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
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:
- Nine Jerkass Traits That Aren’t Toxic or Abusive
- Five Popular Tropes Writers Struggle With
- Three Genre-Defining Books With Underutilized Tropes
- Six Character Archetypes for Love Interests
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.