We’re told to give our characters flaws. No one likes a perfect person even if there’s really no such thing as a perfect person. By showing the imperfections of these characters we hope our readers can more easily relate to them.
If it’s your villain – evil rules. But can you make the protagonist seemingly unredeemable and still have your readers fall for them? I remember reading a romance many years ago in which the hero had gone to prison for murdering his father. Now you know he’s the hero and that the heroine will fall for him. But all I could think of was how? How do you take a murderer – an unrepentant murderer at that – and make him sympathetic? Likeable?
I know motivation plays into it. Motivation plays into everything. Sometimes, however, you can’t reveal the motivation completely. It has to be sparsed out for the purpose of the plot. It is then important for you to show your character to be sympathetic in other ways, some of which are over the top to balance our the reader’s perception of them as mean, cruel, or empty.
One place to start is by using the internalization of your character. How do they feel about what they did? Showing their own remorse may help balance out the judgement others heap upon them. You can even use this judgment to show how they face the truth of their past. Care must be taken, however, not to put them in a victim role. They must own this part of their past, take responsibility for it. That’s not to say they think what they did was ok, necessarily. Perhaps they didn’t have a choice.
Another consideration to help redeem a character is to make them suffer. If it’s your villain, then the reaction is to feel they are getting their just desserts. But if they are the protagonist, a natural response is to empathize. How they suffer should also be connected to whatever event made them unredeemable. A cop who sent an innocent man to prison could be held captive or trapped in a small room. A banker who swindled senior citizens out of their pensions may find himself confined to a cheap nursing home.
The key, I think, is to show the slightest hint of hope for the character. No matter what they may have done in the past, show in some small way that they are trying to be different now. Balance. In all things.