Friday, February 17, 2017

Anti-Heroes: What They Are and How to Write Them

Writers like to use colors. We like to describe sunsets, mention what particular shade a character's eyes are, and use blue as a way to convey sadness. Oranges, purples, reds, yellows. We use them all to give depth to our stories.

But what about the color grey? That's one that writers either adore or shy away from. Personally, I like grey. Grey stories, dark heroes, antagonists with moral compasses. Grey always seems to lend a depth to stories, probably because it is more reflective of our world and the people who live in it.

My favorite color of grey is Anti-hero. This is a type of character that seems to confuse a lot of people, which makes sense because the very nature of an anti-hero isn't one that makes a lot of sense. Their personalities are conflicted and contradictory and almost defy categorization.
Anti-Heroes: What They Are and How to Write Them
But, because writers are so fond of naming things and putting them neatly into little boxes, they've been given the name "Anti-hero." Which works as far as the naming goes. But putting them neatly into little boxes? Yeah. Not so much.

However, for the sake of creating good characters, I'm going to go ahead and try and explain these characters. It's not going to be neat and there will be no little boxes, but at least there will be some organized chaos.

An anti-hero, put simply, is a hero that does not possess all of the usual heroic qualities. For example:

Heroes try to save the galaxy because they are courageous and care about the wellbeing of others. Anti-heroes try to save the galaxy because they're one of the idiots who lives in it.
Heroes stand up to evil, noseless wizards because it's the right thing to do. Anti-heroes stand up to evil, noseless wizards because they made a promise to try to protect a loved one and her son. Of course they never promised to be nice while doing it.
Heroes rescue kidnapped people because kidnapping is wrong (and maybe because they're in love with the kidnapped person...but that's secondary. Hopefully). Anti-heroes rescue kidnapped people because it means they might get their ship back...along with some rum.
Generally anti-heroes do the (somewhat) right thing, but for the (somewhat) wrong reasons. They usually have major flaws (selfishness, violence, cowardice, etc.) that are not very hero-like. They are aware of their unheroic-ness but, frankly my dear, they don't give a damn. They aren't in the hero business for purely altruistic reasons and they often clash with the "good guys" as well as the antagonists. They often believe that the ends justify the means, which means that they're fine with getting their hands dirty to finish a mission. Sometimes they end up turning hero by the end of the series, though this isn't always true or necessary.

Other examples of varying levels of anti-heroes are: Sherlock (from the Sherlock TV series), Wolverine, Johanna Mason, Han Solo, Rooster Cogburn, Asajj Ventress (in her later years), Cassian Andor, The Punisher, and Iron Man (in his early years).

Now, on to how to write a good one:

1. They need rules. All anti-heroes have lines they aren't willing to cross. They all have things that they consider wrong, but those things are generally few and far between. While they may be fine with killing, they don't slaughter innocents. Perhaps stealing is generally fine, but never take lollipops from children. Be as irreverent as you like, but always be respectfully of the old lady living across the street.

2. Give them complex motives. Anti-heroes aren't the type to be guilted into a job. They like to leave the saving the world business to Superman and the like. If they're going to take action, they need a reason that goes beyond, "Because it's what a good human would do" or even "It's what a normal human would do." They do things to get even, to gain money, to keep tabs on someone, to atone for past sins, or because it just looks like a lot of fun. They don't need to care about a cause to fight for it, they just need to care about what the cause can do for them. Anti-heroes can have noble intentions, they just may not know how to handle them (or even be aware that they're there).

3. They don't have to be your main character. A lot of people have the idea that the story need to be told from the anti-hero's point of view. It doesn't. Anti-heroes can work as a great foil to your main hero, so don't feel the need to show the entire story from your anti-hero's view point. You can, but you don't have to.

4. The story shouldn't suggest that their negative behavior is correct. I know a lot of writers who are willing to fight me on this, but I'm going to stand by this. Anti-heroes will have negative traits. That's okay. Real-life people have tons of negative traits. However, these traits should not be glorified or made to look "cool." They are destructive and, ultimately, harmful to the character's soul. Don't pretend otherwise.

