In this blog post (and video), we shall discuss ten ways on how to create the ultimate anti-hero. We shall look at traits to make your protagonist complex and engaging, whilst also not such a good guy.
The Difference Between A Hero And An Anti-Hero
When considering how to write an anti-hero, writers should bear in mind that it is not oh so dissimilar to creating more traditional heroes/central protagonists. In the video on how to create the ultimate protagonist, we discussed nine tips on how to do so. And these were:
- Give the main character a goal and a reason for it;
- Decide the main character’s endpoint;
- Decide the main character’s beginning;
- Create a story-arc for the main character;
- Give the main character a blend of positive and negative traits;
- Give the main character a flaw;
- Make the main character internally conflicted;
- Decide the age, gender and status of the main character; and
- Give the main character a backstory.
All of these remain true for the anti-hero with one exception: their blend of positive and negative traits. Generally speaking, when writing more traditional protagonists, writers give their central protagonists a variety of ‘stereotypically positive traits,’ including: being kind, honourable, funny, intelligent and loyal, to name a handful of many. These help to make the main character likeable in the audience’s eyes. (While their flaws and internal conflicts make them human and empathetic. This way, the audience can root for them.)
However, writers do not necessarily need to give their central protagonists stereotypically positive traits to make them engaging and multi-faceted. Some brave writers have created compelling main characters with stereotypically negative traits, as we shall now discuss:
1 – Make Him A Liar
The first of the ten ways on how to create the ultimate anti-hero is make him a liar. Par for the course is to make him lie to friend and foe, alike.
Lying is what makes him dishonourable at his core. More pertinently for the plot, it gives him the element of unpredictability. This keeps the audience guessing as to what he will do next.
Example 1 – Lyra Silvertongue
In His Dark Materials trilogy, Philip Pullman’s main character, Lyra Silvertongue, lies at every turn on her adventure to find her missing friend, Roger. Indeed, her skills at deceit are among her best traits (it’s virtually in her surname for goodness sakes!). Her lies and deceit enable her to get out of a lot of tricky situations, which makes the audience admire her in an unsettling way.
Yet, Lyra is not just a liar, or else the audience would not root for her. She is also oddly loyal to her friends, daring, and very intelligent. This makes her character intriguing and keeps the audience guessing as to what she will do next.
Example 2 – Gordon Gecko
Another character who lies constant is Gordon ‘Gordo’ Gecko (played by Michael Douglas) in 1988’s Wall Street. Throughout the movie, Gordo deceives at every turn and all for person gain. He is willing to betray even those closest to him, like his business partner, Bud (Charlie Sheen), for a quick buck.
Without doubt, Gordo acts in an utterly selfish manner. But what makes his character worth watching are his nuggets of advice and his understanding of the cut-throat, shark-like world of Wall Street trading. His famous phrase ‘Greed is good’ has become part of the lexicon of the industry, surpassed only by his ‘Greed is legal’ saying in the 2010 sequel, Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps.
2 – Make Him Angry
Anger is, generally-speaking, a negative human trait and not a pleasant one either. Often, anger is seen as a highly-destructive characteristic that causes people to act against their interests.
Nevertheless, if the anger is channelled correctly, it can serve a person (semi-)well and can enable him to achieve great feats.
Example – Christopher Nolan’s Bruce Wayne/Batman
Christopher Nolan’s Bruce Wayne is an example of how anger can torment a character; yet, enable him/her to achieve extraordinary feats. In Batman Begins, Bruce Wayne is angry that his parents were shot in cold blood. (He also feels guilty for it, believing that it was indirectly his fault, which only increases his anger and anguish.)
Bruce blames Gotham’s corrupt system and the criminal underworld it has bred for the murders. Thus, he uses his anger to become Batman: to batter criminals and upset the justice system, in order to make Gotham a safer city to live in.
No matter what Bruce achieves, though, throughout The Dark Knight Trilogy, the anger never goes away. This leads him to act unpleasantly to those who care about him; notably, his butler, Alfred. While this does not make Bruce a likeable person, the audience understands him and why he behaves as he does.
