No character, real or imagined, is all good or all bad. We each have our flaws, faults, and foibles, as well as our talents, virtues, and morals.
Think about bad guys in real life. How often are their neighbors surprised because the individuals seemed “so nice”? John Gotti used to host free block parties on the 4th of July. John Wayne Gacy dressed up as a clown and entertained sick children in hospitals. Charming, good looking, and educated, Ted Bundy volunteered on a suicide hotline. Dennis Rader was a spiritual leader in his church, a Cub Scout leader, and a burglar alarm installer. He was also the BTK killer who eluded Kansas police for more than thirty years before being arrested for the murder of ten people between 1974 and 1991.
Be sure to layer your hero, heroine, and antagonist with virtues and vices to make them realistic as well as memorable.
How? Here's a list of sympathetic traits you can add to your characters to bring dimension. Remember, whether good or bad, a great character is someone your reader wants to spend time with!
- Undeserved misfortune: Make everything go wrong in your character’s life. Have him/her play the role of underdog.
- Insecurity: Everyone is insecure about something (looks, money, power, talent, etc.)
- Empathy and self-sacrifice: Fighting for a just cause or for those who cannot fight for themselves.
- Courage under fire
- Kindness to animals and children
- An endearing quirk
- Sense of humor
- Familial ties
- Strong ethics
- Modesty, shyness
Not sure how to make your bad guy more sympathetic? Is your hero too arrogant to be likeable? Your editor should be able to help you balance the good with the bad. Contact Gina for Excellence in Editing!