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On “Bad” Main Characters

Anonymous asked: “In a lot of writing now, jealousy is seen as kind of a bad, a petty thing, but my main character has always been insecure, and because of that, constantly scared that the people around her will leave for someone better. It causes her to cling on and get jealous. What do I do?” 

I’d like to take a minute to talk about “bad” main characters. I’m talking about characters who sometimes do the wrong thing, characters who have vices, bad habits, or unlikable personality traits and how they might work in books. 

First off, an unlikable main character can ruin a book. I’ve seen so many reviews like that – they just didn’t like the character. It happens, but just because your protagonist is far from perfect doesn’t mean they need to be unlikeable – though it may make them controversial. 

What’s the difference between unlikable and controversial? When a character is controversial, often it means some readers out there will like this character. They might find them relatable. Not everyone will like that character – not everyone will relate. The most famous controversial character is probably Holden Caulfield. I’ve heard people call him an obnoxious punk, others will declare him their fictional soulmate. This is ok. Your protagonist doesn’t need to be everyone’s cup of tea. 

Another “bad” protagonist is Katniss Everdeen from The Hunger Games. She is probably a better example to learn from. For one thing, I know she’s not perfect, but I love her! I don’t think she’d want to be my friend if I’d met her in real life, but that’s ok – I still like her in the books. She’s pragmatic to a fault. She cares deeply for her sister, but she’s not perfect. Her attitude towards her mother isn’t great. She takes advantage of Peeta’s crush on her to help them through the games. She walks on morally gray ground. With that said, for anything that might seem blatantly bad, she makes up for it with her wits and moments of genuine kindness. She does care about the well-being of others around her. She’s smart and trying to do her best for the people she cares about. Those things make her likable – or at the very least, might allow a reader to look past something she’s done wrong. 

Drawing from Katniss as an example, sometimes a “bad” main character can still be likable because despite their wrong doings, they have good intentions and are always trying to do their best in what they really care about. Another example – the Winchester brothers from the TV series Supernatural. They lie, they steal, they say they’ll call the girls they pick up and don’t – but they’re also monster-hunters and their lives are pretty much dedicated solely to fighting evil things. Everything else kind of becomes a forgivable offense when they kill the man-eater that’s been running rampant in town. They’re “bad” but that’s kind of ok. 

Jealousy is a particularly wicked vice – because, like you’d said, it can come off as petty. The challenge with jealousy will be to make the reader believe that they need to resort to jealousy – what makes her relationship so valuable but untrustworthy? Likely if she’s insecure as a result of something in her life and has had past relationships, jealousy could believably come out of a relationship she has high hopes for. Suspicions might come out of past mistakes or things that happened in past relationships – for instance, if her last boyfriend cheated on her with his workout partner, she might find that she’s overly alarmed every time her new boyfriend spends too long at the gym. That’s one way insecurity can manifest in a relationship that isn’t in trouble. She might know he wouldn’t do that and talk out these fears, but it can take awhile to quell those insecurities. 

I recommend reading A Map for Wrecked Girls by Jessica Taylor. It comes out August 2017. Taylor does a great job of tackling characters with insecurities. 

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