From the Iliad to the western dime novels, there is a long history of anti-heroes or protagonists that behave with only their self interest in mind and lack virtue, morality, or other heroic values. To the writer, telling a story about such characters provides particular challenges. If a character has no redeeming qualities the reader may not care at all what happens to the protagonist and quit reading. I’ve discarded many books and short stories, because I didn’t care about the protagonist enough to continue.
So what works? What can bring a reader to the table when your main character is a thoroughly unrepentant character of the lowest morals?
1. Cheat Around the Edges: Though your character lacks many moral principles, he does have at least one good quality or admirable goal. An example of this sort of character is James Bond, who has little in the way of morals or principles (or is willing to compromise them to accomplish his goals), yet he doesn’t hesitate to lay his life on the line to protect England from villainous organizations of all stripes and hues. This helps us buy into Bond and care what happens to him, even as he uses and discards strings of women with little regard to what happens to them after he gets the information he wants. Also, Fleming does a good job of showing Bond’s inner turmoil, which the movies rarely reflect, and also of showing the physical and mental toll that his job takes.
2. Evil vs. Less Evil: The protagonist, though not motivated by the welfare of others, is acting against a greater evil than he, so in effect he becomes the ‘good guy’ of the piece by contrast. An example of this is Moorcock’s Elric of Melnibone.
3. Selective Story Telling: Your character is a ruthless mercenary who has slaughtered many innocents, but you choose only to tell the stories where he has been wronged by someone else and is seeking redress, or where for some reason he decides that it is in his interest to help another. Conan is a good example of this sort of character. On close examination of his character he has no moral qualms about killing and plundering, but those incidents are glossed over somewhat and the Robert E Howard stories tend to incorporate the first two elements of Cheating Around the Edges and Evil vs. Less Evil. This way, we can relate to Conan, even though the reality is that he might knife us in a dark alley if he thought we might have a few coins in our pocket.
4. Machinations and Train Wrecks: In part five of Through the Groaning Earth, The Jewels of Sagra Yoth, I tell the story of Willen, who has no redeeming qualities whatsoever except for unrestrained ambition. He’s a two-bit loser thief and murderer out to make a name for himself. To my surprise, I’ve had comments from readers that this is one of their favorite sections from the book. Why does this section work, when there is utterly no reason to like Willen or care what happens to him? Here’s my theory:
a) The character has a clearly defined goal
b) The character struggles mightily to gain that goal
c)The character uses every bit of his limited brain power to orchestrate his theft, and so we are interested in the machinations and his underhanded efforts.
d)The story isn’t long. The readers don’t have to spend an entire novel following an utterly despicable character before they see his miserable fate.
e)The reader wants to watch the train wreck.
I think this last bit cannot be underestimated. Not only do readers deserve to see the character reap the whirlwind of his poor choices, but the writer has a duty to show that bad decisions have bad consequences. Willen struggles mightily to steal the Jewels of Sagra Yoth and then, in the end, all his evil actions come back to haunt him, and he realizes that maybe he’s not quite as smart as he thought.
For another example of thoroughly unrepentant and irredeemable characters look to Derrick Ferguson’s Diamondback stories (shortly to again be available for contributors to his Patreon account). These stories don’t so much use the devices of Cheating around the Edges or Evil vs. Less Evil, or even Selective Story Telling, but rely on the Machinations and Train Wreck principles. The reader is enthralled by all the machinations, double dealings, and back-stabbings, and wants to see the ensuing train wreck. Honestly, I didn’t care so much if the deadly killer Diamondback lived or died, but I did want to see how everything played out, and that kept me reading until the very last word.
5. Pair the irredeemable character with someone the reader can care about. This is a technique I use in Dead Blonde Walking, where the protagonist is a mostly heartless assassin with only a couple of identifiably good qualities (and there is some uncertainty there). By herself, Monica Killingsworth (who appears in quite a number of my books and various short story collections) is something of an emotional cipher and it often takes interaction with another character, usually one the reader can emotionally invest his or herself, to compare and contrast, and give further interest to the story.