So let’s first start with this: Happy April Fools Day! There are no fools jokes here today. Not my thing. The second thing is that I hopefully will have had surgery yesterday or today (this is very odd saying that when I’m writing it in advance). I was supposed to have the surgery last week, but I came down with some sort of virus and so they postponed. At this moment, as I write, I’m unsure of the date of surgery except that it will hopefully be in the middle of next week, so like yesterday or today by the time this posts. It’s for a cervical spine disk and will involve cleaning out the disk and fusing the vertebrae. Anyhow, the point of all that is to tell you that if I don’t respond very quickly to any comments you might make, that’s why. And seriously, that’s not an April Fools joke. Wish it was. Additionally, because of the pain leading up to this, I ended up in the ER 3 times. Fun times. It also means I’m writing this under the influence of a lot of painkillers, so I’m hoping it’s coherent, but give me a little leeway for goofiness, would you?
And now back to the actual post of how to make a jerk likable. I know you’ve read books where there’s an absolute asshat and you don’t like him and you’re not supposed to (or her) and you revel in how much of a jerk he is and come to enjoy him, because he’s is such an unredeemable jerk. You especially like him if he’s funny and interesting when he’s committing his asshattery. But such characters are usually foil characters and you don’t usually spend a lot of time with them. A little goes a long way and in some ways they are flat characters because you always know what to expect of them.
But what is you do if you want your jerkfaced bastard to be likable? What do you do then?
I’ve had a number of characters in my books who’ve been complete jerks and also have been characters that my readers really like. Some of them are cowards. Some of them betray other characters in the worst possible ways. Some of them wouldn’t lift a finger to help someone in trouble. Some of them are rude, arrogant, condescending and so on and so forth. All of which I can work with.
There are character traits I can’t make palatable at all–maybe some people can, but not me. Those include rapists, child molesters/killers/torturers, and animal torturers. I suppose if they weren’t in control of what they were doing through some sort of magic spell, then I might be able to turn them around, but really, those are tough.
But let’s get to the nitty-gritty of making a ‘bad’ character likable to your readers. First of all, readers do like bad characters. They like the bad girl and the bad boy–characters who are tough and can kill to protect other people (think about that–your readers already like killers, if it’s for the right reasons). They like characters who challenge bullies (they hate bullies), so if your bad character takes a bully and drags him behind a car or motorcycle, there might be a little bit of ew factor for the mess, but they’ll be cheering your bad character on.
In other words, a bad character, no matter how much of an asshat, has to have redeeming qualities that we can identify with. One of those things is regret–regret for doing something or for having to do something. It helps is whatever s/he is up to is for a good cause, at least as much as s/he his concerned. You might make them have a secret fondness for cats or dogs. You might make them rescue spiders in the house instead of killing them. You might make them secretly help out a neighbor with a month’s rent even as they complain about the noise she makes or how she parks her car or how she’s always stinking up the place wih her incense and candles. You might make your character stop and help some poor stranger out on the street or stop and pay for a stranger’s lunch.
What you’re looking to show is some sort of redeeming quality that he keeps secret for the most part because he wants to keep people at a distance for whatever reason. He doesn’t have a lot of friends, but the ones he has will do anything for him.
In my latest book, Max is the bad ass character and in the first draft, she came off as a royal bitch with some funny snark. She had friends, but held them at arm’s length and didn’t want to care about the people around her, even though she did. So she wore a really cold front. The trouble was, the front became too much of who she was and it was hard to see past the shell. So I had to show her reactions in privacy and that she was battling herself and why. I had to show that softness of any kind to her was dangerous, and yet it comes flooding through despite all she does to stamp it out because it’s that gooey nougaty center than makes her who she is. She does stupid, reckless things in order to protect the people she cares about. She’s also smart. No one likes a stupid main character. So when she chooses to be stupid, you know it’s an informed choice. Like when she goes off to meet the bad guys alone because she knows everyone she cares about is only going to get dead or hurt if they come with her.
A lot of jerk characters are alpha characters–large and in charge. When they are men, they like to order everyone around, especially the little woman. Yet many readers like alpha males who take charge. They want to feel like someone big and strong is going to take care of them and they want him to either be the strong and silent type, or the snarky pushy type that you put up with because he knows what he’s doing and he know how to not get you killed. Readers may not like him, but they do like that he’ll protect the main character(s). Now I keep say he, but this all applies to she too and there are a lot of she alpha characters in books right now and they are tangling with alpha males and that makes for interesting stories too.
In the end, what makes them likable, is some sort of quality that is soft and human–love of children, kindness and generosity toward strangers, loving their mothers or fathers or whatever, caring for friends, or any other quality that you can think of that makes a character feel less repulsive.
I’ve one character in The Cipher who betrays another character so terribly, that he’s really hard to like after that. In fact you hate him for awhile and you should. But I think he redeems himself and most of my readers seem to agree with me. He really betrayed the main character and deserved a lot of hell. And he does pay. But he felt bad about what he’d done and so he refused to keep serving the bad guy. He chose to accept the punishment for that choice (which was considerable) and he chose to do all he could to repay the betrayal–something he knew he could never repay in his lifetime. But he tries. And you see him commit to this course of actions without faltering and you believe in his change of heart. That’s because we also as readers want to believe in redemption–that hearts really can change.
In Bitter Night, Max comes off as a real super bitch. But it quickly becomes clear that there are people and things she cares about. Nor is she selfish. You also get to see what made her the bitch that she is and you can sympathize. You’d be dead and a super bitch if you’d been through what she had been, and it’s a wonder she not only comes out as well as she does, but she also gets angry at injustice and she wants to do something about it. This is what makes her, if not endearing, then someone you want to know and you want to succeed. Plus she has friends. You see her from their points of view and see that she’s not quite the hard core bitch she pretends to be. When readers see that other characters that they like also like a character that seems to be a total asshat/bitch, then they have to wonder why. They start looking for those positive qualities that those characters see in her.
Another thing a badass/asshat character needs to do is feel. They need to show sadness or empathy or worry or love or concern. Fear is reasonable, but not as important as the other qualities, because these are the things we look for in people who are capable of being our friends. Otherwise you just want to kick them to the curb and if they get run over by a large truck on the way, well, that’s life.
So I’ve covered some of the ways for making unlikable characters likable. What do you find that works? Any examples you can point to in your writing or the movies or other people’s books?