The Antihero – Writing a Dark Character that Readers will Love

PhotobucketTherese here. Please join me in welcoming today’s guest, Dr. Antonio del Drago, the founder of Mythic Scribes, an esteemed online community of fantasy writers. Antonio’s passion is guiding fantasy writers via mythological traditions, and he’s currently working on a book about that very subject. (He’s also passionate about fencing — but that’s another story!) I’m so pleased he’s with us today to talk about something writers, especially fantasy writers, often contend with: constructing a compelling antihero. Enjoy!

The Antihero – Writing a Dark Character that Readers will Love

Few character premises are more interesting and complex than the antihero. The concept has been around as long as Shakespeare, as is evident when looking at the main character in “Macbeth.”

Constructing an interesting antihero can be a great addition to stories and novels. Their complexity can make other characters seem dull, and maybe even annoying.

Protagonists who view the world in a simple “black and white” spectrum of morality can be highly reminiscent of shiny neon super heroes who appeared on Saturday morning cartoons and told boy-scouts not to jay-walk. It’s a bit cheap and campy, to the more mature audiences.

But to be fair, the fact that these heroes view right and wrong as something that can be defined with simple “yes or no” answers is not what prevents them from being antiheroes. An antihero is more than capable of having overly simplified morality, but within a darker setting.

The difference is that the shiny cartoon hero in tights is written within a context that his views are consistently justified. It’s not so much the writing of the character itself that has made it boring, but instead it is the writing of the world around him.

He has been constructed in an environment that never questions his actions. Other characters never stop to reflect on whether the protagonist is doing the right or wrong thing. There is even a suspiciously consistent amount of good luck thrown the characters way, in that he is never in a situation in which he is forced to make an unpopular decision in the eyes of others, in order to preserve his own morals.

Our beloved Captain Awesome-Man just gets to keep on doing what he’s doing, while being loved and adored by everyone.

Building an Antihero

These days, readers want to be provoked. They want characters that make them think, characters that force them to consider what they themselves would do in certain situations.

When building a proper antihero, you have to put him into situations in which there is no perfectly right answer. His mindset is often one that is different from that of his peers. He may view himself as being made of tougher stuff, and is willing to do what is needed, even if the other characters can’t stomach it.

Scarlett O’Hara is an enduring antihero. She was vain, she lied, she took selfishness to a new level, and she was obsessed with another woman’s husband. But when times were tough, she was the one who figured out how to feed and provide for her family. She did what she thought had to be done while the wimpy Ashley stood to the side with his high morals.

Difficult Decisions

Here’s a morbid example to show you what I mean. Say you are writing a short story about a family that is snowed into their cabin during a camping trip. Days go by and their food runs short, with no clear escape from the cabin in sight.

At a critical life or death point, one character may decide to kill the family pet, cook it and feed it to the others; while withholding where the meat came from until later. This character is your antihero.

As the other characters become aware of what has been done, they may resent or even hate the antihero. Yet within his eyes, he did only what was necessary.

The antihero is neither good nor evil.  An effective antihero will have endearing qualities that balance out the darkness.  But it’s their complexity, which is caused by the decisions that they must make, that makes them such compelling characters.

Who are your favorite antiheroes, and why do you love them?

Thanks for a great post, Antonio! Readers, you can learn more about Antonio by visiting his website, and by following him on Twitter and Facebook. Write on.

Photo courtesy Flickr’s  cambiodefractal

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Comments

  1. says

    At what point would you say a character crosses the line from anti-hero to flat-out villain? Is Alex from A Clockwork Orange an antihero even though he’s a murderer and rapist? Or Patrick Bateman from American Psycho?

    Also, what role do you think perspective plays in determining the anti-hero/villain role? After all, if Breaking Bad were told from the point of view of Hank Schrader, then Walter White would definitely be a villain, certainly not a hero.

    Your article got me thinking, so that’s how you know it’s a good one!

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  2. says

    “The difference is that the shiny cartoon hero in tights is written within a context that his views are consistently justified. It’s not so much the writing of the character itself that has made it boring, but instead it is the writing of the world around him.”

