In my story, the protagonist is made as a destined chosen one to defeat the dark lord. He is not this "good" angel, but rather a murderous anti-hero. While he undergoes character development and growth, he still does numerous horrible things including:

  • Scamming villages and small communities
  • Extortion
  • Numerous troubles due to alcoholism (still does not cure it at the end)
  • Acts like a typical jerk (in the beginning at least)
  • Unnecessarily kills many people
  • Will ask for higher rewards for bounties, or he will hold hostage whoever he has "rescued"
  • Making deals with the "Evil Empire", sometimes being bribed

For this, and other stuff he does throughout the story, I am trying to write him to be likeable despite all the crimes and terror he commits. For likeability, it can be compared to protagonists in adult shows, like for example, Blitzo from Helluva Boss or Homer Simpson from The Simpsons (earlier seasons). Other examples can include the protagonists from the GTA franchise. In other words, while some people will hate the protagonist, how can I write him so that they are not too hateable and can have likeability?

  • 3
    Lots of questions here take the form of "How do I do the opposite of what I'm doing...?" or "How can I do everything deliberately wrong, but still get all the benefits as if I did it right?" –– Try listing some of your character's likeable traits. If he doesn't have any, why do YOU like him? Figure that out and you have an answer (no guarantee readers will agree).
    – wetcircuit
    Nov 18, 2022 at 12:06

3 Answers 3


Here are some simple tricks to approach this problem. Use one of them or mix them up.

Make the world more brutal

Nobody is going to take the side of a teacher in a social democracy who randomly starts killing people. If you want them to be likeable while killing, you need to make death part of the fabric of the world. Everybody kills. Everybody deserves to die to some extent. If you don't kill, you don't survive.

Maybe the story is set in a war, or in a crime ridden dystopia, but somehow, you need to lower the moral standard.

Use wish-fulfillment

Think of everything that people don't allow themselves. Show how your protagonist does allow himself all of that, and how they get away with it. This offers the audience a vicarious enjoyment of this hedonistic life.

The price of admission is taking the side of the amoral cad that is the main character.

Make them good at it

There is undoubted pleasure in watching someone who is good at their job. It doesn't really matter whether the job is making a cake or advertising cigarettes to schoolchildren. It's pleasurable to watch people use their skills.

This can be played different ways. They can be a consummate professional, purely dedicated to their work as a hitman, or a barely-functioning alcoholic who can still outmaneuver everybody else despite a blinding hangover.

Give them a code

"No women and children" is probably the simplest example. With a little character exploration you can draw the lines in a more interesting way, that is more specific to your character. But the important thing is that they have lines.

Their morality may not be ours, but they do have one, and they live by it. You could even show them making greater sacrifices for their code than any of us would for our vaguely defined sense of moral boundaries. If so, who are we to judge them, simply because their beliefs are so different.

Make them seek redemption

In your specific case, the character ends up saving the world. Starting them out as a lowlife, and having them end up as the chosen one gives you a lot of opportunities for dramatic contrast.

Maybe they dislike who they are and what they've done and are doing as much as we do, but they don't see a way out. So long as you make that clear, you can pile on the bad stuff, and the audience will just want them to find the courage to do better.

See how other works deal with it

Without directly plagiarizing, there are a lot of examples out there of likeable characters committing (lethal) criminal acts. Just study these, and see what tricks they employ to make their characters likeable.

  • I did not join this forum in a quest for an answer to a question anywhere similar to the OP. However, I have to express my appreciation for your answer. You have provided thoughtful insights that are much appreciated.
    – DroidOS
    Nov 21, 2022 at 12:50

You're dealing with the usual anti-hero methods for how to make them likeable (or at least justified):

  1. Their society/world is dark/corrupt/dangerous etc. He's not that different from the people around him (morality is both relative and absolute).

  2. Their antagonist is considerably worse. Your hero may be morally compromised, but what they're trying to stop is pure evil.

  3. They've come from a difficult/traumatic background. Terrible events have made them who they are. People will identify and empathise more when they understand why your anti-hero is the way they are.

  4. Make them funny. Check out a book like Prince of Thorns

The protagonist is a murderous, psychopathic teenager. However, their ruthless approach can be enjoyable at times, and the whole book is wrapped in a dark humour that softens them.

  1. Redeem them. Or at least try. Bad people can do good things for bad reasons. Or were they, just for once, trying to do the right thing?

I think the one thing people who answer this have been dodging (and you actually stumbled upon with one of your examples) is that of the specifically named characters I know (not including all the protagonists of GTA, since each one has their own story and some of them are not likeable by any stretch of the imagination.) I can say that Homer is usually not malicious (as a major character in a series that has been running for 30 years, I am sure Homer has done something actively malicious... but by and large and in the best loved era of the season, the problems he causes others are not malicious in nature and more caused by profuse stupidity and inability to grasp subtle clues.).

