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.