    So true. Layers of complexity make for a delicious fantasy book or series. Some say the rising stars of epic fantasy (in particular) are grittier, but I would argue this is the root of it; their characters’ worlds are less two dimensional, and definitely more interesting.

    Great post, Antonio. Thanks to WU for pointing me to Mythic Scribes. I subscribed.

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  3. Bernadette Phipps-Lincke says

    Love this post. Thank you. A lot of food for thought. The thought provoking truth pointed out here — in real life there are no perfect heroes. Everyone at one time or is put into a situation where they must play the antihero. Perhaps too, the dark-side which all humans have to some degree makes a goody-goody perfect hero not only hard to swallow, but also viewed with some amount of disdain.

    As for your question about a favorite antihero, Dexter from the TV series of the same name immediately came to mind as one of the most compelling antiheroes I’ve ever encountered.

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  4. says

    So an anti-hero would be a person who saves the day, but using non-moral ways to do so? Or at least methods that others in the story find to be distasteful?

    Actually, I think Ranger in the Stephanie Plum series could be considered an anti-hero (if i got the definition right), at least in one book. Stephanie is being threatened by a mob-type guy who will not rest until he has killed her, so Ranger goes and “takes care of the problem”. Of course the guy shows up dead the next day, in what looks like a suicide. Morelli knows what Ranger is going to do, but turns a blind eye, because he wants Stephanie safe and the guy is the bad guy.

    Am I totally wrong? I won’t be surprised if I am. :)

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    • says

      I don’t think it’s even necessary to be non-moral; they can just have a different view of morality, or different values. “Distasteful” probably IS the right description in most cases, although there are definitely antihero characters who do shady/immoral things, usually in an attempt to uphold or save something greater.

      It could also be the case that the character has a different moral code. (Good) villains believe what they’re doing is right. Tell the story from their perspective and you’ve got an antihero protagonist more often than not.

      Antiheroes can also just be characters who are unlikeable (or would be if you knew them in real life), even if they’re relatively moral.

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  5. says

    My favorite is Snape from J.K. Rowling’s HARRY POTTER. Throughout the series, you picture Snape as this evil character who has it out for Harry. You hate him and want to see his demise. But then at the end, it turns out that everything Snape did, he did to protect Harry. And he loses his life because of it. My entire view on him changed in that instant. That is what I picture an anti-hero to be.

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  6. says

    Reverend Calving Artury … a faith-healer, pastor, televangelist. Charming and charismatic, he created the largest religious TV audience in the world, surpassing the income and followers of Oral Roberts and the Reverend Billy Graham combined. As much as he embraced society’s elite, he also opened his arms to the poor and the destitute, feeding them with the hopes of a bountiful life and an eternity with Jesus.

    Calvin was a devout advocate of scare ’em to death religion. Even the church walls pulsated with fear and trembling. Yet, despite his cunning and talented use of fear, the congregation esteemed him. With immense affection, everyone called him Reverend.

    His church overflowed with believable testimonies. But Calvin was his own best publicist, exuding unbridled hope and ceaseless energy. When he mixed his North Carolina heritage and shining eyes with his down-home preaching style and proclaimed faith; it transformed multitudes of Americans from visitors into full-fledged House of Praise members. Rich and poor, young and old, red and yellow, black and white–it seemed he had the whole wide world in his hands.

    Okay … I made him up, but he’s still my favorite anti-hero. He’s layered with everthing that makes up an anti-hero.

    Thanks for this post, because I’ve just found the best word for him.

    You can read his story in Televenge. Pub. date, Oct. 2012.

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  7. says

    Anti-heroes can do things the hero could never get away with– and they are great catalysts for conflict. I love them for of their imperfections, their tortured personas, and ability to act decisively under duress.

    Snape is definitely high on my list– so is Jamie and Tyrion Lannister (GOT), Merlin, Cleopatra, Haymitch, even Gollum (lol.)

