Or, how to let your readers know that just because your character is a jerk doesn't mean YOU are!
Warning: this blog post contains lots of synonyms for "jerk," including some swears. Ready?
If you're doing any kind of character development or trying to break out of tropes at all, you're eventually going to have to write characters whose opinions and lifestyles you disagree with. And let's be honest, sometimes you just want to write about a good old-fashioned asshole.
You may want your main character to have a large flaw but still be somebody the reader enjoys watching as a whole. It could be part of the lesson the main character has to learn. For example, in Avatar: Legend of Korra, the arrogant avatar needs to learn humility before she can hope to bring balance to the world...
Depending on the kind of story you're writing, you may even need some characters that are downright unlikable. She may not be the villain, but she's somebody who antagonizes your main character with her no-morals attitude. Or he's a researcher whose arrogance will bring him down in the end. Even if they're not the main character, chances are your story will need people who don't fit into what we'd call "likeable."
The problem is, the closer a character is to the central, point of view character, the more likely it is that readers will think the author approves of their behavior. This is especially true if that character is your only POV character or fits into the "hero" role at some or all parts of the story.
Is it really so hard to differentiate between writer and character?
You might think that the fact that your characters are not, in fact, you, the author, would be enough for your readers to realize that you don't always agree with their life choices or opinions. Unfortunately, this isn't always clear. I can't speak for everybody, but for the most part, when reading, I assume that the protagonist (the person who's supposed to be the good guy!) is a person whose feelings I am meant to relate to and whose decisions I am supposed to understand--even if I don't agree with their actions, their motivations should be at least somewhat intact.
This might not always hold true for all readers, but it's a good rule of thumb: your central characters, unless they're active villains, are regarded as role models. Unless you can indicate otherwise.
So what can you do to assure your readers that no, you don't think anti-Vulcan prejudice is okay? Though it may not seem so, you aren't completely at the mercy of your slapdash and jerkass characters to carry the weight of authorial intent. Here's a list of seven things that you can do to let your readers know what YOU really believe in and still keep the meh, the bad, and the ugly.
1. Establish that your character is an unreliable narrator
It's one thing if your main character is a sharp-eyed, smart, perceptive private eye who just happens to become completely irrational when it comes to women; it's another if he's always a little shady, constantly in a drunken haze, and his perception of the world is full of contradictions. If you spend a lot of time building up your character's rationality, then readers will be primed to think that she will be able to deduce the morally correct action in a situation. With a character that is known to be balanced, reliable, and rational, it's more likely that she will be automatically perceived as a person whose decisions should be trusted.
On the other hand, a character who's known to be unstable carries less assumptions that they'll make the choice that writer believes is "right." Unreliable narrators give you a lot of leeway for moral grey areas because they are already assumed not to be totally trustworthy. The very fact that you're using an unreliable narrator will signal to readers, in most cases, that you're using a level of complexity in discussing issues. And you'll already have to find a way to make readers realize that there might be differences between what the narrator tells them and the reality of a situation.
This doesn't mean that only traditionally unreliable narrators can be morally grey protagonists. Even if your character isn't stark raving mad, all you need to do is show them to be a person whose perspective is slightly skewed. If we have a hint that their basic perception of the world is off, then readers are more likely to think critically about their actions. (How to create an unreliable narrator might have to be the subject of a whole other post!)
2. Get other characters to call the problem character out
This one is pretty basic, but it does the job well. If your character has a terrible opinion that you need to present in order to stay true to her beliefs, but that you don't want to represent as truth, find a way to create a conversation about that opinion. Make her have a fight with her best friend about her belief that Martians should be second-class citizens.
When other characters in your book call out the problem, besides putting an obstacle in front of your jerkwad character, you're saying to the readers, "Hey, I know that this is an issue." Since every character is a product of your mind, they'll have to acknowledge that your perception of the problem behavior encompasses more than just the problem character's POV.
Creating dialogue about philosophical and moral concepts is also a great way to build depth into your world, make social commentary, and make readers think with your fiction. You can present various points of view without making an obvious judgement as to which one is "the best;" or, you can subtly point toward the moral values that you actually hold, using your problem character as a way to critique the system. Sometimes the not-so-subtle "let's talk about this" option can be a really good introduction to the issues you're trying to discuss--although it's also usually best to add complications to those discussions rather than spelling out issues in prescriptive terms, to avoid sounding preachy.
