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Writing a Total Jerk as a Main Character

Discussion in 'Writing Discussions' started by Vaporo, Nov 26, 2019.

  1. Vaporo

    Vaporo Inkling

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    Recently, I've stated writing a POV character who is just generally kind of a bad person. He's superficially charming and friendly, but actually has an extremely short temper. He is a narcissist and will happily lie, cheat, and just generally manipulate people to get what he wants. He's a compulsive thief bordering on kleptomania. He views women as little more than toys to be discarded once he becomes bored with them.

    Basically, the plot is that this character turns out to be the hero prophesized to save the world, and his character arc will be how he is forced by his new position to become a genuinely good person.

    So, does anyone have any advice on how I can write a POV character like this and ultimately make the audience root for him? He does have a few redeeming qualities, namely that he genuinely cares about his brother and wants him to be happy, even if he expresses it in a rather twisted way.
     
  2. Steerpike

    Steerpike Felis amatus Moderator

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    I would say read Ian Graham’s Monument, but the protagonist there has no redeeming qualities and you just hate him throughout the book. Still, it’s a good book and a good example of how to write an unlikeable character.
     
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  3. Yora

    Yora Maester

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    Unpleasant chsracters work best when they are thr villain. They can still be the protagonist of the story.

    Turning him gradually into a hero and making him interesting to readers both before and after sounds like a pretty big challenge, though. Readers who liked hi, as a villain might not want to see him become a hero.
     
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  4. Steerpike

    Steerpike Felis amatus Moderator

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    Just to be clear—in Monument, the main character, Ballas, is not the villain.
     
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  5. Kasper Hviid

    Kasper Hviid Troubadour

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    Making the audience root for an asshole isn't hard, unfortunately. You just have to focus on his humanity, instead of that of the people he hurts. I remember a crime novel, good one too, where the sleazy lawyer brags about how he made a rapist walk free. As a reader, we know that this is simply an action prologue, that the rape victim simply serves as an object to underline the protags edginess. So we easily forget about the rape victim herself. This is a problematic trope, but it works. For actual examples, check out Zero Dark Thirty and Hard Candy.

    I think the story of an asshole who is given the chance to better himself is a strong one. Like the Outer Limits episode "The Conversion". But it's also one which can fail in so many ways. I mean, this guy is a narcist, but then he finds out that he's the Chosen One. See the problem?

    And as Yora mentioned, if people like reading about him being an asshole, then his redemption will be a disappointment. I really liked White Trash Zombie but from page one, the protagonist stopped fitting the white trash label, and I kinda felt like the author broke the contract.

    The way I would build this story would be to make the reader sincerely hope for the protagonist to become better from page one. He gets the chance and ...fails ... he gets another chance and ... his old shit comes back to haunt him. A bit like Bojack Horseman which really nails this. [SPOILER WARNING] incidentally, in this show, a girl he hurt actually seems to see the mechanics and say, no, she refuses to become just another cog in his narcistic character arc. She refuses to let the most important part of her life be him.[/SPOILER WARNING]
     
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  6. Vaporo

    Vaporo Inkling

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    Well, I can't attack it from the angle of "Don't focus on the people he's hurt" because two of the people he's hurt the most, his brother and a former girlfriend, are my other main POV characters. I fact, a large part of their motivation is minimizing the damage he can do as Chosen One.

    Although I tend to think of him more as a "lightweight" narcissist (maybe "arrogant and self-centered" is a better description), I have thought about the he's-a-narcissist-and-now-he's-the-chosen-one problem. In a bit more detail, he becomes the hero when completes one aspect of the prophesy (stealing a particular artifact) in such a way that nobody else in the world could ever possibly do it again (i.e. he destroys it in a fit of rage). However, he doesn't fit the rest of the prophesy. The prophesy says that, among other things, the hero will be tall with black hair and kind-hearted, of which he is neither. So, naturally everyone doubts and hates him. Now in an environment where he can't intimidate or punch his problems into submission and without any lackeys to back him up, he soon wants to return home where he was at least respected.

