You know what’s hard? Writing. You know what’s hard to write? Unpleasant things.
Now, I’m not just talking about writing a character’s death. For some writers–actually, for more writers than I feel really comfortable mentioning–it’s par for the course when one of our characters goes to the big literary Elysian fields in the sky.
What I’m referring to is the sort of writing that can give us a protagonist like Humbert Humbert or Doctor Faust–main characters who are straight up evil or downright unpleasant to be around, and yet we still enjoy reading their stories, finding ourselves entranced from the first page to the last period.
There are a number of techniques for making an antihero compelling reading. There’s the “villain with a heart of gold” technique. The “I used to be good until faced with great personal tragedy” technique. There’s the “good person placed in a bad situation who secretly wants to be good” technique. There’s the “unrepentantly bad person who still has one point of redemption” technique.
Whichever technique works for you, it’s tricky to implement, but if you can pull it off, these characters can be some of the most entertaining and intriguing.
Exercise 21: Making The Bad Guy Good Reading. Pick a technique that works for you, and write it at the top of a blank sheet of paper (or your computer screen). Divide your worksheet into two: Character traits and Events. Let your pen wander as you brainstorm your evil character. What makes up his personality (character traits)? What has happened to make him the person he is (events)? When you have enough to get started, sketch out the introduction to the character. A few paragraphs to get started will suffice.
Once you’ve sketched out your scene, find someone who is willing to read it (or share the link in the comments). Would they read more? Would the character entrance them or are their negative traits too negative? Head back to the drawing board and see what else you’ve got for that character. Good guys all the time can get somewhat tiring–let’s see who you’ve got that we can sink our ambivalent teeth into.