Fiction with unsympathetic protagonists
November 21, 2018 3:04 AM   Subscribe

I'm looking for examples of compelling, engaging stories (including films, novels, television shows, video games, etc.) featuring completely unsympathetic protagonists -- individuals who are loathsome, annoying, disgusting. This excludes people who at first glance might be bad but who you end up actually rooting for, like Dexter, but rather main characters who are totally repulsive and yet at the center of an engrossing story. Thanks in advance! :)
posted by mrmanvir to Media & Arts (94 answers total) 13 users marked this as a favorite
David/Michael from The Office UK/US.
posted by ryanbryan at 3:16 AM on November 21, 2018 [1 favorite]

UK: House of Cards (Francis Urquhart), The Thick Of It (Malcolm Tucker), Fawlty Towers (Basil Fawlty)
posted by flabdablet at 3:20 AM on November 21, 2018 [3 favorites]

The UK House of Cards is exactly this, especially the first two seasons.
posted by GenjiandProust at 3:21 AM on November 21, 2018 [1 favorite]

US: BoJack Horseman (title character)
posted by flabdablet at 3:22 AM on November 21, 2018 [10 favorites]

US: Unreal. These are the *Worst*. People. Ever.
posted by alchemist at 3:23 AM on November 21, 2018 [7 favorites]

The Measurements of Decay features one of the most foul, unlikeable villains I’ve ever encountered in literature or otherwise. It’s also a great read!
posted by Fiorentina97 at 3:23 AM on November 21, 2018

Also, Transparent. You basically hate every one of the main characters at some point during the series.
posted by ryanbryan at 3:25 AM on November 21, 2018 [8 favorites]

Mickey Sabbath in Philip Ruth's Sabbath's Theatre is a dirty old man, both mentally and physically, and Roth really piles on the disgusting details.

John Self in Money by Martin Amis is all appetite and 1980s id.

Can't remember their names, but Irvine Welsh protagonists tend to be awful, especially in Marabou Stork Nightmares and in Filth, which includes a monologue from the main character’s tapeworm.
posted by betweenthebars at 3:32 AM on November 21, 2018 [3 favorites]

Elizabeth Hands Cass Neary series. I've only read the first book but Cass Neary was one of the most unlikeable, yet compelling, characters I've ever encountered.
posted by Constance Mirabella at 3:40 AM on November 21, 2018 [2 favorites]

I gave up on it long ago but I found that almost the entire cast of the Walking Dead were insufferable although I don't know if it meets the criteria of complex and engaging!

Inhumans - for a long time I couldn't figure out who the protagonists were meant to be because the "villain" really had a point. Its a pretty terrible show but mostly that's because the protagonists are terrible people fighting for something that most of the target audience would believe is fundamentally wrong. (caste based society with your caste being decided by how cool your mutation is)

Game of Thrones - complex and engrossing but maybe too complex for what you're looking for, none of the characters are completely unsympathetic, many start with good intentions but end up going down dark paths. Some are unrepentantly bad, like Ramsey Snow but not a protagonist. Cersei comes close, I wouldn't call her the protagonist - tbh, its not as simple as this is the villain, this is the protagonist... but she is a major figure
posted by missmagenta at 3:45 AM on November 21, 2018

The Sopranos.
posted by soren_lorensen at 3:55 AM on November 21, 2018 [8 favorites]

Claire Messud’s The Woman Upstairs, who many reviewers and readers slammed as “unlikeable:

“When Messud was recently asked by [Publishers Weekly] if she would like to be friends with Nora (the interviewer said, emphatically, that she would not), she responded sharply: “For heaven’s sake, what kind of question is that? Would you want to be friends with Humbert Humbert? Would you want to be friends with Mickey Sabbath? Saleem Sinai? Hamlet? Krapp? Oedipus? Oscar Wao? Antigone? Raskolnikov? Any of the characters in The Corrections? Any of the characters in Infinite Jest? Any of the characters in anything Pynchon has ever written? Or Martin Amis? Or Orhan Pamuk? Or Alice Munro, for that matter? If you’re reading to find friends, you’re in deep trouble. We read to find life, in all its possibilities. The relevant question isn’t “is this a potential friend for me?” but “is this character alive?””
posted by sestaaak at 4:03 AM on November 21, 2018 [10 favorites]

posted by kimberussell at 4:04 AM on November 21, 2018 [1 favorite]

