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.

EVANGELINE ANDERSON’S CONTACT INFORMATION

Email: vangiekitty@aol.com 
Website:www.evangelineanderson.com

Author

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

19 comments

  • Hi guys,
    Sorry I’m checking in so late. Ben has been a handful today. Lemme see…
    Angelia, I haven’t seen a lot of anti-heroes in M/M fiction either but I am looking to change that with ‘Til Kingdom Come. It’s past time we had some bad guys to love/hate in this genre.

    Tam–All I can say is you have to read The Game of Thrones to understand. I, too, would have thought that a character who do such evil things would be completely Irrideemable but Martin is such an incredible author that you are actually interested in him later in the series.

    Erastes, Yeah, someone else who likes Clegane. I am also in a small minority who hopes he gets together with Sansa. Yes, I know the age difference is major but I couldn’t help falling in love with this hugely damaged character for the way he treated her.

    Val Kovalin–yes, I really liked your article, food for thought. Martin’s books do tend toward the gritty side which is why I think they are going to make an amazing HBO show. (I think it’s coming out this fall. Can’t wait!)

    Diane NYC–Yes, small acts of kindness is a great way to redeem the bad boys. And thanks for saying I’m an autobuy for you (blushes) that’s always so nice to hear. I hope you like Heart and Soul and be kind to Wave, she didn’t mean to tease you. lol

    Wave–I think I need to read Standish, everyone keeps mentioning it. I do agree that some things are unforgiveable–that is when you have a villain, not an anti-hero. : )

    Larissa–Thanks for saying you liked the article. My last two or three books have had anti-heroes as the protagonist so it is a subject that is very interesting to me right now. (BTW, I love your name, v. pretty.)

    Ingrid–I agree to a certain point–the “I’m abusive because I was abused” thing doesn’t work for me. I guess I’m thinking of one or two reprehensible acts by the anti-hero, not a string of them or a pattern of abuse.

    Thanks to everyone who dropped in to say hi and comment on the article. Again, I’m so sorry I didn’t check in until late. Had to take Ben back to the Dr and that and dealing with a sick baby who wants constant attention sort of ate up my day.

    Reply
  • Hi guys,
    Sorry I’m checking in so late. Ben has been a handful today. Lemme see…
    Angelia, I haven’t seen a lot of anti-heroes in M/M fiction either but I am looking to change that with ‘Til Kingdom Come. It’s past time we had some bad guys to love/hate in this genre.

    Tam–All I can say is you have to read The Game of Thrones to understand. I, too, would have thought that a character who do such evil things would be completely Irrideemable but Martin is such an incredible author that you are actually interested in him later in the series.

    Erastes, Yeah, someone else who likes Clegane. I am also in a small minority who hopes he gets together with Sansa. Yes, I know the age difference is major but I couldn’t help falling in love with this hugely damaged character for the way he treated her.

    9 Responses to “So Bad They’re Good… by Evangeline Anderson”Angelia Sparrow says:
    February 8, 2010 at 8:31 am in (United States)
    I don’t believe in redeeming my anti-heros. (And I never accepted that Vader became good just because he saved his own son from death) The point is not redemption. The point is to keep the reader interested, even if they hate the character.
    ~
    I like anti-heros. I came of age on Snake Plisskin, Mad Max, Jonathan E and all the great SF of the 70s and 80s. I like Julian May’s Marc Remillard and Aiken Drum. I haven’t encountered too many anti-heroes in m/m fiction. Maybe it’s the books I’m picking, but they all have very conventional heroes.

    ReplyTam says:
    February 8, 2010 at 9:06 am in (Canada)
    I have to confess I’m not a huge fan of the anti-hero. I think it’s a personal thing in that I get so freaked out by the bad stuff that I can’t get past it. If you push a kid out a window, I don’t care how badly you were beaten as a child or that your mommy didn’t love you, you’re out Bud. You can’t fix that. Now if you happen to kill your nasty abusers I’m all up in your corner cheering you on.
    *
    Well maybe the full on repentence could fix it but I think I watch too many crime shows. Those guys say whatever it takes to get what they want. LOL Psychopaths never feel sorry. You’d have to work pretty hard to make me believe a guy who acted one way for 30+ years suddenly sees the light due to the love of a good man/woman. Call me jaded.
    *
    I’m sure I’ve read books where it works and it really depends on where the character starts. HOW bad are they and could I see a justification for their actions (not for fun). I know there are tons of anti-hero fans out there though, the more anti the better. Great article.