3 – Make Him Bitter
The third of the ten ways to create the ultimate anti-hero is to make him bitter. Like anger, bitterness is not generally seen as an admirable or likeable characteristic. (In general, one would rather not spend time with people who are bitter, as they tend to be miserable gits.)
Nonetheless, when considering writing anti-heroes, if writers wish to make a POV character an embittered soul, they can use this characteristic to great effect.
Example – Glokta Dan Sand
Throughout Joe Abercrombie’s The First Law trilogy, Glokta is a man full of resentment and deep cynicism. Where once he was a dashing soldier, now he is a cripple who makes a living working for the Inquisition. (In other words, he ‘interrogates’ people into confession.)
Glokta is in constant pain, hates his life, and imposes his resentment and misery upon those he tortures. While one may wonder how this could make for a spellbinding character, it should be noted that Glokta is cuttingly humorous, cunning, extremely intelligent, and highly politically astute.
All of which ensures that he not only stays one step ahead of his enemies, but entraps them to get what he wants. In turn, this makes the audience want to read the next Glokta chapter.
4 – Make Him A Sociopath
The fourth of the ten ways on how to create the ultimate anti-hero is to make him a sociopath. This is because no-one, to the best of my knowledge, wants to be known as a sociopath. Indeed, nobody that I am aware of describes themselves as one either.
The term ‘sociopath’ has negative social connotations because it means that a person is incapable of feeling empathy for another living being. However, because sociopaths have no empathy for others, this enables them to succeed in an unscrupulous way that conscientious people cannot do.
Example 1 – Roland Deschain
Roland Deschain, the anti-hero of Stephen King’s epic Dark Tower saga, desires to reach the Dark Tower at all costs. He is willing to sacrifice anyone, even those he claims to love, to reach it.
In The Gunslinger, the first of seven instalments, a situation arises where Roland is forced to choose between turning around to save the boy, Jake, or getting answers from his nemesis, Walter/The Man In Black, in order to reach the tower. This is when we see Roland’s true colours as he chooses the latter and lets Jake fall to his death.
Roland’s decision sets the tone for the rest of the series. While his choice does not make him trustworthy, likeable or admirable as a person, the audience respects his drive and determination to achieve his goal.
Example 2 – Alain from Rust & Bone
Not all sociopaths, though, have a great desire to achieve a goal, like Roland does. It is plausible to have a sociopath who is just an everyday, run-of-the-mill individual, who just happens to have no empathy for others; for instance, Matthias Schoenaerts’ character (Alain) in the French 2012 drama, Rust And Bone.
Alain is a sociopath in the film. In fact, he is a scumbag, who enjoys picking fights and who cares for no-one. When he is not fighting, he treats others either indifferently or rudely. This includes his sister, who he (selfishly) decides to live with, despite her having money problems and a shortage of space in her home.
Yet, in spite of all of Alain’s anti-social traits, he has one redeeming quality: he treats Stephanie (Marion Cotillard) humanly after she suffers a horrific accident at work in which she loses both her legs. Does he do this out of love? It is doubtful due to his casual attitude towards sex, the fact that he doesn’t tell her that he has a son until quite late into their relationship, and the fact that he leaves town without bothering to tell her.
Still, the way Alain treats Stephanie shows another side of him and it revives Stephanie’s spirits, which is a joy to see. (Plus, it makes the audience think that Alain has a chance of being a better human being if he just worked on himself.)
5 – Make Him A Psychopath
The fifth of the ten ways to create the ultimate anti-hero is by making him a psychopath. If being a sociopath weren’t bad enough, being a psychopath is a wrung or two down on the badness ladder. It is incredibly difficult (in real life and in fiction/fantasy) to empathise with someone who not only feels no empathy, but who kills people with intent.
Writers have to be incredibly brave and imaginative to create a main character who is a psychopath and who is gripping enough to hold the audience’s attention. But it can be done.
