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.
For 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.