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Writing a Total Jerk as a Main Character

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

  1. Malik

    Malik Auror

    My MC was originally my villain and vice versa. It wasn't until I was fleshing out sequels that I realized that the story here was the atonement arc of this violent, drunken, womanizing jerk with a murder rap and not the further adventures of a grown-up "boy who learns he's secretly magic and wins back his father's kingdom and comes of age in a world of magic and wonder." The original villain/now-hero also turned out to be infinitely more fun to write.

    He has his redeeming qualities--he's loyal, loving, and duty-bound to a fault--but one of his defining characteristics is spontaneous (and, to hear reviewers tell it, hilarious) outbursts of just jaw-dropping violence. It leads to a fascinating state of affairs where people are terrified of him but they all just smile and nod because "The last time that dude got pissed off, he killed an army. I heard even he even stabbed all the trees around the battlesite." I've had readers and reviewers say my books read like Deadpool turned loose in Westeros.

    Like I said, he's my MC, and he has his redeeming characteristics. Study the book version of Khal Drogo for a look into the mind of someone who'd kill you for looking at him wrong, but is actually a pretty decent guy. There's a lot of wiggle room. I disagree with Spacebar's last paragraph. If you make him completely bad with no redeeming qualities, what's the point? Readers want a character they can identify with. Most of us are not entirely good--we'll forgive the occasional transgression, particularly if it's entertaining--but nobody rooted for Ramsay Bolton, no matter his "gray man" internal justifications.
    Vaporo likes this.
  2. Prince of Spires

    Prince of Spires Inkling

    This is an interesting point and shows us how weird the human mind is. What's the difference between Khal Drogo and Ramsay Bolton? And why do we like one but not the other. From an objective point of view Khal Drogo is probably the worst of the two. He certainly killed more people. He pillaged and burnt villages. He murdered someone by pouring molten gold over said person. Though he's only a secondary character of course, he's not that far from the character the original poster is looking for.

    And for all his flaws we (at least I do) like him better then Ramsay. I'm not sure. Perhaps we've become accustomed to violence and death to the point that having a main character kill someone is not a big deal. Even more so since we tend to glorify wars and battles, at least anything from before the first world war.

    But few people like a randomly cruel and petty person, someone who does this for fun and sports. Someone who is a bully. Someone for who the violence is a defining trait of their personality. If you stay away from that and have your characters actions be for the greater good then you can get away with almost anything.

    An example here that came to mind is torture of prisoners. Most people would agree (I hope at least) that we should treat prisoners in a civil manner and respect their rights etc. And yet, it's very common in tv shows to completely ignore this and get away with it without the viewer even wondering if it's morally acceptable. Two examples are Hawaii 5-O and NCIS LA. In Hawaii 5-O somehow terrorists keep trying to blow up Hawaii and there's a lot of murderers running around (it sounds like a very dangerous place, this Hawaii thing...). And the main characters run a police force who tries to track them down. They don't shy away from beating up subjects when interrogating them, threatening them, holding them over ledges of buildings and otherwise ignoring all the rights we normally grant to people. When you objectively think about it they're actually a pretty terrible group of people.

    In the real world, most of the arrests would not be convicted because all the evidence was gathered illegally and the main characters would be tried for human rights violations. And yet, in the tv show we root for them. We want them to succeed. Why? Mainly I think because the violence part doesn't define their personality and they do it "for the greater good".
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  3. One of my favorite examples of a assholish villain protagonist is Zim, from Invader Zim. He's self-centered, mentally unstable, and willing to step on others to obtain his goal. Many of his inner workings can be applied to characters who are simply jerks or simply villains, even though he's both.

    I think that the main 3 reasons you root for him are that almost everyone who he harms or is trying to harm is unlikable in some way, his generally awful traits are usually used for black comedy, and he basically never achieves the goals he sets out to do.

    Almost every other character in the show has a major unappealing trait. The Almightly Tallest are lazy and are jerks to anyone smaller than them. Most of the background or side humans are dirty, stupid, and/or mean. The exceptions, like Keef, tend to be overly friendly to an annoying extent. Hell, even Dib, who is kinda halfway between a deuteragonist and a hero antagonist, can have times where he's boring or shows genuinely insane tendencies. That's why the episodes centered on him where Zim doesn't appear tend to be some of the least popular episodes. Making the world as a whole generally crappy can either make a jerk look like less of a standout, or even make you want a supervillain to succeed in harming humanity out of spite. Zim plays into both of these, but your character would likely be the first case.

    Black comedy, along with random humor is one of the show's strong points. It plays into my last point quite a bit. People tend to laugh at bad or annoying people having misfortunes, whether it's slapstick, where the actual pain is minimal and the misfortune is unrealistic, or black comedy, where a realistic pain is played up for the joke. You probably wouldn't need to use this, but it's still of note.

