I’ve said it before, I love morally questionable characters. You know, the antihero. I enjoy writing them. How do you make these little monsters sympathetic without filing down their claws?
My characters kill with no remorse. They’re prone to violence and can be more than a little heartless. They treat humans like slightly useful ants. There’s no deep reason they act this way. They were simply born violent and mean. To make it even more challenging, they’re extraordinarily powerful.
First of all, there’s no way to make sure all your readers aren’t thoroughly disgusted by your antihero. The reviews of some of my favorite books are proof of that. Make peace with it and move on.
Actually, it would be entertaining reading a review of my book where someone abhorred my characters because of their despicable actions. Weird, I know.
Anyway, back to the initial question. How do you make readers care about these characters? You could go the whole “they have this darkness inside them but they’re trying desperately to fight it.” I never go that route. My characters know they’re dark and they don’t shy away from it.
I don’t mean give your characters something that turns them into cooing little ninnies. Well, okay, you can have them melt over a puppy or give them a secret rose garden. It would be kind of cute but slightly cliche. For my protagonists’, their soft spot is a person and they never melt. They’d do almost anything for this person and will level an entire town without thought if even one resident hurts them.
Give them a noble cause. Channel all that aggression into a force for good. My characters use their powers to help humans- not for entirely selfless reasons but still, the end result is good. Both sides benefit. Or, you can give them some gorgeous dream they don’t want to admit having.
What if your character’s soft spot isn’t that obvious? What if their motives are selfish and despicable? I’m thinking of a movie- The Dark Knight and a character- Joker. The man has no redeeming qualities yet, I really liked him. Then, there’s Loki from Avengers. In this book I’m reading, King of Thorns, the main protagonist, Jorg, has a soft spot somewhere but I can’t find it and his motives aren’t that noble but, I love him anyway.
The word that comes to mind is “coolness.” Don’t think people use it. Anyway, Joker, Loki and Jorg may be despicable but, they’re super cool. It’s fun to watch and read about them.
The purely awesome character is harder to write on purpose, at least I think it is. Of all the books I’ve read with morally questionable characters, this type hasn’t been featured a lot. Authors rely on the soft spot or the motive to make them likable. If you set out to create a “cool” badass, you run the risk of creating an extraordinarily lame character. You know, like that person trying so hard to be cool they come off as sad and pathetic.
Find books or movies with this type of character and examine why you like them. In Jorg’s case, I love the way he talks. He goes way beyond blunt but forms his words beautifully enough that they don’t sound as rude and vulgar as they really are. Doing this will give you ideas for your own antihero.
The best way to learn how to write the antihero is to read and study stories featuring them. Fortunately, Dark Fantasy is full of protagonists with skewed morals.