The question from my previous post is: could we like characters who do things like committing murder, stealing, having a violent temper, assaulting people, torturing people. (By the way, please don't assume I like criminals just because of my opinions here. I don't. I simply find slightly edgy characters more interesting...in a book, movie or TV show. Not in real life. :-) Now back to the program...)
If you don't think you could like people or characters who do terrible, illegal, immoral things, I want to use examples from one of my favorite TV shows, Lost. Some of the most popular characters on the show have done bad things but we love them anyway. Why? The characters are so incredibly complex and multidimensional. They have good traits and bad, sometimes in equal proportion. They may have murdered someone in the past, but now they're saving someone's life. Redemption is an important theme here. Mr. Eko was probably the most extreme example of this. He was a sort of gang member who murdered countless people. He then posed as a priest. After this he felt he had become a real priest. Mostly he wanted to save his brother's life. The reason he became a killer in the first place, as a very young teenager, was so his younger brother wouldn't have to. In essence, he was giving up his soul to save his brother's.
Kate is the most likeable female on the show, yet she is a murderer too. Do you feel she had good motivation for the crime she committed? The law says it's not legal to kill someone who's physically and sexually abused you and your mother for years but how would you feel in that situation? What would you do?
Sayid is another interesting character. He is very helpful, appears to be gentle and caring in every way, but also strong, sexy and masculine. Yet in the past he was in the Iraqi Republican Guard, an expert at torturing people. And then we wonder how can I like someone who tortured people for a living? The conflict that can create within you, the viewer, can be disturbing.
I find Sawyer to be the most complex character on Lost. In essence, he's a con-man and a murderer. He smokes, drinks, steals, lies, cheats. He's greedy, selfish, promiscuous, manipulative. Carries a gun around and threatens people with it. We're talking bottom of the barrel. Yet, his character arc over the course of the seasons has been more dramatic than anyone's. What are his good qualities? Does he have any? Sure, and seeing them uncovered has been entertaining. For one thing he's sexy and very masculine. An honest-to-goodness bad boy that appeals to many women. Despite his image, he's also intelligent. He'd have to be in order to be such a successful confidence man and set up elaborate con jobs. Or to come up with those snappy, smart-alec comebacks so fast. He's funny and we like to laugh at the goofy predicaments he gets into, like when he thought a wild boar had it in for him. We also find out in the last season, that he might have a baby daughter. His ex-girlfriend (a con-woman) tells him about her while he's in prison, but there is no proof the child is his. Just on her word alone, he does something surprising--he works out a deal so that he rats out one of his peers, gets released from prison and receives a large sum of money as a reward. He doesn't keep this money, instead he sends it into an account for a little girl who might be his daughter. He has a soul after all.
These are extreme examples. But how do we, writing romance fiction, make our characters this complex, interesting and sympathetic? They don't need to be murderers. In fact, editors probably prefer that they're not. (Though I have read romance novels with heroes or heroines who are assassins, alcoholics, prostitutes, thieves, cheaters.) We can give them lesser flaws and make the reader love them in spite of these bad things. That's the challenge. How? Show their struggle. Their inner conflict and turmoil. Show them wanting to be a better person but failing, being miserable. Trying again. Use redemption as a theme. They grow from bad to good and we root for people like that. Bring out a strength to balance the weakness. Or vice versa. The problem with a lot of romance fiction is that there isn't enough "bad" in there. The characters are all good. Too good, bordering on perfect. I have some too-good characters myself that I need to mess up a little. So, don't be afraid of letting your character's dark side come out.