5. Don't forget to give them good qualities. Seriously. There's no need to look at your grey character and ask:
Don't go overboard. Anti-heroes are not misunderstood villains. Remember that there's still a hero in there somewhere. Give him/her admirable qualities. A classic quality of an anti-hero is that they have plunged themselves into filth in order to keep a friend or loved one clean. Perhaps they are incredibly courageous, care deeply about those around them, or work to inspire others to keep fighting.

6. Keep them walking the line. What line, you ask? The line between hero and non-hero. They should constantly be on the edge, forced to decide what it is they are going to do: The right thing? The easy thing? They should make surprising choices. There will be times when they will let people down (including themselves). But there will also be moments where they turn around and do something incredibly...heroic.

7. They don't have to be extremely attractive. Seriously. Anti-heroes do not need to be suave, black-haired, stormy-eyed, and gorgeous. Get creative, people.

8. Give them an arc. Your anti-hero needs to have some kind of shift. They don't need to swing all the way over into knight-in-shining-armor zone, but they should at least come out of the book with a new outlook or positive trait or good deed under their belt. It's called a character arc. Everyone needs one. Don't be mean and leave your anti-hero arc-less.

My current WIP has an anti-hero, so these are all tips I've found helpful with my own writing. Do you have any tips of your own to share? I'd love to hear them! And don't forget to tell me about your favorite anti-heroes! Mine is Snape. Always.

Related Articles:
Darkness in Fiction: 7 Tips for Writing Dark Stories
6 Tips for Writing an Imposing and Complex Villain 

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  1. I love it! Super interesting and fun. You will be delighted to hear that after being enticed by all your Pirates giffs in your blogs, I finally saw the first Pirates of the Caribbean and loved it! :) Such a great Anti-hero and he isn't a bit suave. lol

    1. Yay! Glad you enjoyed the movie. Jack Sparrow is my favorite part. =)

      Thanks for the comment!

  2. Thank you for pointing out number 4!! I love anti-heroes, but hate when people idolize them (I think Snape can be a good example of that...)

    The gif in 5 is hilarious- excellent use:)

    I think another side of anti-heroes could be those who consistently do the WRONG thing for the RIGHT reasons. The Punisher could be an example of that: he wants to get rid of bad guys, so he kills them. No trial, no legal channels, just BAM.

    Hmm... some of my favorite anti-heroes would be Mr. Rochester, Ellidyr from The Black Cauldron book (you like the Chronicles of Prydain, right? I'm not sure why I think that...), Haymitch, Orual (from C.S.Lewis's Till We Have Faces), and Bartimaeus and Nathan from The Bartimaeus Trilogy. And, of course, Snape.

    1. YES! I love the Chronicles of Prydain! So excited to meet a fellow fan. It seems like there are few of us out there. =D Ellidyr is a very interesting character. I'm also excited to see that you like Till We Have Faces, as well. Good taste in books, my friend! *high five*

      I like your point about The Punisher. Thanks for the awesome input!

  3. Wow. After reading your article, I've come to the conclusion that the title character of my story (the catalyst for my protagonist's adventures) is, at least early on in the story, something of an anti-hero.

    This makes me feel oddly satisfied. ouo

    Thanks for the article! It was hilarious and informative as always! :D

    1. Also, my favorite anti-hero would probably be Kaitou KID from the manga serieses "Magic Kaito" and "Detective Conan". He's like Justice mentioned: a person who does the wrong thing for the right reason. Namely, he steals (and then promptly returns) gems in order to find the one that contains Pandora, the key to immortality--and then destroy it before some bad guys can get their hands on it.

    2. Hurrah for anti-hero title characters! My anti-hero is a secondary character, and he really makes me interested in writing an MC anti-hero. There is something really satisfying about writing an anti-hero who slowly becomes better throughout the story.

      I haven't read Magic Kaito, but I love manga so now I'm going to have to give it a shot. I just tried looking for it online and only found Japanese and French versions. Unfortunately not languages I can read or speak. =D Is it in English?

