So Bad They’re Good… by Evangeline Anderson

Irredeemable Characters and the plot points that can redeem them.

 Browsing through Wave’s blog recently I came across the excellent article by Val Kovalin about archetypes, stock characters, and stereotypes. It was interesting and well written and it got me thinking about a certain type of character I’ve been experimenting with in my own writing lately—the anti-hero.

The anti-hero typically has a lot of the characteristics more common to a villain than your usual white-knight type of hero. Amorality, violence, greed, lust—he many have any number of undesirable qualities that would normally make the reader hate him and at first, they may. For instance, in A Game of Thrones, by George R.R. Martin,   Jaime Lannister, one of the main characters in the rest of the Song of Ice and Fire series, is first shown pushing a nine year old boy out of a window. Later on we find out that he regularly commits incest with his sister and has fathered all of her children. This is perhaps an extreme example and the reader may actively dislike the character at first (I know I did.) But the question is, can an anti-hero like this be redeemed in the eyes of the reader and turned into a sympathetic character who they will want to read more about?

I believe the answer is yes. Turning a villain or anti-hero into a sympathetic protagonist the reader will root for is a complicated process but I think it can be done in one of three ways.

The first, and most interesting way to make a bad guy into a guy you can’t help liking is to show past trauma—what I like to call, giving a good reason for bad behavior. What happened to the character to make him the way he is now? Was he abused as a child? Born into slavery on a distant planet to a cruel master? Thrown into prison on false charges where he had to get tough or die? Letting the reader know your character isn’t just being a dick for the hell of it will go a long way toward winning their sympathy.

 I used this particular plot device in a M/M book I just turned in to my Loose id editor called Til Kingdom Come. It’s a Medieval M/M erotic romance with mystery, magic, and mayhem and, of course, lots of hot M/M sex. In it, one of the heroes has suffered tremendous losses as a child. I don’t want to spoil it for you but suffice to say, he does some pretty awful things at the start of the book. By the end of the story, however, I have hopefully turned him into a character the reader will be rooting for.

The second way to make the reader care about your bad boy character is to tell them one thing and show another. This is a subtler technique and requires a bit of finesse. I’m going to use a George R.R. Martin character as an example again because he does the anti-hero better than almost anyone else I have read. One of the characters in his Song of Ice and Fire series, Sandor Clegane, is a bodyguard to a rich and spoiled teenage prince. In fact, he is called the prince’s “hound” for his loyalty and willingness to do unspeakable things to serve and protect his master. Sandor frightens the other characters—he has a horrible reputation for remorseless cruelty (he also has some past trauma—his older brother held his face to a stove, making him permanently disfigured.) Yet, despite his supposedly black soul, the reader catches him over and over in small acts of kindness to another character being held prisoner by his master. He shields her from the spoiled prince’s anger and protects her when they are mobbed during a procession at great risk to himself. Martin does an excellent and believable job of making him a character you want to see more of, even if he is only secondary to the plot.

The third and easiest way to redeem an anti-hero is to have him come to an understanding of what he has done wrong and show genuine remorse for his past actions. For instance, at the very end of The Return of the Jedi, we finally see the formidable Darth Vader with his mask off. No longer is he a fearsome Sith lord—he’s a sick old man who is sorry for his actions and we ultimately forgive him for his evil deeds in the previous movies in the series.

 I’m sure there are a few more ways to redeem bad boy characters but those are my favorite methods. The longer I write, the more interest I have in twisted, complex characters with shadowy, painful pasts. I suppose they represent more of a challenge to write than your average good guy in a white hat. Which means you can probably expect to see more angst from me in the future. Big surprise, right?  😀

 Anyway, I’d love to hear from some of you. Do you have other ways of redeeming irredeemable characters? Who are your favorite anti-heroes of all time and who do you think writes the best anti-heroes? Have you ever read a book where the author failed to convert you and you hated the main character you were supposed to like the entire time? I’d like to know and I’m sure Wave would too.

Thanks for reading!

