Writing Compelling Anti-Heroes (Part II)

In the first of the two (exclusive for subscribers) blog pieces on writing compelling anti-heroes, we discussed how they were different to heroes. In addition, we looked at some of the stereotypically negative traits that make anti-heroes what they are. These included:

  • Making them liars;
  • Giving them anger;
  • Creating bitterness within them;
  • Making them a sociopath; and
  • Making them a psychopath.

In the second of the two blog posts on writing compelling anti-heroes, we will look at the rest of the characteristics (that I can think of) that differentiate these protagonists from their conventional cousins.

Make Them An Alcoholic

Alcoholism has a dreadful ring to it. People who suffer from this uncontrollable desire to drink tend to place drinking alcoholic substances above all else in life. This includes their family, their friends, and their responsibilities. Worse, when they stop drinking, they can be unbearable to be around, as alcoholics can be unpleasant or even get violent due to their craving for a drink. Surprise surprise, being an alcoholic does not make for a natural hero.

Example – Rachel from The Girl On The Train

writing compelling anti-heroes can include an alcoholic, like Rachel from The Girl on the Train
Emily Blunt, playing the alcoholic anti-hero Rachel in the film adaptation, looking out of the train and noticing that something is wrong.

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 her as Rachel 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.’ Nevertheless, one day she notices something different. This sets off a chain of events that leads her to uncover what happened and to begin the process of change within herself i.e. to go tee-total. This makes her ripe for being an anti-hero (albeit a pitiful one).

Make Them A Coward

Cowardice is not usually a trait one associates a hero with. Often, a hero has to be courageous to leave everything he/she knows to fulfil his/her purpose. Yet, not every character who goes on a quest has that bravery within them. Sometimes, the (anti-)hero is forced on a quest against his/her wishes and, thus, this is one of the characteristics writers can use when considering writing compelling anti-heroes.

Example – Prince Jalan from The Red Queen’s War Trilogy

Writing compelling anti-heroes can include a coward, like Prince Jalan
Prince Jalan, who might as well be called ‘The Coward’ or ‘The Craven,’ from Mark Lawrence’s 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 doing all of those than risk his life for his queenly grandmother or her kingdom.

But, despite his decadence and depravity, 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 his will, Snorri takes Prince Jalan on a journey to undo the spell. During their travels, Prince Jalan realises that he and Sorri are pawns in his grandmother’s game.

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.

Make Them Paranoid – Lee Evans in Freeze Frame

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.

However, in the 2004 psychological thriller, Freeze Frame, our anti-hero Sean Veil (played by Lee Evans) 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. Despite being a very strange character, Sean challenges the audience’s perceptions. He makes us think again about whether paranoia is a bad to suffer from, as it can save one from all sorts of trouble.


Like paranoia, anxiety is viewed as a mental health condition. Conventional heroes do not tend to suffer from anxiety as it is not viewed as a heroic, strong or positive characteristic. Still, that does not mean that some less conventional protagonists have not suffered from anxiety in literature and film. So, writers may want to think about adding it to a character when considering writing compelling anti-heroes.

Example 1 – 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 believes to have rationalized 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. The reader, to some extent, pities Raskolnikov and wants him to feel better about himself. It is only towards the end of the novel, when the brilliant police inspector, Porfiry Petrovich, extracts a confession from him that this happens. Ironically, when his sentence (Siberian exile) starts, Raskolnikov begins the path to redemption to the satisfaction of the reader.

Example 2 – Christian Bale in The Machinist

Christian Bale, playing the horrifically malnourished and underweight Trevor Reznik, in The Machinist.

Although Trevor Reznik (Christian Bale) suffers from insomnia rather than anxiety in the 2004 film The Machinist, he undergoes a similar story-arc to Raskolnikov occurs. At the start of the film, Trevor is unhealthily thin. What’s more, he has not slept in a year and has hallucinations.

It is clear that something is seriously wrong with him, and at the film’s climax we learn why. Trevor was involved in a hit-and-run. He killed a boy and the guilt has consumed him. Throughout the movie, Trevor’s hallucinations and mental instability worsens. He cannot bear to live with himself, with what he did. It is only at the end of the movie, when he hands himself into the police station and admits to what he has done, that he can sleep again and begin his road to (internal) salvation.

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 four factors in mind. These are:

  • The anti-hero invariably has to be a liar, so as to make him/her unreliable;
  • The anti-hero must be complex, so that the audience can empathise with him/her;
  • The anti-hero must be given a frightening intelligence, a skill or a desire to succeed, so that the audience can admire or respect him/her; and/or
  • The anti-hero must challenge the audience’s perceptions about a certain issue.

Who Are Your Favourite Anti-Heroes?

Thank you for reading these blog pieces on writing compelling anti-heroes. If you intend to create an anti-hero, I hope these articles are useful for you and make the writing process more enjoyable.

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.