Badness isn’t fashionable these days. When I was growing up (way back in the 00s), being rebellious and cynical was all the rage and giving a f*ck about other people’s feelings was not. But now we’re expected to be respectful of everyone, channel our anger into political action instead of kicking dustbins, and buy exactly the right brand of fairtrade, organic quinoa.
The trend for antiheroes also seems to have come to an end and I can’t help but feel it ended too soon. Maybe that’s because of a personal preference for flawed characters, or maybe it’s because the majority of those antiheroes were straight, white men. If you ask me, characters who are female, POC or LGBT+ haven’t had a fair shake at being bad.
Since “unproblematic” has become the ultimate compliment, I was a little worried about the protagonist of my upcoming novel, Other People’s Butterflies. She does stuff that’s not just morally questionable, but unquestionably bad. But so far, the feedback I’ve had about her has been positive. So here are my tips for writing a character who’s kind of shitty but also likeable.
Consider writing in first person
If you don’t see the thoughts and feelings behind bad behaviour, people will interpret it in their own way. And that interpretation is likely to be something like “She did an awful thing because she’s awful.”
If you write in first person, the reader becomes almost complicit when the protagonist does bad things and has a better understanding of why they are behaving that way. If you don’t want to write in first person, you could always try “deep third” – where you write in third person but still get right inside the character’s head.
Some sins are more forgivable than others
Forget everything you learnt at Sunday school, because when it comes to fiction, we’re pretty f*cked up. If you ask readers about the characters they hate and why they hate them, you’re unlikely to hear “I hate this murderer because he murdered loads of people.” You’re more likely to hear complaints about arrogance, constant whining or being a spoilt brat.
That’s because, for most of us, shocking crimes aren’t a part of our daily reality. Violence is something we see on telly and we’re mostly desensitised to it. But we often have to deal with entitled arseholes, closet misogynists and two-faced liars.
Because we have real world experience of how it feels to deal with this kind of behaviour, we’re often unforgiving of it. So basically, it’s easier to make a violent criminal likeable than a douchey dudebro or gossipy bitch.
Persuade the reader
A way of making a bad character more engaging is to make them difficult to argue with. Give them a reason for bad behaviour that, logically speaking, makes sense. Or, even if it doesn’t make sense, you could still have them express themselves so eloquently that it seems to make sense.
The latter is particularly powerful when crafting interesting villains. There’s nothing like knowing in your gut that a character is wrong, but being unable to explain why.
Seduce the reader
I’m not saying you should make bad characters gorgeous (though it’s surprising how many awful male characters get a “hot guy pass”). I’m saying you should recognise that we all have urges that are selfish, greedy or spiteful, and seeing a fictional character give in to those urges can be cathartic. So much so, that it often makes us feel like we’re on their side.
This is pretty much the opposite of the previous technique. Rather than having a character tell the reader, “My behaviour might seem bad, but here’s why it’s actually good from my perspective”, you’re having them say “Yeah, I know I’m doing something bad, but admit it … you want to do the same thing.”
Relatability is key with this technique, and this is a reason to show bad behaviour that kicks up instead of down. A character getting revenge on their awful boss? Pretty relatable. A character firing an annoying employee on a whim? Less relatable because, well, lots of us don’t have employees.
“Pet the dog”
This is a term coined by screenwriters that means showing a supposedly nasty character doing something kind. It softens their edges and shows that, hey, they’re not a total arsehole after all! Simple but effective.
A crappy childhood doesn’t make a supervillain
If your “bad” character grew up in an abusive home, or was badly bullied, or suffered a huge loss, this can act as motivation for bad behaviour. But don’t rely too much on sympathy. Plenty of people get bullied, abused or bereaved without becoming horrible people.
Go for empathy rather than sympathy. Show how your character goes from feeling bad to doing bad things, rather than just emphasising how bad he feels. That way, you’re explaining his behaviour rather than excusing it. You’re helping the reader understand, rather than just telling her “You should feel sorry for this character, not hate him.”
Thanks for reading my tips on how to make “bad” characters more likeable. Do you have any of your own to add? And who are your favourite fictional baddies?