One of the best tricks I get asked about when I talk to aspiring writers is how to make a despicable, perhaps even an evil character likable. This is usually in reference to Avery Cates, who is an assassin and a guy who uses casual violence, even against his friends, to assert himself. Cates is sometimes charming, or funny, or sympathetic, but he’s also always an asshole, so it can be challenging to make readers like him.
There are two main ways to accomplish this. One is to punish the character. Avery is a Bad Actor, but he gets tortured, imprisoned, beaten, and screwed over so often his violence never actually gets him anything aside from short-lived triumph. This makes him a little more sympathetic.
The other way is a slower burn, and it’s something that Noah Hawley is doing in the third season of Fargo on FX: Make everyone else worse. Spoilers be comin’.
The Relativity of Evil
In Fargo, Mary Elizabeth Winstead plays Nikki Swango, a hard-edged ex-con who takes a practical approach to getting by. Nikki has genuine love for her Parole Officer, Ray Stussy (Ewan MacGregor), and she isn’t such a terrible person. But she does encourage Ray to commit several crimes in pursuit of some stake money, setting in motion some awful events—and when one of Ray’s plots brings a dimwitted, violent man into their lives, she doesn’t hesitate for even a second to murder him via air conditioner.
You read that right.
Nikki’s not a nice person. She’s a schemer and a murderer and a bit of a grifter. But by episode 7 of the season, Nikki is a character you feel sympathy for. She’s been brutally beaten. Her fiancé is (SPOILERS) dead. She’s been falsely accused of the murder and an attempt was made to assassinate her. All of this helps you to put aside the fact that she dropped a fucking air conditioner on someone.
But what really works to put Nikki’s crimes into perspective are the other villains on the show. Mr. Varga and his henchmen are truly evil, terrifying people who have very little empathy or value for human life. Compared to them, Nikki Vango is not so bad. Her violence is only unleashed to protect herself or her lover, and while I would not, say, want to be in business with Nikki (or living next door to her) she’s not an inhuman monster (or a force of nature, a concept Fargo likes to play with) like the others.
So, air conditioner or not, Nikki has become one of the people you wish survive the story—a feat any writer ought to be able to pull off.