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The Path of the Anti-Hero

All satisfying hero characters should be flawed, but there’s a particular kind that cranks up the off-kilter factor to dangerous levels: the anti-hero. Narcissistic, grumpy, guilty or damaged, we love them despite their many, many weaknesses.

This type of protagonist is compelling because they show us that, despite our human failings, we’re all capable and worthy of being loved, of solving the mystery and receiving a due reward.

But writing a good one can be tricky — you want to reside as close to the line as possible without tripping over to the wrong side.

A sympathetic anti-hero can evolve out of an everyday screw-up. These kids just spent too long on the wrong side of the tracks, didn’t fit in at school, or can’t catch a break. They don’t tend to exhibit the personal qualities we would typically expect of a righteous or heroic individual, but they do, regardless, fight for the forces of good.

In the comics world, John Constantine of Hellblazer is a reluctant anti-hero. Hard-smoking, hard-drinking, he’s constantly haunted by his past and never enthusiastic about his quest to rid the world of evil. But he does so regardless, and as we watch him smoke and swear and be thoroughly caustic to friend and foe alike, we find ourselves rooting for him anyway.

Anti-heroes can also be rebels on a quest to dispense justice, always willing to take the law into their own hands. These vigilantes occupy a no-man’s-land between good and bad— take Batman, for example, a character who has sworn to protect his city from crime but often finds himself using criminal means to eliminate the bad guys. Stretch this to the limit, and you have borderline psychotic ex-lawman Frank Castle, aka. The Punisher – an avenger who shows zero mercy to crime lords and petty gangsters alike.

Robin Hood is a classical anti-hero, stealing from the rich (which is bad) to give to the poor (which is good). His undoubtedly criminal, not to mention politically motivated, acts force us to admit he should be locked up, but he’s doing what he does for the noble reasons, and that’s why the story has lasted for centuries.

Anti-heroes can be annoying, pathetic or just damaged, but they all share one characteristic: they have failed in some significant way in their past. Whether they were unable to save the life of someone they loved, failed to live up to expectations that they or others held, or simply can’t fit into society, they are the architects of their undoing. No outside circumstance led to their anti-hero status: it may have been a catalyst, but they chose to react how they did to whatever happened to them, and this is more often than not why they’re so alone.

Anti-heroes never have the kind of values we cherish as a society — or what we like to think we’d cherish. Their thinking is almost always outside the box, their opinions controversial and their actions weird and unusual. This is what helps them complete their goals in such a compelling way, but it also means the sort of traits we value  — love, compassion, honor — will often be missing.

Your anti-hero can — and should — have an arc. Perhaps he finally fits in after years of trying, or only really fits in when he surrenders to a part of his personality he’s been trying to keep buried. Or maybe he doesn’t change, but the world around him does according to his actions… and he finds himself even more of a fish out of water.

Anti-heroes are not, and generally shouldn’t be allowed to be, role models — at least, we’ll never admit that they are. Secretly, we’d love to behave like them, to get away with what they do and lead the outside life they do. We get sucked in by their charming habits: their dark sense of humor, or their moral compass, and we become blind to the actions they take which harm others and make the world worse for them being in it. In this respect, anti-heroes are necessarily toxic to your story. They corrupt, and cannot help it.

You should give an anti-hero a line he or she has sworn never to cross; a code of their own invention that they live by. For Batman, it’s that he’ll never kill. Whether you make your character cross that line or not is up to you – but given all that anti-heroes are comfortable with doing, crossing the line will take some serious redemptive work to come back from.

Anti-heroes make compelling protagonists, but to write villains for them you must hold up a mirror: make an anti-antagonist. These would be police superintendents just trying to do their job, well-meaning loved ones, an oppressive parent, someone who — unlike the anti-hero — appears good for society on the surface, but underneath has traits we despise. A dogmatic pencil-pusher, nagging landlord, or heartless corporate shill.

Be careful of making anti-heroes too emotional or wacky – while they need to be complex, sending them too far off the deep end will lessen connection with the reader. What they do should be rational to them, even if it’s extreme, and that should be communicable to the reader.

Make that connection, and forgiveness for slip-ups is easily obtained, as their fiery personality is understood. Your anti-hero can redeem themselves or return to normal at the end, but what matters is that we want to follow them throughout every step of their journey.

Who’s your favorite anti-hero? Have you written any that you’re particularly proud of? What made them stand out? Share it all in the comments below!

 

Join the Discussion on “The Path of the Anti-Hero”

  1. john beniston says:

    Richard Sharpe in the Bernard Cornwell tales of the Peninsular War and I think Uhtred of Battenberg in the Last Kingdom series.
    These two come to mind but perhaps do not quite fit the definition.
    I have not tried to ceate an anti hero per se, but maybe my latest character could fit the bill.

