Most stories are better with some interpersonal conflict. That means sooner or later, we’ll need to craft a jerk. But whether they’re an insufferable roommate, an antagonistic hottie, a harsh parent, or even a protagonist with some growing to do, it’s easy to make bad behavior go too far. In many cases, we’ll want to redeem the jerk or repair their relationship with another character. That won’t work if the audience abhors them. Even when we don’t need characters to be likable later, we’re probably not ready to deal with the ramifications of putting abuse in our stories.
To avoid including abuse by accident, we need ways to make characters grating without being malicious or controlling. While these nine traits can’t guarantee a character is nontoxic, they should help prevent it simply by giving us something else to depict.
A standoffish jerk severely neglects social niceties in situations where they’re required. For instance, instead of introducing themself to a new roommate, coworker, or distant cousin, they might just tell the newcomer to go away. They could avoid another character without explanation, or only talk the minimum amount necessary and then leave abruptly. While there’s nothing wrong with setting boundaries, the standoffish jerk doesn’t communicate constructively about theirs, leaving others to feel hurt by their behavior.
If you want to reconcile the standoffish jerk with another character, don’t let that character try to force the jerk to socialize or persist in sticking around when they’re not wanted. Instead, the best tactic is the reverse: to respect the standoffish character’s wishes, building trust over time. As the standoffish jerk becomes more familiar with this other person and realizes they won’t press, they can warm up and interact a little more. Once the characters are communicating, the jerk can realize their behavior was hurtful and apologize.
A competitive jerk is ruthless in claiming limited resources, whether it’s a promotion or the last cookie. They might be focused on one particular competition, or they might see everything as a competition, one-upping other characters whenever they can. Whether it’s showing up ridiculously early to claim every front seat for their group or sabotaging someone else’s science-fair project, the competitive jerk turns otherwise cooperative activities into unpleasant conflicts.
When a competitive jerk technically plays by the rules, they are easy to bring around and make great antagonistic love interests. Regardless of how ruthless they are, you can increase their likability by revealing competitions that have much higher personal stakes for them than previously thought. Maybe their parents will only let them attend their chosen college if they win that science fair. Reconciliation can occur after characters learn about these stakes, earn each other’s grudging respect, or bond over unrelated interests and experiences.
An unreliable jerk lets others down by breaking their promises without explanation. Maybe they disappear after they’ve promised to show up and help out. Alternatively, they could just slack off. They might come to help a friend move, only to spend their time drinking beer and distracting others instead of assisting in whatever way they can. They could strategically schedule something important on every cleaning day, leaving others to do all the cleaning without them. Friends might know better than to make them the designated driver, because they’ll drink anyway.
If the jerk is simply a no-show, you can remove their jerk status by revealing they were missing for important reasons or circumstances beyond their control. While this doesn’t excuse their lack of communication, in many stories characters have big secrets they can’t explain. If the jerk shows up but clearly isn’t making an effort to contribute, you have a selfish character on your hands. They’ll probably need a little karmic comeuppance before your audience will forgive them.
While an unreliable jerk works great for friends or coworkers, be careful with parents. Unreliable parents aren’t necessarily toxic, but neglect is a form of abuse.
Suspicious jerks look for enemies everywhere – perhaps because in your story, they are everywhere. The jerk interprets innocent inconsistencies as hints of hidden treachery and makes unfounded accusations. Perhaps they interpret a character’s reluctance to answer questions as a sign of deception, or they assume a private evening with a date is an appointment to sell information to an enemy. Considering the mischief protagonists get up to, the suspicious jerk will have plenty of fuel for whatever theory they’ve concocted.
While suspicious jerks aren’t usually toxic, they might get there if you let them invade other people’s privacy. Instead, they can gather evidence for their accusations simply by being more observant than the people around them. As long as they don’t spy on people in their homes or read private emails, reconciling them with others should be as simple as proving them wrong.