Walter White from Breaking Bad.
posted by Betelgeuse at 4:07 AM on November 21, 2018 [11 favorites]

And another repulsive utterly compelling FEMALE protagonist, Ottessa Moshfegh’s main character in Eileen is awesomely awful.

“I love my characters, but I don’t like them.”
posted by sestaaak at 4:15 AM on November 21, 2018 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Hi all! Thanks for these -- these are helpful. One thing, though, is that I wonder whether we still root for many of these characters. We wouldn't want to be friends with them, and might find them annoying, but we somehow find ourselves pushing for them to do well or succeed, or we somehow sympathize. (This might not be true for many of those characters -- I don't know many of them and will have to look them up.)

Here's what I'm thinking about more generally. Creators use all kinds of techniques to get us to like or have sympathy for their characters -- they make them attractive or noble or, even in the absence of more positive qualities, make them seem endearing or make their goals seem justified in some way or make them suffer or seem like underdogs. But I wonder -- can a story be engaging in the absence of these hooks? Will I follow a story purely because I want to know how a character overcomes an obstacle, even when I have no sympathy for the character?

Thanks for all of the suggestions so far! I have a lot to dig into :)
posted by mrmanvir at 4:16 AM on November 21, 2018 [1 favorite]

I can think of two narrators and arguably main characters in novels by Nabokov.

Lolita's Humbert Humbert is a pedophile and a murderer.

Pale Fire's editor/footnoter Charles Kinbote is a snob, a pest and a bore, possibly a psychopathic liar.
posted by kandinski at 4:21 AM on November 21, 2018 [12 favorites]

Alex DeLarge, the narrator and protagonist of A Clockwork Orange, is problematic, partly because of the treatment that he receives from the State and his victims, and partly because there were two versions of the novel. In one version, he experiences a change of heart, and in the other he doesn't.
posted by Multicellular Exothermic at 4:25 AM on November 21, 2018 [4 favorites]

Mike Leigh's "Naked"
posted by rhizome at 4:30 AM on November 21, 2018 [3 favorites]

Try Andrew Davidson’s The Gargoyle. The narrator occasionally seems sympathetic, particularly because there are four thematically linked sub stories that lead you down a particular set of literary assumptions but the last chapter reverses them.
posted by warriorqueen at 4:55 AM on November 21, 2018 [1 favorite]

Lionel Shriver’s novels do this. Not just We Need to Talk About Kevin, but each one i’ve read so far, maybe four of them.
posted by wellred at 4:59 AM on November 21, 2018 [3 favorites]

A Confederacy of Dunces maybe?
posted by uncleozzy at 4:59 AM on November 21, 2018 [13 favorites]

So you're not looking for loathesome characters who you're rooting for anyway, you're looking for characters who you're rooting for their downfall? Antiheroes? Because most unlikeable characters, if they're driving the plot, you're going to care what happens--even if you hate the character, you're invested in their goals.

Richard III is a loathesome person--you see him murder children, manipulate people into horrible things, etc. But you want to know if he can get away with it, and watching him do it is sickly fascinating. And he's clever, and it's fun watching him be clever. So you could say you're rooting for him (though really you want everyone around him to catch on), and there's definitely some charm there. Otherwise the whole story would just be unpleasant, even if it was compelling.
posted by gideonfrog at 5:04 AM on November 21, 2018 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: @gideonfrog -- that's precisely what I'm wondering! In other words -- does engagement in a story necessitate sympathy with the protagonist?

It seems like it sometimes doesn't. I want to (re)visit many of the examples people have posted. I do wonder if stories that feature people who are especially twisted -- like sociopathic murderers or pedophiles -- are interesting and can sustain interest in the absence of sympathy for the character, if only to understand (As gideonfrog wrote, "watching him do it is sickly fascinating.")

