Unreliable, whiney, un-likable, liars—we’ve all read characters like this! I love to read a good book with a “bad” (and/or unreliable) narrator. This kind of flawed storyteller reaches to the reader and asks us to question, look deeper, and ponder truth and lies. It is a sign of an excellent author who can manipulate you to love the book and hate the character. Skilled writers make the reader believe the lies and then accept the truth.
Here are some favorite examples of protagonists I love to hate.
- In this year’s Printz Award recipient I’ll Give You the Sun by Jandy Nelson twins Noah and Jude lie to each other, lie to their parents, and lie to themselves (and by extension to us: the reader). With all the lies it’s no wonder there was so much to reveal in this tale. The sneakiness and bad treatment of each other made me distinctly dislike them. But Nelson also juxtaposed the twins’ nastiness with descriptions of how deeply they love each other.
- Cadence from We Were Liars by E. Lockhart (2015 Top Ten Best Fiction for Young Adults). Here is what I consider to be a likeable character and one whom I really felt for. But what if I knew the truth of what really happened that summer at the beginning of this book? Would I still have felt so sympathetic towards Cady?
- Froi and Quintana from Melina Marchetta’s Lumatere Chronicles. Only Melina Marchetta (Printz Award winner) could take a predatory lowlife like Froi was when we first met him in Finnikin of the Rock (2011 Top Ten Best Fiction for Young Adults) and turn him around so distinctly then lead him to star in his own story. Froi is redeemed in Finnikin of the Rock; grows in Froi of the Exiles, and become a hero in Quintana of Charyn. In the second installment of the Lumatere Chronicles Marchetta also introduces Quintana: one of the grossest characters I have ever imagined in a book and quickly made me love her. Quintana is prickly, deranged, damaged, paranoid, abused, and abusive. But she becomes a hero too—fiercely protective and thoroughly decent.
- This One Summer (2015 Printz honor) by Mariko Tamaki and Jillian Tamaki. Main character Rose is judgmental, sullen and frankly—a lot less fun than her younger buddy Windy. Rose is distinctly cruel to her mother in this tale (a woman who cannot really be that old but is even drawn in a cruelly- ageing sketch). Rose is quick to side with the townie lowlife guy (the “dud”) who works at the local store because she has a crush on him. She attempts to further sully the reputation of the local girl impregnated and ignored by the loser. I would certainly not want Rose as a friend — but Takami and Tamaki have created such a realistic portrayal of a pre-teen girl.
- Monster by Walter Dean Myers (1994 Margaret A. Edwards Award winner). This 2000 Printz Award Winner is an oldie but goodie! Steve Harmon is in a juvenile detention center awaiting trial and tells his story in the form of a movie script. He was “involved” in a crime, but what really happened? How does the format in which Steve tells his side of things affect what we learn later?
- 2015 Printz Honor Grasshopper Jungle by Andrew Smith. Austin Szerba is a polarizing character who dredges up strong reactions from readers all across the board. Some love Austin; dubbing him a punk and touting his “typical teenage boy” characteristics. Some hate Austin; his self-centered arrogance, concern with only his own (male) family history, as well as his dismissive treatment of female characters.. Yet readers cannot argue that this unique book has merit.
- Before I Fall by Lauren Oliver (2011 Best Fiction for Young Adults, 2011 Teens’ Top Ten) Samantha Kingston is that girl from high school: the pretty, popular, and mean one whom everyone hated but also wanted to befriend. Samantha is one of the most realistically portrayed characters I have ever read. And I hated her. Sam is shallow in such a real way. Yet I cheered for her to grow into a better person by living her last day over and over; to learn to see the good in people, and become better.
Some other examples of unlikeable characters and/or unreliable narrators:
- June from the Legend trilogy by Marie Lu
- Kaye from Holly Black’s Tithe (2006 Quick Pick for Reluctant Young Adult Readers, Best Book for Young Adults 2006, 2005 Popular Paperback for Young Adults)
- Bella from Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight saga (Top Ten Quick Pick Book for Young Adult Reader’s 2006)
- Aslaug from Christina Meldrum’s Madapple (2009 Morris Finalist, 2009 Best Books for Young Adults)
- Win from Charm & Strange by Stephanie Kuehn (2014 Morris Award Winner)
- Charlie from Stephen Chbosky’s The Perks of Being a Wallflower (2002 Popular Paperbacks for Young Adults, 2000 Quick Picks for Reluctant Readers, 2000 Best Books for Young Adults)
- Colette from Sonya Sones’ To Be Perfectly Honest: A Novel Based on an Untrue Story
- Colleen from Katherine Howe’s Conversion
- Kathy from Never Let me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro(2006 Alex Award Winner).
What narrators do you love to hate? Any disagree with my selections?
– Tara Kehoe, currently reading All the Bright Places by Jennifer Niven