Five Tips For Writing Antiheroes

I know this much about myself: I’m WAY better at writing than I am at public speaking.

So when I heard about a public speaking course for authors at the Highlights Foundation back in May, I jumped on it. The 4-5 days of intensive workshopping ended in an assignment: we had to take what we learned, choose a topic related to our books, and talk about it for one hour to students at schools nearby.

I chose to present on my favorite character trope: ANTIHEROES!

What is an antihero, exactly? The term is defined as the central character of a work who doesn’t have the typical qualities you’d expect of a hero. When we think of heroes, we think of things like courage, integrity, honesty, kindness, and compassion, right? The hero almost always does the right thing, and when they mess up, they learn from that and grow.

But an antihero is more of a wild card. They have human qualities: they can be afraid, angry, vengeful, paranoid, unsure of themselves, greedy, and so on. They make bad choices (sometimes knowingly) and often cross lines of morality to achieve their goal. They are unreliable and keep us guessing, because we never really know what they’re going to do next. They aren’t bound by the laws of fairness and morality that govern most other people in the story.

Here are five things I’ve learned about writing one of these tricky characters:

 

(1) Know them inside and out. The antihero trope, as a rule, tends to test the boundaries of readers’ patience. I’ve noticed that female antiheroes, in particular, are often called “unlikable.”

Sculpting a consistent, clear-cut character helps offset this.

When writing an antihero, it’s worth spending time sketching their arc and getting to know it intimately. Every choice they make and every line they utter must fit them perfectly; everything they do and say should make sense for who they are and what they want.

Readers can smell inconsistency from a mile away. Because antiheroes already push the unsympathetic envelope, you don’t want to give people another reason not to root for your character.

 

(2) Write someone readers can at least understand, even if they won’t like them. Listen. I adore good-hearted heroes and cinnamon rolls too pure for this world as much as the next person. I love reading and writing them because I can wholeheartedly support them. But who do I often find the most compelling? The characters who frighten me a little, who get me thinking.

Let’s dive into this. What’s the difference between an antihero and a villain? It’s all in the context of the story and how it frames the character. A villain is presented as ALL evil, with flat motivations that typically involve defeating the hero, just because, or craving wealth and power, just because.

But a villain can be rewritten as an antihero if you give them redeeming qualities and an urge the audience understands. What drives them? Are they seeking vengeance for past wrongs? Do they hunger to prove themselves? Do they want to protect someone they care about? Give them human weaknesses and clear, solid reasons for going after their goal.

 

(3) They must have some redeeming quality. Building on point #2 above, your character has to have something redeeming about them or they will fall squarely into Flat Villain Territory. And that’s just boring. There, I said it: Characters who are wholly bad are a snoozefest.

BUT when you make them human and give them flaws readers can understand, that’s where you create a dilemma for the reader: “I hate this character, but what they want does kind of make sense” or “I love this character, even though they’re doing bad things!” The books I like best, the stories that stay with me, always have one thing in common: they make me feel something. So make your readers feel something for that antihero of yours.

Maybe the character is:

  • seeking revenge because someone they love was hurt
  • craving power because they think it’ll help them build a better world (even if their idea of a better world is morally twisted)
  • trying to protect a cause they care deeply about
  • genuinely wanting to do the right thing and make the right choices, but go about it in the wrong way

 

(4) Give them agency. Characters can most definitely be driven by outside forces they can’t control: a prophecy, the state of the world, an enemy, a family tragedy.

But it must be clear that the choices they make throughout the story are their own active decisions. Otherwise, they are merely victims of circumstance, and that’s just not as compelling to me.

A character who goes limp and lets themselves be carried along the current of fate does not feel as strong as one who fights like hell against that current or – OR! – swims faster to get to where that current is taking them, because they’ve embraced the end-goal. Your mileage may vary, of course! But personally, it feels like a let-down whenever I’m promised an antihero, in any storytelling medium, and all I get is a truly good character who is merely unlucky and misunderstood.

I want my antiheroes to have their eyes wide open. I want them standing at a crossroads and consciously deciding which path to take. I want someone who sees the darkness ahead, yet plunges in anyway because of whatever need or ambition is driving them.

Antiheroes must know what they are doing, and they must do it unapologetically.

 

(5) Be all in. Wishy-washy characters are not fun. I also strongly believe that determination and willfulness make characters more sympathetic. Whenever I see them striving for something with all their soul, I tend to root for them more, no matter what it is they want or how they achieve it.

An antihero should be forceful and decisive. They can certainly regret their choices and realize that they’re wrong, but if you’re going to promise readers an antihero who dances along the edge of darkness, it will be more meaningful if they choose to go all the way in as the story progresses. If your character’s arc spirals downward, take them ALL the way down… no apologies.

 

Who are some of your favorite antiheroes in books, TV, and/or movies? What about them do you like? What do you hate?

4 Responses to Five Tips For Writing Antiheroes

  1. Marc Vun Kannon Oct 16 2017 at 12:59 pm #

    These ideas are perhaps necessary, but not sufficient. The Kingpin in the first season of Daredevil satisfies all these criteria, but no one would think of him as any stripe of hero.

    • Jules
      Jules Oct 16 2017 at 1:15 pm #

      Thanks for your opinion. This isn’t meant to be a comprehensive tutorial, but rather a few things I’ve learned in writing a main character who isn’t classified as a typical hero.

  2. Jammi Oct 16 2017 at 1:59 pm #

    “The Kingpin in the first season of Daredevil satisfies all these criteria, but no one would think of him as any stripe of hero.”

    I agree up to a point, but I think it also comes down to POV. He wasn’t positioned as a hero and we never got a deeper dive into his mind. We saw everything from Matt’s POV so The KingPin is always presented as a villain.

    I think Frank Castle hits most of the criteria listed but he’s clearly an anti-hero instead of a if only because that’s how they set out to write him. Once you get a deeper look at the character that is what shifts the lens from him being a potentially sympathetic villain to someone you want to cheer for.

    I don’t think The KingPin received the same level of humanization that Frank Castle did (his family, helping the dog, etc.) even though we do see him be just as vicious.

    Thanks for sharing this, Jules!

    • Jules
      Jules Oct 16 2017 at 8:05 pm #

      Totally my pleasure, Jammi! And thanks for reading the post and weighing in. The focal point of my post was definitely main characters who aren’t typical heroes, as I clearly defined above, and completely agreed, the KingPin is a supervillain and not a protagonist in the framework of that show (and in the movie too).

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