I just read Hanya Yanagihara's People in the Trees. The protagonist is selfish, ambitious, snobby, and a pedophile, largely indifferent to the suffering he wreaks. But it's engrossing.
posted by mrmanvir at 5:14 AM on November 21, 2018

Read Tom Ripley:

The Talented Mr. Ripley, Ripley Under Ground, Ripley’s Game, The Boy Who Followed Ripley, and Ripley Under Water

The True Story Behind Tom Ripley

Watch Tom Ripley:

Purple Noon (1960), The American Friend (1977), The Talented Mr. Ripley (1999), Ripley's Game (2002), Ripley Under Ground (2005).
posted by mr. remy at 5:17 AM on November 21, 2018 [6 favorites]

You've read Gone With the Wind, right? Scarlett O'Hara is pretty much the template for this.
posted by tomboko at 5:17 AM on November 21, 2018 [1 favorite]

Bel Ami is what immediately jumped to mind for me. Also arguably The Way We Live Now.
posted by saladin at 5:18 AM on November 21, 2018

Young Adult
Dark Horse (2011)
posted by blackzinfandel at 5:33 AM on November 21, 2018 [3 favorites]

I'm amazed no one has mentioned It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia yet! The main characters are all terrible people... and you don't root for them as much as you root for seeing them in painful/embarrassing situations.
posted by Grither at 5:36 AM on November 21, 2018 [3 favorites]

I'm surprised Hannibal hasn't been mentioned yet, especially the most recent TV series.
posted by lesser weasel at 5:43 AM on November 21, 2018

I also wanted to suggest Humbert Humbert. What made that story effective for me when I read it was coming to the end and realizing from his telling of the ending how badly I’d been snowed by his telling of the beginning, without realizing it. So it is and isn’t an example, maybe. I came to have sympathy for the narrator and later was repulsed and ashamed to have that sympathy revealed to me for what it was.
posted by eirias at 5:50 AM on November 21, 2018 [1 favorite]

There's also Becky Sharp in Vanity Fair.
posted by tomboko at 5:54 AM on November 21, 2018 [1 favorite]

Jane Tennison From the TV series Prime Suspect is a variation on this. You root for her because she’s hunting really terrible murderers in a system that denigrates her and stymies her, and she is usually right, but she’s also hard-headed, dismissive, and notably unsympathetic (in the last few seasons) to women under her command who made different life choices than she has. Tennis on is complex, heroic, infuriating, and more than a little tragic.
posted by GenjiandProust at 5:57 AM on November 21, 2018

Pretty much anybody in Happiness, by Todd Solondz.
posted by LionIndex at 5:59 AM on November 21, 2018 [3 favorites]

Vexed on Netflix has a detective who is really not somebody you want to have to work with, but there is humour anď the mysteries are clever, and a perfect love/hate , mostly hate character.
posted by Enid Lareg at 6:14 AM on November 21, 2018

does engagement in a story necessitate sympathy with the protagonist?

I don't know much about theater but if I remember correctly, this is basically Bertolt Brecht's whole deal, writing plays where you actually just can't relate to or like any of the characters. I saw Threepenny Opera in ninth grade before I knew anything about him and it was a really weird experience, I kept trying to sympathize with the people in the play and I just couldn't. It's like I was trying to climb a wall and I kept sliding off, I just couldn't latch on emotionally in any way.
posted by Mrs. Pterodactyl at 6:32 AM on November 21, 2018 [3 favorites]

I think this was what A Confederacy of Dunces was written for

Maybe Humbert Humbert in Lolita? He's certainly not sympathetic now.
posted by Mchelly at 6:39 AM on November 21, 2018 [2 favorites]

Every character in The Dinner by Herman Koch is despicable. Just awful human beings. I could not put the book down because I was so invested in hating these people.
posted by lindseyg at 6:41 AM on November 21, 2018 [2 favorites]

