Last night I watched HEAT for the first time. My husband had seen it multiple times before and at one point, about halfway through, I asked him, “So, who are we supposed to be rooting for, Robert De Niro or Al Pacino?”
He shrugged and said, “Which one hasn’t murdered anyone?”
Well, I hope it’s not too much of a spoiler alert to say that Robert De Niro, the criminal to Al Pacino’s cop, was the one who had killed people. Still, I was kind of rooting for his character. He possessed intelligence, nobility, and a loyalty to his “coworkers.” He also seemed to be against killing people, unless, you know, he really really had to...or they were really annoying. Whereas Al Pacino’s character seemed kind of crazy, agitated, and unkind. (According to IMDB, in an earlier draft the character had a cocaine habit and, even though that was later removed, Al Pacino kept the erratic outbursts.) So, I still kind of rooted for De Niro’s character right up to the end.
Currently, I am also in the middle of the THRONE OF GLASS series by Sarah J. Maas, which revolves around Celaena Sardothien, a vicious assassin who has brutally killed people for money and out of pure anger. Sure, she has always had “rules” for herself, but they are so minimal they are obvious (e.g., she won’t kill kids.) I won’t get into all the changes the character goes through, partly because I’m only in the middle of book two, but I will say that despite her past actions and her current fiery anger, I’m enjoying it enough to keep reading. Sure, some of her thoughts and actions bug me, but not enough that I can’t ultimately root for her. Her past was so awful, you can see her as a victim, and she has other qualities, like loyalty and even compassion, that come through.
I tend to like “good” main characters. Of course, they should be flawed, but I don’t usually like it when the “flaw” is that they mercilessly inflict excruciating pain before killing their enemies. But, obviously, I have my exceptions, which has me thinking, why do these characters work as protagonists when they are so well suited to being villains?
Here are a few ways to have your bad character thrive as a protagonist.
- Use a Bad/Good Scale (think Barney’s Hot/Crazy Scale). Your character can be as bad as you want, as long as he or she has an equal or more amount of good qualities and actions to balance it.
- Make the actual antagonist worse than your bad character. If the bad character’s murderous rage is used against a group who would harm thousands of innocent people if they aren’t stopped, suddenly that murderous rage seems more like an asset.
- Explain why the MC is the way she is. What has happened in her past that has sculpted her bad motivations and behavior? This doesn’t equal absolution, but it can help the reader understand that these negative actions don’t take place in a vacuum.
- Have the MC strive for good. He is trying to be better, even in his own way. He is trying to help others, even if those others are also “bad” characters.
Now go have fun writing your bad boys and girls! :)