Justice vs Revenge: Making Unlikable Characters Likable

REVENGE is one of the hardest storytelling tropes to get right, and yet it’s one of the most fun…if you remember this one thing.

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Revenge is hard to pull off because your protagonist’s goal is literally to destroy another person. Here, it’s vital for you to separate the goal from the motivation. The GOAL is revenge, but the MOTIVATION is something else.


From page one, the anti-hero needs a motivation that the reader connects with and supports. Think of the classic THE COUNT OF MONTE CRISTO.

In TCoMC, Edmond Dantes doesn’t simply want revenge. The people who destroyed his life will continue to wreak havoc unless they’re stopped.

But go deeper, and we see that even if Edmond’s primary motivation was revenge (and I’ll be honest, it mostly is), these people truly wronged him.

He was betrayed and sent to life in prison by those closest to him. His lover (seemingly) abandoned him and married the best friend who betrayed him.

If that happened to you, would you want a little revenge? It’s vital to the Revenge trope that your readers answer YES.

Answering yes shows that the Revenge trope isn’t really about revenge. It’s about JUSTICE. It’s about balancing the scales and righting an awful wrong.

Keep that part in mind. Your readers are seeking balance, which is often why fiction functions in a way real life doesn’t. In the real world, sometimes the bad guys get away with it. But in fiction, if your character truly seeks revenge rather than justice, the reader is waiting to see what awful cost someone will pay.

This is where you need to decide the tone of the story and the arc for your character. Is this a happy ending or a HOLY SHIT THE WORLD IS AWFUL ending?

Maybe your story is light and fun, like the delightful OCEAN’S 8. Revenge there against a jilted lover is a small part of the story, but it’s a huge part of why we empathize with Debbie Ocean.

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Maybe it’s action-packed fun with an emotional core fueled by the protagonist’s grief over the villains killing his one last link to his dead wife, like in JOHN WICK. (poster from My Hot Posters)

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Maybe it’s actually about revenge, not justice, such as in Gillian Flynn’s exquisite GONE GIRL, where the reader’s delight in part comes from determining who is really getting revenge in the end.

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Maybe, in another story that’s also actually about revenge, it’s about exposing the awful costs of jealousy and vengeance, such as in the classic WUTHERING HEIGHTS.

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Or how about the out-of-this-world fantastic BURN FOR BURN by Jenny Han & Siobhan Vivian, in which three friends band together to finally bring justice against those who have wronged them.

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Even in our original example of THE COUNT OF MONTE CRISTO, Edmond ultimately must choose between sacrificing everything he loves for revenge...or sacrificing revenge to hold on to everything he loves.

Revenge or Justice are both fun tropes if you'll remember that your protagonist's goal isn't the same as their motivation. Revenge can be as evil as you please...so long as you give the protagonist a compelling motivation.

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