The Vacationers by Emma Straub. Man I hated every character in that book yet liked the book all the same.
posted by lyssabee at 6:47 AM on November 21, 2018

This is going to be controversial, but the Flashman novels by George Macdonald Fraser? They're sort of comic history of the British Empire, with the narrator bumbling around being cowardly and evil but always ending up looking like a hero. I think the authorial intent was for you to be charmed by the narrator, but they always worked pretty well for me as entertainment despite my hating him.
posted by LizardBreath at 6:53 AM on November 21, 2018 [3 favorites]

What about Mad Men? Pretty much all the main characters, I was constantly yelling at to "Get out! Get out of this soul-crushing industry and stop cheating on your spouses!" I mean, for a few of them (mainly Peggy) you could see a spark inside that you wanted to protect, but for me it was mainly watching fascinatingly horrible people screw up their lives and be deservedly miserable.
posted by rikschell at 7:00 AM on November 21, 2018 [10 favorites]

Yes. The Sopranos and Mad Men. I was surprised Don Draper was not mentioned sooner!

I watched Mad Men until the end because I’m from NYC + I know folks who worked at the agency the woman that Peggy was based on was partner at, so I felt committed, but fuck was that a slog at the end.

Don Draper and Tony Soprano ENTIRELY cured me of anti-heroes and I will never watch Bojack Horseman. Message received.
posted by jbenben at 7:09 AM on November 21, 2018 [3 favorites]

I also found every single character in Lev Grossman's The Magicians to be awful and unsympathetic in their own unique snowflakely ways. (I hated that book. What the world adamantly does not need is a mashup of Catcher in the Rye and Harry Potter.)
posted by soren_lorensen at 7:12 AM on November 21, 2018 [12 favorites]

The Ginger Man by J.P. Donleavy, is a classic example of a real asshole you can't stop reading about.
posted by dis_integration at 7:13 AM on November 21, 2018 [1 favorite]

I also came here to say Herman Koch's novel The Dinner . Loathsome, loathsome, LOATHSOME people absolutely not sympathetic and not presented sympathetically, but they're wrapped up in a trainwreck narrative spun in a compelling way. It worked for me because of the mystery of their meeting, the dynamic of multiple axes of different kinds of loathsomeness among the main characters, and also I wanted to know what they'd get away with their loathsomeness or if they'd show any slimmer of revulsion at it.

I think there was a film made of it, but I've only read the book. I don't normally have patience for books with intentionally loathsome characters, but the narrative of this one just clicked for me.
posted by mixedmetaphors at 7:15 AM on November 21, 2018 [2 favorites]

I think Trainspotting also does this, plus there’s a second book or film that hammers the point home.

Ah! Here it is. Irvine Welsh wrote a sequel to Trainspotting called PORNO, and director Danny Boyle has filmed a related sequel. Re the sequel... “According to Carlyle, he and other members of the Trainspotting cast had already read John Hodge's script, which would take place 20 years (much like its intended 2016 release) after the original plot. Filming started on 16 May 2016,[71] Carlyle praised Hodge's screenplay and hinted that T2 "is going to be quite emotional for people. Because the film sort of tells you to think about yourself. You are going to be thinking: 'Fuck. What have I done with my life?”[72]

posted by jbenben at 7:23 AM on November 21, 2018

The Scar by China Miéville. There are two point-of-view characters; one is fine, but the other, Bellis, is so aggravatingly self-absorbed and petty-minded, despite being at the centre of a fascinating story and environment, that it made it hard for me to enjoy the book.
posted by daisyk at 7:25 AM on November 21, 2018

A Confederacy of Dunces maybe?

yes, absolutely, to the extent where when people have recommended the book to me without mentioning how much they loathed him, i peer at them suspiciously and judgmentally.
posted by poffin boffin at 7:29 AM on November 21, 2018 [4 favorites]

I just want to second alchemist's recommendation for UnREAL. You're initially set up to view Rachel as the underdog protagonist trying to get her life together and her boss Quinn as the stereotypical bitch queen antagonist. It was kind of thrilling to realize that Rachel was as fully fleshed out an antihero as Tony, Walter, and Don.
posted by whuppy at 7:31 AM on November 21, 2018 [2 favorites]

“Pretty much anybody in Happiness, by Todd Solondz.
posted by LionIndex at 5:59 AM on November 21”


Also the 2009 follow-up with new actors playing the same characters Life During Wartime.

