As we’ve mentioned in previous articles on character, simply because the ‘hero’ is called a protagonist doesn’t mean they’re a good person. They are the positive force of their story, from their perspective their actions are justified and their antagonist is wrong. The problem when we want to create a character who is morally dubious to actually ‘evil’, though it is rarely so clear cut, is that we still need to reader to be willing to follow along with them.
We usually call the reader wanting to continue to follow a character ‘empathy’ but this can be a difficult thing to develop with a character who is morally dubious. This is because when we say empathy we automatically thing of understanding, caring, believing in and similar emotions but this isn’t necessarily the case in fiction. Perhaps the word ‘appealing’ might be better for this notion, the character needs to appeal to the reader but that doesn’t necessarily mean they have to think they’re right all the time.
I think the most noticeable phenomena to refer to recently would be the villain Loki in the Marvel films. He is undeniably a villain out for his own ends and pursuing power at any cost and yet audiences love him. Why should they? On paper they should be rooting for the morally upright Thor to win the day and defeat him, in some cases they might even want Loki to win, despite knowing he won’t because the villain doesn’t.
We might say the appeal of Loki is the actor, Tom Hiddleston, but an actor needs something to work with. So identified is Hiddleston with Loki it’s impossible to imagine someone else playing him but the character appealed to people before there was an actor playing him, Loki has a long history in the Marvel universe. In fact, Loki goes all the way back to Norse mythology as the ever popular trickster God.
Through all his various incarnations he maintains traits that are impossible to separate from Loki; he is witty, eloquent and plain fun. People want to see what he will do next, what scheme he will have and how he will get himself out of trouble. He’s the kind of character you’d want to go to the pub with, though you probably wouldn’t want a drink with him because mayhem would ensue.
For generations people have followed the stories of Loki not because they think he’s a hero but because he appeals to people as the fun rebel, the trickster and the bringer of mayhem. If we write a story from Loki’s perspective things would be spun to make the other Norse Gods/Asgardians look like the villains, but the reader would still know Loki isn’t really the good guy.
A large part of why a reader will continue reading a story is the character they’re following. If a character is constructed with traits that appeal to the reader then they will follow them to unexpected places. So when we write we need to remember that it doesn’t matter how good our plot is if our character has nothing to endear them to the reader than the reader won’t want to follow their story. At the same time endearing a character to the reader doesn’t have to mean making them ‘nice’ all the time.