PS—if you liked my previous M/M book, The Assignment, feel free to check out the latest installment about Detectives Valenti and O’Brian—Heart and Soul, available Feb 9th from Loose id. This is a darker book than the previous two but I think you’ll find it very satisfying in the end.




  • “Have you ever read a book where the author failed to convert you and you hated the main character you were supposed to like the entire time?”

    Oh, God, yes.

    For example, those of you who read my LJ know that I have huge huge HUGE issues with tampering with a person’s mind. Drugs, brain operations, memory charms, mind control–I don’t care. If the character alters someone else’s memories, personality, etc., then I’m not going to forgive the character for doing so. I’m REALLY not going to forgive the character if the character is being presented as a hero who is doing this because he/she thinks that altering someone else’s mind is a good and virtuous thing to do. Once the character starts thinking that way…well, it comes across to me as “I am entitled to do this because I am good and right and you are not.” And I hate that.

    This trait was ultimately what killed my interest in a Harry Potter character. Hermione Granger tampered with her parents’ minds, creating new personalities for them and sending them off to Australia where she felt they would be out of danger. She sincerely meant well–but she didn’t give her parents a choice. She just mindraped them for, in her opinion, their own good.

    After that, I couldn’t root for Hermione or believe that she was one of the good guys. I kept thinking of her parents, their identities and memories and very selves blotted out because someone with magical powers felt that circumstances entitled her to blot these qualities out and substitute others.

    Another trait that renders a character unforgivable in my eyes is sexual abuse, such as rape or child molestation. For me, rapists and molesters are not redeemable; to me, they aren’t even people, just monstrous creatures that happen to be shaped like people. So I won’t be convinced by the author trying to tell me they are really good, deep down.

    Conversely, I’ll forgive a lot if a character does something terrible because he or she has been broken by fear, torture or both. I can believe then that the “something terrible” was done reluctantly.

    My favorite way to show that someone is not wholly evil is to have brief shining moments of humanity that are inconsistent with the evil persona the character is either believed to be or is trying to project. I try not to *tell* the audience that the character is good or evil; I would rather persuade readers through the story and through the character’s own actions that the character is a plausible (and, dare I hope, complex) person whom they could meet any day on the street.

  • I think I used the wrong word earlier. “Like” implies acceptance… “compelling” would probably a better descriptor. I find a well written anti-hero can be compelling and even engaging while still being reprehensible.

    I’ve never thought of Jake from the AE Mysteries as being a real anti-hero, because we never really get into his head. All his actions are filtered through Adrien’s perspective. I’ve always thought to qualify as a hero or an anti-hero the reader needed to experience the events from the character’s POV – for better or for worse. Is that the case or am I misunderstanding the term?

    • I don’t know if I agree with you about having to see things from the character’s POV to make him an anti-hero. I actually like to see an anti-hero from other characters’ perspectives. That’s one way you can tell if he has any redeeming characteristics–by the way other characters feel about him. But I do agree that it is easier to sympathize with a character when you are in his POV.

  • hmmm. i agree with the immortality is the suck anti-hero redemption. also, in amor in retrogrado. the men weren’t all that lovely. oh! and in personal demons – the alcoholic cop – not nice – but tolerable and tolerated toward the end. that’s all i got….
    that’s garbled. *(long day)* but that’s what i got… :0)

  • Evangeline, I’m writing on the third book of an anti-hero series right now. Val described it as “Everyone in this book is a psychopath.” (My response was ooops. Here I thought a couple were only sociopaths)
    While I do some of the “I was dumped on the streets to make my way the age of 12 and have lived so low on Maslow’s hierarchy, I will do anything to anyone to make sure I never go hungry again.” mentality, there’s never an attempt to excuse the actions of the characters. It’s one thing to steal bread. It’s another entirely to round up a dozen politicians, castrate them and make a meal that way. The former is survival. The latter is making a point.


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I live in Canada and I love big dogs, music, movies, reading and sports - especially baseball
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