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Books where protagonist is the most morally vile character

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Posted (edited)

This is a great thread.

I’d say that Dumas’ Musketeers are villain protagonists,  but I doubt that was the author’s intention. IMHO, there’s no way you can excuse hanging a pregnant woman, merely for lying about her background, or subsequently raping her by deception.  Add in blackmailing married women, extorting goods at sword point, beating servants, and committing treason.

That leads into all the gangster films and novels.  We may see these people as villains, but I’m not sure the authors and producers do.  Mario Puzo was in love with his characters. And, I’ve argued with plenty of people who claim Walter White is a straightforward hero.

One really compelling villain protagonist, surely intended by the author to be read as a villain, is Colleen McCullogh’s Sulla.

Edited by SeanF

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53 minutes ago, SeanF said:

And, I’ve argued with plenty of people who claim Walter White is a straightforward hero.

 

Given the title of the show, though, you'd have to think that's audience projection - they may have glamourised the life/reputation a little here and there to build his myth but it is undeniably a show about turning evil. 

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2 hours ago, SeanF said:

This is a great thread.

 

Last time I said that, a beautiful discussion got derailed. Your luck is better I hope

2 hours ago, SeanF said:

We may see these people as villains, but I’m not sure the authors and producers do.  Mario Puzo was in love with his characters.

Then GRRM could be the next de Sade

He loves Tyrion and Arya

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They're not at all part of fantasy or science fiction, but I think Michael Tolkin's The Player and The Return of the Player fit that among novels that I've read. These are very cynical takes on Hollywood where almost everyone in the entertainment business is presented as a villain, and the protagonist is at least as bad or worse as any other character. 

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Posted (edited)
9 hours ago, john said:

man driven crazy by a devious 13 year old

What????????????? she's 100% victim, as he's 100% the villain. She is in no way responsible for what he did to her, and did over and over and over, and knows how much she loathes it, as even Humbert mentions how he hears her weeping every night.

That's the problem.  We love these characters so much, as perhaps do their authors (though I don't think Nabokov loved Humbert -- he provided us with every facet of his narcissist, sociopathic narrator's knowing immorality, and all the excuses humbert makes to excuse himself -- including, as per usual, blaming the victim -- see now you've made me hit you again.

So though Puzo's in love with his characters, and the audience remains enthralled by evile violent protagonists, even those who do wicked acts and don't even bother to justify them -- it does feel that most of this country at least thinks they too have the liberty to behave the same way.

By the way, thank you, whichever poster it was, for bringing up McCullough's Sulla.  That was a brilliant depiction.

Edited by Zorral

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1 hour ago, The_Lone_Wolf said:

Last time I said that, a beautiful discussion got derailed. Your luck is better I hope

Then GRRM could be the next de Sade

He loves Tyrion and Arya

I feel a good deal of sympathy for Arya, but Tyrion is very much the Walter White of ASOIAF.

45 minutes ago, Zorral said:

What????????????? she's 100% victim, as he's 100% the villain. She is in no way responsible for what he did to her, and did over and over and over, and knows how much she loathes it, as even Humbert mentions how he hears her weeping every night.

That's the problem.  We love these characters so much, as perhaps do their authors (though I don't think Nabokov loved Humbert -- he provided us with every facet of his narcissist, sociopathic narrator's knowing immorality, and all the excuses humbert makes to excuse himself -- including, as per usual, blaming the victim -- see now you've made me hit you again.

So though Puzo's in love with his characters, and the audience remains enthralled by evile violent protagonists, even those who do wicked acts and don't even bother to justify them -- it does feel that most of this country at least thinks they too have the liberty to behave the same way.

By the way, thank you, whichever poster it was, for bringing up McCullough's Sulla.  That was a brilliant depiction.

I'm quite certain Nabokov was not in love with Humbert. 

She was in love with Caesar, arguably another villain protagonist, and i think his characterisation suffers as a result.  She was not in love with Sulla, and I think his characterisation is all the better for it.

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Posted (edited)
57 minutes ago, SeanF said:

She was in love with Caesar, arguably another villain protagonist

I see that all the time.  :dunno: 

I'm not always certain what a writer 'in love' with a character always means.  Sometimes it means the author is in awe of such a character emerging from my own little brain -- how did that happen? How did I get so lucky?  (Actors feel that way about some parts as well.)