    However, when his brother, the only person in the world he's every really cared about, is nearly killed he wants revenge against the attackers. This is pretty much the first time he's ever really been motivated by anything other than ego or greed, and it serves as a sort of "gateway" to breaking free of his self-centered attitude.
     
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  7. Nighty_Knight

    Nighty_Knight Scribe

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    Make parts of him relatable in his own way. Have redeemable qualities that the readers, and even the character himself didn’t know he had, but without changing the core of who they are. Also, make their being an asshole used as a strength as well later on. What’s more awesome than when some other villain character messes and pisses off the main jerk character and you just think, “oh man, that guy has no idea what he has just unleashed on himself.”
     
  8. K.S. Crooks

    K.S. Crooks Inkling

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    Perhaps have him do good deeds for the wrong reason, such as helping someone so they owe him a favor or doing the right thing in the wrong way or more for their own gain. The character needs to learn how to DO good before he can learn how to BE good. This made me think of Terminator 2, where the Terminator is keeping John Connor safe by killing people and has to learn how to NOT kill people and in the end understands how to BE good.
     
  9. The Dark One

    The Dark One Archmage

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    Does he have to be redeemed?

    Could he not somehow achieve good things despite still being a total ratbag?

    Bad characters who turn into good characters are pretty much always cliched IMHO - hard to avoid it. My most successful book (not fantasy or sci-fi, but with some of the ambience of fantasy) was about a real arsehole - an arrogant scheming lawyer with an overactive sense of justice which inspired him to get up to some pretty nasty tricks. The vast majority of readers loved him to bits but the small number of 1s and 2s I got on goodreads were testament to the fact that you can't please everyone.

    The much higher proportion of 5s and 4s suggests that readers like arseholes.
     
  10. Steerpike

    Steerpike Felis amatus Moderator

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    This is the case with Ballas, in the book Monument. Except as a reader you never like him, even when he achieves his one good thing in spite of being an awful human.
     
  11. Susan Gourley

    Susan Gourley Acolyte

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    I've never tried to write such a character. As a reader, I can't read stories where the main character is unlikable.
     
  12. MrNybble

    MrNybble Sage

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    I have made characters with such traits. As an example, take batman and give them the moral compass of deadpool. Follow the life and struggles of a villain as they try to make a living while a hero makes it hard to do so. That has been done with gangster stories for ages. If there is a struggle, the reader will eat it up.
     
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  13. The Dark One

    The Dark One Archmage

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    Who said unlikeable? Jerks can be likeable - even if it's only tapping into the reader's evil id.
     
  14. Night Gardener

    Night Gardener Inkling

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    The difference here is that your character *could be* redeemable. It's an option, because he's just an asshole and not resolute evil.

    Now, audiences tend to like the journey of 'justifiable assholes' **coughtonystark**
    **coughdeadpool**. If your character starts off 100% "owning" the fact that he knows he's an asshole and knows he ought to care and change, but just can't be bothered and really kinda sorta really doesn't care... that's a launching point for some distance in your character arc.

    Assholes and narcissists who live and operate in denial of "what" they are? Infuriating. Toxic. That's what makes Tony Stark and Deadpool tolerable and enjoyable. They know they could be better, lesser assholes, even magnanimous men, but....nah. They'll pass. But deep down the capacity to be better is there, and sometimes it's drawn out of them in spite of their best efforts to repress it. Until they're changed and don't revert all the way back once they realize it. Part of them enjoys the transformation.

    I can't remember what book or movie it was, but a total jerk did something nice "reflexively". Without really thinking. A non-asshole jesture or favor, and he just sort of stopped what he was doing and went " wait, what just happend? " like it was an out-of-body experience and it was really funny. ( I think it involved picking someone up from an airport.)