And despite Homer's flaws, most of Homer's vices on this list are used for comedy and are more out of him being motivated by simpler desires. To whit, Homer almost always understands he did something out of line when there is an emotional outburst directed at him than he does when the displeasure is subtly voiced, and he goes on to try and make amends (Homer being an idiot that he is, normally does so in a way that shows he still doesn't get the core concept but is trying.). In addition, despite all his flaws, Homer is absolutely devoted family man who treasures his wife. On the few times Homer is put in situations where there could be another woman, the conflict of the story is him trying to avoid the implication that he would cheat on Marge with this person. One of the all time best Simpson's Episodes "And Maggie Makes Three" is framed as Marge and Homer telling Bart and Lisa the reason why there are no pictures of Maggie in the family photo albums. The entire story is Homer being an exception jerk to Marge during her pregnancy with Maggie (again, given the period of time in the show's history it was to a degree that was almost out of character), but the point of the story was that, by the time the audience learns where Maggie's pictures are, it fully redeems Homer and is one of the most emotionally satisfying conclusions. And while both Bart and Lisa have little respect for Homer, it's made clear that Homer's ignorance of their interests and hobbies, it does not mean Homer has no interest in his children. Often, he just doesn't know and is trying his best to learn what it is that his kids enjoy. In many cases where Homer isn't the direct cause of the conflict, he will straight up tell his kids he doesn't know why they are upset, but he does know his job is to be there for them when they are (This is more common in Hommer/Lisa or Homer/Marge stories as Homer and Bart tend to be less at each other's throats (at least in the metaphorical sense. In the literal sense it's a running gag) and Marge/Bart tend to be more out of touch with one another. Homer/Maggie rarely happens given Maggie is still an infant, but it's strongly implied that Maggie thinks the world of Homer and loves him unconditionally, warts and all.).

When Homer with the exception to the alcohol issue, any commonalities of Homer with actions on the list are typically not successful when he tries to do them with intent (to the point that they come back to bite him in comically karmatic ways) or unintended results of what he believes are helpful actions combined with his ineptitude.

In a more general way, adding some kind of sympathetic reason for why a person is a jerk can go a long way. Note that when doing this, it is an explanation, not an excuse. The expectation is that by the story's conclusion, the underlying issues will be resolved, and any "jerk" behavior is done more as an in joke with the former victims than it is with malice as presented.

In this case, consider Ebenezer Scrooge from "A Christmas Carol" In the events upon joining the book, Scrooge is a very unpleasant person and takes personal delight in knowing that people do not enjoy his company and makes his disdain for Christmas very well known. But it's clear from almost the moment that the plot kicks off, that with every Ghost that visits, Scrooge is clearly recalling that much of his attitude not only caused him further pain, but it doesn't instill fear he thought it did. His own nephew (who tried and failed to involve Scrooge in his happiness) makes a joke at Scrooge's expense at the party Scrooge would have been at had he not declined the invitation). And when Scrooge does profess amazement for Tiny Tim's humility and love for life, it's quickly dashed when Bob Cratchit proposes a toast to Scrooge's health as it was his employment of Bob that made the dinner possible, only to be interrupted by Mrs. Cratchit, who points out that the Christmas Feast is as good as it is (and by all account's Bob is clearly grateful for what small amount of food they have for the dinner) in spite of Scrooge and that he's a terrible boss. But she retracts her complaints when Tiny Tim, who does not know Scrooge admonish his mother with the famous line "God Bless Us, Everyone." Although unspoken, Tim's words simplify the point he makes: Scrooge may be a terrible human being, but he is still one of God's children, and thus isn't deserving of his Mother's Wrath during a Toast at Christmas Diner.

Scrooge again praises the wisdom of the child but is told by the Ghost of Christmas Present that while it's not his place to know the future, but he doesn't like the direction where it's heading without some change... Tiny Tim will die. And when Scrooge is contemplating this thought, the Ghost hits Scrooge with a decisive blow and what's so powerful about the spirit's words is that the Ghost isn't teaching Scrooge a lesson: He's quoting Scrooge at what is possibly the most despicable line he gives when we first meet him:

If they/he are going to die, then they had better do it and decrease the surplus population.

Scrooge had unknowingly condemned Tiny Tim with his words because Tim was poor... and was met by Tiny Tim defending Scrooge because Scrooge was a human.

It's here where Scrooge's personality has the most noticable shift. Following this incident, Scrooge meets the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come, who never says a word to Scrooge. Scrooge has a one sided conversation but it's clear that all the questions he's asking the Ghost are questions he already knows the answer to but is too scared to say outloud.

In the conclusion, Scrooge is fully committed to changing and makes amends with everyone he wronged at the start of the story without a trace of hiding deception. But when he comes to the Cratchit house, he takes a tone that Bob is familiar with and presents himself as a cold uncaring boss for the build up until he reveals the reason for his visit to give Bob a raise and to give Bob the feast he deserves. Whatever the reason for the joke, its clear that Scrooge may still be a stern boss and can put up a serious face... but within the distant future of the book, Scrooge gained a reputation for keeping Christmas better than anyone.

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