The best novels and short stories are not made up of a cast of saints and heroes. And the best modern novels and stories don’t have black-and-white villains and knights in shining armor. In fact, the characters we love best and that stay with us are almost always a shade of grey, with some good impulses but many bad ones, with both light and dark in their psyches. Increasingly, good writers are expected to make even decidedly immoral characters sympathetic to readers. But how do you portray an immoral character without losing the reader?
First, it’s important to remember that even bad guys (or girls) don’t behave randomly. For the vast majority of people, evil isn’t something to be enjoyed; randomness and chaos for its own sake isn’t the goal. I’m getting really tired of movies nowadays that have random baddies that put a gun to someone’s head without any reason except that the moviemakers want the character to look badass. It doesn’t make sense and it makes the entire world of the story feel false.
After the jump: what to do instead to make your character real.
Instead, you’ve got to respect the complexity of a world that inspires immoral behavior. What situation arose that made the character think it was his only choice to steal, to kill, to lie or deceive? Was he actually doing it because he was thinking he was protecting someone else? Was she really just short-sighted, thinking this was the best course of action for a better future? Was he being selfish, not deliberately cruel? These are real human motivations, and what I find far more poignant than pure human villainy is that so often, simple, honest wants and goals can go awry and have bad outcomes. That’s where the humanity of an immoral character lies.
Second, as a writer it’s important for you to withhold judgment. It’s not up to you to point the condemning finger; instead, you present your character as realistically, as humanistically, as possible, and let your readers decide where his/her behavior is worthy of contempt. Let your character act, speak, and move on the page without being hampered by a haughty narratorial voice, explaining why such-and-such is wrong. Give the reader the benefit of the doubt and let her decide for herself.
Third, how about a little sympathy and compassion? No one is all bad. That doesn’t mean you have to be an apologist for truly heinous actions. Take Humbert Humbert from Nabokov’s Lolita, for example. The man is the worst kind of person you can find on the planet — an incestuous child rapist. Nabokov doesn’t sugar-coat this terrible, repeated crime, and he doesn’t apologize for Humbert by making him out to be a tortured soul who really wants to do the right thing. No, he lets Humbert stand on the page and speak for himself. He is a human being — a weak, cowardly, shamefully lustful human being who has a desperate need to validate his own desires. This does not lessen the evil of the act, but it makes the character far more complex and interesting than a cartoonish villain. Give your immoral character motivation and psychological complexity. It will make your villains ones that are hard to forget.