Rant on creating likeable bastard characters
I’ve chosen to do this one as a series of traits that likeable bastard characters have, because I liked the way that sounded in my head.
1) Conscious hypocrisy. I hate unconscious hypocrisy, which is a fault that a lot of fantasy hero/ines get away with. They cry at one point in the story, and it’s because they’re passionate and sensitive—but let someone else weep, and she’s weak. They kill an enemy because he or she just doesn’t deserve to live—but someone else kills, and that’s Wrong. They have a magical stone that grants them unimaginable power, which makes them the only one that can save the world—but the villain chooses only magically powerful lieutenants, and that’s a sign of his prejudice. They have beautiful clothes and jewels because they deserve them—but a noblewoman who loves beautiful things is shallow and vain.
Now, granted, if the author brings little twitches like this to the character’s attention, it can be interesting to watch the hero/ine overcome them. But, most of the time, not only does the character not seem to notice them, the author does not seem to notice them. I find that unforgivable. No excusing things that one character does and blaming others for the exact same crime, author!
With conscious bastards, they lie, they go back on their words, they cheat, they steal, they do things they’d advise other people against, they alter their principles when a better thing comes along…and they know they’re doing it.
“You lied!” the fantasy hero/ine might wail on finding out that the likeable bastard character has betrayed her.
The bastard would probably blink at her and say, “Well, yes. I do that, you know.”
I find honest arrogant bastards refreshing. Yes, he’s still wrong. Yes, his principles are not the most sterling in the world. Yes, if he’s the focal point of the story, you’ll have a protagonist rather than a hero 99% of the time. I don’t care. That’s where the “bastard” part comes in.
2) Dive-bombing the limitations. And this is often the “likeable” part. How many times have you thought that life was unfair? How often have you longed to challenge some stupid or silly or unlikely rule, but kept quiet because the challenge would be more trouble than it was worth? How many times have you accepted a warning or a scolding from someone else with a sense of shame mixed with resentment that they scolded or warned you at all?
Bastards don’t have to keep quiet. Bastards don’t have to obey the rules.
This one is what gives fantasy its assassins, its thieves, its rogues, its mercenaries. However, not all of those characters are likeable bastards. Too often, they’re turned into heroes via authorial intervention (see point 8) or they’re simply immortal, too good for that fantasy world, unable to be challenged, let alone bested.
To truly dive-bomb the limitations, rip all the limitations away. The likeable bastard goes and performs the Ancient Dark Magic Ritual on Page 66 of the Grimoire That Never Dies, the one that his master said he must never, ever attempt. And out come all the people who died in that region of the world to eat his soul.
He had better face them and scramble to defeat them. The best price for not being afraid to face the consequences is facing them.
Grant a sense that your bastard character is daring, bold, reckless, and then show that he could die or lose, and I will love you forever and ever. And I bet the bastard becomes a whole lot more likeable than someone who cleaves his enemy in half with one stroke and cleans his fingernails in between duels.
3) Intense delight of life. I am tempted to say that likeable bastard characters never angst, but that’s not strictly true. They certainly can get into rather ferocious Byronic sulks, particularly if something does not go their way, and still be likeable.
However, in another sense, it’s true, because likeable bastard characters don’t have pastel or pale emotions. When angst turns into apathy or indifference, it is no longer interesting. Likeable bastard characters will be enraged, or so terrified they’re pissing their pants, or joyful, or screaming like a maniac as they try to hang on to a dragon that has no saddle. I find it very hard to picture them saying, “Oh, fiddlesticks,” or sitting stiffly through a boring dinner party without doing something to disrupt it. Self-important solemnity is also hard to achieve with them.
That’s all right. Pale pastel princesses and princes who are supposedly passionately in love while being about as exciting as porcelain have had fantasy their own way for long enough. Let them clear out of the way.
4) Surprising the reader. I love scenes where:
-I am reading.
-Scene A seems set to happen in B way.
-Introduce likeable bastard, Exhibit C.
-Scene A proceeds.
-Likeable Bastard does something that shatters B way into tiny bits.
-Scene A is now Scene Purple-Blue-Fuzzy-Dinosaur.
Many of these scenes are also the ones where I think, or say aloud on a truly rare occasion, “You are shitting me.”
There are a number of ways to achieve this. Of course, if the likeable bastard isn’t your viewpoint character, it’s pretty easy, as the viewpoint character usually has no idea that Scene A is about to become Scene Purple-Blue-Fuzzy-Dinosaur. However, even then it’s easy to give one’s hand away. Authors often include things like “She saw a flash in his eyes” or “He caught a glimpse of Carolina, and felt his heart being pumping for no reason.” This is supposedly Clever Foreshadowing. It is, instead, Stealing the Likeable Bastard’s Thunder. Her scene has to make sense for her and spring from her own motivations, of course it does, but all this coy foreshadowing spoils it. The best surprises of this kind come as true shocks, visible only when the reader glances back and puts the non-obvious pieces together.
When the likeable bastard is your viewpoint character, you still aren’t doomed. You can make her mood consonant with the scene that’s happening. If it’s supposed to be solemn and she’s laughing to herself, that’s a dead giveaway, but what if the scene is funny or ridiculous, and you’d expect the character to be laughing? That would make sense. The fact that her laughter springs from her knowledge of something your readers don’t know yet makes no difference. It will seem like Laughter A until you reveal that it’s Laughter Third-Rock-From-The-Sun.
If the likeable bastard is one in a constellation of viewpoint characters, you can end her scene or chapter just as she comes up with the plan, and return when she’s enacting the plan. That way, you have not lied to the reader.
