What American Horror Story Taught Me About Anti-Heroes

Every time I search Netflix, Hulu, or primetime TV for a new show to watch, I’m convinced that anti-heroes are taking over the world. Breaking Bad, Sons of Anarchy, the Sopranos, Nurse Jackie, Dexter—all popular shows with a less-than-traditional protagonist. The anti-hero seems to be here to stay, so as writers, we should know how to identify and write them. Kathy Edens is here with some tips on how to do just that.

Protagonists of yore were inherently good, and villains were bad through and through. Remember Dudley Do-Right, Canadian Mountie, who was constantly rescuing the damsel in distress from the purely evil Snidely Whiplash?

For today’s readers, though, the hero can be too predictably good. We want characters designed after real-life people. We want to see that they have both dark and light inside, and that they’re not always the good guy.

Differences Between an Anti-hero and a Hero

An anti-hero is a much more nuanced protagonist with faults, foibles, and a dark side that goes against the grain of societal norms, morals, or just plain kindness. Anti-heroes are always deeply flawed. With contradictory traits, they are crafted after real people, unlike a hero who is sometimes too good to be true.

On the flip side, the classic hero is the main character who embodies the notion of “good.” A hero has exemplary morals and never veers from that code. While her may experience failures throughout the story, he will always overcome evil in the end. Consider Hercules as the manifestation of a hero.

To fully appreciate the anti-hero protagonist, it’s helpful to examine one in action. This is where American Horror Story’s third season, “Coven,” comes in. If you haven’t seen it yet, it’s full of witches, voodoo, and racism. These people are, for the most part, evil. But we’re meant to see them in a sympathetic light based on their past and a little light of hope we see inside them.

The main character, Fiona, is a supreme witch. She’s in charge of the coven, but she got to this exalted position through some very nefarious means. As you follow Fiona through the episodes, you see her as conniving and manipulative. And that is juxtaposed with scenes of incredible compassion and warmth, such as when she brings a stillborn baby back to life in the arms of its distraught mother.

The interesting thing about Fiona is that she’s aging and we find out she’s riddled with cancer. As the cancer eats away her body, what little bit that was good inside her gets eaten, too. By the end, you’re rooting for her demise.

The suspense is high in American Horror Story Coven as all of the witches use their incredible powers for good and evil. People are killed, then brought back to life, and there is a civil war between the voodoo priestess and the coven, not to mention an evil racist who tortured blacks in the time of slavery. It’s some pretty heady anti-hero stuff. Just when you start to think they have some redeeming qualities, someone else dies, and you realize they’re only in it for themselves. The beauty of Coven is that you don’t know until the end which anti-heroes have redeeming qualities and which are purely evil.


How To Create Three-Dimensional Anti-Heroes

An anti-hero is not simply a person with some major faults. There’s pathos involved, maybe a little psychosis, and usually a self-concept that is inflated and complicated. When you create your anti-hero, consider that they’re usually:

  • Not very good role models. We wouldn’t want to be like the witches in Coven (though sometimes it would be fun to kick butt like they do).
  • Somewhat selfish but can display good traits now and then.
  • Mainly motivated by self-interest. They do whatever it takes, sometimes crossing lines that others wouldn’t dare.
  • Motivated by conflicting emotions. One minute they’re intent on revenge and the next they’re doing something honorable.
  • More inclined to choose a wrong action because it gets them what they want quicker.
  • Display compassion for the underdogs, children, or weak and infirm characters.
  • They don’t apologize for their bad behaviors.
  • Chock full of contradictions.

One caveat when creating your anti-hero: he or she doesn’t always have to be redeemed by the final page. Some anti-heroes, while showing streaks of compassion and caring, are still damaged people at the end of a story. They’re characters we love to hate.

So watch American Horror Story to get an idea of carefully crafted anti-heroes. Or better yet, watch the movie Suicide Squad. Even Homer Simpson is a fully-realized anti-hero. Pay attention to how other successful writers create an anti-hero, and then let your imagination go to town.

Who are your favorite anti-heroes? Let us know in the comments below who your favorite anti-heroes are. Let’s start a resource list of great examples that we can refer to and learn from.


Kathy Edens is a staff writer at ProWritingAid.com, the most comprehensive editing tool that helps you polish and sharpen your writing through readability analyses and technical edits reviews. Check out the free online editing tool that turns your good writing into great content.


Becca Puglisi is an international speaker, writing coach, and bestselling author of The Emotion Thesaurus and its sequels. Her books are available in five languages, are sourced by US universities, and are used by novelists, screenwriters, editors, and psychologists around the world. She is passionate about learning and sharing her knowledge with others through her Writers Helping Writers blog and via One Stop For Writers—a powerhouse online library created to help writers elevate their storytelling. You can find Becca online at both of these spots, as well as on Facebook and Twitter.
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21 Responses to What American Horror Story Taught Me About Anti-Heroes

  1. Pingback: Top Picks Thursday! For Writers & Readers 06-01-2017 | The Author Chronicles

  2. Dylan says:

    An anti-hero that I know of is Deadpool from marvel comics. In one issue he stopped a girl from committing suicide off the top of a building by talking to her about his problems.

