Creative Writing and the Antihero

Pirates can make effective antiheroes. Especially when the rum is unexpectedly gone. (But why is the rum gone?)

Pirates can make effective antiheroes. Especially when the rum is unexpectedly gone. (But why is the rum gone?)

The anti-hero: we all know and love that kind of character, whether in fantasy, sci-fi, action/adventure, or historical fiction. But what makes a GOOD anti-hero, and what makes him trite?

After discussing the reluctant hero and the willing hero over the last few days, I hadn’t thought to continue my exploration of heroic types in literature and what to keep in mind when you write about them.

Then Emmi Visser of The Grand Asylum mentioned the anti-hero on my comment threads, claiming that Han Solo from Star Wars is one of her favorite characters. (I love Han as well. Who doesn’t? He’s awesome!)

Emmi made me realize that dedicating a post to the anti-hero would make sense after all.

After that, Michael Eidson of The Troll Mystic also mentioned antiheroes. He asked whether the labels of “willing” and “reluctant” could apply to anti-heroes. I had already written this post and answered the question! (What are the chances?)

A SUBCLASS OF HERO

I would consider the antihero a hero subclass, simply because an antihero can also be classified either as a reluctant or a willing hero.

  • An antihero can be thrust into nasty circumstances against his will the same as any of us can.
  • An antihero can choose to enter the main plot of your story of his own volition (perhaps because someone’s paying him to do so or he wants to settle an old score.)

That said, whether your antihero is of the reluctant or willing hero category (or lies somewhere in that gray area between them), antiheroes are fun for a lot of reasons.

They’re not afraid to speak their minds, they generally have complex motives, they evolve a lot as people throughout their adventures (usually for the better), and that evolution comes after a lot of confusion, frustration, and soul-searching: something we all can relate to.

I’ve been trying to think if I have any antiheroes in my Herezoth trilogy, and I guess the Crimson League’s resident thief, Ranler Voldrone, would qualify. Ranler has his own distinct moral code, and while he won’t betray it, it doesn’t really mesh with most people’s idea of values.

He has no problem stealing, but he doesn’t steal from people who would deeply feel the loss if he can at all avoid that. He’s also got no problem taking revenge and doing the dirty work for the resistance group he belongs to. (The Crimson League has some powerful enemies…. that’s bound to happen when you stand against a sorcerer-dictator who rose to power killing the royal family).

I don’t consider Ranler a main character, or one of my favorites, but his presence is necessary, and I respect him for his devotion to those he cares about and his quickness to defend his friends.

WRITING AN ANTIHERO

Whether your antihero is a protagonist or not, here are some things to keep in mind if you want to write one:

  • The more “anti” your antihero is, the more you’re risking your readers turning against him. There is a difference, of course, between gruff / willing to crack some heads if necessary and outright evil. One antihero who was truly too selfish and evil for my liking was assassin Royce Melborn from the Riyria Revelations series. Those books by Michael J Sullivan kept me engaged only because Royce’s co-protagonist and rogue partner, Hadrian Blackwater, had some measure of actual values and respectability. I liked Hadrian, so I kept reading. Which leads to point two:
  • A calmer, more rational, more “heroic” presence can balance out the “anti” of your antihero if he’s really, truly nasty to start off. That presence can be anyone or anything: a partner in crime like Hadrian, a very involved mentor, a love interest, a sibling…. When a character who is likable sees potential in and some reason to care about an antihero, your reader is more likely to bear with the antihero.
  • Antiheroes can change, but be careful about turning them into someone else completely. You can evolve a character so that he or she mellows out a bit, or decides not to be so utterly self-centered or vindictive. That makes sense. But turning an antihero into someone completely different–into a hero without a trace of “anti” at all–is farfetched and gimicky.
  • Realize that any antihero is going to have trouble forming a conscience and becoming a softer individual. If you do intend for events and time to soften your antihero’s shell, be prepared for him to balk a bit at that…. I mean, these are characters who routinely scoff at the idea of there being  justice or mercy in the world. Before they start, or as they start, working for justice and showing a bit of mercy, you’re looking at some big psychological hurdles. They’re changing their entire worldview. That’s a big deal.

So, who are your favorite antiheroes? Have you written one? What do you think about this character type? Is it overdone and trite, do you think? In movies especially….it’s done a LOT.

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45 responses to “Creative Writing and the Antihero

  1. Another great post! I’m a fan of the anti-hero. It can be tricky to write one, but if you get him/her right it’s wonderful. Elric from the Elric Saga by Michael Moorcock is a good example. So is Han Solo for that matter. 🙂

    One of my current works in progress is centered on an anti-hero. He’s also thrust into the events with no choice- but in a way that if he had a choice he’d still be doing it. His goals are very selfish, vengeance pure and simple. Yet at the same time the fate of the world is at stake, he just doesn’t care or acknowledge those stakes. He is single-minded in his own quest and nothing will keep him from it, no matter the cost. I won’t know if it works until the end though, hehe. We’ll see.

    Again, this is a great post. I think it’s a great idea to include the anti-hero along with the regular hero aspects.

    • Glad you enjoyed it. I can’t really take credit for this one…. so many comments kept mentioning anti-heroes in such awesome ways I figured I couldn’t ignore them 🙂

      Michael Moorcock sounds wonderful….Fantasy anti-heroes tend to my favorite kind. I’ll have to add him to my list of books to check out.

  2. Hey, Victoria, thanks for mentioning me and linking to my site. I really need to write a new blog post…

    I love the Elric books by Michael Moorcock. Classic anti-hero fantasy fiction that has greatly influenced my writing. Another classic anti-hero would be Thomas Covenant. As I recall, he was quite the unwilling anti-hero.