    You can be as arrogant and self-absorbed as you want, and not really care about other people and can probably get through life well enough. Apathy and indifference is an evil from the trappings of "convenience". The difference is the willingness to be cruel. To enjoy being cruel. To go out of your way to be cruel. You can be a totally dense, socially against-the-grain insensitive jerk and hurt people's feelings, but not revel in deliberate cruelty and abuse.

    A good example is the dreaded question "does this dress make me look fat?". A socially gracious person would say, "No, but I really don't think it's you. And it's not all that flattering. Maybe try on something else" even if they just told a little white lie. An asshole would say, "Whoa! Call the coastguard something big and polyester just washed up into the drsssing room. " or " why the hell should I care how you look in an ugly dress? How the hell did you talk me into this?" Not nice, but honest. A cruel person would say "It's not the dress making you look fat, it's just you being fat. Buy it, don't buy it, doesn't matter. Nothing looks good on you and you'll never be worth looking at anyway so why bother?"

    Humor, however dark, is going to be the best way to connect with readers IMO. It seems like your goal is to go from "ugh! What a f&%ing asshole" to "yeh he's a jerk most of the time and you kinda just want to punch him in the face, but not alltogether a bad guy".
     
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  15. Robert hildenbrand

    Robert hildenbrand Acolyte

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    Write a 15 year old boy, who must embark on a heroes journey.

    As for his lone redeeming quality? Yeah... Kill it. I mean the brother. Then have him happen upon another boy who has nothing, a surrogate. This then becomes the catalyst for his change.
     
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  16. Vaporo

    Vaporo Inkling

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    Interesting perspective, but it raises another problem. My character is cruel. Extremely so. He's a bully through and through. His first scene has him goad a guy into a fight, then when the guy tries to tap out my character breaks his nose and shoves a handful of dirt in his mouth. All for no reason other than that he felt like bashing a guy's face into the ground.

    I hadn't considered giving him a surrogate brother. If anything, I'd consider the whole world which he has been tasked with saving to be his surrogate. I've been debating with myself if and when I should kill his brother. Originally, I'd planned to kill him off fairly early on, but now I'm not sure that makes total sense.
     
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  17. I don't think you necessarily need a redeeming quality or make the story about overcoming the being a jerk part. There's two things to consider.

    The first is that him simply being the protagonist lets you get away with a lot. People tend to root for the protagonist of a story, so they'll be more accepting of a jerk as main character then a jerk as secondary character.

    The other is something I took from one of Brandon Sanderson's lectures. You can consider 3 axes to put a character on: likeability, actionability and competence.

    Usually, a character scores well on two of these (otherwise you end up with a superman character). The common one for a protagonist to score high on is likeability, since that's the easy one to use to make readers like him. But that's not necessary of course. Just make sure that if you have a very unlikable protagonist he'd better be very competent and / or move the plot forward a lot.
     
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  18. Robert hildenbrand

    Robert hildenbrand Acolyte

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    The idea of a whole world to save really doesn't work for the character you have written, not until he has changed. So before he takes on the burden of saving the world, he must learn to take on the burden of saving one life. Otherwise you've written a cartoon character, who's life journey has been condensed to fit into a 30 minute time slot.

    Don't be afraid of taking the long route. My James character is first motivated to save the Jessica character out of financial reward he never receives. He then proceeds to avoid her for weeks, because her caste are known to set his caste up for trouble, often legal trouble that end any future prospect they might have. Also, James is a light racist (namely against the human caste Jessica belongs to, but also the alien Jinn), which is part of his character arch that changes over the period of years. With a war between the duel humans (the enhanced humans of Jessica's caste and the unenhanced of his caste), and the alien Jinn, you do not see your first Jinn in the flesh until the last 20% of the novel. You do not see the conflict of war (a battle) until that point either. Before that, is the human on human conflict of social-economics that develop my characters into whom they will become after the last 20% of the novel.
     