    • Kathy Edens says:

      Hey, Dylan.

      Deadpool is a fantastic example of an anti-hero.

      Isn’t Ryan Reynolds a perfect Deadpool? Can’t wait to see the next movie.

  3. I am working on my first novel, a historical mystery. My protagonist, Rusty, is a madam of her parlor house in a Nevada mining camp, in 1871. She is trained indirectly by a friend who is a Pinkerton detective and she is out to solve a murder that happened in her parlor house. She is definitely an antihero due to her backstory and current lifestyle. Since it is my first novel, I hope I can do her justice.

    • Kathy Edens says:

      Hi, Rebecca.

      Your protagonist sounds interesting. I’ll bet she’s fun to write.

      Will she be redeemed at the end? Or will she continue being a madam / detective for future novels in a series?

      Let us know how it goes.

      • I am considering a series. If I succeed, she will have much confliction and remain a madam detective for further stories. Thank you for the nice words of encouragement.

  4. Natalie Shannon says:

    You want to see an amazing (IMHO) anti-hero? Read The Walking Dead and watch The Walking Dead for Negan! Especially the latest comic issues. That man is a paradox! (Someone should do a writing series on Negan!) The man has contradictory traits: He hates rape, but thinks nothing of bashing people’s heads in with a bat if they don’t give him half their stuff. He hates rape, but has lots of “wives” and if the “wives” “cheat” on him, he burns the man’s face with an iron. Seriously, I don’t get him at all. He is not a straight up villain (IMHO) Jefferey Dean Morgan (actor who plays him) does not say he is a villain. You look up “anti-hero” in the dictionary and you see Negan’s picture.

    • Kathy Edens says:

      Hi, Natalie. Great comment. And great example.

      I’ll have to read it. I’m always looking for new anti-heroes to follow.

      Thanks for the suggestion.

  5. Susan Haught says:

    Great post! I always thought I had a bit of a screw loose when I “feel” for the bad guy! One that comes to mind is Joe Caroll in The Following. OMG–he’s charismatic, intelligent, and a psychotic serial killer who has a weird connection with FBI agent Ryan Hardy, and dang it, I CRIED at the series finale for him. WHO DOES THAT??? You do when the character is so well written and acted that you can’t help but “feel”.

    Another that comes quickly to mind is James Keziah Delaney of Taboo (set in 1814). He’ll stop at nothing (some scenes are pretty gruesome) to get what he wants, he’s intelligent and conniving, yet his soft side comes to light with a kid and whores, and he blackmailed a gay man, but ultimately saves him from death. Delaney’s signature line is “I have a use for you.” Chilling, but BRILLIANT!

    • Kathy Edens says:

      Hi, Susan.

      I used to wonder about my sanity that I could “feel” for an anti-hero. But when they’re really well-done, I find them more compelling than a traditional protagonist. I don’t want to become engaged with them, but I just can’t help myself.

      I’m going to read Joe Caroll and JamesKeziah. Thanks for the suggestion. I love finding new anti-heroes.

      • Kathy Edens says:

        Hey, Susan. I just found out both of your suggestions weren’t in book form first. I’ll have to watch the series.

        Thanks again for the suggestion.

  6. Sarah says:

    Anti-heroes are some of my favorite characters in novels (and film). They are so rich, layered, and fun to read about whether we love them or hate them. 🙂 Great post!

  7. A great article–I love a strong anti-hero. I think the fact that they either take a long road to redemption or they don’t quite get there despite a see-saw of opportunities for growth is why Anti-heroes work so well in series both in TV and books. One of my favorite anti-heroes is House. Thanks Kathy!

    • Kathy Edens says:

      Hi, Angela. Thanks for commenting.

      I forgot about House. Excellent example!! One of my favorites, too.

      I like that anti-heroes either make us love them or hate them (sometimes both). We just keep hoping they’ll somehow redeem themselves at the end.

      • Joe Long says:

        And House is modeled after Sherlock Holmes, and I very much enjoy Holmes’ portrayal on “Elementary.” He’s very analytical and doesn’t see need for emotions. He wants to help people but doesn’t care about their feelings. Sometimes though it seems that he’s helping people to prove that he’s capable of it.

        My protagonist starts off very flawed and does some things that might make you cringe. By the end he’s made much progress in his social and emotional maturity. He’s started his proper journey, no longer held back by “The Lie”. And he learns forgiveness.

        • Kathy Edens says:

          Hi, Joe.

          It sounds like your protagonist is going to be very compelling and engaging. We love to see a bad boy or girl reform, don’t we?

          Good luck with your story!

          • Joe Long says:


            The protagonist sets off on a positive arc, while the love interest (when he finally does find love it’s in the ‘wrong’ place) end up on a negative arc as their relationship pulls her down. Can they, individually and as a couple, survive the consequences?

  8. Thanks so much for sharing this, Kathy. Anti-heroes are so popular; it’s a good idea to know how to write them well, and studying them is the best way, imo, to figure them out. When it comes to my favorite anti-heroes, I think Michael Corleone (The Godfather) tops the list. So complex.

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