Great characters need to have well-defined motivation that the reader understands and accepts. That’s a given. But sometimes, it’s hard to get “cozy” with a character because you can’t trust the character to do the right thing. That’s not to say heroes and heroines can’t make mistakes, or poor decisions, but they have to have the right reasons. Characters must have weaknesses or they won’t be realistic, however when push comes to shove, those weaknesses can't stop them from doing the right thing.
I always think about Monk (the massively phobic TV detective in the TV show “Monk”) and Becker (the truly obnoxious doctor with the big mouth in the TV show “Becker”) when it comes to great characterization. There is no doubt that given their personalities, they are about as far from “loveable” as you can get. But the odd thing is, you do love them and care about them. Why? Because when push comes to shove, they do the right thing. They may grumble and complain about it until you want to kill them, but they will come through for you.
You can trust them.
Interestingly enough, the comedy in “Becker” mostly consists of him SAYING the wrong thing—something mean and nasty—but immediately following that up by DOING something extraordinarily kind for someone who really needs help. He is a compassionate and caring doctor, even when he spouts the most horrible, mean and nasty drivel. And Monk may be germ-phobic, but he'll go into a sewer to save someone and solve a murder.
And that's the point. The bad qualities don't get in the way of doing the right thing. And in Becker's case, actions speak much louder than words. Becker and Monk will always come through in the end, regardless of their complaints.
The rules? Now, keep in mind these are mostly for romance genres, but they are still mostly true for almost every other form of fiction. Break the rules at your peril and with full knowledge of what you are doing.
1) Heroes and heroines can never cheat on spouses. Ever. And they can't really cheat on their betrothed, either. No cheating. There are ways around this, e.g. she thought her husband was dead, etc, but if you want a hero or heroine to be sympathetic, he or she cannot cheat on his/her partner. Otherwise, you're talking literary genres that are depressing and unromantic.
2) Heroes and heroines must do the right thing. They can grumble about it.
They can moan about it. But in the end, they have to do the right thing.
3) Heroes and heroines must be smart. They can make the wrong decision, but they can't be dumb about it. We all make bad choices because few—if any—of us can see the future or have all the facts. But we think we're making the only possible, and right, decision when we make it. It sounds logical and reasonable, given the available information. The audience must agree with this, even when it turns out horribly. And it must turn out horribly for there to be a story.
4) Heroes and heroines must be willing to sacrifice themselves for others at the critical point. They must be honest and have personal integrity. If they are a crook, they must have a personal code they live by—even if that code is warped. That's why we can love a hitman—because he acts with honor within his code (i.e. he gives back the money if he fails to kill the mark, etc).
Yes—they can have faults, but the reader must know that when the chips are down, the hero and heroine will do the right thing. That makes the character worthy of the reader's trust and sympathy. If the hero or heroine fails to act with integrity, then the reader's trust is broken. The writer must then redouble his efforts to regain that trust and make the hero/heroine still sympathetic. Each time the trust is broken, it will be harder to repair, until no repair is possible.
The real key is giving the character some sort of code, regardless of how warped it is, and making that character stick to it. Think of Mel Gibson in “Payback”. He was bad. Really bad. He did some pretty horrible things and yet…two factors made us go along with him:
- We understood his motivation—after all, they betrayed and tried to kill him
- He had his own, consistent code of behavior. He was internally honorable to his code.
Personal integrity may be an outdated concept, but it's still key to good fiction.