Those writers though, who are seeing their own wish fulfillment for themselves, seeing themselves as the character, is pretty obvious, as well as very annoying to the readers who, unlike the author and often very many readers, see themselves and identify personally with the character as s/he/it/they/ "the awesomeness that is me."  Particularly annoying for those who don't even agree what the author and readers who agree is awesome is even awesome at all, but at best puerile and silly and vain, and repetitious.

I never thought Nabokov was in love with Humbert Humbert. For one thing,  Nabokov was a very different sort of writer, who didn't write out that kind of impulse.

Edited by Zorral

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53 minutes ago, Zorral said:

I see that all the time.  :dunno: 

I'm not always certain what a writer 'in love' with a character always means.  Sometimes it means the author is in awe of such a character emerging from my own little brain -- how did that happen? How did I get so lucky?  (Actors feel that way about some parts as well.)

Those writers though, who are seeing their own wish fulfillment for themselves, seeing themselves as the character, is pretty obvious, as well as very annoying to the readers who, unlike the author and often very many readers, see themselves and identify personally with the character as s/he/it/they/ "the awesomeness that is me."  Particularly annoying for those who don't even agree what the author and readers who agree is awesome is even awesome at all, but at best puerile and silly and vain, and repetitious.

I never thought Nabokov was in love with Humbert Humbert. For one thing,  Nabokov was a very different sort of writer, who didn't write out that kind of impulse.

I thought she had a literary crush on Caesar.  Everyone is in awe of his awesomeness, other than a few people who were jealous of his awesomeness.  As a junior officer, he already knows more than his general, Lucullus.  He’s a genius who doesn’t have to earn his place.  His crimes are excused, because he’s Caesar.

Sulla is objectively no worse than Caesar, but he’s entirely honest with himself.  There is no crime he won’t commit to become consul.  His achievements are 5% inspiration, and 95% perspiration.  He is amusing, sardonic, and quite genuinely surprised to learn there are people who love or respect him, when he considers he deserves neither.  He reminds me of Captain Kennit in The Liveships Trilogy.

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7 minutes ago, SeanF said:

 His crimes are excused, because he’s Caesar.

Who earned the excusal of his crimes by the means by which he became the awesomeness that is Caesar, such as learning all those languages and cultures from living with his landlady mom in the Suburra -- whereas another who isn't the awesomeness of Caesar would never have thought or bothered to take advantage of learning all that was possible to learn about code switching, etc. from growing up in the Suburra.  Something like that?

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3 hours ago, Zorral said:

What????????????? she's 100% victim, as he's 100% the villain. She is in no way responsible for what he did to her, and did over and over and over, and knows how much she loathes it, as even Humbert mentions how he hears her weeping every night.

That’s the preferable way of looking at it. Not sure it’s what’s in the text or what Nabokov intended and it’s certainly not how the book was received at the time.

And I’m sure Nabokov admired some aspects of Humbert as he disdained others. He’s generally characterised as a hateful person, however, which is why the book’s in this thread.

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Posted (edited)
1 hour ago, john said:

it’s what’s in the text or what Nabokov intended

This is IN the text, and it is what Nabokov intended, that humbert was a vile figure, to whom it mattered not at all, other than getting locked up and away from all opportunity to continue his vile practices.  After all the narrator himself reveals Lolita was far from the only child he's raped, though he only one he'd kidnapped. His nemesis, Quilty, is the same; they recognize each other even as they are rivals for little girls. From the first sentence and paragraph, humbert consciously coats his vileness in lush and lucid literary expression, knowing exactly how people fall for that. He even has hope that once the judge or jury or we read what he's told us, we'll certainly understand, forgive, and probably also see how the girl made him do it, and there was no choice.  All of this is overtly in the text as written by humbert himself. (Though of course it Nabokov who has written all the text and is the literary genius -- which would infuriate such a character in real life, off the page, which Nabokov also knew -- and got a certain ironic -- and literary -- pleasure from.)

