Tips For Writing Lovable Jerks
Lovable jerks can be among the most compelling characters you'll find. Their brash and irreverent behaviors can make them vastly entertaining to watch, and sometimes they can be some of the most relatable characters there are because they remind us of the parts of ourselves we often have to hold back.
Even if you're not trying to write that kind of character and just want to make at least one character in an ensemble cast a jerk, it helps to make your jerk character or characters at least a little endearing so the audience isn't screaming for their blood. (Unless that's what you want them to do.)
Either way you're trying to do it, here are some tips to help you make your jerks a little more lovable!
Lovable jerks usually shut up or stop before things get too serious or personal. For example, for all the teasing and snarking a jerk does, the jerk usually stops short of (at least knowingly) insulting things that others care passionately about, believe in wholeheartedly, or that are fundamental to their identities. A lovable jerk might use up all the hot water, but won't knowingly destroy a precious memento or eat all of someone's food when that person probably can't afford more.
They don't constantly set the other characters back, or sabotage what they're doing. Whether it's through spite, apathy, or ineptitude, messing up what non-jerky characters are trying to do (especially if it's important in some way!) tends to build audience resentment. Sure, they might can get away with it now and then, but if it reaches the point where the jerk is constantly messing up everyone else, you've got problems.
Lovable jerks genuinely care about other people. And it's shown through their behaviors. For example, a jerk who sees that something said or done genuinely hurt someone might try to apologize and make amends. Other things a lovable jerk might do include trying to help someone who needs it, offer a shoulder to cry on, or just do something nice at random with no expectation of reward. They don't have to care about everyone, but they should at least care about a few.
Lovable jerks don't smirk or sneer all the time. Because there's nothing lovable about a smug, condescending jackass who looks down on everyone else with contempt.
Lovable jerks typically have problems and struggles that people can relate to. This helps make people more sympathetic toward them, which in turn makes them more forgiving of their less-than-stellar actions. A few examples of relatable problems can be found here.
Lovable jerks are genuinely useful. They do something that helps others and move the plots forward. (And it doesn't count if they're only useful through sheer luck or coincidence!) Remember, characters who are both useless and annoying are quick to end up hated by audiences.
But they don't do everything. While they contribute to solving problems and challenges in the story, they don't do it all themselves. Other people get to shine and help, too.
They have some standards. You might think up a few things your jerks would consider too repugnant to sink to, and hold them to it. (Note that a standard doesn't count if it's used in a "See? This character was good/had a heart of gold all along and you should love this character!" kind of way, or if it's something considered incredibly obvious among your character's associates, or if it's something that hurts people.)
The story doesn't take their sides when they're being jerks. Even if they don't realize or acknowledge that they've crossed a line, the story makes it clear that those affected by their rude or callous actions are not happy with about it, and the narrative doesn't treat these people as petty, whiny, or just overlooking what great or valuable people the jerks really are.
Their behavior has repercussions. Characters who constantly get away with every jerky thing they do end up being more resented than those who don't. So let their behaviors have unpleasant consequences for them sometimes.
We're allowed to laugh at them now and then. Setting jerks up to be laughed at on occasion is another good technique for reducing audience resentment. Check out On Writing Comedy & Comic Relief for more information.
Lovable jerks don't have to get everything right all the time, but they can at least make an effort to do better sometimes. Simply watching them make an effort at improvement, even if they never get it quite perfect, can make them much more sympathetic. And you can let them permanently develop into better people overall, even if they are still a little rough around the edges.
Check out More Tips For Portraying Believable, Functional, & Healthy Relationships. It's got some tips and thought exercises to help you put your jerks' behaviors into perspective, which can help you avoid going too far somewhere.
Check out Simple Ways To Fill Out & Humanize Your Character. Especially the second section - these can help you humanize your jerks, thus making them more sympathetic to audiences.
Also, you might be interested in:
"Is This My Character's Fault?" - A Flowchart
Protagonist-Centered Morality: What It Is, And How You Can Avoid It
Ensemble Cast Development Questions
Basic Tips For Writing Better Ensemble Casts
Tips For Writing Dark Stories, Settings, & Characters
On Giving Your Characters Flaws & Weaknesses