But seriously, Happiness was an amazing depiction of what you are looking for. I was so blown away when I saw this in the theater that I squealed with delight years later when I found out Wartime was being made.
posted by jbenben at 7:32 AM on November 21, 2018 [1 favorite]

Almost all the characters in The Tree of Hands by Ruth Rendell are horrible, except for the main characters. Rendell is known for her unlikeable characters in general, although quite often there is a psychological reason that makes them a little more sympathetic in the eyes of some.
posted by BibiRose at 7:40 AM on November 21, 2018

I found My Year of Rest and Relaxation by Ottessa Moshfegh completely engrossing and enjoyable, and (I would argue) the main character never becomes in any way sympathetic or likeable, or even particularly interesting as a human being.
posted by LeeLanded at 7:47 AM on November 21, 2018 [2 favorites]

By the end of Gone Girl, I thought everyone was terrible, but I know some people who were still sympathetic to the narrator. That's talking about the book. I thought the movie made him more sympathetic. Comparing the book and movie might help you with figuring out how this works.

I can't find it now, but perhaps someone else will remember this. There was a book a few years ago that was a runner up for the Man Booker prize that was narrated by a murderer. As I recall, he remained unsympathetic throughout. I remember he killed the person trying to steal a painting he thought was rightfully his. (I would be grateful myself if someone could come up with the name.) I think it was a two-word title, and the first word was "the". Googling is turning up The Goldfinch and The Luminaries, and it's definitely not either of those.
posted by FencingGal at 7:57 AM on November 21, 2018 [1 favorite]

Every character in Arrested Development.
posted by mochapickle at 8:02 AM on November 21, 2018 [5 favorites]

Henry: Portrait Of A Serial Killer
posted by brianrobot at 8:02 AM on November 21, 2018

Also, I haven't read it myself, but I've been told that everyone in David Foster Wallace's Brief Interviews with Hideous Men is terrible. It's a collection of stories.
posted by FencingGal at 8:07 AM on November 21, 2018

Kind of surprised no one has mentioned The Venture Brothers yet. Nearly all the main characters are varying sorts of awful people, especially the lead Dr. Rusty Venture; if you ever root for him it's only in the sense that you pity the awful childhood that turned him into the awful adult he is, and hope he eventually somehow manages to become a better person for the sake of everyone around him. (But I'm a season or two behind on Venture Brothers right now, so this may have changed!)
posted by waffleriot at 8:21 AM on November 21, 2018 [2 favorites]

Girls was sort of this for me. I did wind up rooting for all the characters, which I think is partly just human nature, but for most of them, I was really rooting for them to grow the fuck up and become less terrible. Especially Hannah and Marnie. However, both of them, especially Hannah, have sides that are quite charming - the show would probably not have lasted very long if they were completely unlikeable.
posted by lunasol at 8:23 AM on November 21, 2018 [2 favorites]

Came in to second what mr remy said, but to add that pretty much anything by Patricia Highsmith will fit this bill.
posted by elgee at 8:28 AM on November 21, 2018

I feel like Chris Elliott played with this a lot, especially in Get A Life and (IIRC) Cabin Boy
posted by Mchelly at 8:38 AM on November 21, 2018 [3 favorites]

Perfume: The Story of a Murderer, by Patrick Suskind.
posted by MovableBookLady at 8:40 AM on November 21, 2018 [4 favorites]

Steerpike from the Gormenghast novels
posted by littlesq at 9:02 AM on November 21, 2018 [3 favorites]

This is going to be controversial, but the Flashman novels by George Macdonald Fraser?

