I have to preface this week’s awesome topic – Characters you don’t want to love but you can’t help liking – with a bit of a disclaimer. You see, I hate the word ‘problematic’ about as much as I love this topic. It’s one of those words that I would be quite happy to see disappear from the English language forever.
I find ‘problematic’ is far too quickly and casually thrown around these days, often without a deeper exploration of why something or someone presents a problem. There’s also sometimes a lack of thought about the difference between ‘problematic’ when applied to celebrities or real life people versus fictional characters. I accept behaviour and traits in fictional characters, because I know they’re not real, that I would never accept from a real person. For example, since I just saw Thor: Ragnarok yesterday, I find the Marvel Universe Loki fascinating and fun, but I would drop-kick (or at least try!) anyone in real life who betrayed, killed, and generally caused chaos as he does. Ultimately, when it comes to fictional characters, I tend to prefer the term ‘flawed’ to ‘problematic’, and boy are these five characters flawed!
1. Gerald Tarrant (The Coldfire Trilogy by C.S. Friedman)
Gerald Tarrant is the most problematic of problematic faves. Although he was a great tactician and learned man, who crafted The Church of the One God, The Coldfire Trilogy opens with him quite literally murdering his wife and two children in order to strike a deal with the Fae, a powerful, magical, energy force that surrounds the planet. The Fae can be influenced by the human psyche, but working with the Fae often requires a great sacrifice, in Tarrant’s case, his humanity. Let’s just say that if you don’t like your characters morally grey, this is probably not the series for you!
900 years later, Gerald Tarrant lives, but as a force that feeds on fear itself. Yet when his life’s work, the Church, is threatened, he is drawn into a quest to destroy this new force of evil. It makes a lot more sense when you realize that Gerald is more or less a vampire – the most original twist on vampires (an overdone subject I’m not particularly interested in) I’ve seen in ages, but still basically a vampire (he’s allergic to sunlight and feeds on fear instead of blood). Gerald Tarrant’s relationship with traveling companion Damien Vryce, a warrior priest, develops from a mutual hatred but shared purpose, to a grudging respect, to a deeply felt friendship over the course of the series. They also rub off on one another, at least enough for Gerald to start doing the right thing and begin atoning for his past. All in all, he’s a snarky, good-looking, intelligent creature and there might just be heart buried under all that.
2. Walter Kovacs/Rorschach (Watchmen by Alan Moore)
Alan Moore’s acclaimed 1980s graphic novel turned the superhero genre on its head with a grim take on costumed vigilantes. Intending to show “that even the worst of them had something going for them, and even the best of them had their flaws” the pages are full of ‘problematic’ characters, but my favourite has always been Rorschach.
Objectively, Rorschach is a pretty awful person. Childhood experiences involving his abusive prostitute mother have stoked his misogyny, and he also appears to be homophobic. Sure he dresses up in a trademark trenchcoat and shifting inkblot mask and fights crime, but his belief in moral absolutism -an ethical view that actions are intrinsically right or wrong and there are no shades of grey – and inability to compromise make Rorschach a ruthless opponent.
Despite all this, there is something admirable in Rorschach’s devotion to his principles, in his friendship with fellow former vigilante Nite Owl, and in the sheer badass approach to fighting crime. The moment where an incarcerated Walter Kovacs yells at a crowd of inmates, many of whom he helped put away, “None of you seem to understand. I’m not locked in here with you. You’re locked in here with me.” is epic. Perhaps my favoritism comes from the fact that Rorschach’s narration of events, in the form of a journal, puts us inside his head, or perhaps it’s influenced by Jackie Earle Haley’s brilliant performance as the character in the 2009 movie. Then again it might just be the sympathy I feel for a man who tries to do good, leaving criminals bloodied but alive for police to deal with until he sees the very worst that humanity has to offer and is irrevocably changed by the experience.
3. Inspector Javert (Les Miserables by Victor Hugo)
While I’m firmly in the camp that will fight anyone who calls Javert, the nineteenth century policeman who doggedly chases escaped convict Jean Valjean, a villain, he is the main antagonist of the story. Javert is not evil. Rather, like Rorschach, he is an absolutist. Javert believes that the law is infallible and lives with the utmost respect for authority, and hatred for rebellion (which encompasses committing any crime, regardless of the reason for doing so). As Hugo writes, “He would have arrested his own father, if the latter had escaped from the galleys, and would have denounced his mother, if she had broken her ban. And he would have done it with that sort of inward satisfaction which is conferred by virtue.”
This binary worldview leaves no room for ambiguity, and Javert is so shaken by the realization that the law is not infallible that he sees no way in which he can continue to exist in the world.
Javert is a fascinating character though, one of my favourites in both the book and musical adaptation of Les Miserables. He’s persistent, ultimately does the right thing by showing Valjean mercy, and even has an excellent sense of humour! Sure he’s misguided and it leads to his downfall, but Javert’s really not a bad guy.
4. Kaz Brekker (Six of Crows/Crooked Kingdom by Leigh Bardugo)
Shaped by the tragic circumstances of his childhood, and driven by revenge, Kaz Brekker reinvents himself as a criminal mastermind and leader of a prominent Ketterdam gang, The Dregs. Ruthless, particularly in his pursuit of a prize, Kaz has cultivated a reputation for doing monstrous things, which conveniently means he doesn’t have to carry out every bluff.
Kaz definitely falls into a morally grey area. He’s someone that I would never want to meet in real life, but on the page I find morally ambiguous characters like him fascinating. As a reader, I can’t help but admire his obvious brilliance and the machinations of his mind. Even as obstacles come between him and his goals Kaz changes plans on the fly to accommodate, often with success. And then, of course, there’s Inej. In Six of Crows and Crooked Kingdom, Inej functions partially as Kaz’s conscience. His deep regard for her and developing romantic feelings allow him to let down his guard around Inej, revealing a softer side to the reader.
5. Cyril Avery (The Heart’s Invisible Furies by John Boyne)
In the interest of getting through at least a few weekly memes without answering LYMOND (although he definitely qualifies as a problematic character!), I’m taking a different route this time and saying Cyril from The Heart’s Invisible Furies. More than anyone else on this list Cyril is not a bad person, he’s just a very flawed human being who consistently makes poor choices. It’s easily to sympathise with Cyril and to understand where he’s coming from. I can only imagine the toll that being a gay man in Catholic Ireland during the twentieth century would take on a person, but Cyril’s choices are often enough to make the reader bang their head against a desk, culminating on his wedding night as he (SPOILERS) reveals to his best friend, who is also the brother of the woman he’s marrying, that he has been in love with him since they were young, and then takes off during the reception and never comes back!
Top Five Wednesday is currently hosted by Sam from Thoughts on Tomes. Want to join in the fun? Check out the goodreads group!
I realized I have a lot of morally dubious fictional character faves (and even more if you move out of books and into the realm of TV!) but these are some of the characters who have really made an impression on me. Who are some of your ‘problematic’ faves? And how do you feel about the term ‘problematic’?