3. Prove your character wrong with plot events and details
In a book I edited last year, I found myself frustrated that the POV character was a scientist, and an unapologetic jerk. That was all good and well, and the writer assured me that they knew the character was a jackass--but, while the people around the scientist disagreed with the him, yelled at him and criticized him, well, he kept being right. His first hypotheses in every situation turned out to be correct, no matter how many other very rational scientists told him that they were garbage. His intuition was infallible, and yet everybody around him kept ignoring it--which made them look like idiots, as well as making it sound like the writing was pointing to this guy and saying "Look at him! He's right!"
It's not enough to have other characters disagree with the problem character, argue with them, or throw things at their head in a fit of rage when they make a sexist comment. If your problem character is a jerk but keeps being proven right by the plot, over and over again, the audience will start to feel that you, the writer, are stacking the odds unrealistically in their favor. If your plot proves them right about science, maybe you think they're right to treat everyone around them like obstacles, too?
And when every other character is against this dickwad, yet they're the only one who can solve the riddle, figure out the password, or shoot straight with their blaster, it can start to feel like the chorus of criticism from the rest of the characters is actually just a way of creating sympathy for this jerk by making them look like the underdog.
You want your character to be competent and be able to solve their problems, but allowing them to make wrong decisions, get distracted, mistake friend for foe, is another way to let your reader know that you don't think their actions are always the best. Better, if the character's failures are sometimes linked to their bad behavior, it will further reinforce the idea that this behavior is actually unacceptable.
4. Hold your character accountable for their behavior
Your jerk character may have dissenting voices around them and make some mistakes, but if their major flaws don't ever start to affect their life, the plot, and the situation around them, then they won't feel very realistic. It's good to make your problem character screw up from time to time--it's even better if their screw-ups have consequences. Not just small consequences; things that really affect their lives.
Consequences for a problem character's bad behavior are one really good way to remind readers that you, the writer, don't see this as one of their strong suits. It also helps enhance realism, telling readers that you understand some nuances of human behavior. If the character has to work to fix mistakes that they made while they were being a jerkwad, it will be clear to readers that the character really shouldn't have been doing those things in the first place--and that you, the writer, know that.
In the story I mentioned in the previous section, the scientist had a roomate who was also his best friend and collaborator on a project. She often called him out on his asshole moves, but, even though they fought, in the end she always ended up going along with his plans. Even though she was a vocal critic, there were no real consequences for the scientist, and he didn't have to make changes to his views or behavior. Not only did this make it unclear whether the writer really agreed with the scientist's sometimes misogynistic views, it seemed unrealistic. The best friend was a strong, intelligent character with a lot of pride. It left me wondering, why doesn't she just ditch this guy? What redeeming qualities does she see in him?
After some developmental edits (during which I found myself articulating a lot of what I'm writing in this blog post for the first time) my client came up with a much stronger draft. In the final version, the scientist's best friend initially puts up with his behavior, but, as the situation escalates, she ends up moving out of their shared apartment and refusing to talk to him--as well as having a slight mental breakdown of her own. The scientist is forced to confront the fact that his rudeness has lost him one of his only friends and one of the few people who will listen to his idea. He has to go through difficult conversations in order to help her with her issues and regain her trust.
5. Let your character change over time
Once you have all the building blocks--other characters who disagree, plot developments that don't always prove the main character right, and consequences for bad behavior--it's almost too easy to make your problem character begin to change their bad behavior. Consequences for their actions will force them to either double down on their bad decisions, justifying them and pushing away critics, or start to look for ways to apologize and make things up to people they have wronged.
If you're already telling the reader you are disagreeing with your character, might as well go all out! Redemption and growth arcs often feature characters who start out with a major flaw and then learn to do better, and they can be really satisfying for readers. (There's a reason that so many of us love Zuko from Avatar: The Last Airbender.)
Character growth is probably the strongest way to acknolwedge to your readers that you think your character is sometimes wrong. You're showing readers that you understand the reasons the character's actions are bad, and you're also showing them a possible way to fix those actions. This is a way to go from simply having a character with a flaw to critiquing that flaw and helping others learn from it.
