Writing Anti-Heroes (Part I)

When writers consider writing anti-heroes, they should bear in mind that it is not oh so dissimilar to creating more traditional heroes or central protagonists. In my blog posts on how to create compelling main characters, I highlighted that writers should:

  • 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 in order to make them engaging and multi-faceted. Some brave writers have created compelling main characters with stereotypically negative traits as can be seen below:

Make Them A Liar

When writing anti-heroes, par for the course is to make them lie (to friend and foe, alike). Lying is what makes them dishonourable at their core and, more pertinently for the plot, gives them the element of unpredictability. This keeps the audience guessing as to what they will do next.

Example 1 – Lyra Silvertongue

In His Dark Materials trilogy, Philip Pulman’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 to get out of a lot of tricky situations, which makes the audience admire her in an unsettling way.

Lyra (as played by Dakota Blue Richards in The Golden Compass) is a fascinating character, but a liar at heart.

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. What’s more, Lyra’s journey throughout the trilogy teaches her a lesson about the nature of truth that changes her thinking by the end of the story. (This entails that her journey has transformed her as a person and that she is no longer the same person by the end of the story as she was at the beginning of it. Just like with conventional heroes, anti-heroes must also be a different person by the end of the narrative.)

Example 2 – Gordon Gecko

Another character who lies 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 tread on and betray even those closest to him, like his business partner, Bud (Charlie Sheen).

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.

However, unlike with Lyra vis-à-vis the truth, Gordo goes the other way. He embraces lies and deceit whole-heartedly, and ends up in jail for financial-related crimes.

Give Them Anger

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 channeled correctly, it can serve a person (semi-)well and, therefore, should be considered when writing anti-heroes. 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 society 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.

Create Bitterness Within Them

When writing anti-heroes, make them bitter and nasty like Glokta Dan Sand.
Glokta may be an embittered soul and nasty, but he is very intelligent and politically shrewd.

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 as Joe Abercrombie illustrates with Glokta Dan Sand.

Throughout 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.

Make Them A Sociopath

No-one, to 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. When writing anti-heroes, this characteristic can be a brilliant one.

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.

When writing anti-heroes, look to sociopaths like Roland for inspiration.
Roland Deschain, whose drive to reach the Dark Tower at all costs makes him a sociopath. But an admirable one that makes readers want to find out if he fulfills his ambition in the end.

Example 2 – Alain

Not all sociopaths, though, have a great desire to achieve a goal, like Roland does. When writing anti-heroes, 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. (And makes the audience think that Alain has a chance of being a better human being if he worked on himself a little more.)

Create A Psychopath

If being a sociopath is bad enough, being a psychopath is a wrung or two down on the badness ladder. It is incredibly difficult (in real life or 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.

Example 1 – Jorg Ancrath

Fortunately for us, the grimdark fantasy author, Mark Lawrence, has created such a 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 is 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 that fits into the world in which he lives in very well.

When writing anti-heroes, consider the psychopathic Jorg Ancrath from the Broken Empire Trilogy.
Possibly the biggest anti-hero of them all, Jorg Ancrath, who is an absolute psychopath. (But who is also witty and skilled.)

Example 2 – Amy Dunne

when writing anti-heroes, consider the psychopathic Amy Dunne from Gone Girl.
Amy Dunne from Gone Girl (played superbly by Rosamund Pyke in the film adaptation) is a psychopath, but also frighteningly intelligent.

On a lesser scale, Amy Dunne from Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl is also a psychopath. Amy has no remorse for anyone but herself, has falsely claimed that one of her ex-boyfriend’s raped her, is willing to put her husband (Nick) through hell, and kills her friend (Desi) all 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 genius. We cannot help but (grudgingly) admire her for it. Thus, if writers want to be writing anti-heroes in the form of psychopaths, they should look to Amy Dunne (and Jorg Ancrath above) for inspiration.

General Rules On How To Write Anti-Heroes

The rest of the noteworthy traits that are common in anti-heroes, as well as some General Rules on writing anti-heroes, will be examined in Part II.

If you have any questions, please leave them in the comments and I will get back to you as soon as possible.

Paul