How do you show the softer side of a rough person without loosing the gruffness? I have a character that was the antagonist in one story and will be the protagonist in another where he will fall in love. He was very harsh and cruel. He's a hard person with a heavy background, but he's not evil and not all bad. He has a soft spot. He found his perfect mate, but reader feedback has told me that when I try to show that he's in love, he turns too mushy and is not the same man.

So how does one walk that line between bad boy and pitiful Romeo? Any tips or tricks?

  • 3
    At the risk of spoiling nobody… "Snape"?
    – wetcircuit
    May 25, 2019 at 18:17
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    I would say the same way you would make a hero fall in love. A villain usually doesn't consider himself a villain from his point of view.
    – kikirex
    May 25, 2019 at 19:07
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    Name a dozen real life adult villains. Most were not single. That doesn't mean they were in love, but many were. And many had people who loved them romantically (as well as other kinds of love). Everyone has reasons for what they do. Pure evil is for fairy tales (or superhero comic books).
    – Cyn
    May 25, 2019 at 21:05
  • @wetcircuit Hmm... I didn't think Snape was ever overly cruel, I saw through him pretty early on, but I get what you're saying. May 25, 2019 at 21:31
  • @kikirex true and I like to try to follow that rule, but I mean he becomes a different person almost spouting love poetry, kind of out of character for him. But I'm not great at the whole "romance" thing, so I think I don't do that great with heroes either, it's just less noticeable. May 25, 2019 at 21:33

5 Answers 5


Falling in love is generally a combination of sexual attraction, complementarity, and commonality.

Friendship is often founded on the last two; i.e. it is minus sexual attraction.

Complementarity is the reason sometimes people say "opposites attract", but that phrase is much too broad. Instead, complementarity is when people have different skills, but there is synergy: What one person lacks, the other has in spades. This makes them better (more functional, more expert) together than they they are alone. One might have number sense, the other people sense. One may be good at planning, the other is good at improvising. Together, they can become co-dependent, they each need the other to remain successful (however they define that).

Not everything opposite counts; e.g. opposite politics or different religions may just be a clash and source of friction they can't get over. Complementarity is usually about something you know is a weakness and you wish you didn't have.

Commonality is another form of synergy, and often how friendships begin. If you and I like the same kind of music, then by sharing it we double the chances of finding something great. Rare commonality is an even stronger bond; if we are the only two in our workplace that like Brazilian Barbecue -- We don't have to go eat it alone.

Similarly for other tastes. However, not all commonalities are the same; if they are too common then there is nothing special about them to warrant a friendship or romance, because I can find that trait in plenty of people.

Finally, sexual attraction: It must be mutual; but it doesn't have to be instantaneous. Sometimes people we did not initially think were that attractive will become more attractive when we start to value them for their personality, humor, intelligence, sympathy, bravery, or whatever complementary and commonality traits they possess. We grow accustomed to their appearance and mannerisms and whatever differences they had from our mental ideal of attractiveness seem to not matter any more. Love is blind.

So that is the lesson; let's apply it!

In your case, "harsh and cruel" would normally be a show-stopper, so I would make that a commonality. At least the understanding of why, in the hard world, it is a necessity, to not get walked on. His love interest may think "you gotta do what you gotta do, you let that shit slide and soon you're nothing."

As a commonality, it can even be the source of initial attraction: If he is the tougher guy or more famous, then maybe he admires his future partner when he spontaneously witnesses the partner getting tough with somebody, and throwing in a bit of cruelty on top of it. It makes your villain want to strike up a friendship. Buy them a drink. Trade some stories. Find out they have a few other things in common, including not being entirely evil.

For complementarity: The partner is good at something your villain isn't good at. This could, for example, just be humor, the partner's jokes make him laugh. Or it could be a class difference. Your villain grew up on mean streets, the partner did not, but wound up there due to some tragedy (e.g. his rich father went to prison and left them broke, or committed suicide because he lost everything).

