position of following around some unrepentantly bad dudes for the novel’s duration. With my second novel, The Enterprise of Death, I presented (hopefully!) less despicable protagonists, people who were flawed but still tried to do good, and who were obviously better-intentioned than the novel’s antagonists. Now, with my new book The Folly of the World, I’m negotiating a balance between these two approaches by featuring several problematic protagonists who are often at odds with one another, rather than providing obvious villains, as with Enterprise, or obviously villainous protagonists, as with Grossbart.

For me, much of what makes a character interesting is if the individual is understandable. I love the experience of being won over by a character who I initially had my doubts about as I come to understand their perspective, and what factors in their life led to their holding said perspective. George R.R. Martin is clearly a master at winning readers over to problematic protagonists, and a recent cinematic example I enjoyed was Attack the Block — it’s a refreshing film in a lot of ways (when was the last time you saw a genre movie where most of the protagonists were people of color?), and my favorite element was that rather than romanticizing childhood and its young adult characters, à la The Goonies, it presents its juvenile delinquent protagonists as problematic, but then builds them into relatable, likeable characters who you root for despite any initial reservations you might have held.

My question, then, is what novel, story, or film featured a protagonist or protagonists who you were initially unsure about but came around to in the end?

One U.S. or Canadian commenter will win a copy of The Folly of The World

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JUSTIN BLAZIER (on FanLit's staff since September 2009) is a Cyber-Security Analyst/Network Engineer located in Northern Kentucky. Like many fantasy enthusiasts, Justin cut his teeth on authors like Tolkien, Anthony, and Lewis. Due to lack of space, his small public library would often give him their donated SFF books. When he is not reading books he is likely playing board games or Tabletop RPGs. Justin lives in a quiet neighborhood with his wife, their daughter, and Norman the dog.

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  1. GRRM is a great example. I recently read his debut novel, Dying of the Light, and he was doing that well even back then.

    I have only tried (and didn’t finish, sorry!) The Brothers Grossbart, but if your other books have less despicable characters, I’ll try them.

  2. Brian G. /

    I like some unrepentantly bad dudes. Joe Abercrombie’s characters seem unrepentantly bad at first but they grow on you when you learn more about them.

  3. David H. /

    I read Brothers Grossbart a few years ago and I will hopefully be getting Enterprise of Death for Christmas!

    It’s funny you mentioned the understandable-ness of characters. I’m rereading Jordan’s Eye of the World right now, and when I first read it 11 years ago, I hated Nynaeve at first and thought Mat were awesome, and Perrin was kind of a stick in the mud. But now when I reread it, I have the life experience to understand and sympathize with characters I didn’t necessarily like at first.

  4. Justin Blazier /

    There is a character in Joe Abercrombie’s First Law Trilogy by the name of Jezel dan Luther. He is an ass. He goes through quite an ordeal and you feel he deserves every bit of it. However by the end of the trilogy while everyone else seems to be sinking into oblivion, Jezel becomes one of the most redeeming characters in the entire story. (that’s not saying much in an Abercrombie novel).

  5. I’ll have to think about this (or more likely do a quick skim of my shelves). But off the top of my head, classic bad guys I’m compelled by if not rooting for–Lucifer in Paradise Lost and iago in Othello.

    • Bill, my 16 year old son has been studying Othello in his literature class. He loves it and I think he said it’s his favorite book he’s studied so far.

  6. The guy who comes to mind is Gerald Tarrant from C.S. Friedman’s Coldfire Trilogy. This guy is the big bad in a big way, feeds on the terror of his victims, pretty much a soul sucking vampire. But slowly you begin to understand his larger motivations and what he sacrificed to become what he is. He’s still mega-scary, but as circumstances conspire to throw him in league with other protagonists, you become glad he’s on their side, and you actually end up rooting for the bastard.

  7. J. Carol /

    I read a lot of paranormal romance and sometimes I think I can’t read this because I don’t like the heroine, but I keep reading and when you get some history on her you realize why she’s like that and feel sorry for her and find yourself liking her or at least hoping she beats the bad guys and learns to like herself.

    I don’t live in US or Canada so I’ll have to buy the book. :)

  8. Not so much in novels, I guess, but in Moore’s The Watchmen and Frank Miller’s Sin City graphics, those were some nasty people that were hard to root for. Rorscach(sp?) esp was a turd, and yet he, in the end, was the one willing to die for truth, who thought the truth was more important than comfort, and I admired that. :)

  9. This sounds right up my alley, dark fantasy is something i really enjoy :) I will be checking Jesse’s writing out :)

  10. I want to represent Mark Lawerance’s character, Jorg from his The Broken Empire, series.

    The man, or teen-ager at first, leads a band of marauding bandits at the beginning of the first book, who participate wholeheartedly, in what all such outlaws were known to do in a medieval type world; murder, rape, stealing, destruction, etc.. But as the reader learns what happened to Jorg, it’s understandable why he is so bad. Then again, you’re never quite sure if his horrible experiences truly turned him into a monster or just brought it out of him.

  11. Anthony, if you live in the USA or Canada, you win The Folly of the World. Please contact me (Tim) with an address.

  12. Well done partner that is excellent


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