Example 1 – Jorg Ancrath
Fortunately for us, the grimdark fantasy author, Mark Lawrence, has created the ultimate psychopathic character in the form of Jorg Ancrath.
Throughout The Broken Empire trilogy, Jorg leads a group of mercenaries who behave like bandits. On top of pillaging and raping, Jorg kills for sport and murders when it’s personal. He shows no remorse for any of his crimes. On the contrary, he quite enjoys what he does.
Nevertheless, despite acting constantly in a callous manner, Jorg grips the reader because he is not only darkly humorous, cunning, determined to take power, and (dangerously) skilled with a sword; but because he had a traumatic childhood that explains a lot about why Jorg is the way he is (even if that does not exonerate him from his crimes).
Thus, Jorg may be a murdering psychopath, but he is a multilayered, fully-fleshed out character. Plus, he fits into the world in which he lives in like a foot into a slipper.
Example 2 – Amy Dunne
On a lesser scale, Amy Dunne from Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl is also a psychopath. Amy has no remorse for anyone but herself. She also falsely claimed that one of her ex-boyfriend’s raped her, kills her friend (Desi), and is willing to put her husband (Nick) through hell, just to get Nick to apologise to her publicly.
While one may wonder why audiences would have reason to feel anything other than hatred for Amy, it should be borne in mind that Amy is patient and frighteningly intelligent. Moreover, she has reason to be angry with Nick because of the way he treats her. That she manages to pull off her plan and keep Nick locked into the relationship at the end of the narrative is testament to her (evil) genius. We cannot help but (grudgingly) admire her for it.
6 – Make Him An Addict
Addiction has a dreadful ring to it. People who suffer from an uncontrollable desire to drink alcohol or abuse substances tend to place their drug of choice above all else in their lives. This includes their family, their friends, and their responsibilities.
Worse, when they stop drinking, they can be unbearable to be around. While going through ‘cold turkey,’ addicts can be unpleasant or even violent due to their craving for their drug or drink. Surprise surprise, being an addict does not make for a conventional hero.
Example – Rachel from The Girl On The Train
In Paula Hawkins’ The Girl On The Train, Rachel is one of the three POV characters (and played by Emily Blunt in the film with the same name). She is an alcoholic who suffers blackouts.
At a stretch, the audience may have sympathy for Rachel as she is divorced, obsessed with her ex-husband, unemployed, and unable to have children. Arguably, the last of these points led to the breakdown of her marriage and to her descent into alcoholism.
However, Rachel also lies constantly to hide her shame about her drinking habit and her unemployment. Every day, Rachel goes on the train (hence the title of the book) in order to go to ‘work.’ One day she notices something different. This sets off a chain of events, leading her to uncover what happened. This makes her ripe for being an anti-hero (albeit a pitiful one).
7 – Make Him A Coward
Cowardice is not usually a trait one associates a hero with. Often, a hero has to be courageous to leave everything he knows to fulfil his purpose.
Yet, not every character who goes on a quest has that bravery within him. Sometimes, the (anti-)hero is forced on a quest against his wishes because of his cowardice.
Example – Prince Jalan from The Red Queen’s War Trilogy
Mark Lawrence’s Prince Jalan Kendeth in The Red Queen’s War trilogy is a coward, who spends his time drinking, gambling, and seducing women. Indeed, he would rather spend the rest of his life in decadence and debauchery than risk his life for his queenly grandmother or her kingdom. (Can you blame him?)
Nevertheless, Prince Jalan undergoes narrative redemption over the course of the novels. In the first volume, Prince of Fools, after escaping a death trap, Prince Jalan finds his fate magically intertwined with Snorri, a fierce Norse warrior. Against Prince Jalan’s will, Snorri takes him on a journey to undo the spell.
To cut a long explanation short, Prince Jalan must overcome his cowardly nature if he and Snorri are to survive. This is his path to his redemption.