They have an update set in the Warhammer 40,000 in the memoirs of Ciaphas Cain (HERO OF THE IMPERIUM!), revealing that he was always a self-serving, manipulative coward whose attempts to put the most distance between himself and danger always backfired, putting him in greater danger that makes him look heroic by surviving. But Cain is likable, the reader always roots for him and his companions, the annotations to his memoirs speculate that Cain may have vastly underestimated how actually heroic he was.
posted by Gelatin at 9:04 AM on November 21, 2018 [1 favorite]

I am flip-flopping on this recommendation, but Logan Ninefingers in The First Law Trilogy kind of goes back and forth between being sympathetic and being pretty darned unlikeable. There are a couple of antihero characters in the story, actually, and they're all interesting but not necessarily sympathetic, depending on your point of view.
posted by DingoMutt at 9:08 AM on November 21, 2018

Seconding American Psycho from above, but the novel version specifically. The film version doesn't nearly delve into the horrors of Patrick Bateman in nearly the same depth as the novel.

Also The Dice Man by Luke Rhinehart
posted by SonInLawOfSam at 9:30 AM on November 21, 2018

Tampa, by Alissa Nutting - Protagonist is a young female pedophile who uses her position as a middle school teacher to gain access to her victims

The End of Alice, by A.M. Homes - Protagonist is an imprisoned pedophile

You, by Caroline Kepnes - Protagonist is a stalker
posted by lakemarie at 9:38 AM on November 21, 2018 [2 favorites]

Elias Canetti's Auto-da-Fé: In a way, each character represents the totalitarian mindset, always to their bitter undoing. Every character seems to present a type of insanity, with the exception of Georges Kien, who in fact venerates insanity, to the point of regarding it as superior, even holy.
posted by Gortuk at 9:39 AM on November 21, 2018

This is pretty much Jim Thompson's body of work.
posted by soundguy99 at 9:44 AM on November 21, 2018 [1 favorite]

Spring Breakers fits the bill for me. The four girls are shallow, selfish and have loathsome morals. Even the character that gets away because she chickens out and goes home is pathetic and still guilty. Spoilers: That the two remaining girls get the upper hand in the end does nothing to elevate them or the people they've interacted with.

Yet you also don't come away considering any of the characters (including Alien) to be objects of actual disdain, per se. I'm having difficulty finding the right words for it. Idislike the people and hate what they've done, but I don't consider them as having agency enough to do any better, even as they prove themselves to be effective at reaching their goals. I didn't find myself rooting for them because what they wanted was so shitty. I didn't end up hating them either. Too awful for pity, too lost for scorn. I just ended up hating the world that gave them their motivations. I think I was rooting against them the whole time AND I was transfixed by the story.

As with all stories, I'm sure some people DO sympathize or identify more closely with these characters. Certainly, I'm a punky dude watching the opposite of my demographic. I watched it with my film buff friend, and I think we both knew there was something unique about it. I'm not sure if I can think of another film quite like it. Maybe Wolf of Wall Street, but I think that more explicitly tries to get you to root for the characters, even while making them terrible.
posted by es_de_bah at 9:45 AM on November 21, 2018 [1 favorite]

Husband says: Stephen R. Donaldson did this a few times. I’m surprised no one else had yet mentioned The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant or the Gap Cycle.
posted by cabingirl at 9:53 AM on November 21, 2018 [1 favorite]

Destination Wedding is a rom-com, more or less, with two of the most unlikeable and unpleasant people ever stuck in a taxi together. By the end of the movie, I wasn't sure if I was rooting for them or had decided they deserved each other. It's a very weird feeling to be rooting for the romance while side-eyeing absolutely everything the characters do. ("Oh just kiss already! If you're kissing, you have to shut up; omg can we get to the kissing already so I don't have to listen to these people talk anymore?")