    ReplyErastes says:
    February 8, 2010 at 9:13 am in (United Kingdom)
    I absolutely don’t like writing any nice characters. I much prefer making them as flawed as possible, and the more I write the more I make them flawed and I hope, realistic. Granted Ambrose in Standish was the stereotypical “blond good guy” but that was deliberate, in light of the homage to the regency, and even he had faults – he is stubborn and hugely proud, doesn’t talk things through and acts before he thinks leading to disaster many times. Rafe too is hugely flawed.

    My biggest anti-hero is Fleury from the same book. He’s absolutely not a nice person – he was the top man in Newgate, kills as casually as thinking, has psychotic rages, considers that your money is in the wrong pocket but readers fell in love with him because he’s so bloody charming. They seemed to skim over his psychotic behaviour. He’s irredeemable, too (as is Rafe, as far as I’m concerned, however the reader might take it) and is never going to go straight in any sense of the word.

    One trope I hate in fiction is the reformed rake. I’ve never met any man who’s actually mended his ways!!

    I was fascinated by Clegane, and I hope (if we ever get another book) that he’s not actually dead, and is trying to redeem himself in that monastery. I doubt he’ll succeed!! Hope not, anyway.

    9 Responses to “So Bad They’re Good… by Evangeline Anderson”Angelia Sparrow says:
    February 8, 2010 at 8:31 am in (United States)
    I don’t believe in redeeming my anti-heros. (And I never accepted that Vader became good just because he saved his own son from death) The point is not redemption. The point is to keep the reader interested, even if they hate the character.
    ~
    I like anti-heros. I came of age on Snake Plisskin, Mad Max, Jonathan E and all the great SF of the 70s and 80s. I like Julian May’s Marc Remillard and Aiken Drum. I haven’t encountered too many anti-heroes in m/m fiction. Maybe it’s the books I’m picking, but they all have very conventional heroes.

    ReplyTam says:
    February 8, 2010 at 9:06 am in (Canada)
    I have to confess I’m not a huge fan of the anti-hero. I think it’s a personal thing in that I get so freaked out by the bad stuff that I can’t get past it. If you push a kid out a window, I don’t care how badly you were beaten as a child or that your mommy didn’t love you, you’re out Bud. You can’t fix that. Now if you happen to kill your nasty abusers I’m all up in your corner cheering you on.
    *
    Well maybe the full on repentence could fix it but I think I watch too many crime shows. Those guys say whatever it takes to get what they want. LOL Psychopaths never feel sorry. You’d have to work pretty hard to make me believe a guy who acted one way for 30+ years suddenly sees the light due to the love of a good man/woman. Call me jaded.
    *
    I’m sure I’ve read books where it works and it really depends on where the character starts. HOW bad are they and could I see a justification for their actions (not for fun). I know there are tons of anti-hero fans out there though, the more anti the better. Great article.

    ReplyErastes says:
    February 8, 2010 at 9:13 am in (United Kingdom)
    I absolutely don’t like writing any nice characters. I much prefer making them as flawed as possible, and the more I write the more I make them flawed and I hope, realistic. Granted Ambrose in Standish was the stereotypical “blond good guy” but that was deliberate, in light of the homage to the regency, and even he had faults – he is stubborn and hugely proud, doesn’t talk things through and acts before he thinks leading to disaster many times. Rafe too is hugely flawed.

    My biggest anti-hero is Fleury from the same book. He’s absolutely not a nice person – he was the top man in Newgate, kills as casually as thinking, has psychotic rages, considers that your money is in the wrong pocket but readers fell in love with him because he’s so bloody charming. They seemed to skim over his psychotic behaviour. He’s irredeemable, too (as is Rafe, as far as I’m concerned, however the reader might take it) and is never going to go straight in any sense of the word.

    One trope I hate in fiction is the reformed rake. I’ve never met any man who’s actually mended his ways!!

