Question: How can you write a troubled protagonist, who's actions may be rude and offensive at the beginning of the book, in a way that doesn't completely turn people off before the character grows and sees the error of their ways?
Ebenezer Scrooge is pretty rude and offensive in the beginning of A Christmas Carol
. So is Horace Vandergelder in The Matchmaker
. And there are many more such characters.
Often what makes these characters work is that most of us have times when we would like to say rude and offensive things, but we bite our tongues for the sake of good manners. Nonetheless, we may secretly admire a character who is fearless enough to say such things.
Many of the best examples of offensive characters are found in comedy. (I'm thinking of British TV shows like Fawlty Towers
or Absolutely Fabulous
Of course, these are characters who do not change from episode to episode. It sounds like you're writing a more serious story in which your character will be redeemed, eventually.
One thing you might consider is having your character charm the reader in the beginning. Perhaps you could use a first person narrative voice, so your character can talk directly to the reader. He could treat the reader like a confident and explain why he feels justified in behaving the way he does.
Most people feel a little flattered when someone trusts them enough to confide in them. Even some of Shakespeare's villains, such as Richard III, gain some sympathy from the audience by speaking to them directly.
If your main character lacks empathy or is unaware of the effect his comments have on others, this effect will also remain hidden from the reader (who is not privy to other characters' thoughts). It's like both reader and character can believe the justifications in the beginning and stay in denial. Later, as the character becomes more aware of how he offends, so will the reader. In this manner, the reader will travel with the character on the journey towards awareness and reform.