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 as much as we might love them, 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 and hard-drinking, he’s constantly haunted by his past and never enthusiastic about his quest to rid the world of evil. Yet 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-mans-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 does what he does for 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 — might 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 than before.
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 same kind of outsider life. We get sucked in by their charming habits: perhaps 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 simply 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, or 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 might fit the bill.
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 easy to find since the character’s 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!