6. Use the plot to force your character to deal with nuance
The most efficient character redemption arcs are the ones where the issues that the character is dealing with in the plot tie in to their emotional development into an (at least slightly) better person. Maybe the best way to do this is to design the plot in such a way that the character's flaw is getting in the way of their ability to move forward with solving their plot problems. Maybe your space doctor is racist against slimy aliens, but she needs to learn to speak to the swamp people in their own language if she's going to figure out where the plague that's ravaging her space station came from and how to develop an antidote.
This isn't strictly the most realistic--in many cases in real life, people with significant flaws in one area are never forced to confront them during the course of their jobs, or even their whole lives. But linking the varying elements of a story into each other in ways that regular life normally doesn't is one way to build a complex, layered, interesting plot that does more with less. It's a bit of unrealism that even I can handle as a way to create a tightly woven, compelling story. And it's a great way to prove to your readers that you understand your character's flaws.
Even if you don't want to bend the main plot around the character's issues, you can still find ways to force them to confront the complexity of their situation in subplots or small emotional conflicts. Maybe you could have the human space doctor have to choose between working to save a sick alien child or telling her coworkers there's nothing she can do because she can't understand the aliens' biology.
You may not want your character to change or learn during the story--perhaps this is a tragic story, a cautionary tale. But this kind of scenario may be able to force readers to think about the issue themselves, come to their own conclusions, and understand that you're presenting a complex situation. If the doctor ends up not knowing how to save the alien child, and makes up excuses that it doesn't matter anyway because aliens are scum, you could leave readers with a bad taste in their mouths that makes them question the main character's morals.
7. Be aware of the themes you're presenting
Overall, this is just a good writing practice. But it's also a way to make readers realize you disagree with your asshole main: make sure the theme of the story doesn't support their actions. If you don't understand what themes or lessons you're presenting, all your work to make yourself disagree with that main character might not be any use at all.
To understand the themes you're trying to portray, it's worth it to ask yourself the hard questions:
If you're writing a character who is a huge dick, why did you choose that character to write? Is them being an asshole really necessary to the story--and, if so, why? Do they need to change? Are they critiquing the system? Are they an example of a person who has deep emotional trauma? Are they proving something to the reader? If so, what are they proving, exactly?
What are you ultimately trying to say with your story?
If a douchebag, sexist Private Eye character is a part of a gritty, cynical story where the whole world is full of problems, then his character flaw might be thematic, a part of the universe the writer is presenting--the protagonist is just as bad as everybody else, and the fact that the world is a bad place is a part of the message. It's possible in that case that the writer isn't supporting those behaviors so much as painting a picture of a time and place.
Or, if the PI is a really smart man who solves the mystery but falls into a toxic cycle of treating women like objects that starts to affect his work, the writer could be trying to show that his misogyny is his weakness--the fatal flaw will bring him down in the end. In that case, the underlying theme of the story shows that the writer disagrees with their main character's bad behavior.
On the other hand, a story like that could go in the other direction and subtly tell readers that "women" are what brings the cynical PI down, without ever acknolwedging his misogynist behavior. If that were the case, the theme itself would be problematic--even if the writer took pains to disagree with their sexist character, their efforts will be undermined by an inherently misogynistic theme.
Bottom line, if the themes that you're exploring support the character being a jerk, then readers will get the (most likely accurate) impression that you, the writer, support the character being a jerk too. Which is worth exploring for many, many reasons, some of which might be about more than telling a good story.
The Last Word
In many ways, the difference between a writer who can functionally present flawed characters and one who comes across as supporting them is allowing for layers of complexity in a story. The real world doesn't contain many situations where morality is black and white; neither should a good story. It's great to create characters who are majorly flawed--it can be satisfying to write character change or create a really heinous villain. But if you can't acknolwedge the complexity that comes with human behavior, the story is going to start to sound unrealistic, and readers will stop paying attention to characters that don't make sense.
Stories where there are no consquences for a certain character's behavior; stories where everyone is against one person or everyone loves a certain person with no caveats; and stories where there's never any question or discussion of what might be right or wrong--all of them run a much higher risk of readers thinking that the writer might be moralizing, generalizing, or supporting a certain character.
This is part of why--and how--stories can become such powerful tools in shaping people's culture and beliefs.
Thankfully, with all the tools at your disposal, never again do you have to look like you agree with your questionably moral characters. You can put them right in their place, and even enourage other people to ask questions, too!