The Best of Contemporary Literary Characters
August 2, 2012 11:00 AM   Subscribe

Please help me find contemporary literary/fictional characters that make you want to love them, hate them, or -- even better -- both.

I'm experimenting with some fictional writing (along with some D&D DMing) and I'm trying to put together a portfolio of "in print" characters that I can reference for inspiration. So, if you'd be so kind, please recommend complex characters that tug at your emotions one way or another (along with the name of their corresponding text). A sentence or two summarizing the character(s) would also be much appreciated.

(Please note: Characters from Martin, Jordan, Sanderson, Gaiman, or Bradley books need not be mentioned. In general, I would prefer slightly more obscure characters than not.)
posted by GnomeChompsky to Writing & Language (44 answers total) 16 users marked this as a favorite
Sand dan Glokta from the First Law series by Joe Abercrombie. A hero turned torturer turned hero.
posted by procrastination at 11:06 AM on August 2, 2012 [2 favorites]

No specific characters (I'm not near my library at the moment), but both Russell Banks (specifically in Lost Memory of Skin and The Sweet Hereafter) and T.C. Boyle (specifically in Drop City) create that type of character conflict well.
posted by broadway bill at 11:07 AM on August 2, 2012

the main character in this book, A Map of the World was the most weird experience i've had reading a book.

the story was interesting and it was obvious that the character was on the short end of some pretty bad stuff, but i really, really didn't like her. in fact, it STILL makes me uncomfortable to think about that book because while i didn't want the bad stuff to happen to her, i also just kinda didn't want to know her or what she was doing.

she was incredibly complex in a way that was not spelled out...the author did an amazing job of her complexity being part of the character.

i have no idea if that helps or not. it's a pretty short book and an interesting story.
posted by sio42 at 11:08 AM on August 2, 2012

Not obscure, but Severus Snape from Harry Potter is a fairly complex character that you both love and hate. My emotions didn't just get tugged in the last book, they were strapped to a speeding train.
posted by PuppetMcSockerson at 11:09 AM on August 2, 2012 [3 favorites]

You might want to look into contemporary transgressive fiction. Bret Easton Ellis, Irvine Welsh, Chuck Palahniuk and other writers in their vein are masters of creating horrible human beings to whom you grow emotionally attached.

It's been a long time since I've read it (and I'm in a completely different state of mind and part of my life) but Ellis' The Rules of Attraction did the best job of making contemptible (and borderline sociopathic) characters sympathetic to an extent I'd never experienced before.
posted by griphus at 11:09 AM on August 2, 2012

Salvor Hardin (from Isaac Asimov's book "Foundation".)Ruthless politician but also ultimate pacifist. Uses religious brainwashing, sabotage, and illegal tactics to get his way, all in the name of avoiding bloodshed.
posted by wolfdreams01 at 11:11 AM on August 2, 2012

I hate and pity and love every single one of Jonathan Franzen's characters in The Corrections and Freedom.
posted by peacrow at 11:13 AM on August 2, 2012 [4 favorites]

Beth Harmon, the orphaned, troubled, and triumphant young chess prodigy in Walter Tevis' The Queen's Gambit.
posted by nicwolff at 11:18 AM on August 2, 2012 [1 favorite]

Clay Davis from The Wire.
posted by Golden Eternity at 11:19 AM on August 2, 2012 [3 favorites]

Oh, a description of a character, I guess Sean Bateman (from The Rules of Attraction, and brother of Patrick Bateman from American Psycho) is the standout. He's a rich kid (the novel takes place on a college campus,) a steadfast asshole -- his go-to phrase for someone having an issue with him is "rock 'n' roll, deal with it." He sleeps with everyone with no regard for them. He drinks, does drugs, sells drugs and gets in trouble with his dealer.

He also falls in love with Lauren Hynde and, depending on how you read it, carries on an affair with Paul Denton. He's suicidal, he has a lot of incredibly conflicting feelings on love and growing up that he has no idea how to deal with. His shallow college experiences -- even the ones where he is, for all intents and purposes, the antagonist -- are explored with a considerably amount of pathos. I think, in all of fiction, he's probably the character I felt the most for.
posted by griphus at 11:20 AM on August 2, 2012

Er, "affair" is the wrong word. Paul is in love with him, and they may or may not be fucking, depending on your reading of the book. Sean's general apathy toward sex with anyone except Lauren makes it (purposefully) hard to tell if Paul is fantasizing about their relationship or if it's actually happening and Sean just doesn't give a shit.
posted by griphus at 11:22 AM on August 2, 2012

Clay Davis embodies shameless and overt political corruption, yet remains likable in a way, and is someone you'd want on your side in a fight against true evil.
posted by Golden Eternity at 11:38 AM on August 2, 2012

Quentin in The Magicians and The Magician King.
posted by mmmbacon at 11:42 AM on August 2, 2012 [1 favorite]

I can't believe I'm blanking on literary sources, but I'm in the middle of watching ST:DS9, and Quark, Gul Dukat, and Garak are awesomely conflict-causing ambiguous characters.
posted by smirkette at 11:43 AM on August 2, 2012 [1 favorite]

Maybe not modern enough for you, but the greatest pleasure in the Stephen Maturin / Jack Aubrey books is feeling your friendship with them.
posted by The corpse in the library at 11:53 AM on August 2, 2012 [1 favorite]

Seconding Quentin from The Magicians.