I watched two episodes of The Magicians and then told the friend who'd suggested it to me, "all of these people are horrible. I'm not wasting time watching vile people be mean and selfish to each other."
posted by ErisLordFreedom at 9:53 AM on November 21, 2018 [1 favorite]

camus' the stranger
posted by 20 year lurk at 9:58 AM on November 21, 2018 [1 favorite]

Heather, The Totality by Matthew Weiner (he also created Mad Men, so make of that what you will). Not a single character to root for, and all of them to actively dislike.

And nthing The Dinner (book, haven't seen the movie).
posted by hurdy gurdy girl at 10:09 AM on November 21, 2018

Maybe KJ Parker's Engineer Trilogy? Almost everyone is a total asshole/sociopath/unlikable for some other reason. At no point did I root for them. But it was a VERY tightly machined plot (on purpose) and I read to find out how things resolved.

Downside: I didn't really feel like any of the characters were people. Rather, I felt they were plot devices inside a larger plot. (I wonder why!) A lot of Parker's stuff is of this flavor, if you like this sort of thing.
posted by aperturescientist at 10:45 AM on November 21, 2018

Peter David's Sir Apropos of Nothing might meet your needs.
posted by bryon at 11:09 AM on November 21, 2018

The Wasp Factory by Iain Banks would probably fit the bill, but fair warning, it is also one of the more disturbing works of fiction I've ever read, and I have a pretty high tolerance for that sort of thing.

You might also be interested in The Butcher Boy, either the movie or the book by Patrick McCabe. You definitely kind of start off sympathetic because the character is so funny and charming, but without giving away too much, the sympathy becomes a lot harder to sustain as the story progresses. Honestly, anything by Patrick McCabe is probably along the same vein.
posted by helloimjennsco at 11:41 AM on November 21, 2018

Henry: Portrait Of A Serial Killer

Ooh yeah, and on that note, In Cold Blood (haven't read the book, but the movie is great)

The Great Santini? (ibid.)
posted by rhizome at 12:43 PM on November 21, 2018 [1 favorite]

I stopped reading 1Q84 because of how fucking gross and dickish and boring and self absorbed and creepy sexist and bleh the (main?) character was. I still don’t know if it’s a massive troll and that’s the genius of it, if he’s genuinely meant to be as trite and offputting as he is or if it’s just the worst shot I’ve ever read. Everyone else was pretty awful too as far as I made it.
posted by Iteki at 1:11 PM on November 21, 2018

The Prague Cemetary has a narrator do appalling that I am struggling to read it. He’s supposed to be monsterous, but there’s a point where “instructional antisemetism” still means reading a lot of antisemetic stuff, and... I’m not sure I can. So I guess, if you want a narrator so terrible that there’s no sympathy at all...
posted by GenjiandProust at 2:07 PM on November 21, 2018

Johnny Depp's character Rochester in The Libertine starts the novel with a soliloquy:

Allow me to be frank at the commencement. You will not like me. The gentlemen will be envious and the ladies will be repelled. You will not like me now and you will like me a good deal less as we go on ... That is it. That is my prologue, nothing in rhyme, no protestations of modesty, you were not expecting that I hope. I am John Wilmot, Second Earl of Rochester and I do not want you to like me.

Similar to DingoMutt's mention of 'The First Law,' Mark Lawrence's 'The Broken Empire' trilogy has an absolute jerk of a protagonist, who doesn't want sympathy. (But the character grew to be sympathetic to the reader, but remains - sometimes falsely - an utter bastard in the eyes of the other characters.

The follow up trilogy 'The Red Queens War' features a different protagonist who is also a jerk, but is also a coward, “I'm a liar and a cheat and a coward, but I will never, ever, let a friend down. Unless of course not letting them down requires honesty, fair play, or bravery.” The character remains unsympathetic as he remains whiny and never actually grows.

