Some people are heroes, some are villains, and some occupy this spine-tingling middle ground. Not all stories are about good guys standing against the world. Some are about bad people who are able to do bad things and get away with them, even for a while.
But no, I’m not talking about villains. These aren’t role-reversal characters here to say, “See, the villain wasn’t really THAT bad!” No, these are protagonists whom the book, movie, or whatever sets up as the prime driving force, someone you can cheer for.
Except you can’t. It’s clear these people are bad influences in one way or another, yet the story expects you to follow them. And you do, not because you want them to succeed, but because you can’t take your eyes off the train wreck.
Um, Examples Please?
Scarlet O’Hara from Gone With the Wind has all the airs of a respectable southern belle, but none of the heart. She’s a self-interested, manipulative witch who preys on the weak, good-natured folks, but her circumstances allow her hardness to shine in a way no good hero could.
Or how about the titular character in The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie? This sassy English teacher fights The Man with her unconventional, non-traditional, and non-conformist ways. But one of her students learns that The Man may be right, that Miss Jean Brodie may be a deluded Narcissus, and a danger to those who trust her.
Holly Golightly from Breakfast at Tiffany’s also comes to mind. In the film, she’s a flighty, silly ditz. In the book, however, she’s a flighty, silly ditz whose selfishness and failure to grasp reality lands her in serious trouble, not to mention ruins the lives of all around her.
Am I being unfair to the women? Okay, I’ll add a man: Makoto from the anime School Days. He looks every bit the everyman commonplace to harem anime, where one bland but golden-hearted guy must choose between several lovely ladies. But the cake is a lie. Makoto wants one thing, and he’ll cheat, deny, and trick his way into every girl’s bedroom without ever even realizing that what he’s doing may be hurting someone.
Theirs is the journey you follow, and though they’re terrible people, there’s a sort of sick popcorn-flick enjoyment to them.
But how to create them? Using those four examples I gave above, I’ve noticed a few trends: Selfishness, Shock, Delusion, and Charm.
Selfishness, Not Cruelty
Remember, these aren’t villains in the traditional sense. They don’t usually have grandiose goals that involve the death of millions. That’s because they’re only interested in their tiny little world. They’ll do anything to secure their own happiness and nothing to threaten it. They aren’t necessarily ambitious, cruel, or twisted. They’re just putting themselves first.
EXAMPLE: Scarlet O’Hara’s reasons for her meanness are so simple you can almost agree with her: she wants to not starve. The Civil War destroyed her land, home, and the manners that once defined them. Only a callous, self-interested person could possibly survive. She’s so terrified of poverty that she famously vows to never go hungry again.
Granted, she was already a selfish woman who, in the book, always grows bored of conversations that don’t involve her. But the harshness of post-war life draws out those dark qualities and makes them assets. Selfishness is the only way she can ever feel safe.
Makoto doesn’t want to hurt anybody’s feelings, he just wants to have sex; hurt feelings are simply the cost of admission. Miss Jean Brodie’s highest ambition is teaching girls, which she’s already doing, but what is she teaching them? That she’s right and everyone else is wrong–everyone. Holly Golightly just wants to live a carefree, rich life, and sometimes that just means walking away from your husband and family. She likes them, but they’re in the way of her dreams.
Selfishness is what makes these characters so disgusting. Grandiose evil schemes are so far removed from reality that we can smile at evil, perhaps even laugh at it. But selfishness? That’s way too real to be amusing.
Shock And “HUH?!”
Be careful with this one. Shock doesn’t just mean doing the most horrible, evil, depraved thing possible in any situation. It just means something so unexpected that you can’t help staring.
EXAMPLE: In School Days, Makoto sees a pretty girl sitting across from him on the train. What’s a “normal” response? Stare, ignore, talk, bump into her, daydream, these are all ordinary things you’d expect to see. But Makoto takes out his cell phone and snaps a picture of her.
