Good Books, Bad People: 9 Protagonists You’ll Love to Hate

Sara Roncero-Menendez
August 18 2021
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It can feel so good to be bad. Or, at least, that’s what some of literature’s most dastardly characters might say. Yes, it’s all well and good to read books starring righteous protagonists who save the day. But there’s just as much satisfaction to be found in reading books that follow the less-than-wholesome exploits of more villainous characters. So whether you’re looking to read about deception and decadence, or something a little more down in the dirt, here are nine novels that follow the dark journeys of some truly wicked people.

The Cave Dwellers
by Christina McDowell

The fictional rich can be exceptionally terrible, their lives of privilege and power creating a general disregard for the wellbeing of others. This is especially true for those wealthy families in the Green Book—a diary created by the niece of Edith Roosevelt’s social secretary that identifies the who’s who of Washington, DC, high society. But when one of their own is taken hostage and killed, they must look outside their inner circle to find answers. A mix of social satire and murder-mystery thriller, THE CAVE DWELLERS will have you asking how far one might go to protect their social standing, and if sacrificing your humanity to get it is ever worth it.

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The Cave Dwellers
Christina McDowell

A compulsively readable novel in the vein of The Bonfire of the Vanities—by way of The Nest—about what Washington, DC’s high society members do away from the Capitol building and behind the closed doors of their stately homes.

They are the families considered worthy of a listing in the exclusive Green Book—a discriminative diary created by the niece of Edith Roosevelt’s social secretary. Their aristocratic bloodlines are woven into the very fabric of Washington—generation after generation. Their old money and manner lurk through the cobblestone streets of Georgetown, Kalorama, and Capitol Hill. They only socialize within their inner circle, turning a blind eye to those who come and go on the political merry-go-round. These parents and their children live in gilded existences of power and privilege.

But what they have failed to understand is that the world is changing. And when the family of one of their own is held hostage and brutally murdered, everything about their legacy is called into question.

They’re called The Cave Dwellers.

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Little Cruelties
by Liz Nugent

The bonds of brotherhood can be strong as steel, but under the wrong circumstances, that bond can become a barbed wire. LITTLE CRUELTIES follows Will, Brian, and Luke—three brothers close in age raised by a mother who pitted them against one another for her love. These small slights against one another grow more and more devastating until one of the brothers ends up dead. The lengths these three will go to further their agendas and push their siblings down are truly despicable, yet Liz Nugent’s brilliant writing makes it impossible to look away. Truly the book to pick up if you’re looking for protagonists you love to hate.

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Little Cruelties
Liz Nugent

From the internationally bestselling author of Lying in Wait, a biting and masterful new “dark jewel of a novel” (A.J. Finn, #1New York Times bestselling author) that explores the many ways families can wreak emotional havoc across generations, appealing to fans of HBO’s acclaimed series Succession.

All three of the Drumm brothers were at the funeral.

But one of them was in the coffin.

William, Brian, and Luke: three boys, born a year apart, trained from birth by their wily mother to compete for her attention. They play games, as brothers do…yet even after the Drumms escape into the world beyond their windows, those games—those little cruelties—grow more sinister, more merciless, and more dangerous. And with their lives entwined like the strands of a noose, only two of the brothers will survive.

Hailed by New York Times bestselling author Shari Lapena as “brilliant, engrossing,” and perfect for fans of breathtaking suspense, Little Cruelties gazes unflinchingly into the darkness collecting in the corners of childhood homes, hiding beneath marriage beds, clasped in the palms of two brothers shaking hands. And it confirms that Liz Nugent is truly “a force to be reckoned with” (Lisa Jewell, New York Times bestselling author) in contemporary fiction.

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Horns
by Joe Hill

What if you could hear the thoughts, secrets, and desires of the people around you? You’d probably find out a lot of things you never wanted to know. For Ignatius Perrish, he finds that his hometown of Gideon has a lot of people with dark dreams and even worse opinions of him after the unsolved rape and murder of his girlfriend, Merrin. His powers appear suddenly, accompanied by a mysterious pair of horns growing out of his head, sending him on a journey that will reveal the worst in the people he knows and loves while he tries to solve Merrin’s murder. Joe Hill has a knack for writing terrible characters who feel so real as to make you uncomfortable, and HORNS is a shining example that will have you hooked.

