Characters Who Kind of Suck… at least at first

The first Iron Man movie is playing in the background, still towards the beginning of the film.  When Tony didn’t show up to get his award, my response was “Tony, you kind of suck.”  And he does, at least at the beginning of the movie.  Honestly, he’s a jerk.

This jerk-turned-good guy motif is actually common in fiction.  It might be someone who has a tragic event or major accident (a la Tony Stark) that causes him to reevaluate his behavior.  Sometimes this character is given a quest or challenge that brings a new revelation about her life.  Whatever the cause for the change of heart, by the end of the story we are not just cheering for the character but we are often emotionally invested in this person.

That doesn’t mean we have to like them at the beginning.

As an author, this can be a tricky thing to do.  If someone is going to fill this role in your story, you want them to have some room to grow and improve.  Don’t get me wrong; a likeable character can also go on a quest and learn about themselves.  But in order to really have someone change their personality, you’ve got to start with flaws.

Those flaws, however, need to be both something that can be overcome and something that doesn’t make the reader shut the book.  It’s one thing to roll your eyes at an arrogant womanizer or to question the choice of a thieving kid for a quest; it is a completely different feeling when a character puts your hackles up or sets off your creep-meter.

Finding the right way to engage your reader and keep them reading when the main character isn’t someone they particularly like becomes a challenge in its own right.   If you do it right, however, it can make for a heck of a story.