    Zim is unable to achieve world domination. Most of his plans tend to backfire onto himself or his allies, and he'll probably never take over the world. Even when he succeeds, it's usually just him solving a problem that arose in the episode, rather than making progress on his objective. If your character has a big goal that they'll never achieve, then that makes the audience feel bad for them, even if it's something that would be normally considered bad.

    A writer likely only needs to use 1 or 2 of these tricks to make the audience root for an otherwise dis likable character, Zim just is especially dislikable so he needs even more support to be such a well received protagonist. Hope this helps! I wish I wrote like this on essays for school lmao.
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  4. Spacebar

    Spacebar Scribe

    That's why I presented my ideas as I did. There are plenty of examples in media of objectively extremely violent people who are portrayed so that their violence is taken to be justified or otherwise digestible, or awful villains that the reader is not expected to understand or relate to because they are presented as being irredeemable (or redeemable only through death). Presenting a believable and compelling portrayal of a monster who is destined to be redeemed is not as common.

    A great difficulty in creating a character of that sort would be understanding our own cruel self-defeating impulses (edit: remember how Drogo died of his own overflowing machismo), small though they may be compared to Drogo or Bolton. Nobody finds it easy to look at the darkness inside themselves and see that it does have consequences, yet I find that the media that does that, revealing both the depths and the heights of the human spirit, often makes the greatest impression on me. A further selling point is that such media is uncommon, leaving a potentially untapped audience.
  5. Vaporo

    Vaporo Inkling

    SpacebarSpacebar I'd kind of intended to make him worse before he gets better, though not quite in so many words. Really, what I currently have planned isn't him getting any worse per se, he just gets more spectacular opportunities to express his horribleness.

    I don't think giving him a personality disorder is quite the way to go here. His bad behavior isn't caused by fear or lack of foresight. It's caused by a lack of fear. He's the toughest guy in town. He knows that nobody can stop him and that he he can get away with whatever he wants. The way he sees it, everyone would act like him if they weren't too dumb or too weak to do so. To him, the idea of a moral compass is a fabrication. Something everyone invented to stop people like him from figuring out that they can do whatever they want. Not quite in so many words, of course, but that's his basic philosophy.

    I also don't like giving him a personality disorder since it makes his actions seem "excusable" somehow. He's a jerk because he likes being a jerk and doesn't care what anyone thinks of him. No more complicated than that. A personality disorder implies "Oh, he just can't control himself and..." Yes, he can. He just chooses not to. I'm getting off on a tangent here, but my mom works at a school, so I hear all kinds of stories about kids with "personality disorders" that they and their parents basically just use as excuses for bad behavior. It's frustrating to me, since there are people with legitimate problems that that actually need help, yet are being passed over for the idiot self-entitled kid who has mental breakdown any time that he doesn't get the kind of candy that he wants.

    Ah, but that is exactly what he does. Beat people up because it's fun and nobody can do anything about it. Do you think that makes him totally irredeemable? He's a bully through and through. I think that I should make it clear here that I'm not necessarily looking to redeem this character. Just get him to a point where he at least starts to sees the error of his ways and could start trying to redeem himself. It's fine of the reader starts out hating him. In fact, that's what I want. I have other, much more likeable MCs that can carry the story before his redemption arc gets rolling.
  6. Cu Mara

    Cu Mara Dreamer

    Probably not totally irredeemable if you show your readers he has had his "aha" moment and then begins to make a change. I have seen authors take what appeared to be a villain from one book and turn them into an unlikely hero in their second book simply by explaining the reasons for their actions- typically that they were playing the part in order to protect others. I understand this is not the case for your MC, but I am saying that readers can be willing to change their minds about a character if given a reason to. As quite a few others have said, it is not hard to make people like a jerk. Bullies, jerks and selfish/self absorbed individuals can often be the most popular kids in middle/high school.
  7. Spacebar

    Spacebar Scribe

    Being counterphobic (for example, winning a game of Chicken by being the one most willing to end in mutual destruction) is different from being unafraid. It's actually a response to fear, and the greater the fear, the greater the response can be (for example, it would be normal to swerve out of the way of an oncoming vehicle the moment you sense the possibility of collision. It would take a great counterphobic reaction to keep you on your course).

    Personally, I believe that people who abandon their humanity are more afraid than anyone. They're so scared of other people that they can't afford to spare any empathy, because empathy would leave them vulnerable to psychological and possibly physical harm. He has to see people as weak, stupid, and pathetic because if he saw them in any other terms, he wouldn't be able to easily crush them with physical violence to solve his problems; his empathy would prevent that, like an armor that protects everyone except him. Any situation where he might be expected to empathize is a threat, and he responds to threats with overwhelming force.