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Horns
Joe Hill

The day after the first anniversary of his girlfriend’s murder, Ig wakes up with a thunderous hangover . . . and horns growing from his temples. Along with his terrible new look, Ig possesses a new macabre gift he intends to use to find the monster who killed his one true love. Daniel Radcliffe stars in the thrilling movie adaptation.

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Offerings
by Michael ByungJu Kim

The famous axiom states that all power corrupts, and there’s very little in the world that can catapult you to power faster than money. OFFERINGS follows Dae Joon, a Wall Street banker sent back to his native Korea to help save the country from the effects of the Asian Financial Crisis. But soon the situation gets more complicated, with one of his closest friends from business school asking him to help save a corrupt conglomerate. Having to choose where his loyalties truly lie, Dae Joon gets trapped in an ever-shifting power struggle, where the wrong move could ruin everything. There are no saints in this story—each person is working to ensure their own agenda and accrue more wealth, but with just enough hope that you have to know how it ends.

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Offerings
Michael ByungJu Kim

The national bestseller that Gary Shteyngart has called, "A potent combination of a financial thriller and a coming-of-age immigrant tale. . . . Offerings is a great book."

With the rapidly cascading Asian Financial Crisis threatening to go global and Korea in imminent meltdown, investment banker Dae Joon finds himself back in his native Seoul as part of an international team brought in to rescue the country from sovereign default. For Dae Joon—also known by his American name of Shane, after the cowboy movie his father so loved—the stakes are personal.

Raised in the US and Harvard Business School–educated, Dae Joon is a jangnam, a firstborn son, bound by tradition to follow in the footsteps of his forebears. But rather than pursue the path his scholar-father wanted, he has sought a career on Wall Street, at the epicenter of power in the American empire. Now, as he and his fellow bankers work feverishly with Korean officials to execute a sovereign bond offering to raise badly needed capital, he knows that his own father is living on borrowed time, in the last stages of a disease that is the family curse. A young woman he has met is quietly showing the way to a different future. And when his closest friend from business school, a scion of one of Korea's biggest chaebol, asks his help in a sale that may save the conglomerate but also salvage a legacy of corruption, he finds himself in personal crisis, torn by dueling loyalties, his identity tested.

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Sleeping Beauties
by Stephen King and Owen King

Stephen King is a master of creating terrifying situations that push people’s humanity to the breaking point. In SLEEPING BEAUTIES, King and his son craft a world wherein all women who fall asleep end up cocooned in a strange gauze and won’t wake up. While these cocooned women do have a safety mechanism in place, it’s not enough to prevent the men who remain awake from putting them, and the whole world, in danger. Dark secrets are revealed, terrible impulses are indulged, and one woman could be their salvage or their downfall. At once a dark tale of power and a scathing look at the politics of the day, this book will have you on the edge of your seat as various factions of men work to protect or destroy the women who they once held dear.

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Sleeping Beauties
Stephen King and Owen King

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The Majesties
by Tiffany Tsao

Gwendolyn believed that she could always count on her sister Estella, that even in the cruel and callous world of their wealthy family, they could rely on each other for support. But when Estella poisons their entire clan, including sole survivor Gwendolyn, the biggest looming question is: Why? As Gwendolyn struggles to resurface out of a coma, she tries to figure out what might have caused Estella to do such a drastic and terrible thing, remembering events of their lives that slowly turned her toward the path of revenge. THE MAJESTIES is a story filled with decadence, desire, and depravity, a journey of identity about two young women trapped in a gilded cage.

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The Majesties
Tiffany Tsao

In this “bold and dramatic portrayal of characters on the cusp of an impossible choice” (Publishers Weekly), two sisters from a wealthy Chinese-Indonesian family grapple with secrets and betrayal after one of them poisons their entire family.

