How to Make a Jerk Likable

Diana Pharaoh FrancisDiana Pharaoh Francis
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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?



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19 comments to How to Make a Jerk Likable

  • Best of luck with your surgery. I had a c5-6 fusion almost 10 years ago, and did extremely well. Do give yourself enough time to recuperate. The anesthesia alone is enough to knock you into next week.

    Best,
    Lisa

  • Di, hugs. My dad had C3-5 fused and it took him two weeks post surgery to start cutting back on the meds — which means he was in pain thereafter. That’s my dad. Too tough to need meds like the rest of society! The meds are your friend. Don’t let them out of your system. It *really* is easier to control pain than to stop it once it starts.

    As to bad guys, I’ve never written a violent, KickAss / BadAss main character until I started writing Urban fantasy. It was easy to write Thorn St. Croix, because the reader started out when she was not tough and followed the progression to the keep-the-public-safe persona that she later developed.

    Like your Max, (I adore that character BTW) Jane Yellowrock started out tough. In fact, she was so tough in the first draft of Skinwalker, that she had to be softened, which meant the creation / inclusion of characters who might bring out her tender side. I liked the new characters, and I liked the softness that made Jane human.

    You did a good job with showing Max’s softened and softening side, but when she went off alone to fight evil, (as you mentioned above) I wanted to kick her butt. It showed excellent character development, that, as a reader, I was cheering for her to survive, save the world, *and* to make closer friends.

  • Diana,
    best of luck with the surgery and recovery.

    I’ve written bad characters who were supposed to be bad and unappealing, but still humanized a little (there’s a good example in FIFTH DAY) but my fovorite “bad” character is the hero of Act of Will (Will Hawthorne), who is cowardly, self interested, duplicitous and cynical. That said, he’s not without ethics, and he’s smart and (I hope) funny. That last is how I try to keep the reader on his side in spite of his shady dealings.

  • This came at a most opportune time for me since I’m currently brainstorming two “bad” characters, but I want them to be likeable, too. Thanks for a great post, Diana! Good luck with your surgery and many blessings for a quick recovery. :)

  • Hope the surgery has gone well, Di, and that your recovery is swift and complete. Thanks for fitting a post into what has got to be a hectic, uncomfortable, and emotionally draining week.

    I posted a bit about my favorite bad character — Tavis, from Winds of the Forelands — earlier this week. What helped me find his humanity was doing terrible things to him (torture scenes, a false accusation of murder, etc.) and allowing the kernel of courage and strength to show through. My readers might not have liked him yet after those scenes, but they had no choice but to respect him, and that was a start.

  • Yeah, I have a character I need to flesh out in my WIP and I’m going to be playing up his negative attributes a bit. He was an ancillary character that ended up doing something a bit selfless and one of my proofers wanted to know more about him. The things people connect with…

  • Great post, Diana, and good luck on the surgery.

    I think you’ve done a great job of explaining asshats with a bare minimum of goofy. Lots of character come to mind when I think about asshats. If y’all will forgive me for using anime examples, I’d like to cite Lelouch Lamperouge from Code Geass and Hei/Li from Darker than Black as excellent examples of likable asshats. For literary characters, I think I’d cite Jaime Lannister from ASOIAF and perhaps Edmund from Narnia. I’m afraid I can’t think of any UF characters off the top of my head, although I know I’ve read a few.

    I think the key to really good asshats is complexity in their reasons. For some fils and flat characters, it’s enough to have a few Pet the Dog moments, but for a character the reader sees a lot of, you have to be more subtle. Edmund, for example, is pretty subtle in terms of his asshattey and the reasons behind it. He might not get as many cool points, but he’s a more sympathetic character for it.

    Actually, I think one of the big dichotomies in terms of asshats is cool vs. sympathetic, and you have to approach these two character types differently. “Cool” asshats are generally kickass and lone wolf types, whereas sympathetic asshats take a more cowardly approach but have better reasons behind their actions. Cool asshats tend to have one or two major, independent reasons for being like they are, such as harm to family members, whereas sympathetic asshats tend to have several smaller, interwoven reasons. At least, that’s been my experience. (I’m refering only to likeable jerks here, hateable jerks have a very different set of tropes and divisions.)

  • Oh, I can think of a couple UF asshats, some of which became good guys in the end. Trent and Nick from the Rachel Morgan series (though Nick showed his true colors…), also Kisten. Lucas from the Rogue Mage series. ;)

  • Di,
    I hope your surgery goes/went well. Good luck with recovery.

    Great post. It ties in well with some things that came up this week in other discussions and it’s something that’s been on my mind as I consider the arc of my newest character.

    Does anybody have any suggestions on how to approach the opinion of other characters when writing a single POV in 1st person? I chose the POV to be intimate with my MC, but its limitations are proving to be quite the challenge.

    All the best,
    NewGuyDave

  • Diana, first I hope your surgery went well! And second “asshattery” fantastic word!! Love it. :D

    I think you hit the nail on the head with this one. It’s always endearing to find that the character you once thought had no feelings kinda does. Thanks for the tips, they come in handy!

    Recover quickly and with little pain!
    Happy writing
    Hinny

  • Lisa! You are so right. I can’t seem to stop falling asleep at random moments. I had this idea I’d be able to get some things done, but nope. The worst part so far is the pain down in my esophagus. That I could be happy with getting over.

  • Faith: So far, the pain hasn’t been too bad, but I firmly believe in staying well ahead of it.

    You know, I really learned a lot from writing UF versus the bad and the good in epic fantasy. I think The Hollow Crown, out in June, is really going to benefit from what I learned.

    With Max, this next book is interesting because I still want her to kick ass, but also grow and develop. I am waiting to hear what my editor says to see if I accomplished that.

  • AJ: humor goes a long way, but also that sense of ethics. They may not match everybody else’s, but he’s got some. Thanks for the well wishes. I’m doing ok.

  • Laura–glad I could be helpful and thanks for the well wishes. So far so good!

  • David: I agree. Getting the reader to respect a character does a lot. Sometimes I forget that.

  • Daniel: in my book Path of Honor I had a character named Soka and I swear he was wearing a red shirt–he was meant to die from the first moment. But then I liked him and couldn’t kill him, so like David, I had to torture him a lot and give him some redeeming qualities. He turned into one of my most favorite characters.

  • Atsiko, You made me remember Ben from Patty Briggs’ Mercy series. He was such a jerk and she took the time over books to grow and reveal his background slowly and he turned into an enormously sympathetic character.

  • Dave: first person can be so hard because of that. I think one way is to have other characters talk about the main character right in from of him: “Ahem, you know I’m standing right here, right?” And then you can have the interactions where you really establish the other character, and then show the interactions, so your reader understands the context. The character is a jerk and so how you might feel about what he says might differ from how a reader might respond to another kind of character–say one known for being brave and goodhearted or one known for being a loner.