Who does that?! Who takes a picture of a stranger? A creep, that’s who! Oddly, Makoto has no intention of, shall we say, “utilizing” the picture. He just wants it to look at her more. As I said, this is not the most horrible, cringe-worthy, or illegal thing he could do, but it shocks you because it’s unexpected.
When Holly Golightly doesn’t like an apple, she throws it out the window instead of into the trash. When Scarlet O’Hara reads someone’s letter, she immediately forgets everything that isn’t about her. When Miss Jean Brodie’s yells at the girl who destroyed her career, the word she chooses to scream is “Assassin!”
Why is this important? Because shock staggers the reader/viewer enough to keep reading. Nobody likes reading about disgusting people, but shock can cover a multitude of “Yuck.” Deep thoughts with Michael A. Blaylock.
Shock will wear off, but delusion is absolutely fascinating. You never know what you’ll see next from a character living in their own head. It’s been used nobly in characters like Don Quixote or Cyrano de Bergerac, using delusion to spur grandeur. Here, it’s a sort of justification no sane person would think of. Pass that popcorn!
EXAMPLE: Holly Golightly frequently sees a criminal in jail, then he asks her to give a “weather report” to one of the man’s friends. Later, Holly is arrested as an asset to the criminal, allowing him to control his underground empire through Holly’s “weather reports.” Clearly, Holly has been tricked, and she had no idea what was going on.
But surprise, surprise, Holly thinks the whole thing is a mistake. She says the criminal can’t be so bad a person. Why? Well, the truth is that he paid her money to visit him in jail, a deal that enticed her selfishness and rebellious spirit. Because he gave her that, she stands up for him, claiming all his crimes must be misunderstandings. Facts, truth, what are these irritating things?
Makoto ignores a girl on a date, then expects a kiss. Miss Jean Brodie so believes that she’s in control of everything that she doesn’t realize she’s been betrayed until someone spells it out for her. Scarlet O’Hara uses and abuses people to get rich, and once she is, she’s shocked that nobody wants to come to her party.
Delusion creates curiosity in the reader. You don’t like the person, but they’re so batty that you just have to keep reading if only to discover how their twisted mind works.
This is perhaps the most important key to keeping a reader’s interest when they spy a horrible character. Sometimes the world’s worst rogues are the most charming ones. I mean just look at the covers of the paperback romance section! But beyond sex appeal, something about these characters makes you want to like them, even if you can’t.
EXAMPLE: Miss Jean Brodie plays the part of the appealing, anti-establishment teacher a la Dead Poet’s Society. But her student Sandy soon realizes that Miss Brodie is only interested in her own definitions of truth. Sandy unravels Miss Brodie’s plans and gets her fired.
But in the last shot, Sandy weeps as she walks away from the school, still hearing Miss Brodie’s voice in her head. Why? Because she wants to believe in the illusion. She loves the idea of Miss Jean Brodie, but hates the reality. In her own words, “I didn’t betray you, I simply put a stop to you.” Sandy acts because she must, not because she wishes to.
Scarlet O’Hara is a flattering girl who makes men hear what they want, and who doesn’t like feeling special? The girls who fawn over Makoto build up this false image of him because they want or need that image to be true for one reason or another. Holly Golightly may be selfish, but her frame and speech give her this bubble of innocence that just seems cruel to pop.
We’re all attracted to these people, whether from lust because we love the illusion they shed. We like the dream and don’t want to wake up.
Dance With the Devil
Hate-worthy protagonists occupy a strange place in the world of stories. It’s their story, but you can’t cheer for them because you hate them (if you’re a good person). Yet there’s an artistry to these characters, too, a balance of selfishness, shock, delusion, and charm that makes them fully-realized characters that we can not only understand, but relate to.
And if nothing else, they’re fascinating. Just how far will the pieces of this train wreck fly?
Art? Entertainment? Eh, you decide. And have fun writing it all.