There’s something about reading a book with an unlikeable main character that makes my brain light up like sparklers on the fourth of July. Whenever someone tries to pitch a book to me and one of their main selling points is about how “charming” and “lovable” and “heart-warming” the story or protagonist is, I immediately tune out and start thinking about my grocery list. And whenever someone asks what a good “hopeful” read is, I usually stare at them blankly and then furiously search on the internet for something that isn’t Fredrik Backman that I can recommend, because chances are, if they’re coming to me–a bookish professional whose literal job is to recommend new books to people–they have already read everything that man has to offer.
What is it about truly vile characters that makes me find them so compelling? Is it their general disregard for their fellow human beings? Is it their total lack of self-awareness? Is it their inability to grow or change or evolve beyond their inherent selfishness? It’s not a matter of hate-reading or loving to hate a character, it’s a gleeful feeling I can only attribute to what it was like as a child peeking through my mom’s bedroom door around Christmas, hoping to get a glimpse at one of my presents or sneaking a gift, pealing back wrapping paper, slowly, careful not to rip. There’s something so deliciously rewarding about spending time with a character everyone else would despise, like I’ve done something naughty, and I might get caught at any moment.
So, if you’re like me, and you can’t help but adore characters who are the absolute worst, here’s a bunch of books you should check out. I guarantee none of these protagonists would be portrayed by Tom Hanks in the movie adaptation.
Sammie is in an unhappy marriage, one where her wife is always striving to be the token butch lesbian all the straight people in their claustrophobic suburban neighborhood find "acceptable", all while Sammie is left at home with their son, who she kind of thinks might be evil. Or at least a tiny sociopath. There isn't a single decision that Sammie makes where I was like "yeah, you go, girl" but instead, I was left horrified, watching her life unfold over the years, equal parts aghast and totally bewitched. She's awful.
For the longest time, I was reluctant to recommend this book to anyone, with the fear of what loving this book might say about me as a person. Well, I don't care anymore! Boy Parts is a thrill ride, like strapping into a rollercoaster and regretting it as soon as you reach the top, only to scream to your heart's content once it really gets going. A hilarious Goodreads comment compares this book to American Psycho "but for hot girls." Feminism means women can also terrorize others. #girlboss
Oh hey, speaking of serial killers, here's a book about a character with zero empathy! A fantasy that isn't an escape, The Monster of Elendhaven is horrifying, in the best possible ways. None of the characters are ones that I would invite into my home, and they exist within a universe that doesn't exactly reward good behavior. This is a perfect read for spooky season, or for when the sun is shining, so you can remind yourself things aren't as bleak as they seem. This is a gruesome dark fairytale, and whoo boy, it's a fun one.
Think of the worst human person you have ever met, that co-worker you can't stand, that family member you dread seeing during obligatory holiday gatherings. Those people all exist in this book, and they're here to ruin your day. I read Jillian, cover-to-cover, in one sitting, and by the end of it I felt bad, so maybe don't binge-read this one, is all I'm saying. Halle Butler is the master of writing despicable, every-day characters, similar to something Otessa Moshfegh might create. The New Me is also gloriously terrible.
The ULTIMATE unlikeable protagonist, and one who would make that one stalker in You seem like a nice guy in comparison. Part of the appeal of Jacob is Maria McCann's uncanny ability to trick the reader into (sort of) rooting for a character that genuinely has no redeeming qualities. It doesn't matter what he did or the number of people he hurt, I kept finding myself hoping he would miraculously learn how to be a better person. Jacob is no Prince Zuko, though, which makes As Meat Loves Salt the final boss.
There you have it, some of the worst characters imaginable! Cheers to anyone who reads these books. I hope you enjoy therapy.
-Adam Lopez is a Readers' Services Assistant at Lawrence Public Library.