Creating believable characters (and a believable anti-hero) requires much diligence by the writer.
Listing questions to define traits of a character are common in writing courses and craft books focused on character development. These questions are meant to inspire the writer to provide depth to their characters through backstory, motivations, internal and external goals.
Unsurprisingly, the most believable characters tend to be those who have relatable flaws, because just like the imagined beings on the page, the reader is rarely perfect.
For this reason, the anti-hero is a popular character type in both film and fiction.
What is an anti-hero (no bad guys here!)
Differentiating an anti-hero from an antagonist is important if the writer wants the reader to cheer for their flawed hero.
Unlike an antagonist who is traditionally thought of as “the bad guy”, the one who acts to prevent the protagonist or hero of the story from reaching their goals, the anti-hero is the one who acts with good intentions, albeit with a flawed moral compass.
Actor Bryan Cranston perfected the form of the anti-hero in both his infamous character Walter White from Breaking Bad and his more recent character of Judge Michael Desiato in the Showtime series Your Honor.
Both characters make decisions lacking morality and legality in attempts to protect their family.
Actor Kevin Costner also shows a strong anti-hero in his portrayal of John Dutton in the Paramount series, Yellowstone.
Dutton looks like a traditional hero whose driving goal is to protect his family’s legacy, until audience members discover what going to the “train station” means. Dutton proves he will use any means necessary, including murder, to protect what he believes is most important to his family and ranch.
So then, what makes an antagonist, if the anti-hero’s methods can be villainous?
While these characters can be mistaken for the other’s role, the anti-hero reveals qualities that make most readers cheer for them at some point in the story.
The antagonist, however, reveals very few if any, reasons to root for their success at any point in the story.
How to Write an Anti-hero
As illustrated above, the redeemable quality of the anti-hero is where appeal for this type of character lies.
Most readers feel their own flaws, no matter how consciously or unconsciously.
In reading a character who can be conflicted at times, we find a relatable figure. We also find compassion if we choose to root for our anti-hero and that compassion is a less sung reason to be engaged in a story.
The anti-hero must have an edge or quality that is in direct contrast with the qualities of a traditional hero.
If traditional characters are:
- Loyal, and;
Writers might begin with writing their anti-hero as being:
- Treacherous, and;
Once the writer decides the traits of the anti-hero, they can begin to form the story around that the character arc of a traditional hero.
Find more information on character arcs here https://fictionary.co/journal/what-is-a-character-arc/
Writing a character with these nontraditional hero traits allows the writer to create interesting and unlikely heroes, however these heroes can also be used in a metaphoric way to represent the flaws of a society or human nature in general.
When forming these characters to represent a wider world view, the writer must have a deep understanding of how the character will change over the course of the novel.
For more information on where a character arc begins and ends, read Kristina Stanley’s article here, https://fictionary.co/journal/character-arc-where-it-begins-and-ends/
Examples of Anti-Heroes from Literature
Whether your reading tastes fit in the contemporary or classic, the anti-hero has been disrupting the traditional view of a hero for generations. Consider some of the examples of anti-heroes below:
Ebenezer Scrooge in A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens
While Scrooge spends most of the novel indulging his greedy nature, he is shown to be a hero at the end of the story when he makes choices that serve and give to others.
Severus Snape in The Harry Potter Series by J.K. Rowling
Snape appears to be “the bad guy” for most of the Harry Potter books, but readers discover his motivations and actions throughout the series stem from his endless love for Harry’s mother.
Tyler Durden in Fight Club by Chuck Palahniuk
Tyler Durden spends the duration of Palahniuk’s novel encouraging Jack to find his freedom and true nature through methods that at first seem likely to destroy the Jack.
Gollum in The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien
Gollum fights his own greed, and while he is mostly dishonest and disloyal, the loyal servant that resides inside him surfaces at times to reveal his true nature.
Rachel in The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins
Rachel spends most of the novel trying to hide her alcoholism by lying throughout the story, but her intentions are honorable in wanting to find the truth of a murder and her motivations stemming from trauma in her past make her a sympathetic character in the end.
The anti-hero in literature does not always show traits we want to cheer for in the beginning of a story. But readers can find a loveable, if not sympathetic character, in the anti-heroes we write.
Article Written by Heather Wood
By combining my experience of teaching writing at the secondary level with a Fictionary StoryCoach Edit, I will help you strengthen your story while honoring the care and effort you have dedicated to your art.
Angela Ackerman Presents the One Stop Thesaurus Database to The Fictionary Community
Ready to level up your descriptions and write powerful stories?
That’s good, because we’ve got the incredible Angela Ackerman coming in to give us a tour of the One Stop For Writers Thesaurus Database.
If you haven’t heard of Angela (or One Stop):
- Where have you been?
- She and Becca Puglisi have an entire series of thesauri dedicated to helping writers tell better stories (luckily I have them on my Kindle, otherwise they would’ve fallen to bits due to extremely frequent use).
- You’re in for a treat!