You can make her act entirely out of impulse; that’s the good improviser subspecies of the likeable bastard, of which there are not enough. Everyone seems to favor careful planners. But there’s a special delight in following someone whom her enemies can’t contain and can’t control, because they have no idea what the fuck she’s doing next, because she herself has no idea what the fuck she’s doing next. (I was so pleased with Moist von Lipwig in Pratchett’s Going Postal. So pleased).
I order people to play around with this, because I want more “You have got to be shitting me” moments.
5) Close to enemies, close to friends. No distant Dark Lords, please, lurking in their castles and never visible throughout most of the confrontations. I like my likeable bastards up close and personal.
*Limyaael cranes head to peer at someone with hand up in the back row*
Why, yes, that does in fact mean that you can’t have the likeable bastard character mowing down his enemies’ humble homes in a hurricane of fire! And, yes, that does mean that he can’t convert everyone to his side via a distant apparition of love and light! Frankly, I think you need to ask yourself why you want the hurricane of fire or the apparition of love and light in the first place.
Put your likeable bastard character in hand-to-hand combat. Get her spitting insults in her enemies’ faces. Have him go into the enemy camp to steal money from the lieutenant’s war-chest.
Show her embracing a lover. Show him risking death for someone he just met yesterday, because that person is about to be tortured, and he really hates torture. Show her getting ready to ride off alone the night before the final battle, getting caught by her friends, and having a screaming, knock-down, drag-out fight with them.
Remember intensity? It’s hard to do from a distance, when faceless people die and faceless heroes mourn them. Put your likeable bastard character down in the blood and guts and semen and vaginal fluids. I promise you it’s worth it.
6) “Fuck you!” I have a hammer.
The hammer is a special hammer. One side is specially made for pounding in the heads of selfless martyr characters. The other is specially made for prying open the skulls of heroes who let themselves be dragged and bullied into saving the world.
A likeable bastard makes the best kind of reluctant hero. (And I forgot to put ‘making good reluctant heroes’ on the damn poll fucking AGAIN). He is quite likely to be dragged into larger matters against his will, since, after all, he could have what he wanted or needed without spending all his time wondering anxiously if it was what other people wanted or needed; presumably, if he really cared about their good opinion, he would have taken steps to see that he had that, too. And he is quite likely to meet people more powerful and talented and knowledgeable than he is, or they could not set the limitations that he would dive-bomb as per point 2.
But when he encounters a limitation, he breaks it. When someone pushes at him, he pushes back. If someone tried to drag him away from home without so much as a ‘by-your-leave,’ and then stared at him intimidatingly and refused to answer his questions, the likeable bastard character would make it his business to see that he a) got the answers to his questions and b) lived to make the dragger regret it.
Here’s a natural home for proactive and selfish protagonists. No one will be surprised, I hope, when a likeable bastard’s response to being screwed with is to screw back, or when he answers “Fuck you” with “No, fuck you up and down and sideways, and this is how.”
Let him stand up and do something about it. And suffer the consequences, certainly, but then do more things.
7) “Fuck yes!” Conversely, a likeable bastard may decide to do what someone else wants, or may go against the limitations and conquer them, or may work for a long time towards some goal and then suddenly achieve it.
I believe a loud and noisy celebration is appropriate, don’t you?
Fantasy celebrations often seem—muted. I think the reason is twofold:
-The author wants to show that her protagonist is a good person by having her remember that other people suffered/died/lost.
-The details of what the protagonist is celebrating are hazy, because the author is ending the story here, and actually doesn’t have any interest in showing how this sudden marriage will work, or how the protagonist will heal the kingdom with her song, or why all the canny and savvy nobles are willing to accept this untried peasant girl as their queen.
-(Okay, I lied. There’s a third reason). The author wouldn’t know an intense emotion if it bit her on the ass, and her characters are marionettes chewing scenery.
A likeable bastard can care about other people (or not) and still celebrate. Her victories can be sharply-etched, because, after all, she dared and risked so much to gain them. And points 2 and 5 working together will insure that she’s fierce in her delight, or joy, or elation, or whatever you choose to call it.
There. Now we can have some real triumphs, maybe, instead of milksops uniting in perfect harmony and authorial rushing about to present them as pure and perfect.
Have I mentioned I hate that? And that it doesn’t work with likeable bastard characters?
8) No authorial apologies. If a fantasy hero/ine does something wrong or “wrong” or Wrong, in comes the author to shield him/her from any potential reader disapproval (part of the process I call flaw-scrubbing).
-“He was just following orders.”
-“She didn’t understand the suffering of others before. She does now.”
-“He didn’t really mean to hurt her feelings.”
-“She was abused as a child.”
-“He used to be a racist, but now he realizes that elves are real people, too.”
-“She did bad things, but she still has nightmares about them.”
-“He was possessed.”
-“She was under a spell.”
All rationalizations. All excuses. All shields and anxious, hand-wringing apologies, often marked by inner monologues from the affected character(s) or speeches, angry or apologetic, from other characters to rationalize away any shadow of a stain.
You don’t get to do it with likeable bastard characters.
This works in with point 2, really, as well as points 6 and 7. The likeable bastard faces the consequences. He rejoices, and sometimes he’ll rejoice over things that other characters disapprove of. She fights, and her cause may not agree with anyone else’s cause. He changes of his own free will, because it makes sense, and not because something else forces him into changing. She doesn’t change, because no epiphany on the face of the earth would be powerful enough to convince her, and it’s cheating to try.
Nolite te bastardes carborundum. And, don’t let them grind down your bastardes, either. More to the point, don’t grind them down yourself to fine salt or pablum just for the sake of not disturbing a reader’s diet.
Yes, there’s a higher chance than normal that a reader might be disturbed by a likeable bastard character. That does not mean that the author gets to go running to his or her rescue. Present them as honestly as you can, and then let go. It’s the price for everything else, for the ferocity that comes with them and the honesty and the glory.
There. That’s what I wanted to say.