This week I want to talk about anti-heroes.
In this morally ambiguous time, it’s no longer popular to write about classic heroes who are purely good and righteous. I mean, where’s the fun in that? Gone are the days of swashbucklers like Ivanhoe and Robin Hood. Even the most recent incarnation of Superman has a gritty, brooding veneer.
However, you may be wondering…
What is an anti-hero?
An anti-hero is a protagonist who is flawed, but in a way that the reader can still sympathize with the character.
There are plenty of examples from modern fiction like Wolverine of the X-Men or John McClane in Die Hard. But anti-heroes are nothing new.
The classics are chock-full of anti-heroes like Scarlett O’Hara and Philip Marlowe. Even Shakespeare wrote intriguing anti-heroes like Othello and Hamlet.
So, you’re probably asking, “How do I write a great anti-hero?
Oh, if only someone would write a blog post on…
How to create an anti-hero
Start with their appearance.
A physical description is an easy way to telegraph aspects of a character’s personality. With an anti-hero, you can use appearance to set them apart. They may be a little rough around the edges, unkempt. Your detective character might keep a bottle of whiskey on his desk and a smudge of lipstick on his collar. Maybe your female character wears dark eyeshadow and carries a gun in her purse.
Take for example, how Stieg Larsson describes his titular character from The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo
“He looked down on the dragon stretching across her back, from her right shoulder blade down to her buttock.
He counted her tattoos. Apart from the dragon on her back and the wasp on her neck she had a loop around one ankle, another loop around her left biceps, a Chinese sign on her hip and a rose on her calf. Except for the dragon, her tattoos were small and discrete.”
From the text, the reader knows right away that Lisbeth Salander is no librarian, and she’s not to be screwed with.
However, this technique works in reverse as well. It doesn’t have to be all rumpled clothes and messy hair. Classic anti-heroes like Scarlett O’Hara and Jay Gatsby set themselves apart through their elegance and style.
So, when you introduce your anti-hero have a little fun with their description. Make sure your readers know that this person stands apart from the rest of civilized society.
Give them demons
An anti-hero is often the poster child for bad habits. They drink too much, they smoke, they swear. They can be boorish, uncouth, vulgar and just plain jackasses.
Their bad behavior is usually the outward projection of some inward turmoil. Your character’s backstory should be the motivation behind their vices.
One of my favorite anti-heroes is Daeman from Dan Simmon’s Ilium a book set in the far future. The novel opens with the forty-year-old man-child, Daeman. He’s fat, he’s fearful, and his only pursuits are women and butterflies (he’s a lepidopterist). But, by the end of the story, Daeman becomes a brave leader of humanity.
The best thing about Daemon is that he never seeks to become a hero. He’d much rather remain in his comfortable bubble of sex, parties, and butterflies. It is the action of the plot that forces Daemon to grow as a character.
This positive transformation can be a powerful tool in storytelling. Try this: create a character who is unappealing in every way and ask yourself- What would have to happen to this person to change for the better? That’s the recipe for a dynamic and appealing story!
Have them make bad decisions
As I mentioned before, anti-heroes are flawed characters. As such they should make some bad choices. They should choose the easy road over the hard one. They should put themselves before others. They should be less than perfect.
What makes an anti-hero effective is that they remind us of ourselves. We aren’t perfect. We make mistakes, and we can identify with a flawed protagonist.
What’s even more powerful is when a hero overcomes their past mistakes. Take, for instance, when Han Solo takes his money and abandons his friends in the final act of Star Wars. It’s a reasonable decision on his part, but not a moral one. But in the end, he does make the right choice and arrives just in time to save Luke and help destroy the Death Star.
The anti-hero holds the promise that we too can be better. We can do better. We can overcome our flaws.
Give them a proper motivation
The most effective anti-heroes have a powerful motivation. What if you wrote a script about a vigilante hero. Let’s say this person was played by Charles Bronson. In your movie, Bronson decides he’s fed up with all of these reports of violent crime in the news. He gets out of bed one day, boards a subway train, and blows away a couple of gang bangers in cold blood.
Do you like this character? Hell no! He’s a sociopath, as bad as the criminals he wants to take down. But given the right backstory- like a wife and daughter who were attacked, raped, and killed by gang members- and all of a sudden Charles Bronson has the right motivation. He’s a psycho no longer.
Deathwish Is the story of a deeply flawed man trying to find justice for his family. It’s the story of a true anti-hero.
So, I hope this article helps you in your pursuit of the perfect anti-hero. Just don’t get too carried away. Remember, regardless of their flaws your hero needs to be sympathetic. And if you can’t think of any flaws just take a look in the mirror. Afterall, don’t we all have a little anti-hero in us?