As a romantic suspense author, I enjoy creating characters (both heroes and villains) that readers love to hate. Creating characters that verge on being anti-heroes is especially satisfying. Why? It makes for interesting reading and the experience become emotional for the reader when they can’t decide whether to root for a character or wish him a fiery fictitious death in a car crash (just kidding. Sorta.)
Column by Magnolia Smith, author of TELL ME NO LIES (May 17, 2016,
Samhain Publishing). With a family history of military service, is it any
wonder that Magnolia grew up to marry a US Marine and write romantic
suspense? With a great respect for the U.S. Armed Forces and American
law enforcement, Magnolia finds they make awesome characters for her
stories. When Magnolia is not writing, you can find her visiting vineyards
and Civil War battlegrounds, watching her favorite shows, practicing hot
yoga and blending her own herbal teas. She is represented by Holloway
Literary. Find her on Twitter.
My new series The Black Orchid focuses on sexy Alpha assassins and the women in their lives. These are patriotic, dutiful guys bursting with personal integrity… who kill for a living… plenty of room for blurred lines, eh? This series is romantic suspense, so there are still conventions to be followed. In my novel TELL ME NO LIES, the hero Kael Brady (aka the assassin with a heart of gold – my favorite romance trope) is more of traditional hero than originally planned. As previously written my editor was concerned about his psychopathic tendencies, so for the sake of being a romantic suspense he was toned down, though he still retains some of his darkness.
For example, he’s grown weary of hurting and killing people as a part of his job – even when they deserve it—but he very much enjoys hurting women in bed. And he’s finally found a woman he wants to settle down with, he’d protect her with his life, do anything to make sure she’s never hurt… but then again, he does want to hurt her (in that Fifty Shades of Grey kinda way). It’s complicated, but it makes for fun writing.
I also enjoyed writing the villain in TELL ME NO LIES, who I think some readers will love and others will hate. He has a bit of the sadist about him, but then again… so does the hero.
While writing about sexy bad boys with both good and bad qualities, I decided to compile a helpful list of tips for creating characters that readers love to hate.
As the writer, you give…and you take. In romance especially, make your bad boy a physical specimen of loveliness, in both feature and form. The reader may be irresistibly attracted to the character just as they are repelled by his action. But just as in real life, the reader will take his actions with a grain of salt, just because he looks like a Greek god.
2. He Gets It From His Mama
Provide your characters with dark, twisted backgrounds that explain why they’re so screwed up. There was a time when modern psychologists blamed the bad behavior of adults on their parents, particularly their mothers. Times have changed slightly, and while mothers still get blamed, most experts admit that other factors like genetics and extended environments can be the cause for adults behaving badly.
If your character’s morals are lacking, his behavior deviant and his scruples suspect, provide a background that explains why he’s not so nice.
Do the research and find out the real reasons people do bad things. Depending on the degree of deviant behavior your character displays, his background could include something as common as parents that divorced, a father that was never there; to more extreme reasons like physical or sexual assault in their youth, witnessing brutal crimes or experiencing extreme ambivalence in caretakers. Whatever you choose, it should make sense in the context of your character’s behavior. Done correctly, in the world building of your story, the reader will grudgingly understand why the character is motivated to act badly and perhaps feel sorry for him or her.
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3. Midnight In The Garden of Good and Evil
No one is all good or all bad, and neither should your characters be. Create three-dimensional characters that are mostly good or mostly bad, but show cracks in that exterior. Confuse the reader! Show a bit of tenderness from the bad boy, a dark searching moment for the good guy. Maybe your bad boy is a jerk to everyone but homeless people – and create a compelling reason why in his backstory. Your good guy may be perfect, except for when he sees someone being unkind to animals and he goes psycho.
One of the characters in TELL ME NO LIES has no compunction about killing anyone at anytime in any place, but he’s loyal to a fault to his best friend. Show your good guy get blackout angry, have your villain break down and cry… mix it up. Your character’s action must make sense, if only to himself. Show the internal dialogue, allow the reader to understand the rationalization that goes on within the character, even if it is all wrong.
Make sure the character’s arc reflects growth. There should be some, even for bad boys and villain. As in the real world, people grow and change. Create a writing goal to almost redeem your villain by the end of the book. Almost, I said. If you do this, you’ll find yourself trying to “write him good” despite all of the bad things he’s done. This tactic will provide for natural character growth as he moves from bad to not-so-bad.
4. Beta Read This Please
There is a fine line between creating characters that reader’s love to hate… and characters that readers just hate. Go too far in one direction and you’ll have a completely unlikable character that readers cannot and will not relate to, or write to the other extreme and you’ll have a boring, cliché one-dimensional character – the nice guy that finishes last.
Beta readers are important. They can give you feedback on your character development and help you make important tweaks that will create authentic characters that readers love to hate.
In conclusion, creating borderline characters that exhibit both characteristics of villain and hero is not for every writer and certainly not for every genre. It’s important that you know who you are as a writer, what you hope to accomplish artistically, what is expected of your genre and what your readers want to read. But for my purpose, a series about sexy, Alpha assassins… bad boys and villains that walk the line between good and evil make perfect sense.
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