I’ve noticed two schools of thought in how people see a character. One goes by their actions. The other decides by the intentions. If both are in sync, it’s fairly easy to make snap judgments. It’s when things don’t match up that it gets interesting. Steal something for money? You’re a criminal. The act and the intent are both seen as evil, and you’ll have unanimous opinions from your readers. But stealing to prevent starvation? The act is the same, but the intention is seen as noble. Now your readers have to decide what to think. Now you’ll get divergent opinions.
Too often I see writers decide ‘Jack’ is going to be a bad guy. They want him to be an awesome bad guy, the baddest of the bad. So Jack cheats around, beats his wife, and finally shoots an innocent man. Sure, it might be fun when Jack finally gets punished, but he’s hardly interesting. Every choice, every decision, this Jack might make is predictable; it’ll be the one that’s clearly wrong. What’s his intent? Who wakes up in the morning thinking “I’ll be a total jackass today.” It’s the fairy tale villain yanked into the real world. It doesn’t work.
You want to make a villain memorable, even likable? Give him traits traditionally viewed as good. Love, compassion, forgiveness, humor, kindness, self-sacrifice: the boring villains wouldn’t know what these even are. Make Jack cruel to his children but loving to his wife. Make him funny and charming at work, but a wretched junkie once out of sight. Have him pray sincere prayers to be a better father just before beating another father to death just because that man is black. Want to make a real sicko? Let the sight of blood cause him joy. Let the act of murder fill him with elation, not for causing harm but for the instant feeling of being god. Twist emotions against your readers. Too often the villain is the dark, brooding, angry man with no friends. Give them charisma. Give them faith. Give them certainty.
Now step back and think of a likable character, one you want to have commit terrible things yet keep their humanity. The strategy is reverse. Associate feelings and ideas of wrongness with this character whenever they do the deed. Imagine two men shoot another innocent man. One feels elation. One feels horror. Which one is easier to sympathize with? Which one makes you wonder what terrible situation forced him to do such a thing? Yes, the act is horrible, and perhaps there isn’t any sort of justification or explanation…but what if there is?
One of my characters kills children. This is about as low as it gets, and I don’t try to hide it. This character has justifications for the act. He’s had his head filled with lies, with how his killing is actually a form of mercy. I then have him thoroughly miserable during the act. I have him ashamed and uncertain afterward. He doesn’t want to talk about it. Many times, he doubts what he’s been told. Every one of these things gives the reader this gut feeling that this character is NOT some cruel, heartless monster. But his actions make him a monster. It’s twisted together, and most often my readers pity him and hope for better. How different could he be if I removed those emotions, that doubt? If I left him with just the certainty and justifications, what would I have left?
That’s how narrow I want to walk the line. That’s the character I want to raise from the muck, to pull out from the darkness and give a second chance. There will always be readers who judge by act and act alone. To them, the world is black and white; there is no gray. You can’t write for them. If you do, you’ll be stuck with fairy tales and children’s books.
One last thing…say you want a character to be redeemable. You want him to do something bad, yet not lose the hearts of the reader. The key is, as the writer, to absolutely adore that character. Treat them like your spouse, your brother, or your friend. You’re watching them do these terrible things, and the whole while you want him to stop. You want him to change. It breaks your heart watching him kill or steal or use. And if the readers can feel that, and feel that same heartbreak and desire in the character, then they’ll hope for better. The lure of redemption is powerful. There’s great joy in the return of the prodigal son, not because the son has earned it, but because the son fell so far yet the father feels nothing but love.