It’s delicious as hell to root for a wicked character. That’s why the lovable rogue archetype lives on in literature and pop culture, from Han Solo to Aladdin.
It’s fun to break the rules once and a while. Add a tyrannical force making the rules to the mix, and you can find yourself cheering for a character, who lies, steals, and kills their way through the pages.
But since we’re in the realm of grimdark fantasy, we have to ask: how far can the rogue go before they become unlikable? How bad can someone be and we’re still identifying with them and (maybe) hoping they succeed? But first …
Who is this “likable rogue”?
I’d say the likable rogue is someone who breaks the laws or mores of society, but in a book, you can relate to them, identify with them, or some other version of “I can’t put my finger on why, but despite all the horrible things this character has done, I really like the bastard.”
The likable rogue character doesn’t necessarily have to be a thief or a career criminal. A likable villain, or villainous character, can be a politician, noble, or soldier. They can even have a more unsavory job like a torturer or executioner – a literal professional asshole with a job that requires them to kill or harm others in the government’s name automatically puts them into the “villain camp” in genres with more “conventional” ideas of good and evil.
All this character has to be is someone who we’d consider to be a royal piece of shit in real life, but as you turn the page, you can’t wait to see what they do next.
Now you’re probably asking: doesn’t that make them the same as an antihero? Not necessarily. An antihero is a protagonist who uses the same tactics as the villain (or damn close) to reach the same ends that the hero would. These characters aren’t necessarily the protagonist. In fact, they can be a minor character, a sidekick, or even an antagonist. They can even be the villain of the series if it’s done right.
Do you want to have a beer with them?
I consider characters in a book to be like friends. Maybe I’m biased because I’m an author and a reader, but I digress. There are two types of friends according to a meme going around the internet: people you’d have a beer with, and people who you’d let watch your puppy for a weekend. People can be both or neither, but whichever camp they fall into depends on what type of “friend” or likable person they are to you, if at all.
The four combinations in a nutshell:
- If you’d have a beer with them, but wouldn’t let them watch your puppy, they’re likable, but not reliable.
- If you’d let them watch your puppy, but wouldn’t have a beer with them, they’re not likable. Most likely, they’re a self-righteous jerk. However, they’re useful and dependable.
- If it’s neither, you don’t want them within a ten-yard radius of you.
- If it’s both, these are the friends you make that you don’t let go of.
Most likable rogues fall into the first category because they’re often loose cannons. Not because they wouldn’t take care of your puppy per se; they’re so unpredictably cruel that you don’t know if you’re walking home to a smiling, happy puppy or a puppy corpse that may or may not have been made into a hat by the dog sitter.
Sure, puppy watching isn’t the only requisite of responsible behavior. It can be a metaphor for any responsibility. Can you trust the likable rogue not to run the kingdom into the ground or go half-cocked on their own and foil the entire mission?
If you can, they’re dependable, making them a rare breed. That doesn’t mean they’re likable. However, while they might be affable IRL, reading about them from the comfortable distance of your home could be a treat. The other three types manifesting as characters we like are rarer but can work. The second type is the villain that’s a saint in their own minds. Often, these are the characters we love to hate because not only are they cruel – they’re sanctimonious asshats when they dish out pain and torment. They can maybe be likable if they’re conflicted about it, but still. Love to hate.
The “neither” camp is harder to write. It’s textbook unlikable. Like the second example, they can be “love to hate,” but their likability often boils down to intrigue. The “both” camp is self-explanatory for likability, IRL and in books.
Beware Moral Event Horizons
The site TV Tropes coined the term moral event horizon, describing the point when a character goes from doing redeemably bad things, being likably evil, and then crosses a line. There are certain no-gos as far as likably evil characters are concerned. Like a black hole, once this character crosses the moral event horizon, there’s no going back.
Yes, for the record, I’m aware of moral relativism. Yes, some people object to things that others don’t find distasteful. Some people juggle geese! I’m just talking about people within two standard deviations of the imaginary mainstream.
That doesn’t mean it’s not impossible to have a likable character who crosses these lines. It just makes it harder if these characters cross certain boundaries. Harming children, for instance. Or killing a puppy and turning them into a hat. One instance of a character crossing one of these lines can make them unlikable for the rest of the series, so treading carefully is advised. Don’t just make your character do evil things for shits and giggles.
Likability Is Abstract, Not Lazy
It may be easier, though, to imagine if a character is likable if they fly the same flag as the protagonist, right? Wrong. Something adulthood teaches us early is that someone can fly the same flag as you, have the same goals and mission as you, but can still be a horrible or horribly unlikable person.
Let’s face it. It’s easier to root for an evil or a morally unsavory character if they’re allied with our protagonist. But just having a so-called likable rogue be on the team we’re supposed to root for and expecting the reader to like them is lazy writing. It also doesn’t make for an engaging read.
What makes a character likable is more abstract than we’d like to think. Do you want to have a beer with them, setting aside whether they’d kill you first?
If you want to see how characters can be likable while still being deliciously, wickedly evil, I wrote a few in my book, the first in a series. See who you’ll be cheering for in Raven Queen: Arise despite their morally questionable deeds.