How Can I Create a Healthy Relationship With a Jerk Love Interest?

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My characters love interest is kind of a jerk but I don’t want this relationship to be toxic.

Should he repent for his behavior, or should I change his character? What should I do?

– Shelly Crumb

Hi Shelly,

That’s a really good question.

While it is possible to make a great, non-toxic jerkass love interest, it’s quite tricky. Basically, there are three things that these love interests need to work.

1. A genuine reason to be in conflict with the protagonist

Jane Austen aside, if you try to make the love interest and the protagonist butt heads just because of a personality clash, one or both of them will almost certainly end up coming off as unreasonable and unlikable. They need to be on opposing sides of something, whether that means he’s a straight up antagonist, they’re rivals, or they just can’t agree on how to approach saving the world. For instance, in Legendborn (which has a good jerkass love interest), the love interest thinks the protagonist is a demon in disguise, and has pretty good reasons for suspecting her. He’s not a jerk to her just because he likes terrorizing people.

2. The right kind of jerkass behaviors

This is tricky and subjective, but even though the love interest is going to be a jerk, some kinds of jerk behaviors are okay and some aren’t.

Things that aren’t okay include most name calling (particularly if it’s a gendered slur like “cow”), sexual assault, trying to verbally cut the protagonist down and destroy their self esteem, or just being controlling or malicious for no purpose other than his own pleasure.

Jerk behaviors that work better include him being overly blunt, acting suspicious and accusatory, deliberately trying to provoke the protagonist for a logical reason, taunting, or being really competitive.

3. Recognition of bad behavior and an apology

Once the jerkass love interest and the protagonist start to become closer, he should openly acknowledge that his behavior was hurtful and apologize to the protagonist for it. Depending on how much damage he caused, he might also need to do something to make up for it, but that won’t be necessary in every case.

Here’s some articles with relevant examples or instruction:

The last one is just in case you decide that making a jerk love interest is more than you want to take on, and you’d like some options that are easier.

Happy writing!


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  1. SunlessNick

    I would also suggest making sure some attractive personality – specifically personality – traits still show through the jerky attitude. Eg, if the main character has employees, show the love interest being polite to them even while he clashes with the main character. Or try to imply that a generalised jerky attitude is something the love interest already doesn’t like about himself (that may be hard to do while it persists though).

  2. CJ

    Yeah, either change the character along the way or drop him, we don’t want another Ron and Hermione type of relationship. That being said there are weirdos who like those kind of relationships.

  3. Jenn H

    A cheat method would also be to have the jerk character be a jerk to other people but not the love interest. That would show that the love interest is special. Or the jerk character might only be a jerk to one or two other characters who they have a personality clash with.

    The jerk love interest might also not really be such a jerk, but rather just emotionally unavailable. You could imagine a hero who doesn’t want to be too friendly with the people they’re protecting because they know they can’t save everyone. Maybe they’re in a job where they have to maintain “professional distance” and that carries over to the rest of their lives. They may avoid close relationships because they live dangerous lives.

    You also want to think about what makes the jerk character likable despite their jerkness. It could be that they have lots of self confidence (though some people think they’re egotistical), or they’re very honest (sometimes too honest), or they’re incredibly heroic (but jaded and cynical because of everything they’ve been through).

    • King Atlas

      Hi Jenn! I think your methods are great for this, but I just want to warn about being careful with the very first method of having the jerk be a jerk to others but not the love interest (the second one you list seems fine) as it is (often times) an indicator of someone who will eventually turn that “jerk trait” against you. But you still have very creative methods! Its awesome that you share it here!

  4. Koeleria

    People are much more forgiving of bad behavior when they understand it. Is the love interest a jerk because they are trying to keep people at a distance? Are they acting like a jerk because they are at the end of their rope and being nice wasn’t working for them? Maybe pain or lack of sleep makes them prone to being grumpy and snapping a people. Did they just not have their morning coffee yet? Understanding the jerk’s behavior will help both the reader and the main character like the jerk. This assumes the jerk’s goal isn’t to be cruel.

    But I have seen a lot of romances with jerks go wrong by stopping at understanding and sympathizing with the jerk. The understanding leads the main character to forgive the jerk for all of their bad behavior. They declare their love for one another. The end.

    But the jerk hasn’t learned anything. They are going to continue hurting the main character. Is the main character supposed to spend the rest of their life forgiving someone for repeatedly hurting them? This is a dysfunctional, if not abusive relationship.

    The main character has to make it clear what they will and won’t put up with. The jerk has to demonstrate they are able and willing to abide by those boundaries. And the reader has to believe that they will be able to live happily together while abiding by those boundaries.

  5. koeleria

    Another option is a jerk that isn’t really a jerk. He just has a communication style that clashes with the main character’s.

    For Example:

    She thinks he is cold and unfriendly because he never discusses anything personal. He thinks she is constantly oversharing. She gives him more personal information in the hope that he will open up. He concludes that he can never tell her anything personal because if she would talk so openly with him, who knows who she would pass it on to.

    He teases and jokes around. She is very literal and formal. He teases expecting to be teased back. She takes the words at face value and is insulted.

    He is constantly talking about himself in the hope that she will trade some stories about herself. Just asking personal questions would be rude. She concludes he is conceited and isn’t really interested in her. If he wanted to know more about her he would ask questions.

    She wonders when he is going to shut up long enough for her to get a word in. He wonders why she is so quiet. He keeps talking in an effort to put her at at ease, and to avoid any awkward silences. She gets fed up and starts talking over him. He is happy she finally joined in. He listens for a few minutes then jumps in with a comment about what she was saying. She is pissed about being interrupted and walks off. He wonders why she left just as the conversation was starting to take off.

    • Guest

      these all sound like great ideas!
      it would certainly be an interesting twist on the typical ‘jerk’ love interest to have them not be a ‘jerk’ at all, just down to clashing styles that can adjust as the relationship grows, or another misunderstanding that compounds itself until the turning point.
      (I like the coffee example: A thinks B is a jerk for being snappy and surly; B thinks A is a jerk for insisting that B engage in conversation before they’ve had their coffee fix. lol. I could see it happening!!)

    • Bellis

      I was thinking along similar lines. If you wanted, you could use a more concrete reason than “personality clash” like differences in (sub-)culture or class or neurotype etc. Maybe mc grew up being taught to leave people alone who are upset to give them space, whereas love interest goes after them to ask what’s wrong, out of a genuine desire to help, which the main character misinterprets as a hollow phrase and an intrusion. Or the other way around! Mc is overwhelmed and leaves the party, assuming their friend will come after them to make sure they’re ok, but said friend and love interest is convinced they want to be alone.

      This kind of stuff should not repeat after being cleared up though, imho it’s totally understandable to have different cultural expactations or different ways of handling emotions, but once they realise they were running into misunderstandings, this should no longer be a conflict.

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