Which is how they always get away with it, as Nabokov understood -- and that was what he was interested in exploring, far more so than the morality of what humbert did.  It was his character, and how these characters manipulate us into excusing them.  No one that good with writing / art / coaching / doctoring / teaching / making money could be an evil pedophile, rapist, murderer.  Just no way.  Plus the girl asked for it.

Over the years it's been fascinating too, after his death, to read what his wife has written about her husband, the writing of Lolita, the terror of publishing it at one point -- quite akin to Humbert's trepidation of going to prison -- choosing not to, and how she persuaded him to go ahead.  Nobody know what Nabokov was after, and intended, as she did.

 

Edited by Zorral

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On 8/1/2021 at 7:23 PM, IFR said:

I'm looking for books that unapologetically have a protagonist who is the villain of the story. Not a sympathetic villain, but a straight up force of harm. Hopefully the character has complexity, but the requirement is that the character is clearly someone who one typically roots against in conventional stories.

Plenty of good suggestions. Tragedies, Shakespeare as well as other ones, have great villains-protagonists. Also, Lautreamont's Maldoror would be a textbook example. Some of Sade's characters/writings as well.

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@Zorral it’s a generous interpretation. Nabokov was definitely preoccupied with the idea of a man in love with a child. He’d written about it before in earlier pieces in Russian. But it’s not because he wanted to explore the pernicious evil of child abuse. It’s because he was fascinated by the other perspective. By the notion of a man trapped in a forbidden, helpless, wicked love.

That’s absolutely what Lolita is about. The name itself is made up by Humbert for this character in his memoir. We barely get to know anything about the real Dolores, what she’s thinking or feeling. The book wasn’t interested in that.

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42 minutes ago, john said:

@Zorral it’s a generous interpretation. Nabokov was definitely preoccupied with the idea of a man in love with a child. He’d written about it before in earlier pieces in Russian. But it’s not because he wanted to explore the pernicious evil of child abuse. It’s because he was fascinated by the other perspective. By the notion of a man trapped in a forbidden, helpless, wicked love.

That’s absolutely what Lolita is about. The name itself is made up by Humbert for this character in his memoir. We barely get to know anything about the real Dolores, what she’s thinking or feeling. The book wasn’t interested in that.

I think that is what I said.

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1 hour ago, Clueless Northman said:

Plenty of good suggestions. Tragedies, Shakespeare as well as other ones, have great villains-protagonists. Also, Lautreamont's Maldoror would be a textbook example. Some of Sade's characters/writings as well.

Absolutely. 

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16 hours ago, SeanF said:

 

One really compelling villain protagonist, surely intended by the author to be read as a villain, is Colleen McCullogh’s Sulla.

It's been more than twenty years since I first read it, and I am still floored by the moment that Sulla received the Grass Crown. The greatest possible honor, achievable only by the honest mass esteem of the humblest of men. Sulla never seems to get over the shock of getting it, and when it finally whithers away I understood his bereavement. I think his son dying was less destructive, and his son dying was pretty destructive.

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4 minutes ago, illrede said:

It's been more than twenty years since I first read it, and I am still floored by the moment that Sulla received the Grass Crown. The greatest possible honor, achievable only by the honest mass esteem of the humblest of men. Sulla never seems to get over the shock of getting it, and when it finally whithers away I understood his bereavement. I think his son dying was less destructive, and his son dying was pretty destructive.

Yes, I love that part, too.  An even rarer honour than a triumph (and the grant, or refusal of a triumph is tainted by Senatorial politics) - really the highest honour that could be bestowed on a Roman.  Sulla genuinely can't understand why his soldiers esteem a man as bad as he knows himself to be.

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Vanity Fair by William Makepeace Thackeray is the first book that comes to mind.  The subtitle is A Novel Without A Hero.  The 'hero', Becky Sharp, being pretty much without conscience and amoral.  Similarly, Edith Wharton's The Custom of the Country features a similarly situated anti-hero Undinne Spragg.  And I'd add Margaret Mitchell's Gone With The Wind to this grouping as well.

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On 8/1/2021 at 7:23 PM, IFR said:

I'm looking for books that unapologetically have a protagonist who is the villain of the story. Not a sympathetic villain, but a straight up force of harm.

For a certain interpretation of the word "is", and with a few spoiler warnings:

Harry Potter.

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