The problem with having bad characters is you cannot have ONLY bad characters. I don’t mean bad as in they are poorly written or their characters are shallow (though that is a problem too). More of when a show or book is full of nothing but bad guys, people you don’t like because they are evil so even if they have qualities that you would be sympathetic too, you can’t root for them. They do too many bad and evil things for you to want them to win at the end of it. For example, and these certainly aren’t the only ones out there, are everyone in the show “Salem”, characters like Frankenstein’s monster in “Penny Dreadful”, and the characters in “Death Note” during its final season.
So let’s talk about “bad” characters, or villains really. Normally these are supposed to be the guys that do bad things that your main character is going to put an end to and fix. Shows like “Once Upon a Time” play with the notion of what a villain and “good” guy are all the time. Some seasons it works better than others but generally, they do a decent job with it, or I think so. The reason WHY it usually works is because the characters have set goals, reasons for doing the things they do so they can sway back and forth between good and evil. It becomes a matter of perspective, doing a bad thing for the right reason. But when you don’t accomplish that from the onset, what you are left with is a show full of characters who ALL do awful things and you have no idea who to root for and end up not wanting anyone to “win”. It’s bad writing really, not really figuring out the full breadth of a character and setting so the viewer (or reader) knows why they are doing bad things. Because we can still like them even if they are evil because their characters make sense. Their motivations are clear and their goals and personality well defined. Frank Underwood in “House of Cards” is a PERFECT example of this.
Frank is an evil bastard, there is no way around that. He’s selfish and power hungry and will do anything he feels he needs to in order to achieve his goals. But Frank is like this all the time. So even if he’s a “bad” guy, you love to hate him and, not so secretly, want to know if he’ll be able to pull it off and kind of want him to. And that’s because, despite almost everyone in the show being corrupt or evil in some regard, they are ALL true to their natures and motivations. Even when some of them have a change of heart, it makes sense for them and the arch feels natural and true to their characters. So we’re left still hating and rooting for Frank Underwood.
However, this is a very difficult line to walk and if a show or book fails, it fails hard. Like “Salem”. I started watching this because I am writing a slew of short horror stories and thought, “Heck, maybe this can be inspiration”. I guess it did turn out that way, just not the way I originally thought. Without diving into a full analysis of each and every character (unless you want me to, then we can go to town in the comments), I’ll just give the basics: in Salem, witches are real and are evil and want to kill all the Puritans. The Puritans also suck and still torture and kill innocent people. The “hero” sucks because his motivations are get back the girl he loves and then decides, “No, I’ll kill her too”. So already you start the show unsure as to whom you want to prevail. All sides make some compelling arguments but ultimately, they all do such evil things that you can’t forgive them and you can’t like them like Frank. Their motivations are flimsy and loyalties constantly change so you never really know who is supposed to be the person you like. Because it’s not any of the main characters, that’s for certain.
This could have been avoided if the characters had been better developed, if their motivations had been clear, if they had shown their true colors early on so even when they do bad and worse things you can still want the best for them. But you can’t do that when all sides are poorly developed and then do bad and worse things. Rooting for the lesser of two evils in a show isn’t usually fun, it just makes you annoyed you’re still watching it. Honestly, I don’t know how Salem hasn’t been canceled yet…
Characters like this can also bring down an otherwise interesting and good show as well. Look at Frankenstein’s monsters in “Penny Dreadful”. John Claire and Lily are really psychotic when it comes to their personalities. John because he starts off with killing an innocent creation (it was akin to the bad guy killing a puppy, you instantly hated him for it) and then demanding that his maker give him a bride so he can have someone to spend eternity with. If he had stayed that way, just been this evil thing where Victor is always struggling with his creation, that could have been interesting. But they also wanted him to be sympathetic, to be the monster that is bullied because he is ugly and no one understands him and he’s just this sad, lonely soul yearning for human connection. If THAT had been the personality they wanted to give him and how he deals with London with those hurdles I would have found that interesting too! But when John kills good and innocent characters and threatens Victor, THEN gets tormented by the “normal” people of London… I find that hard to sympathize with. Those two attributes end up negating each other.
This also goes for Lily. She was brought back to life and does not love John and wants to learn of life thinking she just had severe memory loss. It’s endearing to watch her discover life again. But then she makes a switch and she kills a guy she consensually has sex with and we learn that she actually knows she’s a monster the whole time and then plots with John to kill Victor but then doesn’t and runs off with Dorian Grey after some weird speech… It’s just such a flip in a personality I liked and could get behind that I have a hard time liking Lily and I WANT to like Lily. Those two characters (right now) bring down the show. I have only seen the first 2 seasons (Damn you Netflix!) so hopefully Lily gets her shit together but I have no hope for John. His poor character formation cannot be redeemed.
The last season of “Death Note” was like that too. Light turns from the guy who only kills those who deserve it and escape justice to the guy who uses the Death Note to just kill anyone who poses a threat to him. Light starts out interesting and his cat and mouse game with L was great! Then L dies and the show continues when it should have ended. The final season brings about a really badly written and kind of evil duo of L wannabes who stand up to Light and… the whole thing just spirals downhill. A great show was killed because the writers made their main character stray too far from his established personality and introduced flimsy protagonists that you didn’t want to catch Light even if you were tired of Light and wanted him caught. It’s a shame really, I liked Death Note and Ryuk was really cool but the transitions they made with these “bad” characters just leaves a bad taste in my mouth for the whole series now.
I’ve seen this happen more often in TV shows then books, though I’m sure it happens in books too (I’d argue the “Kiss of Deception” is one of the books that falls into this, read my review for that and see if you agree). But with TV shows you have a team of writers so some characters will be written by one person for one episode and then a different person for another so things can get disjointed. That’s how you get “bad” characters in shows where you are supposed to otherwise like the “bad” guy. Normally in books you have an editor who’ll, hopefully, keep the author from doing this but you can’t achieve that when you have so many unique people putting their stamp on ONE character. So far, “House of Cards” is the only one I’ve seen do a phenomenal job of this but I am willing to be proven wrong or enlightened to more characters in shows or books that you genuinely love to hate!