The next step, after meeting, is thinking about the partner often. Then seeking them out. Then obsession; the partner is all he can think about.

It is a slideshow, but here is 13 Scientifically Proven Signs of Love, or Google for "Symptoms of Love". You don't have to use all of them, just pick a few that get the point across. (It also makes the point that lust and love are different phenomena: We can tell the difference in brain scans).

My main advice is you get past his "harsh and cruel" nature with mutual understanding, they BOTH get it. It isn't, at all, something the love interest needs to get over, it is actually something they admire and view as a strength, because that's how the world works. So your villain doesn't have to become a marshmallow, or be a sappy Romeo. He can be himself, eventually both the rough exterior and soft interior. He doesn't have to change, his soul mate loves him for his real self.

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    I think you hit upon one good point, conflict. Just as in every story there should be conflict to make it interesting, so too in relationships. And I think your point that you need all three in a relationship, is spot on. And I think you hit the nail on the head that the "harsh and cruel" should be the commonality. While his love isn't quite "harsh and cruel" they're manipulative which can have similar motives behind it. May 26, 2019 at 16:41
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    @poeticvampire The commonality can be understanding "harsh and cruel", not being repelled by it, but perhaps attracted to it, as a strength. My grandmother at 16 was a girl on her own in NYC, a seamstress. My grandfather at 16 was a guy on his own in NYC, a pattern cutter. They met for the first time when he stepped in to stop another guy from harassing her, and knocked the guy on his ass. He started walking her home every day, then TO work every day. They married at 16. His willingness to fight for her made her feel safe. Use something like that, your villain seen as a protector.
    – Amadeus
    May 26, 2019 at 17:13

This is...challenging. You see, it's possible that love changes this ex-antagonist into someone else entirely. But is that the story you're telling?

I can't tell you how to get around this, because I don't know the backstory or the story you're trying to tell. What I can tell you is little tricks I use with my own characters.

I don't like writing the 'good guy'. They are all protagonists, to be sure, but not your hero archetype, or usually even all that likeable. They curse, they cheat, they steal, they'll stab nice little old ladies in the tit for funsies. (not usually that bad, but you get the drift)

So what do I do? You make it relatable. Take a Beast and Belle (a la Beauty and the Beast) approach if you want. Let the love interest show them a new way of being. Let their shock and horror rock this ex-antagonist to their core.

Like if you take Wreck-it Ralph's approach. "You might be a bad guy, but that doesn't mean you're a bad guy."

So how would I approach it? The way I usually approach it. Give the love interest something this once bad guy would want to protect. A habit, an outlook, a characteristic that reminds them of something good and wholesome.

Alright, examples time.

  • First Example: Princess Yurei.

In one story, Princess Yurei, the main character is Reiko Yanagi. Daughter to a crime boss (Japanese Yakuza), and was raised as a child soldier that was never taught empathy or basically anything remotely good. She was forced to stab her best friend in the lung when she was 4 years old. She was then raised in Nagoya (where her mother's reign of terror took place) and never made any meaningful connections because of it.

So how do you introduce a love interest that can make this piece of work into a functional human being? Well. In this world (My Hero Academia Fanfic, where there are super humans with powers called Quirks), people with Ghost-like Quirks are consistently discriminated against. Reiko has a Ghost-like Quirk, so does her love interest. Reiko, therefore, has a selfish interest in protecting said love-interest, because she's tired of people with Ghost-like Quirks being treated like criminals. And, she's so petty about it that she wants to be a hero, just to show people up--especially her long-dead mother.

  • Second example: Daughters of Hyne

Another story, a Final Fantasy 8 fanfic. The main character is Luciana Lafayette, better known as Gina; she doesn't get the nickname either. She's a mercenary working for Garden (mercenary organization). There's magic, there's magical beings called Guardian Forces (or GF for short). And there are sorceresses that can access magic directly, and said sorceresses are typically hated, because of all the sorceress wars that have taken place, and over the course of the game (FF8) 2 dictators are sorceresses, and they are the mass-murdering, shoot-you-because-you-look-at-them-wrong kind.