Sasha from Broken Glass Park is also good. Teenager with a lot of issues who does pretty bad things to other people sometimes but remains really likeable.
posted by mlle valentine at 11:54 AM on August 2, 2012

And the grandmother from The Hottest Dishes of the Tartar Cuisine (by the same author as BGP, Alina Bronsky). Means so well but does such terrible things to her family members! Bronsky does this kind of conflict really well.
posted by mlle valentine at 11:55 AM on August 2, 2012

A lot of Updike characters are like this for me. Seconding Franzen. Dexter?
posted by oomny at 12:02 PM on August 2, 2012

She's not a "great writer" but Jody Piccoult had me going as I listened recently to Nineteen Minutes. Almost every significant character evoked combined feelings of admiration, contempt, irritation, empathy, and pity. All at once.

Moral: aim for very real and complicated and "normal" characters.
posted by bearwife at 12:12 PM on August 2, 2012

I adore and want to punch every character from The Engineer Trilogy by K.J. Parker (Devices & Desires, The Escapement, Evil For Evil). It's fantastically well-written engineering warfare and politics. Everyone is trying to betray someone else while simultaneously being too stupid to realize they themselves are being betrayed. And there are no "good" or "bad" guys - they all have their own agenda. Great reading.
posted by wintersonata9 at 12:13 PM on August 2, 2012

If you're allowing television, the arc of Walter White's character on "Breaking Bad" sounds exactly like what you're looking for. Very complex character that you almost never know whether to pity or fear.
posted by jbickers at 12:27 PM on August 2, 2012 [2 favorites]

I still can't really stand Ignatius J. Reilly from A Confederacy of Dunces but I can't deny that he's entertaining.
posted by komara at 12:32 PM on August 2, 2012 [2 favorites]


Dr. H. H. Holmes

The Devil in the White City
posted by Kruger5 at 12:35 PM on August 2, 2012

nthing Quark, Gul Dukat, and Garak

And adding: Londo Mollari from Babylon 5. While being an allround horrible person (down to ordering genocide), he also makes you pity him throughout the series. It takes a certain complexity to despise a character and feel sorry for him at the same time.

Quintus Batiatus from Spartacus Blood & Sand/Gods of the Arena might qualify, too. While being ruthless and power hungry, he's also shown as the "lesser evil" (in contrast to the people he sees as rivals) and a loving husband.

Jordan Collier from The 4400, who is both a charismatic leader and seems to have the "better" future as his goal (which includes actively supporting mass suicide, in a nutshell), and a megalomaniac with a serious god complex.
posted by MinusCelsius at 1:05 PM on August 2, 2012

The recent bestseller Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn, contains multiple characters that match that description. It's the most twisted thing I've read in a long time.
posted by indognito at 1:06 PM on August 2, 2012 [2 favorites]

I am both repulsed and intrigued by the Ushikawa character in Murikami's 1Q84. His thinking process, persistence, and murky motivation redeem his otherwise lizard like physical description. Murikami goes out of his way to make him seem hideous.
posted by rabbitsnake at 1:41 PM on August 2, 2012 [1 favorite]

Ignatius Reilly from A Confederacy of Dunces - a blow hard know it all who knows nothing.
posted by robocop is bleeding at 1:52 PM on August 2, 2012

Raistlin from Dragonlance. He's a total jerk, but the Twins series does a lot to make him a sympathetic bad ass.

Tasslehoff Burrfoot from same. He's hilarious but SO ANNOYING, omg. I mean, I dig the constant chipperness, but seriously, wtf. He's better explored in the short stories for that series, particularly one where he's turned into a squirrel. Characters like this are my specialty when I RPG, because they are really good at starting plots/moving them forward.

Daya, from Suzy McKee Charnas' The Holdfast Chronicles. This series is set in a postapocalyptic world where women ("fems") are slaves. Daya is part of the revolution/coup that reconquers Holdfast, freeing other women, and basically ushering in a dramatic social revolution. She was a pleasure slave, and because of this, no one trusts her, because she's used to being sneaky and using her perceived weakness as a weapon. She's introduced in Motherlines, the second book in the series, but to get a sense of how damaged this world has made everyone living in it, you should start with the first book, Walk to the End of the World.