An egotistical jerk is constantly tooting their own horn. They’ll tell anyone within earshot stories of their prowess at whatever task is at hand, but further examination reveals these stories are embellished at best. They could name-drop nobles, assuring listeners how invaluable they are to this person, and reinterpret polite comments as glowing confessions of admiration. Worse yet, other characters may take the egotistical jerk at face value and favor them over people who are more deserving but less boastful.
Egotistical jerks will collect antipathy from the audience quickly. They still work well for family because everyone’s had the experience of trying to get along with an annoying family member. However, it may be difficult to make a braggart likable enough for a love interest. Revealing that they brag to compensate for personal insecurity may help. You might also reveal that the jerk only behaves this way around the viewpoint character because they are desperate to impress and clueless about how to do it.
A territorial jerk wants everything to themself. When other people enter spaces or participate in activities that the jerk feels entitled to, the jerk expects those people to abide by numerous unwritten rules. When others disrupt their routine by placing an object in the wrong location or completing tasks in a different order, they blame these people for not reading their mind about what they wanted. The territorial jerk may preempt these problems by refusing to give others access to what should be shared spaces or activities.
The territorial jerk has a lot of growing to do when it comes to communicating their needs, accommodating the needs of other people, and giving up control where they need to. The best way to get them there is by making them operate alongside another person who tries to at least meet them in the middle. Given time, the jerk can realize this other person is doing their best and put more effort into communicating. The jerk can become more comfortable with others around and realize they like the company.
The opposite of a territorial jerk, a careless jerk doesn’t respect other people’s things. They might leave doors unlocked, possessions outside to rot or rust, or open gates without paying attention to what animals might escape through them. Perhaps they assume it’s okay to break something as long as they leave cash equal to its market value, ignoring the time and energy it takes to replace something or the sentimental value the object had. Naturally, the careless jerk eats someone else’s food every time they open a shared fridge.
If you’re careful, you can probably keep your careless character in “clueless” territory. They can be mortified once they realize the harm they’ve caused and do what they can to make up for it. However, it won’t take much to make a careless jerk look willfully negligent, and therefore selfish. At that point, raising likability may require teaching them a lesson in what it feels like to have their food eaten or their things destroyed.
A demanding jerk has unrealistically high standards. They might expect new recruits to perform perfectly without training, or they might leave no room for the occasional brainless mistake by others. Instead of giving praise to people who work hard, the jerk only describes where they’d like these people to do better. Just when another character is sure they’ve carved that sculpture or mowed that lawn exactly how the jerk wants it, a demanding jerk points out that the situation has changed and something different is needed now.
Characters can be demanding jerks for a number of reasons.
- For the most sympathy, reveal that the jerk knows something bad will happen, and they’re afraid others will get hurt if they aren’t prepared.
- An experienced character could simply be out of touch. Reminding them of their own days as a newbie can make them more patient.
- Last, the jerk may be demanding simply because they are powerful and can get away with it. They’ll require some comeuppance.
To avoid making the jerk toxic, keep their comments focused on the behavior or skills that they want improved. Don’t let them cut down the person or otherwise become malicious with their feedback.
A mischievous jerk is that character every storyteller loves, but readers hate. They take joy out of tricking, playing pranks on, and generally showing up other people. While their deceptive behavior gets them candy and laughter, it comes at the cost of making others miserable. Even if they trick people into things that are ultimately beneficial, pulling these pranks is still condescending and manipulative. If they trick a character the audience cares about, they’ll earn antipathy by doing so.
Your audience will resent a trickster who’s targeted a protagonist until that protagonist defeats them. Once the protagonist catches them in the act and generally shows them up, the trickster can apologize and the characters can reconcile. To maintain likability thereafter, a mischief-maker should only target those who’ve earned some comeuppance.
Regardless of the type of jerk you’re using, redeeming them will require the same basic steps. It’s not enough for them to discontinue being a jerk. They should openly acknowledge their inappropriate or hurtful behavior and apologize. Then if they did real damage – physically or emotionally – they should do something to make up for the harm they caused.
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