Tuesday, February 12, 2019

Making "Bad" Characters More Likeable (Laurie)

I'm excited to be part of Jenelle Schmidt's February is Fantasy Month today! Jenelle is a wonderful author I had a chance to get to know a bit at Realm Makers last summer, and she's in the midst of an entire month of blog posts and other events to celebrate fantasy! To find out more and see the full schedule, check out her post here. Also, be sure to check out this post to find out how to enter a giveaway for an amazing dragon letter opener!

Now, onto my own post! :) After a long writing hiatus, last week I finally had a chance to dive back into Traitor, what is planned to be the second book in my Tales of the Mystics series. This story has me thinking a lot about character development, as it centers around a character who gave off a pretty bad impression in my first book, Common. It's been an interesting exercise to take this unsavory princess and turn her into someone readers can come to enjoy and love without losing all connection to who she was when we first met her. So today, I thought I'd share about some ways to make "bad" characters more likeable.

1.) Give them a soft spot

Characters who come across as harsh and rough around the edges can be difficult for readers to warm up to...unless they have a soft spot. All it takes is a fondness for puppies, a protectiveness toward children, or a penchant for a gentler pastime like gardening or baking to show a softer side to an otherwise stony character. This method seems to be a favorite among romance authors - the stern, unfriendly tough-guy hero who over time shows signs that the heroine is the one weakness in his otherwise thick armor. *Cue swooning readers* I also think this strategy applies to Suzanne Collins' Hunger Games trilogy. While Katniss has some admirable qualities, such as her bravery and skill with a bow and arrow, she can often come across as abrasive in her quick temper and calculating approach to life. But her love for sweet little Prim - comforting her and tucking in her shirttails - shows a whole different side of Katniss that makes her a character to root for during the rest of the times when her guard isn't down.

2.) Give them a sense of humor

I'm always amazed by how much I'm able to soften toward a person if they can make me laugh. A smile or laugh erases so much tension and can make a character more palatable to spend time with, even if the reader doesn't appreciate many of their other traits. An example that immediately comes to mind is Captain Carswell Thorne from Marissa Meyer's Lunar Chronicles. When we first meet Thorne, he's a convicted criminal who shows zero remorse for his wrongdoing. He reeks arrogance and expects every female he encounters to adore him. Let's just say...NOT my kind of guy. But here's the thing - for all his many shortcomings, Thorne is hilarious. Many times his antics managed to make me smile even while I was rolling my eyes at him. And those smiles created just enough of a soft spot to make me take his side when he eventually started to change his ways.

3.) Show their vulnerability

I believe there are very few people in the world (if any) who act out simply because they want to be evil. In most, if not all, cases, a person's bad behavior stems from a particular hurt or frustration from their past or present life. In our characters, revealing such unrequited love, lack of self-confidence, history of betrayal, challenging parent or sibling relationships, or whatever their particular trials might be can go a long way toward helping readers see them as a complex person with feelings and depth rather than just an uncaring bully or selfish cad. Kristina Mahr illustrates this well in her novel All That We See or Seem (you can read Jill's review on Lands Uncharted here). Arden, a seemingly thoughtless rogue with a reputation for gambling and seduction, becomes a much more sympathetic character when he reveals his flippant view of romance came about from having his heart broken by his first love. Suddenly I hoped he would have a chance for redemption rather than wishing for him to just leave the main character alone.

4.) Show moments of remorse

Sometimes characters find themselves in really difficult positions. Situations where they feel required to do something harmful in order to protect themselves or loved ones. The way their emotions are portrayed in such circumstances will likely have a huge impact on readers' perceptions of the character. Even if they end up making a bad or self-serving choice, showing signs of indecision and remorse can cause the character to be viewed as a good person making a poor decision versus an irredeemable villain. The Rose and the Wand by our own Lizzie (published as E.J. Kitchens) illustrates this concept well with a "bad guy" who really doesn't turn out to be that bad. He feels the need to steal something from the main character due to a mission he's being pressured to accomplish, but in the process apologizes and makes it very clear he wishes to cause no harm. There's even a hint on the author's website that this character may be getting his own redemptive story in the future. :)

I'm not far enough into Traitor yet to know specifically which of these concepts I'll be using, but I'm guessing a combination of all four! I want to add a quick caveat that becoming more sympathetic or likeable can never justify or erase a character's bad actions. Doing the wrong thing is still doing the wrong thing. But as no one is all good or all evil, adding positive traits to an otherwise disagreeable character makes them more complex and can give readers an opportunity to question their own perceptions and judgments. Plus, it can make way for powerful redemption stories when a character has a true change of heart.

What causes you to soften toward a hard-hearted or irritable character? Do you have examples of books that have employed these tactics well? What "bad" characters would you like to see redeemed?

Thanks for reading!


  1. Great advice! I think all of these can work pretty well. That said, the last two seem much more effective for creating a character who's actually becoming good, while the first two just create villains who you have conflicted emotions about.

    1. Thanks for commenting, Sarah! That's a great point - different strategies definitely work better depending on whether you want the character to be redeemed versus just a less hated villain.

  2. Great points, Laurie! Thanks for sharing!

    1. Thanks, Jill! P.S. You were so right about All That We See or Seem - I loved it!!

  3. Awesome post! Thanks for all the tips!!

    I can't wait to read Traitor!!!!

    1. Thanks, Jenelle! And thanks for the opportunity to be part of your February is Fantasy Month event!!

    2. Also, apparently I am too good at making bad characters likable, and my readers all want me to apologize to my villain because of all the stuff I put him through that turned him into a raving lunatic... and they do not seem to care at all that he already had murderous tendencies. Do you have any tips on "making bad characters LESS likable"? hahaha

  4. Love the post, Laurie! These type characters always have such a strong draw when done right. Every loves Loki and wants him to be a hero too, for instance. Thanks for the shout out! And yes, that character does a book. An awesome book I WILL finish rewriting within the next year or year and a half. I'm glad you're back working on Traitor!


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