Cordelia, from Margaret Atwood's Cat Eye. This novel predates Mean Girls by several years, but it's so awesome -- and way more complex. The narrator's relationship with Cordelia frames all her other relationships with women, through the blossoming feminist movement and her own understanding of herself as an aging artist. Cordelia and her malice are a type of haunting.
posted by spunweb at 2:27 PM on August 2, 2012 [2 favorites]

Any of the main characters in any of the books by Michel Houellebecq will fit your criteria.
posted by Kerasia at 3:09 PM on August 2, 2012 [1 favorite]

The main guy in Joe Hill's "Heart-Shaped Box" - an aging heavy metal star who loves dogs, doesn't treat his girlfriends great, and is haunted.
posted by Occula at 3:14 PM on August 2, 2012

Cordwainer Smith's characters - even the "evil" ones - in the Instrumentality of Mankind stories are very, very dear to me. They are the kind of kind and yet complex people (and other beings) who I'd love to see populate the entire world.
posted by honeyacid at 3:21 PM on August 2, 2012

spunweb beat me to Cordelia. Patricia Highsmith's Tom Ripley is a bad person you can't help but root for.
posted by goo at 3:49 PM on August 2, 2012

Also, TVTropes might be help here.
posted by spunweb at 3:52 PM on August 2, 2012

Oh man, I know you asked for contemporary characters, but Lizzie Eustace from Trollope's The Eustace Diamonds and Phineau Finn and Undine Spragg from Wharton's The Custom of the Country are hard to beat. Gold diggers who aren't afraid to lie cheat and steal if it gets them ahead - and it does.

For contemporary, let me add Arturo from Kathleen Dunn's Geek Love. Not sure I loved him or rooted for him, but it was delicious watching his rise and fall.

Also, not sure if either comes from a literary source, but since you also included fictional characters in general, the heroines of (films) The Last Seduction and The Opposite of Sex are probably the most compelling villains I can remember.
posted by Mchelly at 4:15 PM on August 2, 2012

AM Holmes' The End Of Alice has a paedophile as its narrator, and although his crimes and his thoughts are repugnant, despite yourself you feel sympathetic.

Charles Highway from The Rachel Papers made me want to put the book through a woodchipper. I don't know, however, whether he was written to be an insufferable prick or whether I just thought he was.

And as far as television goes, Don Draper from Mad Men and Vic Mackey from The Shield embody this in very different ways.
posted by mippy at 4:18 PM on August 2, 2012

Also, there are a lot of antagonists in sitcoms, who everyone hates but the viewer loves for their nastiness:

Lucille Bluth in Arrested Development
Lilith in Frasier
Bill McNeill in NewsRadio
Nina Van Horne in Just Shoot Me!
Jenna in 30 Rock (who is both vapid and bitchy - compare her with Kenneth who is nice to everyone)
Sally Smedley in Drop The Dead Donkey - Damien, the mercenary reporter who will do anything for a story, is dislikeable in a different way, but Sally is vain, rude, pompous and has an inflated sense of her own celebrity.

I can't think fo any others off the top of my head right now but it's a mainstay of ensemble comedies, it seems
posted by mippy at 4:23 PM on August 2, 2012

* everyone hates in-universe, sorry!
posted by mippy at 4:24 PM on August 2, 2012

Seconding spunweb on Cordelia in Cat's Eye.
posted by MidSouthern Mouth at 5:29 PM on August 2, 2012

Titus from MT Anderson's FEED makes me want to rip my hair out with his entitled apathy (and sometimes stupidity, and sometimes "product of society" innocence), though I think the novel itself is fantastic.
posted by weeyin at 12:06 AM on August 3, 2012

I felt this way for nearly all the main characters in The Secret History by Donna Tartt.
posted by guessthis at 4:29 AM on August 3, 2012

Almost all the characters in We Need to Talk About Kevin, especially Eva Khatchadourian, would fit your bill. Eva is a flawed yet sympathetic mother who details her deep ambivalence about motherhood, her unequal feelings about her children, and the ways parenting has affected her marriage.
posted by House of Leaves of Grass at 5:09 AM on August 3, 2012

And another couple classics, definitely not obscure, and it seems I have a knack for finding complicated literary ladies:

Gone with the Wind. Scarlett O'Hara was the very first character I hated but still wanted to come out on top. She's both self-centered and un-self-aware, almost pathologically disinterested in anyone around her, and yet subconsciously capable of deep loyalties and feelings.

Vanity Fair: Becky Sharp, similar to Scarlett, but a little more hard done by and a little more hard doing. Amelia Sedley Osborne, a sendup of a standard Victorian heroine, very patient Griselda and loyal to a fault. And a gentleman from this book: William Dobbin, honorable and chivalrous but burdened with critical thinking abilities at the least opportune moments.
posted by House of Leaves of Grass at 5:17 AM on August 3, 2012

Flashman is one of the most obnoxious, arrogant, self centred and thoroughly dislikeable characters I've ever had the pleasure to come across.
I'm not sure how complex a character he is; fundamentally he is pretty straightforward but it's this simplicity which makes his character both easy to identify with, and like, and thoroughly dislikeable due to his subsequent actions.

Iain.M.Banks' work is similarly peppered with complex characters. Often his characters begin as fairly shallow, obvious types but as they grow and develop subtler traits. The characters you start out expecting to dislike, you end up identifying with and loving.

Both authors seem to write 'badies' with such enthusiasm and pleasure that it's hard not to like them.
posted by BadMiker at 6:17 AM on August 3, 2012

Winter, in Sister Souljah's Coldest Winter Ever, would be horrible to know but is fascinating to read about.
posted by saucysault at 6:38 AM on August 3, 2012

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