    I am not formally trained or certified in psychology or mental health, these are mostly observations that I've made and thought about from my own experience. If a person with a personality disorder is being excused for their behavior, it's probably because their behavior is so alien and self-defeating that it it's difficult to believe (or the institution is too overtaxed, ill-conceived, or lacking in resources to handle unusual circumstances). The life a person with a personality disorder leads is often on terms that a more normal person wouldn't even think of, let alone accept. It's rife with deceits, burnt bridges, threats, manipulations, conflicts, and in the worst cases, violence. If one of these people attaches themselves to you, and you get a good look at what's behind the facade, then trust me that you won't feel inclined to find excuses for them, and neither will the reader.

    But if you go that route, then I'd consider having a morality more complex than "bad guys must suffer/be punished." After all, punishing the wicked doesn't humanize your villain or the victims, and humanizing your (even non-human) characters will make your story more compelling. In general, try to avoid or at least be conscious of playing into stereotypes. Real people are complex, and have emotions and reasons for what they do, and a lot of people don't think about what those reasons are, either in fiction or RL. They just have characters do something because they've seen characters in other stories do the same thing so often that it doesn't appear to require explanation. You've seen a bad guy act like an rear end and then get what's coming to him so often that you can just apply the formula without thinking about it too hard. Your MC might lack empathy, but you need to know what even your most despicable characters are feeling. Giving up empathy isn't something to aspire to; it's a last resort for people who can conceive of no other way to survive with dignity.
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  8. Vaporo

    Vaporo Inkling

    But he's not counterphobic, though. Nobody he knows can threaten him physically, and he beats up anyone who tries to threaten him socially or psychologically. He has no real friends outside of his group of lackeys and is perfectly content with that arrangement, so he doesn't care about who he ostracizes. Besides, when he needs to he can still charm his way back into most people's good graces. So, he's not leaning into any fear to prove that he's not afraid. He just... isn't afraid.

    And I think that it's a bit harsh to say that he's "abandoned his humanity." He's a manipulative jerk who likes beating people up for kicks, sure, but he's far from Hannibal Lecter.
  9. Spacebar

    Spacebar Scribe

    I wasn't necessarily saying that your MC had abandoned his humanity. I was using that more as an exaggeration that even someone who has, like Hannibal Lecter, has fear involved in their personality. It's just very much more abnormal than in regular people. Psychopaths aren't superhumans who don't feel fear or empathy and can therefore live as they please; they live twisted, subnormal lives no matter how much money or success they achieve.

    People can twist unacceptable emotions into other different emotions, usually pain or fear into anger. Men often do this conversion, because saying their feelings are hurt is unacceptable compared to being pissed off. So they superficially present anger, and they do feel it, but the original emotion that it all came from and all has to come back to is hurt. So your MC might present anger, when what he feels is actually fear or pain, because anger is safe. And why would he seek safety? Because he's afraid. And for some people, even anger isn't safe enough, and they have to go so far as becoming completely indifferent, which I think is somehow what happens in cases of psychopathy and the like (this is just my own hypothesis, don't take it as science). If you're human, you feel fear somehow. Animals that can't act out of fear don't survive in nature, and you don't try to inspire fear in others if you don't know what it is yourself.

    Think about what it's like to be your MC. If he cares so little about people, why spend his time around them? He clearly has the strength to survive on his own and spend at least the majority of his time in solitude somewhere where normal people can't go. Or does he just wander through civilization like a god, taking and doing as he pleases with no consequences? Then I could understand him not experiencing fear, if only because he wouldn't understand it. He wouldn't understand that his outrage when he doesn't immediately get what he wants is based in the fear of not having it. He wouldn't really understand why people scatter when he starts thrashing about. Not evil, so much as innocent. That just means that his first real experience of fear will be eye-opening for him. Although it would take some explaining as to how he ended up that way when presumably he was once a child who could easily experience loss and defeat.

    You don't necessarily have to go into the emotional complexities of your characters; that just happens to be the kind of story that I enjoy, so I will encourage you to write that way. I at least don't think there's any loss in it, or that any story has suffered for displaying some sensitive knowledge of the characters therein residing.
  10. Peat

    Peat Sage

    I think the classic tricks for getting readers to accept this type of character are

    1) Have him go against an even bigger jerk, so he looks like the hero in comparison
    2) Humour and self-awareness; people like funny, a self-deprecating attitude of "jeez, what sort of douche am I?" really helps
    3) Redeeming characteristics - loyalty. Competence. A crabbed code of honour.
    4) Presenting the "Why" of them being that way as being a matter of interest - what made them this way? what justified actions did they take?

    I have to say, based on how you're describing him, I don't think I'd see most of those very quickly in the story and that based on how you're describing him, you're picking a really up-hill struggle. But YMMV as my tolerance for jerks is at an all time low.

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