  2. Jack Mayer says:

    My new historical fiction BEFORE THE COURT OF HEAVEN is about such an anti-hero. He was a young fascist assassin who participated in the murder of Foreign Minister Walther Rathenau, the highest ranking Jew in Germany’s Weimar democracy. The arc of his character development is his complex and harrowing redemption. Winner of 13 book awards. http://www.jackmayer.net

    BEFORE THE COURT OF HEAVEN is inspired by the history of how Germany’s Weimar democracy became the Nazi dictatorship – a cautionary tale for today. A vivid history of Germany from the beginning of the 20th Century to World War II and a tender love story. Award-winning historical fiction based on the true story of Ernst Techow, a fascist assassin complicit in the 1922 murder of the highest-ranking Jew in Weimar Germany, Foreign Minister Walther Rathenau. On trial for his life, Techow receives an unfathomable offer of forgiveness that sets him on a harrowing journey of redemption. Scholars of history and the Holocaust have vetted BEFORE THE COURT OF HEAVEN for historical accuracy.

    1. Tricia says:

      Congratulations on the critical success of your book, Jack!

  3. Tom Collins says:

    I just finished an 80,000 word novel with an anti-hero as my protagonist. After reading your advice on how to do it, I feel releived. I followed most all of your suggestions and the manuscript is with an agent.
    Thanks for your input,
    Tom Collins

  4. ron says:

    i really enjoy these articles. but i find them not very informative in details. example, they are like baking a cake. the directions will read what is needed overall. the cake mix, eggs and oil. except it omits the other details like determining to bake a cake, making sure you have the money to purchase said cake. if you need to get into the car and go to the grocery store to get the cake mix, when to add certain ingredients etc, etc…i know it sounds odd. but when i read something like this, an overall long winded report. nothing of substance and detail. let me give an example. and examples are what i’m writing about.
    the characters. an old god, a naïve computer genius and a strange little girl;
    the scenario. it is set in a bakery café on a beautiful slightly warm breezy mid morning.
    the old god wishes to remake, rewrite the world. and to do this he needs to decipher ancient text with the help of a young girl computer genius. and a strange girl shows up unexpectedly.
    conflict. his outward appearance is one of kind and understanding young blond haired boy. (Aryan race style hair cut) around thirteen or fourteen. the naïve girl with dark hair and flowers in her hair is around the same age. the strange little girl appears younger than the both of them. she easily picks out mistakes made in the translation program. mistakes that are easily noticed by the young boy(old god) but not corrected. this causes tension between the young boy and strange little girl but he needs to keep his pesona in check in front of the young computer genius. the young girl seems to have a feel for the old god’s real reason for the deciphering and pushes his buttons. the ending would be the little girl walking off as if it was just normal.
    now using that setup how does one write the verbal push and pull between characters. lets say the old god is the anti hero, the strange girl is the hero. the computer genius is the gauge. her reaction to the both of them. how would one express it. let me see some examples.

    now, the reason for this drawn out explanation. i and i am sure others learn by example. or a variety of examples. how one expresses themselves in conversation and facial expressions. what i have read in the report above was nothing but general information. a few examples of published writers would’ve been great. Not batman using the same means as his enemies. maybe an example of his interaction with said characters. the tone of his voice, the words he used, his emotions and how they compare to the villain. how close they resemble the villains. how the picture is painted. instead of using a house painter brush, give me some detailed brush strokes.
    i really hope i have not confused anyone with this ramble.

    ps. if a editing program could help like this then i’m buying. and i do enjoy these emails.

  5. Pat Sibley says:

    Dorothy Dunnett’s Francis Crawford of Lymond and Sevigny is the quintessential anti-hero in 6 novels of the Lymond Chronicles. I love these books and re-read them often.

    1. Tricia says:

      Francis Crawford is an excellent choice of anti-hero, Pat. I remember in (I think it was) the first book, where he treated a woman quite badly. I said to myself (and later to my husband), “How am I supposed to root for a guy like that?!” I don’t know how many books later we find out what that woman had done to Francis that made him so angry with her; I still didn’t approve of his actions, but at least I understood them. She was a villain, to be sure.

      Jack Reacher is a slightly more modern anti-hero. I’m not sure if Lisbeth Salander of “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo” trilogy would qualify as an anti-hero, but I think so. What does anybody else think?

  6. Adam says:

    My favorite anti-hero may be the unforgettable Bernie LaPlante (Dustin Hoffman) in the 1992 film, “Hero.” If you haven’t seen that one, I strongly recommend it.

  7. Eric J says:

    Gulley Jimson,the picaresque ne’er-do-well artist in Joyce Cary’s “The Horse’s Mouth”

  8. Ian Miller says:

    I am not sure what an antihero is, because if you call Batman one, then it is simply a caricature. In literature, the best I can come up with is Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes. He is the very sort of person you do not want to emulate (the anti part) but he does do good. The point here, though, is the doing good is not his intention. What he wants to do is demonstrate his superior deductive skills to make the official police feel small, so there is nothing noble in his intentions. And if nothing else, he has certainly been successful – we lesser mortals can only dream of so many sales for so long.

    1. Babbs says:

      Excellent post. You’ve given much “food for thought”.

  9. Paul says:

    Achilles in The Iliad could be considered an anti-hero.

    Han Solo in the first Star Wars films fits the anti-hero mold very well. In Empire Strikes back he morphed out of it but still retained elements of it.

  10. James says:

    Marvel’s Wolverine, Clint Eastwood’s No Name character from his spaghetti western days, and James Bond are some of my favorite anti-heroes.

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