A while back, I was watching the M*A*S*H* series, and I had a little epiphany. It started when I realized that although Hawkeye and Trapper regularly tormented George Burns, the series always framed their actions as humorous and Burns’ actions as mean-spirited and wrong – which is essentially how the audience took it. And most of the time, Hawkeye and Trapper’s tricks were harmless. Occasionally, however, they were pretty nasty themselves.
So why was it ok for them but not for Burns?
The obvious answer was that they were playing the heroes. Sure, they were nasty to Burns, but he was a jerk. He was prejudiced, ridiculously strict, and a dangerously bad doctor, so why shouldn’t they get back at him for his nastiness to others? (Do you see the rationalization?)
So here’s the epiphany: if we like characters, we try to justify their actions even if we know the actions are wrong.
Once you succeed in making a character likeable, that character can slide into some moral gray areas, and we readers will come up with an explanation that makes us comfortable with their actions (you know, enough to make us feel like they didn’t really do anything wrong or that it was someone else’s fault). One way that authors help us with that is to say that the character was trying to be humorous. If they weren’t trying to be malicious or harmful, then it’s fine, right? Also, if we see them doing something good, it balances out the other and reassures us that we didn’t misjudge them.
On the other hand, once a character is set up as nasty or dislikable, any good they do is totally devalued. In fact, when they do something nice, it almost makes us mad. Like it’s offensive: you’re a bad guy – I don’t want to see you doing good stuff! You should be getting punished for your evil deeds!
It takes a lot to make us change our minds. The good characters have to do something truly horrific to make us give up on them. Either that, or they have to have repeated offenses without good to “erase” them. Bad guys have it harder. They have to do a lot of good (like save-the-world good) repeatedly and consistently, and even then, they may be relegated to annoying-but-not-as-evil-as-they-used-to-be. Or they might be under constant suspicion of trying to trick us (which doesn’t make them very likable).
As frightening as this idea is when applied to real life, it could be a very useful tool for writing. Imagine the possibilities once you make a reader love/hate a character. Plot twists, gritty realism, horrific character flaws, and more: taking advantage of this truly opens up the characters to go beyond the stereotypical roles of hero and villain.