Therese 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.
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?
Photo courtesy Flickr’s cambiodefractal