  19. Vaporo

    Vaporo Inkling

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    Well, that's just an extremely broad summation of the character arc I have planned. Right now, my plan is to have him start working to save the world because he wants revenge for his brother. A kind of "doing the right thing for the wrong reason" case. And in order to do that, he has to at least put on a facade of being a good person to get people on his side. Eventually, the facade becomes so thorough that not even he can tell where it ends and his actual personality begins.

    The whole purpose of this story is to subvert tropes regarding prophesy. There's always supposed to be a question of "Ok, this guy is actually working out as our Chosen One. But is it because there's something inherent to him, or would anyone put in his position and given all these advantages have accomplished the same thing?"
     
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  20. Spacebar

    Spacebar Dreamer

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    Sounds like fun! My number one suggestion would be to think about how you can make him get WORSE before he gets better. Having him double down on his cruel self-serving ideology could both make him a more compelling antihero, and also protect you from the possibility of him ending up as a lovable rascal. Maybe you could even have him be symbolically reborn and come back from a moral point of no return, where he was so bad that he can never look down on anyone from a superior position ever again.

    However it is that he becomes the hero you intend him to become, what kind of hero do you intend that to be? What aspects of his personality does he have to change, what outrages does he have to witness, what kindnesses does he have to receive, what hardships does he have to endure to overcome the dark path that he's on? Just as important as how he becomes a good guy, is how does he overcome his regrets from when he was a bad guy? How does he avoid being buried in the avalanche of the crimes and possibly atrocities he's committed, and forgive himself?

    One way to make his personality stand out is to have a big reveal at the beginning of the story. Don't reveal that he's a rear end or a monster right away, hit the readers with that knowledge in a big visceral way that hits right in the gut that this guy hurts people. Or, you could have him constantly getting into fights and confrontations that have nothing to do with the main plot, little distractions that would be annoying individually but build up to show that the MC is a person who creates a world of conflict around himself, something he drags with him like a stone on a chain. Make his rotten personality a part of the background, so there is always petty conflict happening around him even if he's not doing anything important. Rotten people tend to find each other. You could have him clash in petty conflicts that end with both parties being worse off, which would also serve to demonstrate the futility of his cruel personality.

    Something I've noticed about people with what appear to me to be true personality disorders is that they don't consider the future in their actions. They only see the threat that is right in front of them, and respond in a way that most immediately disarms that threat without considering the consequences. It would be difficult to write a character with a personality disorder because they are shortsighted in a way that healthier people can find difficult to believe. For example, they might lie to get out of an accusation, despite it being obvious future evidence will certainly reveal their lie. It's not stupidity, it's fear transformed into a total disregard for humanity. It's that the immediate threat so overwhelms them that they instinctively respond to everything as a do-or-die situation that does not allow for future plans. The lie isn't a calculated effort, it's a hammer in their hand. They know that if they lie to you right now, you'll stop interrogating them right now, and that's as far as it goes. A simple tool for a simple problem.

    Of course, your MC doesn't need to have a personality disorder in order to be a real backside of a person. That's just my little insight into the endpoint of cruelty, which is fear. Make him afraid. Make all of his cruelty necessary from his perspective. Have him name-call and blame his victims and normalize his actions. Beats a guy down and steals his money? The moron should have protected what was his, and besides, this is just the way the world works. Rapes a woman? I bet she liked it, and she was just a stupid cow anyway. Or, the bitch should have put out, she could have made some money, it's her fault for not taking advantage (he would have refused to pay afterward anyway). The truth is that he's afraid of these people. He knows (not the truth, but a sorrowful misconception) deep in his heart that he deserves the bad things that happen to him, so to maintain both his security and his pride, he has to double down and be bigger and badder than his opponent, which is the whole damned world that he was born bad into. He's afraid to see without a filter that the world isn't fundamentally bad, that he's the one dragging the vile stone around and the world he sees around him isn't an outsider attacking him, but himself.
     
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