I am the literal queen of unlikable protagonists, but hoo boy, this is a tough one. Not because I can’t think of any unlikable protagonists that I enjoy, obviously, but because a lot of other people’s unlikable protagonists are actually… quite likable to me (Holden Caulfield) and a lot of protagonists that are incredibly likable to others are unlikable to me (Hermione Granger). But I’m going to do my best here.
You will notice that all of these hail from my favorite genre, my ‘home’ genre, if you will: horror. That is because if a protagonist is meant to be unlikable, and they are not a serial killer or crazed lunatic, I probably will find them terribly uninteresting or underwhelming. But that’s just me and my fondness for murderous protagonists.
So, without further ado, let me introduce you to my four fucked up asshole sons, Victor, Light, Herbert, Patrick, Andrew, and Jay.
1. Victor Frankenstein (Frankenstein)
Alright, I’m just gonna come out and say it. The reason Victor is an unlikable protagonist isn’t because he graverobbed his way to a weird human-quilt of a son and played god out of sheer curiosity. Nah, that ain’t it. What makes Victor difficult to read isn’t the fact that he’s a creep, it’s the fact that he’s so goddamn whiny and dramatic about it.
This little bitch brings a dead body back to life and is so utterly shook by it that he has to lie in bed and be coddled by his buddy Henry Clerval for four months. Yeah, you read that right. Four months. Like, dude, you’re the one who wanted to do this. You should have psyched yourself up more beforehand. You can’t go bringing things back from the dead for science and then getting spooked when it works.
Later, when he’s finally gotten over it, he discovers his little brother William has been murdered and he automatically assumes the creature he made is the thing that did it. I mean, he did, but way to assume. So instead of, y’know, taking responsibility for his weird undead manchild, what does he do? Runs away to the mountains to sit there and marinate in his guilt until the creature hunts him down to call him out on his bullshit.
Victor, my dude, you didn’t think this one through. Still, I can’t help but love the little asshole. He was basically the 18th century equivalent of a college dude fucking around in his basement. He’s like the annoying, disappointing son I will never have.
2. Light Yagami (Death Note)
Look, another smart white guy playing god. Light Yagami is even worse than Victor, because he’s not even a college student, he’s a high school student. So he’s walking down the street one day and he notices this weird black book lying on the ground, so naturally he picks it up, and sees it says DEATH NOTE on the front in creepy letters. Cool. He takes it with him, which, if this were a horror movie and he was a stereotypical protagonist, would immediately mean the audience yelling at the screen what dumbass he is. But nah, he’s not a dumbass. Just a massive dick.
The first thing he does after he figures out what this book does is decide that he’s gonna be some sort of couch potato vigilante, extracting justice without even having to leave the comfort of his room. He vows to rid the world of naughty people, not even seeming to consider that murdering people might be a little naughty, too.
Light is the dickest of dicks. He basically kills anyone who even gets close to figuring out he’s the one magically murdering all the city’s criminals, he uses the only people who really enjoy his company to his own careless advantage, and (and maybe this should have been first on the list), he thinks it’s ultimately his decision who deserves to live and who deserves to die. He’s basically a lazier Dexter Morgan.
But, honestly, he’s pretty fascinating. Y’know, from a psychological perspective. And I can’t really bring myself to dislike him. Plus, he gave us this gem:
Literally murdering people under the guise of eating potato chips. What a legend.
3. Herbert West (Herbert West: Reanimator)
I will admit, my introduction to Herbert was via the movie version of Re-Animator rather than the story. But it did inspire me to go read the story, which… alright, I didn’t enjoy quite as much as the movie, but was still pretty good, cause, y’know, it’s H.P. Lovecraft. Now, Herbert is yet another white college guy playing god… hold on, could it be that I have a type? No, c’est impossible! Eh heh… heh….
Anyway, Herbert is like Victor in a lot of ways. He’s a college student, he’s weirdly obsessed with bringing people back from the dead, and he’s totally fine with robbing graves in the name of science. There are a couple of key differences between Herbert and Victor, however. The first is that, unlike Victor, Herbert is actually happy when he succeeds, and doesn’t cry about it like a little bitch. The second is that Herbert drags someone else into it, our narrator, who has no name in the short story but is named Dan Cain in the movie.
Herbert could not give a metric shit about anyone but himself and his lil science project throughout the course of the story (which is actually pretty meaty for a short story), and continually forces the narrator/Dan into his schemes. However, despite the fact that he’s a selfish, narcissistic asshole, there’s still something rather endearing about him, in both the book and movie versions but especially the movie.
4. Patrick Bateman (American Psycho)
I know people who absolutely despise Christian Bale solely for the fact that he starred in the movie version of this book and was such a dick the entire time. And honestly, I don’t blame them at all; Patrick is everything I hate about men rolled up into one shitty little package. He’s rich, self-obsessed, petty, shallow, misogynistic, violent toward women… basically, if he were uglier, he could be president.
But there’s one thing that saves the character of Patrick Bateman, and that is the fact that he is literally a spoof on the type of men mentioned above, written by a gay man, and presented as a social commentary (much like Chuck Palahniuk). There’s just something about Patrick that’s inherently hilarious, something that keeps me from being completely disgusted and horrified whenever I read the book. Bret Easton Ellis knows exactly what to exaggerate and what to leave fucked up, from Patrick’s obsession with his coworker’s business cards to the horrifying way he treats the prostitutes he’s hired (and renamed).
5. Andrew Compton and Jay Byrne (Exquisite Corpse)
Okay these guys are the ones I have the least excuse for liking as much as I do. They’re god-awful people. They’re serial killers, necrophiliacs, possibly the worst couple to ever exist. But dude, dude. They’re such great characters. Villains are so often queer-coded without being made explicitly gay, gay characters are so often woobified and made to look perfect in an attempt to not offend. Having two genuinely horrifying gay villains (who are still protagonists; the entire book is from their points of view) is so cool to me.
Not to mention, serial killers in horror, especially this kind of splatterpunk, extreme horror, are usually misogynistic men who get off on raping and killing women, which, as a horror fan, I won’t go so far as to say is wrong to write about (the horror of it is quite clear), is still disgustingly common enough to make me groan whenever I encounter another one (which is why I stopped reading a lot of Edward Lee, even though I love his style, and prefer Jack Ketchum these days, who seems to have more varied protagonists).
The way Poppy Z. Brite (who, by the way, is my favorite author of all time) gets in these guys’ heads and shows us why they do the things they do, how they feel when they do it, what they get out of it, et cetera, is beyond fascinating. I’ll take these fictional serial killers over any true crime nonfiction, thanks.
And that’s it for this week! Tune in next time for another Top 5 Wednesday! I should have a couple more entries up this week, but if I get lazy and put them off, I’ll see you then!