    I was fascinated by Clegane, and I hope (if we ever get another book) that he’s not actually dead, and is trying to redeem himself in that monastery. I doubt he’ll succeed!! Hope not, anyway.

    Val Kovalin–yes, I really liked your article, food for thought. Martin’s books do tend toward the gritty side which is why I think they are going to make an amazing HBO show. (I think it’s coming out this fall. Can’t wait!)

    Diane NYC–Yes, small acts of kindness is a great way to redeem the bad boys. And thanks for saying I’m an autobuy for you (blushes) that’s always so nice to hear. I hope you like Heart and Soul and be kind to Wave, she didn’t mean to tease you. lol

    Wave–I think I need to read Standish, everyone keeps mentioning it. I do agree that some things are unforgiveable–that is when you have a villain, not an anti-hero. : )

    Larissa–Thanks for saying you liked the article. My last two or three books have had anti-heroes as the protagonist so it is a subject that is very interesting to me right now. (BTW, I love your name, v. pretty.)

    Ingrid–I agree to a certain point–the “I’m abusive because I was abused” thing doesn’t work for me. I guess I’m thinking of one or two reprehensible acts by the anti-hero, not a string of them or a pattern of abuse.

    Thanks to everyone who dropped in to say hi and comment on the article. Again, I’m so sorry I didn’t check in until late. Had to take Ben back to the Dr and that and dealing with a sick baby who wants constant attention sort of ate up my day.

    Reply
  • It depends on the writing if I buy the redemption of an anti-hero. Abuse is a no-no, no matter what he will do it is not going to make it right.
    *
    I like D from Zero to the Bone. He has done nasty things but he tries to make things right for Jack.
    No one has mentioned Jake but I will. ( I am not afraid of Kris!) Some will say he has not suffered enough to make up to Adrien but he is willing. And that gets him some brownie points.

    Reply
  • Ant-heroes. They’ve never really been my favorite thing. Especially when they use their past as an excuse. Though admittedly some people really are victims of circumstance.
    *
    They though make a nice change from the always perfect or near perfect characters.
    *
    Really nice post! I enjoyed reading your view on characters and anti-heroes.

    Reply
  • I don’t really like anti heroes although I do understand their purpose in literature – we don’t want kissy face throughout our books because those stories get boring pretty fast. If all characters were fine upstanding people where’s the conflict and diversity in the plots?
    *
    I’m reading a book right now about “boyfriend” abuse which you don’t hear a lot about in the gay community. Men are too afraid to report their abusive boyfriends or spouses because cops are not as sympathetic to them as they may be towards women in the same situation. The abuser is himself a cop which makes his behaviour even more reprehensible, and the beatings are really vicious – this character is not redeemable to me.

    *
    I have many examples but I won’t bore you with them because I’m sure we read most of the same books. 😀

    *
    I hated Rafe in Standish, but I rated the book as 5+ which is the highest rating on this site, because of the brilliant writing. Other anti heroes turn me off from the book entirely but not Peter in the Soul Mates series – I loved him. He was part vampire and part werewolf and I think that making him like other protagonists i.e. faithful, would not have been credible in the context of the story.
    *
    While I do like anti heroes to stay that way, I think the characterization has a lot to do with whether I like the book and will continue reading. There is no way a child abuser will ever redeem himself to me even if he was abused himself as a child. That would gross me out.

    *
    >>(Wave – I still haven’t forgiven you for teasing us yesterday)< < I'm very sorry about that Diane and I promise not to do so again - until next time. 😀

    Reply
  • I am always fascinated when an author puts a truly dark character front and center in a book. The granddaddy of dark protagonists would probably be Alex in Anthony Burgess’ “A Clockwork Orange”. It wasn’t an easy read or even necessarily enjoyable, but I will never forget it.

    In the m/m genre, Erastes’ book “Standish” comes to mind first. I always liked Rafe, no matter how destructive he was being to himself and those around him. Another example would be Peter in Jourdan Lane’s Soul Mates series, he repeatedly cheats on his soulmate, but the author puts you in his head so you always understand his motivations. These characters worked because while they were morally weak, they genuinely care for their love interests in their own way.