8 – Make Them Paranoid
The eight of the ten ways to create the ultimate anti-hero is make him paranoid. Paranoia is defined in Dictionary.com as “a mental condition characterised by delusions of persecution, unwarranted jealousy, or exaggerated self-importance, typically elaborated into an organised system.”
It is usually viewed as irrational and a sign of a mental health disorder. Conventional heroes do not tend to suffer from such issues. But that does not mean that other, less conventional heroes cannot suffer from paranoia. Indeed, they can use it to their advantage and challenge the audience’s perception of the issue (as paranoia can get one out of all sorts of trouble).
Example – Lee Evans in Freeze Frame
In the 2004 psychological thriller, Freeze Frame, our strange anti-hero Sean Veil (played by Lee Evans) suffers from paranoia. He believes that he is being set up for a crime he did not commit by the police. Consequently, he films himself on multiple cameras, from multiple angles, to prove that he is innocent of a triple murder.
Astonishingly, as it happens, Sean is right. It is only because he suffers from paranoia, and because he films himself on so many cameras, that he is able to prove his innocence.
9 – Give Him Anxiety & Everything That Goes With It
Like paranoia, anxiety is viewed as a mental health condition, and conventional heroes don’t tend to suffer from anxiety as it is not viewed as a heroic, strong or positive characteristic. Nevertheless, you can give your anti-hero anxiety, and all the problems that come with it.
Example – Raskolnikov from Crime & Punishment
Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Crime & Punishment opens up with our anti-hero, Rodion Raskolnikov, murdering Alyona Ivanova, an old lady who owns a pawn shop. Although Raskolnikov rationalises the murder before committing it, he is racked by guilt throughout the rest of the novel and suffers from anxiety as a consequence.
Indeed, Raskolnikov’s anxiety is so bad that he faints at one point in the police station when Alyona’s name is mentioned. To some extent, the audience pities Raskolnikov. We also, though, want him to do the right thing (and confess), so that he can begin to feel better about himself.
10 – Give Him Insomnia & Everything That Goes With It
The tenth of the ten ways on how to create the ultimate anti-hero is to give him insomnia and everything that goes with it. In traditional stories, a hero’s conscience is clear. He only kills when he must. So, why would he have difficulty sleeping at night? In stories, it is only those who have done wrong who can’t sleep.
Regardless of the simplicity of this logic, if you want to make your anti-hero suffer from insomnia, the problem must have terrible knock-on effects for him. This must include mental and physical disorders that turn him into an unreliable narrator.
Example – Christian Bale in The Machinist
At the start of the film, Trevor Reznik (Christian Bale) is unhealthily thin. He has not slept in a year and suffers from hallucinations. It is abundantly clear that something is seriously wrong with him. But what is it? What is he is not telling us?
His sleep deprivations, and consequent hallucinations, drive him mad over the course of the narrative, and force him to confront something that he did; something terrible that he cannot forgive himself for.
While Trevor is not the most likeable character, he is engaging. More than anything, we are eager to find out what is he cause of his sleep deprivation.
The Four Crucial Factors In Creating An Anti-Hero
The above traits and examples illustrate that writers can create central protagonists with predominantly stereotypically negative traits that can engage the audience.
Nevertheless, if writers wish to create an anti-hero, they should bear in mind four factors in on top of the ten ways to create the ultimate anti-hero. These are that the anti-hero must:
- Invariably be a liar, so as to make him/her unreliable;
- Complex, so that the audience can empathise with him/her;
- Be given a frightening intelligence, a skill or a desire to succeed, so that the audience can admire or respect him/her; and/or
- Challenge the audience’s perceptions about a certain issue.
Who Are Your Favourite Anti-Heroes?
Thank you for reading this blog piece on ten ways on how to create the ultimate anti-hero. If you intend to create an anti-hero, I hope this article/video is useful for you and that my tips make the writing process a little easier for you as well.
Lastly, tell me, who is your favourite anti-hero in fiction and fantasy? Also, is there any trait you feel I have missed out? Please write your answers in the comments below.
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