How to make a "mean" character sympathetic while keeping him "mean"?:

Total posts: [17]
Rascal King
I'm currently working on a story where one of the two protagonists is a law enforcement officer. The officer is strict, merciless, and somewhat cruel when it comes to criminals. In the future, I see him having some sort of epiphany regarding his worldview being wrong. However, for now, how do you make a character like this sympathetic, while still making him, for lack of a better word, an asshole?
The last hurrah? Nah, I'd do it again.
2 ScorpioRat20th Jan 2013 12:43:45 PM from Houston, Texas , Relationship Status: Forming Voltron
When horoscopes go wrong
Give him a decent reason to act this way and make the reason clear after the character is introduced. Make it so that it doesn't look like he does this because he's just a "jerk".
"Only women and cats are allowed inside my armor!"

3 Fawriel20th Jan 2013 12:51:39 PM from the bottom of my heart , Relationship Status: If it's you, it's okay
jump to the left
Generally speaking, as soon as you can see things from a character's perspective, they'll be sympathetic to a certain extent. Crash is an excellent example of that, with intertwined stories and constantly changing viewpoint characters, all of whom encounter assholes who seem sympathetic as soon as they're the ones whose viewpoint is being shown. Just as long as you see what they're going through and what might make them act the way they do. Should work as long as the character is not irredeemable or something most people can't possibly accept no matter what you do, though even when they made a movie about Hitler that shows his perspective, a lot of people were worried about how it makes him "too sympathetic".
move to the right
Alternatively, give him Pet the Dog moments and show his soft side. For instance, have him be nice to someone or something else; e.g. family or pets.
Why does the mean character have to be sympathetic?
Rascal King
He's a protagonist, the one we should be rooting for. I wouldn't want people to just think he's a total dick the whole time.
The last hurrah? Nah, I'd do it again.
7 Night20th Jan 2013 04:01:29 PM from Jaburo , Relationship Status: Drift compatible
The future of warfare in UC.
He's Batman.

EDIT: I didn't think I'd actually be correct. Still, that's probably a good place to start on an approach to the ruthless yet likeable, though it varies a little.

edited 20th Jan '13 4:02:57 PM by Night

Nous restons ici.
Rascal King
I guess he's similar to Batman, minus the tragic backstory. So, besides that, what is it that makes Batman fans overlook his more negative qualities?

EDIT: By the way I like the idea of showing things from his viewpoint. I'd prefer not to give him a Freudian Excuse to excuse the way he acts, so that sounds like a good idea.

edited 20th Jan '13 4:15:24 PM by kalel94

The last hurrah? Nah, I'd do it again.
Batman's a jerk but he also has qualities that people like (intelligence, strength, general coolness, etc.) I guess you should just make it so being a jerk isn't his only trait. Like give him some strengths that outweigh his flaws.

I have a jerk as the main character in my story and I also tried avoiding giving him a Freudian excuse or "pet the dog" moments (I think that's a cheap way of making characters sympathetic). My character tries to help people through his jerkness. Almost like a "tough love" sort of deal. He is a jerk deep down but he has good intentions.
10 tsstevens20th Jan 2013 09:43:18 PM from Internet, Tasmania , Relationship Status: She's holding a very large knife
Try making the character Good Is Not Soft. They are nice and friendly however when it comes to criminals have them be the biggest dick they can be.

Alternatively, some portrayals of The Punisher might be what you're after. A broken man, a moral absolutist, someone who cannot see the world as anything but a cesspit.
Official Australian XBOX magazine. Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain, 6/10. WWE 2K16, 7/10
11 Bisected821st Jan 2013 04:23:53 AM from Her Hackette Cave , Relationship Status: In another castle
Maximum sadness
Stanhope from Journey's End's a good example of a likeable mean character.

In that case it makes him sympathetic by attributing his Kick the Dog moments to factors outside his control (drinking to cope with the stress of war, combined with a fear of his friends and family finding out what a wreck he's become) and making it clear he's quite a pleasant person otherwise with Pet The Dog Moments.

A particular scene with Hibbert (a character who's been pretending to have a hard-to-disprove condition so he can be sent home) might be worth looking at. Standhope basically tests Hibbert by threatening to shoot him (arguing that it's better to be shot by "accident" than be executed for attempted desertion) and offers support when Hibbert asks him to do it. IMO it works well because it allows him to Pet the Dog and explain his own motivation/positive qualities (it makes it clear he values honour and shows what's going through his head by having talk about it with someone who's having similar problems). He also goes from mean (Paraphrased "Try to get out of this and I'll shoot you!") to understanding ("We're all going through the same thing.").

There's also the begining of the play, which has two characters talking about him; one of whom (who's a bit of a jerk and later shown to be at odds with Stanhope) gossips about his drinking, the other (who's a kindly Father to His Men) defends him. A scene like that might help.

Of course that only works if you want to have your character absolved of responsibility for their mean-ness.
I can't believe nobody's mentioned another, albeit indirect way, to make him sympathetic. Make him funny. If his barbs are entertaining to the audience, and aren't off the mark, the audience will eagerly overlook things they wouldn't forgive in meat space.
Make him a Drill Sgt.

Give him a 24 hr. headache/toothache.

Give him a terminal illness.

Have him play Bad Cop so often and well he becomes the mask.

Have him be dumped because he was too nice and get tons of pussy when he's an asshole.

Give him a tragic past where a little girl died because he was too "soft" on a perp.

Make him fed up with all the injustice of the world and his inability to do anything about it.

Have his mentor/partner be the mean one die and he takes up the mantle.

edited 21st Jan '13 7:00:51 AM by Natasel

Rascal King
[up][up] That's what I'm relying on most heavily right now to make him likable. Wasn't sure if it'd be enough, but I think it's working okay.
The last hurrah? Nah, I'd do it again.
Terracotta Soldier Man
Another "trick" you might want to keep in mind: Make the antagonist of your story such a piece of work that the audience will want the protag to be as mean as he can be, if only against the antag.
Batman is a jerk except to Alfred, his 5-7 adopted and biological children, Commissioner and Barbara Gordon, villains, women, villainous women, and Superman. Sometimes.

17 somerandomdude22nd Jan 2013 02:40:04 PM from Dark side of the moon , Relationship Status: How YOU doin'?
Frankenstein's Monster (in the original book) is another good example of a sympathetic mean character.

It all comes down to the reason/action dynamic. Give him a valid reason but don't let the actions seem justified.
Wenn man nicht die Fresse halten kann, einfach mal Ahnung haben.
The system doesn't know you right now, so no post button for you.
You need to Get Known to get one of those.

Total posts: 17