I recently was asked to contribute to an online list of favorite literary villains. It got me to thinking about hating our heroes, too. There is something delicious and compulsively readable about a hero who is a complete ass. Are you looking for a way to reclaim your story idea from the doldrums? How about reconfiguring your protagonist into an infuriating, sometimes repulsive, anti-social genius?
Does someone come to mind immediately? If you mentioned Gregory House of the TV medical show, you're on my wavelength.
I think the show was a bit repetitive this past season, but I kept watching just for the vile doctor. Here is a brilliant hero who is hard to like, but who makes everyone around him seem pathetically common and boring. His healing is solely (so far) for the purpose of testing his diagnostic skills.You've doubtless heard that House is a take-off on Sherlock Holmes . . . another hero--like Scarlet O'Hara, and many others--who doesn't bother winning our empathy.How do the writers get by with this?
My take is that these maddening heroes behave in anti-social ways that we often wish to. Normally we might not want to hurt feelings, but aren't there times--perhaps lots of them--when you just want to let go and say what you mean, no matter how cynical and thoughtless it might be--just to shake up the status quo? Just to tell the truth for once? These hateful heroes do so with the charm (Scarlet) or wit (House) that we would love to have.
Part of the secret to these great characters is their attractive qualities that more than make up for their delicious indulgences. House saves lives with his uncanny deductions. He is also quite funny. (Hmm. Make note to self.) Scarlet is magnetic, attracting every male (and female) in the room. But House is the stronger character. He has a big personal quality that she lacks. He is self-aware. He knows that he despises himself. Ordinary people would whine and deny. Not House. Without realizing it, we admire his self-knowledge.
Another bit of genius: the writers keep giving us moments when House will surely cave in. We hope for his redemption; we think we see moments. . . we desperately want him to believe in something. We are hooked on House. Notice how the writers constantly craft moments when we are led once again to hope. This is the real underlying drama of House--beyond the sick patients and the love lives of his fellow doctors: will House be redeemed?
For another study in dark heroes, read Joe Abercrombie's First Law series (a fantasy.) You may disagree with me that the torturer Glokta is a protagonist (at least in the first book), but do take a look at this masterful rendering of a shockingly cruel character whom we find irresistible.
OK, and for my list of favorite villains in fantasy, horror, and science fiction. From SF Signal.