So. Gina hates people. Her father forced her to shoot her own mother, and weeks later raped her. So yeah, Gina hates people. So how do I introduce a love interest? I use an exam in which Gina must work with them in order to pass, and show the hesitant love interest that this Gina will take on all comers to keep her safe, if she's motivated to.

Once the initial contact is made, have the love interest be willing to take a chance. It's risky as all hell for her, since she knows how people view sorceresses, but people have this weird thing about wanting to be loved. So you end up with two people with every reason not to trust others, so they understand to be very careful not to give each other reason for distrust; it won't take much for the illusion to dispel, if that becomes the case.

Add that Stella (said love interest) has a thing for healing, and she sees Gina as almost irreparably broken; challenge accepted. Add that Gina has a thing for those old movies where the dashing hero sweeps his lady off her feet (and she envisions herself in that role, sweeping her lady off her feet). And you have a gushy, gooey, heart-warming love tale, without taking either character out of character.

Gina only becomes more and more badass, because now, she knows she has to protect her lady from the world, and trust me... Gina will burn the world down if that's what it takes.

In both cases, the main character doesn't become 'a better person'. They might be selfishly motivated, they might be utter trash in human form. But they become sympathetic, and that makes for an intriguing story.

So my advice, is to give your ex-antagonist something that humanizes them. Perhaps a selfish reason to desire this love interest. Perhaps something precious they once had that they want to protect. They don't have to be 'good' to be interesting.

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    I think your first example was close to what I was trying to do. But I think I might have gotten my cause and effect mixed up. I was trying to show him protect his love because he loved him. I think maybe I should have done it the other way around, have some motivation to protect and thus fall in love. Hmmm... something to think about. May 25, 2019 at 21:29
  • Glad it helps ^_^
    – Fayth85
    May 25, 2019 at 22:23

See your villain as a fully fleshed person who, while harsh and cruel for reasons of his own and having a dark past, is human.

Dark doesn’t mean solitary. I was talking to a cousin of mine about my main character and secondary protagonist and she wanted to know if they would get together. Two assassins.

I told her that was not possible at this time. The SP has control issues stemming from her past in a cartel and must be the dominant presence in any relationship. My MC was once her type, but she can’t intimidate him, so he’s off the menu.

He is somewhat interested, seeing her as a very complicated and intelligent woman, but she has some growing to do before any romantic relationship is possible. She then asked me why my MC was alone and I told her that he was holding back, waiting for a time when complete honesty does not send Ms Right running for the hills.

While he is waiting, others are not.

Keep your character true to himself, but let him find someone who, when they have the occupation conversation, does not run. As Amadeus suggests, she loves him because, not in spite, of who he is.


There is nothing fundamentally good about love. It is a completely selfish emotion, a form of desire. If the character you are writing is evil, then he would act on this desire in evil ways. He may for instance just kidnap his target and use psychological tricks until they love them back. Or maybe set up a fake kidnapping, and then come to the rescue, there are many ways to go with this, but you get the idea. If nothing else look at comic book Thanos who tries to murder half the universe to impress his crush.

There is a chance that this love story is a redemption arc. In this case your character would soften up as he peruses his love interest. Maybe he would try to make himself a better person to be more likeable.

I think the important thing is to understand which of these two ways you would like to take the story, and steer in that direction.

  • I like the point that it's not fundamentally good. But he does get soft (too soft) but there is no redemption which is maybe why he looks too soft. May 26, 2019 at 16:44

The lover would feel what he dreamt to be in sacred and trust, so their trait loses effect to the loved one if you want it to be effective.

Thank you for reading! Please, correct any grammar, misspelling or other mistake.

  • Could you tell us a little more...? I think you are saying: the "loved one" would not see any evil in the villain?
    – wetcircuit
    May 26, 2019 at 2:26

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