    3. This comment has been removed by the author.

    4. Yeah, anti-heroes are fun, and much more realistic than just having men in white and black hats. So many more layers to explore, so much more healing to watch. (Also, the looser morals means you get to have them do the stuff you would never do but kinda wish you could. XD)

      Yeah, sadly Magic Kaito is kind of rare to find in the U.S. It's sister series "Case Closed" (Detective Conan) is much easier to find. But I can point you in the direction of the anime adaptation of the series! (Available with subs from the legal streaming website Crunchyroll: Since the manga series is still on-going (but on hiatus) the anime ends on something of a cliff-hanger. :(
      But it's still super fun and really worth the watch! :D

  4. Another great post, Hannah! Pinning for later reference. Some of my favorite anti-heroes have to be Sherlock and basically all the members of the Leverage team.

    1. I'm not familiar with the Leverage team, but I keep hearing that they are great anti-heroes.

      Thank you for sharing!

  5. As always, a joy to read.
    I almost always find that anti-heroes are some of the most interesting characters because of how unpredictable they are. Case in point, Snape. It was darn near impossible to figure him out until we got a look at his memories after his death.
    Snape would definitely be one of my favorite anti-heroes, along with Jack Sparrow, Vegeta(From Dragonball Z), Scar(From Fullmetal Alchemist Brotherhood), Shun Kurosaki(from Yugioh Arc-V), Artemis Fowl(From the Artemis Fowl series of books), and the main cast of Leverage.

    1. I love how many anime/manga characters you listed. *high five* For whatever reason that type of fiction has a ton of really great anti-heroes.

  6. Hi Hannah,

    Fun post, great read :) My favourite anti-heroes would be Sophie and Howl from Howl's Moving Castle. It's interesting since Sophie is the main character and Howl is the main secondary character but neither one of them is a true hero in the regular sense.

    Can I throw in Bilbo Baggins? I'm pretty sure his reasons for going with the dwarves were less than pure or would you say he's more of a reluctant hero? Come to think of it, are anti-heroes and reluctant heroes different types of characters or are they simply different shades of grey? (I'm sorry, couldn't resist the bad joke). Katniss comes to mind, but she might also be a reluctant hero more than an anti-hero.

    I think there are some anti-heroes in my short stories though I wasn't thinking about it when I wrote them.

    If I could share any tip, it'd be: make them self aware. Whether they already are at the beginning of the story or as a trait they develop along the way, it makes for interesting reading to have an anti-hero that has zero delusions about their lacking sense of heroism. Their way of dealing with this could reveal a lot more about their character.

  7. Awesome! Love how you defined an anti-hero and drew the differences and similarities between a hero and an anti-hero.

  8. Great summary. I thought that was an interesting point about anti-heroes not always being the main characters. I'm reading Theft of Swords right now and technically both the main characters are anti-heroes (they're professional thieves), but the one who gets most attention feels like the more virtuous of the two – a hero at heart who is a reluctant thief by profession. His partner is definitely a clear anti-hero, and gets a little less of the spotlight, though he's still one of the protagonists. Anyway, I thought that could be an example of what you meant. Maybe. :)

    By the way... I haven't visited your blog in so many months... I miss it!! I may play catch up here if I have time. ^_^

  9. This was a fun read, Hannah. One of the two MCs in my new WIP is a former assassin-spy who takes on a young girl for magic and fighting lessons, but not because he wants to help her. Instead, he's suspicious of why she wants these lessons, because he assumes (correctly) that she isn't telling him everything. He's certainly not the most admirable character, nor the kindest (he's often abrupt and anti-social), and he's made some poor / questionable decisions in the past. But he has plenty of good qualities (resourcefulness, loyalty, self-suffiency, practicality) that will shine through during the story, too. But that sounds like an anti-hero, right?

    The only other tip I'd offer regarding writing anti-heroes is to treat them like a human being, as you would for other characters. It sort of combines your #s 1, 2, 5, 6, and 8, but we have to remember that not only do they have moral lines they won't cross, but that they likely carry emotional wounds, hurts and pains from the past that probably caused them to be who they are now. This will add another layer of depth to the character and help us understand them better by fleshing out their backstory.

    Favorite anti-hero? I don't know... Maybe Snape. Or maybe Jack Sparrow. Or maybe Kaz Brekker from Leigh Bardugo's Six of Crows novels. It's hard to choose just one. ;)

  10. Wow this is so helpful!!

  11. Extremely helpful was having a hard time with a role of one of my characters in my protagonist posse thanks for this article!!!!


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