Gwendolyn and Estella have always been as close as sisters can be. Growing up in a wealthy, eminent, and sometimes deceitful family, they’ve relied on each other for support and confidence. But now Gwendolyn is lying in a coma, the sole survivor of Estella’s poisoning of their whole clan.

As Gwendolyn struggles to regain consciousness, she desperately retraces her memories, trying to uncover the moment that led to this shocking act. Was it their aunt’s mysterious death at sea? Estella’s unhappy marriage to a dangerously brutish man? Or were the shifting loyalties and unspoken resentments at the heart of their opulent world too much to bear? Can Gwendolyn, at last, confront the carefully buried mysteries in their family’s past and the truth about who she and her sister really are?

Traveling from the luxurious world of the rich and powerful in Indonesia to the most spectacular shows at Paris Fashion Week, from the sunny coasts of California to the melting pot of Melbourne’s university scene, The Majesties “is a thrilling, tender page-turner” (Krys Lee, author of Drifting House) as well as “a sobering look at the dark side of extreme wealth” (Kirkus Reviews).

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Pretty Revenge
by Emily Liebert

If you had to, could you pinpoint the moment your life went awry? For Kerrie O’Malley, that moment is crystal clear, and it involved a teenaged Jordana Pierson, who is now a famous wedding planner in New York City. So what does Kerrie do? Packs her bags, assumes a new identity, and gets a job as Jordana’s assistant, all in a bid to ruin her life, just as Jordana did to Kerrie eighteen years ago. Meanwhile, Jordana is dealing with her own secrets that threaten to topple her wedding-planning empire, marriage, and more. A cat-and-mouse game of secrets, twists, and deeply harbored hatred, PRETTY REVENGE is about two women willing to do anything to get what they are owed, no matter who has to suffer.

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Pretty Revenge
Emily Liebert

“A riveting tale of subterfuge, betrayal, and retribution set among the glittering world of New York’s elite.” —Liv Constantine, bestselling author of The Last Mrs. Parrish

The name of the game is revenge—no matter the cost—in this emotionally charged thriller reminiscent of The Wife Between Us and The Perfect Nanny.

Kerrie O’Malley, jobless and in an unfulfilling relationship, can isolate the exact moment in her life when things veered off course—the night she was irrevocably wronged by someone she looked up to. Eighteen years later, when Kerrie sees the very woman who destroyed her life on television, a fire ignites inside her. The stakes are high. The risks are perilous. But she’ll stop at nothing to achieve the retribution she deserves.

Jordana Pierson is a gilded New Yorker who appears to have it all: wealth, glamour, a successful and handsome husband, and a thriving wedding concierge business. Her record is spotless. Her business is flourishing. No one knows the truth about her and the dark shadows of her past.

No one, that is, except Kerrie.

Exploring just how far someone will go for vengeance, Pretty Revenge is “a fun, twisty thrill ride about the dark side of female friendship” (PopSugar).

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House of Trelawney
by Hannah Rothschild

Old families have old secrets. For those who live in Trelawney, they’ve got seven hundred years’ worth of them. But it all comes crashing down in the financial crisis of 2008, which leaves various members of this illustrious family in free fall. In fact, the only thing worse off than the family is the castle they own, which is crumbling to bits right before their eyes. Following four women of the family as they manage their secrets and their households, HOUSE OF TRELAWNEY is a comedic tale of greed, snobbery, and above all else, the lengths people will go to in order to protect their interests.

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House of Trelawney
Hannah Rothschild

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Vicious
by V. E. Schwab

Who doesn’t love a good supervillain? For Victor, getting superpowers was as easy as almost dying, but when he accidentally kills his roommate and fellow super-person Eli’s girlfriend, he’s labeled as a villain for life. After ten years behind bars, Victor is out for revenge against Eli, who is now a famous superhero. However, just because Eli stops criminals doesn’t mean that he’s not partaking in some gruesome activities behind the scenes. And that’s all before you meet his even more dangerous partner waiting in the wings. VICIOUS seems, on the surface, to be a story about heroes but ends up a study of just how dark and cruel even the best and brightest can really be.

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Vicious
V. E. Schwab

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Photo credit: iStock / tapui

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