I don’t watch much TV. In fact, I binge on one show per year on Netflix, maybe two if it’s a good year in television, but that’s about it. (There are just too many good books to read.) But recently I’ve become addicted to the political thriller House of Cards and the indomitable Frank Underwood. With each episode, I find myself absolutely gripped—both fascinated and horrified by this character. I wait with bated breath for his next brilliant comment, his crocodile smile, and the twist of his knife in someone’s back. Another superb detail I adore is that Frank is from a small town in Georgia, so his lilting accent and charm almost make you believe he’s a gentleman. Almost.
Frank Underwood got me to thinking. What’s so great about him? He is egotistical, driven, conniving, adulterous—even murderous, yet he’s an amazing orator, a statesman with manipulative skills that are unparalleled, and above all, powerful. Also? He loves his wife. Though his needs are often first and foremost, he truly loves his wife and it shows. Frank isn’t the only anti-hero that has drawn my attention in recent months. I’ve really locked on to them in the last year. But why?
In search of an answer, I skimmed my myriad of bookshelves (Yes, I’m a print girl, despite my smart phone, fancy computer, and e-reader device. The experience of reading a la device just isn’t the same for me. I like to stroke the book covers and…I digress.). So I skimmed my books, looking for these dark characters and after I had gathered a few, I analyzed what made them so dadgum fun to read. This is what I discovered:
Traits that make a Devious, Yet Delectable Anti-Hero:
- Complex Motives: Let’s face it, we love complicated. It’s just a heck of a lot more interesting than simple, or plain. An anti-hero’s motives are typically tied up with a scarring past that sets them on a path of self-protection at all costs, revenge, or, occasionally helping the underdog to take down the big bad conglomeration, or human trafficker, or baddy that’s the ruling power.
- Contradictions: We’re all paradoxical beings, therefore I believe every character should exhibit shades of ambiguity, but anti-heroes have the corner of the market on contradictions. Internal conflict to the extreme is what drives their emotions, beliefs, and impulses. This is a big part of what make them so utterly fascinating.
- Intimacy issues: These also derive from a crippling hurt in a character’s past, and are, therefore, tied up with motives. This isn’t so different from writing a classic protagonist, except that once again the issues must be edgier and more intensified for the character to classify as an anti-hero. Remember that you want to make your readers YEARN to understand the character, to feel for them, pity them. This is HUGE, the pity piece. If we don’t have some sense of compassion for the anti-hero, then they’re poorly crafted…or they may be set up too much like an antagonist—the bad guy we hope will be conquered. (A note of caution: Be careful with crafting your antagonists vs. anti-heroes. An anti-hero is “good” at their core and there is always a line they will never cross.)
- A “Good” Sidekick: Whether this person is a sibling, lover, business partner, or beloved pet, many, many writers weave in someone who believes in the anti-hero, or cares about them. This sidekick may act as a mirror, which is a perfect device to help show the anti-hero’s arc. Take Frank Underwood. One of the main reasons you like the guy is because his beautiful wife Claire stands behind him, even when she knows he’s done something completely off-the-charts WRONG. It helps you forgive him a little and gives you hope that we’ll see more of the man she fell in love with.
- Character Traits that shock us: These traits could range from “isms” like racism, sexism, and ageism to hack sawing murderers, and sucking human blood. We love to feel shocked and outraged by these flaws—but ONLY if the character wrestles with them, and ONLY if they change over time. Which brings me to my next point.
An anti-hero is a character who views morality as a hindrance to their goals. At times, their actions can be as hideous as an antagonist, but what enables us to forgive their misdeeds is to witness their STRUGGLE TO CHANGE. This struggle is what each one of us can relate to, regardless of wealth, position, or stature. It’s the sliver of humanity and remorse, the glimmer of something GOOD inside this anti-hero that makes the reader root for them. If the anti-hero wrestles against his faults, we want to him to succeed in his goals so that he may have REDEMPTION. This is the key to the entire story arc in novels with anti-heroes.
A Note on Women as Anti-heroes
I also noticed in my stack of books that there are very few female anti-heroes. There are loads of males in all varying degrees of complexity with their sketchy morals and profound depth of character. But where are all the ladies? I think there are two problems here. For one, our moral fabric as a society wants us to believe that women, givers and nurturers of life, are essentially good and unable to commit amoral acts. But there’s another reason that overshadows the first: Gender bias. Strong or complex women only get two roles, both of which put them in the antagonist category. They’re portrayed as either femmes fatales—total freak show hellions with weapons—or bitchy, stoic creatures who wear spike heels, hate children, and eat men for breakfast. And apparently the only way to soften them is to turn them into victims of rape or abuse? (YAWNS. I’m so over this plot thread, by the way.)
Where are all the female anti-heroes? Doesn’t every heterosexual male on the planet complain about how complicated women are? Then why aren’t they portrayed as such in novels? Why can’t we write stories with morally ambiguous women? Perhaps we do, but they aren’t picked up by pubs, or maybe they just don’t sell well. Maybe there’s too much bias that exists. Filmmakers take on a female anti-hero a bit more often—just a bit. Like Notes on a Scandal, an incredible film starring Cate Blanchett and Judi Dench, in which Cate plays a school teacher sleeping with a fifteen year old student. A novel that comes to mind is A RELIABLE WIFE by Robert Goolrick. Catherine Land wants to be free of her husband and slowly poisons him, yet she struggles with her feelings and her own morality. You could argue Amy Dunne from GONE GIRL is one as well, though I’d more likely throw her in the antagonist, femme fatale category. But once again I digress…
Despite gender, remember the most important piece to writing solid, believable anti-heroes is to layer them, complicate them, give them flaws and tics that push the boundaries of what we believe is right and wrong. And above all illustrate their STRUGGLE and growth so we can cheer them on as they seek REDEMPTION.
I’d love to hear from you! Who is your favorite anti-hero? Are there any women anti-heroes you love? Which character traits repelled you? Which did you identify with?