    As for making the anti-hero identifiable.. I think the “small acts of kindness” method is probably my favorite, because it allows the reader to connect with the character without necessarily requiring them to change their ways. Childhood trauma really only works when it is paired with a conversion. I like my bad boys to stay bad 🙂

    I’ll definitely read “Til Kingdom Come” (Evangeline, you are an auto-buy for me). I can’t wait for H&S to be released tomorrow (Wave – I still haven’t forgiven you for teasing us yesterday) 😛

    Reply
  • Thanks for the mention! I’m so pleased that my article may have helped to plant a seed that resulted in this one. Anti-hero is a fascinating subject. Those GRRM characters are good examples, even though his books tend to be way too gritty for me. I read the first few books several years ago, and I still remember Sandor and Jamie.

    *

    You asked: “Do you have other ways of redeeming irredeemable characters?” You’ve mentioned revealing past trauma, saying one thing and showing another, and showing remorse. To that, I’d add showing how a character progresses from being self-centered to caring for another — usually through sudden insecurity at realizing that they might lose the other person. I thought that A.M. Riley did that really well with the anti-hero Adam in the recent novel Immortality is the Suck.

    *

    If the anti-hero really cares about something other than himself, it can go a long way towards making him someone worth reading about. Ayn Rand did that in The Fountainhead with Howard Roark caring so much about his work, but that’s not nearly as effective as making an anti-hero care about another person. To give a non-book example (and a non-romance example), the new science fiction show Fringe. There is a father and son who are both anti-heroes who have to work together after a long estrangement, much resentment, and much wrong-doing as individuals, and they come to care strongly for each other. Very fascinating.

    *

    Thanks for the great article! I plan to check out both The Assignment and Heart and Soul. 🙂

    Reply
  • I absolutely don’t like writing any nice characters. I much prefer making them as flawed as possible, and the more I write the more I make them flawed and I hope, realistic. Granted Ambrose in Standish was the stereotypical “blond good guy” but that was deliberate, in light of the homage to the regency, and even he had faults – he is stubborn and hugely proud, doesn’t talk things through and acts before he thinks leading to disaster many times. Rafe too is hugely flawed.

    My biggest anti-hero is Fleury from the same book. He’s absolutely not a nice person – he was the top man in Newgate, kills as casually as thinking, has psychotic rages, considers that your money is in the wrong pocket but readers fell in love with him because he’s so bloody charming. They seemed to skim over his psychotic behaviour. He’s irredeemable, too (as is Rafe, as far as I’m concerned, however the reader might take it) and is never going to go straight in any sense of the word.

    One trope I hate in fiction is the reformed rake. I’ve never met any man who’s actually mended his ways!!

    I was fascinated by Clegane, and I hope (if we ever get another book) that he’s not actually dead, and is trying to redeem himself in that monastery. I doubt he’ll succeed!! Hope not, anyway.

    Reply
  • I have to confess I’m not a huge fan of the anti-hero. I think it’s a personal thing in that I get so freaked out by the bad stuff that I can’t get past it. If you push a kid out a window, I don’t care how badly you were beaten as a child or that your mommy didn’t love you, you’re out Bud. You can’t fix that. Now if you happen to kill your nasty abusers I’m all up in your corner cheering you on.
    *
    Well maybe the full on repentence could fix it but I think I watch too many crime shows. Those guys say whatever it takes to get what they want. LOL Psychopaths never feel sorry. You’d have to work pretty hard to make me believe a guy who acted one way for 30+ years suddenly sees the light due to the love of a good man/woman. Call me jaded.
    *
    I’m sure I’ve read books where it works and it really depends on where the character starts. HOW bad are they and could I see a justification for their actions (not for fun). I know there are tons of anti-hero fans out there though, the more anti the better. 🙂 Great article.

    Reply
  • I don’t believe in redeeming my anti-heros. (And I never accepted that Vader became good just because he saved his own son from death) The point is not redemption. The point is to keep the reader interested, even if they hate the character.
    ~
    I like anti-heros. I came of age on Snake Plisskin, Mad Max, Jonathan E and all the great SF of the 70s and 80s. I like Julian May’s Marc Remillard and Aiken Drum. I haven’t encountered too many anti-heroes in m/m fiction. Maybe it’s the books I’m picking, but they all have very conventional heroes.

    Reply

Please comment! We'd love to hear from you.

%d bloggers like this: