I'm a sucker for ambiguously aligned characters. Good guys who turn into bad guys, bad guys who turn out to be good guys, those folks are just plain fun. I write stories with this kind of character all the time, but I was reminded of them recently when my kids and I watched The Princess Bride.
I'm sure most of you are dearly familiar with Inigo and Fezzik. During
our first viewing I became fascinated by the fact that these two
characters are immediately likeable despite the fact that they've just
kidnapped the princess along with Vizzini. So during our second and
third viewings (since people, especially children, like to see fabulous
things more than once) I took a look at our introduction to these two
Basically, after our first view of them which involves them knocking out
Buttercup, we immediately shift, not to her point of view of them on
the ship, but to their own internal squabbles. Inigo demonstrates
curiosity about what exactly they are doing ("what is that you are
ripping?"), showing that he's not entirely aware of their mission. Then
when Vizzini describes the basics of of his plan to frame Guilder by
killing Buttercup and leaving her on the frontier, Fezzik reveals that
he wasn't totally in on the plan either, and that he has morals
well-aligned with our own ("I just don't think it's right, killing an
innocent girl."). We then get an opportunity to witness Vizzini's
cruelty applied to his own accomplices as he dresses them down.
This is a good start, but on its own, I don't think it would be enough
to convince me that Inigo and Fezzik were anything more than weak bad
guys, or at a stretch, decent guys forced into nefarious deeds by
circumstance. The point where I really start liking them is when I see
Fezzik clearly have hurt feelings as a result of Vizzini's tirade, and
then Inigo comes over to him and starts deliberately consoling him by
starting the rhyming game. At this point, these two characters are no
longer simply henchmen who do their boss' bidding. They are actual
people, friends in fact, who care about each other and also have a sense
of humor... a sense of humor which they are entirely willing to use at
Vizzini's expense ("Anybody want a peanut?"). This pattern is then
confirmed as we go forward into Vizzini's mercilessness and Fezzik's
inability to use his considerable power (the fact that he's literally
dangling Vizzini over a cliff) to win an argument. It continues into
Inigo and Fezzik's interactions with the Man in Black, where we are also
given glimpses into the backstory of each character. In fact I don't
think that it would be nearly as difficult to guess the identity of the
Man in Black if we immediately concluded he had to be a "good guy"
because Fezzik and Inigo were "bad guys."
I think there are some good lessons to be learned here about what it is
that makes a character likeable. Readers and viewers collect evidence in
a character's interactions which they use to establish that character's
qualities and alignments. Clearly even criminal behavior (kidnapping)
can be quickly outweighed by evidence of reluctance and human caring.
It's good to remember this if you're creating ambiguously aligned
characters, and even if you have a protagonist who has to do bad things.
We don't blame Janice Hardy's Nya for stealing, because she's stealing
eggs when she could potentially choose to steal something much worse,
and then only because she's starving. Her human qualities come to the
fore much more quickly.
What do your characters do to show us that they are human? Does it make them seem more complex? Does it make them likeable?
It's something to think about.