I rank both trilogies in the top 10% - maybe even 5% of fiction that I've read.
posted by porpoise at 2:11 PM on November 21, 2018 [1 favorite]

The Good Soldier by Ford Madox Ford is a great example of this. You might not hate the protagonist at first, but just keep going.
posted by Polycarp at 3:28 PM on November 21, 2018 [1 favorite]

Nearly every character in the HBO series, Oz.
posted by skye.dancer at 3:40 PM on November 21, 2018 [2 favorites]

Practically every character in Scandal, if you can stand to watch it. This particularly true after season 2.
posted by jgirl at 3:59 PM on November 21, 2018 [2 favorites]

Narcos (and Narcos: Mexico)! Fantastic storytelling that gets you interested in how druglords cleverly solve logistic problems while simultaneously getting you invested in seeing them brought to justice.
posted by nicodine at 4:30 PM on November 21, 2018

Tv show: Veep! Loathsome characters and hilarious as fuck.
Movie: The Prestige

Also seconding The Gargoyle by Andrew Davidson, Mad Men, Game of Thrones, Arrested Development, and Breaking Bad for their characters who are in many ways reprehensible people but also flawed and vulnerable in ways that resonate.
posted by DTMFA at 8:47 PM on November 21, 2018

The scary thing about Quentin in The Magicians is that I'm far from certain Grossman intended him to be quite so thoroughly unlikeable as he turned out to be. I think there are a fair number of male novelists who write "flawed" young male protagonists who they treat with the same mixture of mild self-hatred and substantial self-indulgence they regard themselves with, and they can vastly underestimate how repellent the characters come off as to those not afflicted with their specific ego-disease. The protagonist of You Don't Have to Live Like This is another example.

In more classic literature, the central figure of Berlin Alexanderplatz is remarkably off-putting for someone you've got to spend 600-plus pages with. The author is constantly negotiating with you over whether you'll like him or hope he succeeds even a little bit.
posted by praemunire at 10:40 PM on November 21, 2018

(The relevant question isn’t “is this a potential friend for me?” but “is this character alive?””

Too bad Messud fails on both counts. The Emperor's Children remains one of the worst well-regarded pieces of literary fiction of this century.)
posted by praemunire at 10:44 PM on November 21, 2018

Oh, if the question is about something where the "protagonist" is terrible - yeah, 'The Magicians' put me off the entire thing. Terrible.

Sandman Slim might be where 'The Magicians' were trying to steal from but even it it did, it did it badly.

SS might qualify if you're a total square/ g-man, but then again Sandman Slim/ Stark/ Jimmy isn't lovely unless you're super punk/ crusty. *Everyone* but his friends *HATES* him, even nominal allies.

And he ends up pissing off most of his friends. And most of the manifestations of God. And all of the manifestations of Lucifer and most of (classic) Hell - but he makes up for that.

The readers for the audiobooks are generally great.

*edit: 'Libertine' was a movie, not a novel - although I wouldn't be surprised if it was based on a novel written in the last 20 years.
posted by porpoise at 11:27 PM on November 21, 2018

Barry Lyndon.
posted by pushing paper and bottoming chairs at 7:26 AM on November 22, 2018

I do think Grossman became more aware of how messed-up Quentin was by the time he wrote the third book, and the TV series has sidelined him as the mopey one in the ensemble rather than the central character, which was an excellent decision.
posted by rikschell at 7:27 AM on November 22, 2018 [1 favorite]

One could argue that in contemporary tv and movies, the majority of characters are pretty awful or incredibly insipid.

American Psycho is described as satirical. I only read an excerpt, enough to know I wouldn't carry it in my book store, but the writer is in love with the character. Content warning: It's quite violent.

I couldn't finish Tom Wolfe's The Bonfire of the Vanities because the characters are all awful.
posted by theora55 at 10:01 AM on November 22, 2018

I'd propose Holden(!) Ford from "Mindhunter". He really is a self-centered, deceitful and arrogant worm. Yes, a good profiler but that's because he's a dick himself.
posted by Rumple at 8:19 PM on November 23, 2018

I wouldn't want Beavis and Butthead anywhere near me. (They might not count because you asked for characters in "compelling, engaging... engrossing" stories).

D-503 is the protagonist and narrator of the proto-dystopian science fiction novel, 'We'. He comes across as a pretty angry and irritable person.
posted by Multicellular Exothermic at 7:35 AM on November 24, 2018

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