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  8. says

    I love a sexy anti-hero. Karen Robards has just unleashed a great one on the romance world in The Last Victim.

    He’s a serial killer, and he’s dead. Can’t get much less yummy than that, and yet …

    Thanks for the thought-provoking post. I vow to view my future heroes through this lense to make them more interesting.

    Cathryn
    http://www.cathryncade.com

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  9. says

    I like Stieg Larsson’s Lisbeth Salander. Complex and dark, you never know if she’s going to do the right thing for the right reasons, or the wrong thing, due to her twisted view of the world.

    She was written brilliantly – we don’t know much about her, but we do know is riveting, and he keeps us on the edge, the whole book, wanting to know more.

    Masterful.

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  10. says

    My favorite was Thomas Covenant. This character steadfastly refused to believe he was a hero. He even refused to believe the world around him was real — until the end.

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  11. says

    Mythic Scribes, huh? Looks pretty cool! I’m a fan of the anti-hero character myself, but you have to be careful. While not as cliche as the comic book characters in tights, I see a lot of people drifting towards their own cliches with antiheroes.

    It’s tough to pick a favorite. Miriam Black from Chuck Wendig’s Blackbirds is pretty good. If you haven’t read that one yet, check it out!

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  12. says

    Loooots of anti-heroes in Battlestar Galactica. (The 2004 remake. It’s my shining example of complexity and richness and variety in “strong” characters.) Great post, and as others have said, great food for thought. Thank you!

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  13. says

    Thanks everyone for the kind words. Bronson asked the following:

    “At what point would you say a character crosses the line from anti-hero to flat-out villain?”

    I would say that this happens when we, as the readers, lose our connection to the character.

    One of the things that sets apart an antihero from a villain is that the antihero is driven by a motivation that we can sympathize with or even support. But if that motivation changes to something less appealing, we lose that connection. This can also happen if the difficult circumstances that forged the antihero go away, and the character continues to act in a way that is morally unacceptable.

    I’ll use the current season of Breaking Bad as an example:

    Walt originally decided to make meth because he was dying of cancer, and he was going to leave his family financially destitute. He needed money to pay for his medical bills, and to keep his wife and children from losing their home.

    Because we could sympathize with his motivation, Walter White became an antihero. We even kind-of rooted for him to succeed in his crazy law-breaking enterprise.

    * SPOILER ALERT *
    But when the cancer went away, and Walt continued to make meth, he became less sympathetic. Still, we could identify with a guy who wanted to make things better for his family. But then Walt became consumed by a lust for power, and more or less stopped caring about his family. He chose “the empire” over being a husband and father. At that point our sympathetic connection with Walt is severed, except for the memories of who he used to be. Now the man is a villain, pure and simple.

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  14. says

    Great post. I tend to love the antihero much more often and more easily than I do the good guy. For me it’s because of the complexity of their (more often than not) angst ridden personalities and the fact that I tend to recognise aspects of myself in them. My favourite antihero is Riddick. Although he’s a serial killer, there’s just something about him that holds me. Again I think it’s because his character is so like me and and it feels like there’s one person in the world (yeah I know he’s fictional but hey) who knows what it’s like to be me and feel as I feel. He’s like a big brother and I feel less alone in the world.

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  15. Naomi says

    Great article! I’m pretty sure my favorite antihero is Damon Salvatore from the Vampire Diaries. His actions are always very decisive and in the interest of saving the people he cares about. Compelling character for sure!
    This definitely expands my ideas and thoughts for writing!

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Trackbacks

  1. […] Few character premises are more interesting and complex than the antihero. The concept has been around as long as Shakespeare, as is evident when looking at the main character in “Macbeth.”   Constructing an interesting antihero can be a great addition to stories and novels. Their complexity can make other characters seem dull, and maybe even annoying.  […]

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  2. […] Few character premises are more interesting and complex than the antihero. The concept has been around as long as Shakespeare, as is evident when looking at the main character in “Macbeth.”   Constructing an interesting antihero can be a great addition to stories and novels. Their complexity can make other characters seem dull, and maybe even annoying.  […]

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