    When I set out to write a story, I never really think about whether the protagonist will be a hero or an anti-hero, willing or reluctant. I simply want to make him or her complex, and that often has the effect of creating an anti-hero. Not that other types of heroes can’t be complex, but they usually aren’t in the gray zone as much as anti-heroes are.

    • That’s a fantastic point, Michael: it’s much better to let characters develop as the people that they are without worrying about class distinctions like this. The categories blend and overlap so much anyway…. there’s no one way to write a hero or antihero, and if that’s what you’re concentrating on, your focus isn’t as much on developing a cohesive plot, which is also important.

      Ironically, I think focusing too much on the kind of hero or antihero you want to write will lead to that character feeling much less organic and genuine a person. He or she will begin to feel like a plot device.

  3. I’m a big fan of anti-heroes. I don’t know if it’s something inherent to writing this type of character, or the kind of writers it draws, but I find that they’re often more interesting than straight forward heroes.

    My favourite’s John Constantine from the Hellblazer comics. He veers back and forth between willingness and reluctance, and generally remains on the side of doing good without ever slipping over the brink and losing the anti part of his anti-heroism. His dark side isn’t just the outer trappings of his character – the smoking, the swearing, the cynical comments – it’s part of how he views the world, but it’s a part that can lead him to do good.

    • Thanks for the example, Andrew! It’s important that an antihero be complex and deep, as you demonstrate with John Constantine. I agree that anti-heroes can be a blast…. there’s often a lot more going on beneath with the surface there than with your run-of-the-mill hero.

  4. Nice post! And thanks for linking to my blog! Your pointers are quite useful. Your heroes series has made me wonder what kind of hero my current main character is, but it seems she defies classification! She’s pretty cool and kick-ass with a natural skill for using guns (it’s a (post)apocalyptic story), but in the end her motivations are entirely selfish. Then again, circumstances also demand that she is that way. Tricky!

    • Tricky indeed! I think a really good, complex character always defies definition to some extent, and that’s a good thing. It doesn’t really matter which category you can or can’t put a character in. All that matters is whether the character reads true, and I’m getting a strong impression that you really know your character as a person. She sounds like a lot of fun!

  5. I’m having a hard time with my anti-hero. Without boring you with details, you’ve given me something to think about, and possibly a solution to my problem. Thank you!

  6. I always think of Wolverine when I hear about anti-heroes. He began as a loner with a temper and has become a very noble character. Probably one of the best character evolutions in comics.

    I might have an anti-hero or two in the supporting cast, but my main heroes for Legends of Windemere are all chosen warriors. One of them might fall into the anti-hero category. For later series, I have the anti-hero type. I’m not sure if my vampire counts. Is it an anti-hero if the main character still feeds off mortals and is the ‘hero’ only because the other side is worse?

  7. One of my most popular characters in my series evolves from villain to antihero. Like you said, I balance him out by contrasting him with the hero of the story, who is my ‘everyman’ reluctant hero. It seems to be working, and in truth, writing these types of characters was the most fun I’ve ever had building them.

  8. I think the example easiest for me to reference is probably Han Solo—although I would submit Boromir for the category as well, albeit in a different way.

    I don’t think I’ve ever had an antihero in one of my stories, but the idea is definitely an interesting one—I’ll have to incorporate it in the future!

    • Boromir is a GREAT and tricky example…. he’s a great example of how to twist the type and do something a bit different with it. Thanks for dropping by! I would never have thought to contemplate Boromir in this light…. but he definitely fits in the conversation and throws a bit of a fun wrench in it

      • I didn’t immediately think of him until I was trying to come up with other examples—I always loved how Boromir was kind of easy to hate until you realize why he is so drawn by the ring.

        Thanks for writing these posts! I’ve been really enjoying them and they’ve given me a lot to think about.

        • I’m glad you’ve found them fun! They’ve really gotten me thinking too…. One reason I love blogging 😛

        • It doesn’t hurt that you really know your stuff! I feel silly whenever I write posts on elements of writing—since it’s usually just me rambling about what I think! Which helps me, I suppose! Not sure if it does anyone else good.

        • Thanks! I speak from experience a lot too…. If analyzing literature and structure is a strength of mine, that’s only because I spent so much time in graduate school in the humanities…. I just happen to be trained to do that.

          You don’t have to be “trained” in that way to be a successful blogger, though. For sure. If you don’t feel comfortable blogging about elements of writing your niche might lie somewhere else 🙂 Blogging is so personal…. it’s all about utilizing whatever your strengths happen to be.

        • Very true! My degree was in English, but we didn’t dissect fiction as much as I would have liked in my creative writing courses. I’m looking forward to that element of Graduate School.

          Excellent point—I always hope that even if my musings are not necessarily academic that they can help other people and create discussion. You happen to have it down to an art.

        • Oooh, speaking from experience and just asking a simple question sometimes, I think, is just as (if not more) effective than speaking form a grad school perspective. It’s more approachable.

  9. Han Solo and Jack Sparrow are favorite cinematic antiheroes (though I didn’t see the last Pirates of the Caribbean sequel). In YA, Melina Marchetta excels at the antihero. There’s Froi of Froi of the Exiles; Jonah Griggs of Jellicoe Road; and Thomas Mackee of The Piper’s Son. I hated all of them when they were first introduced. But Marchetta makes you care about them.

    • Thanks for the suggestion! I had never heard of Marchetta but she sounds like a very gifted author. It takes a lot of talent to make a reader care about a character you don’t really like as a person (my go to example is always Scarlett O’Hara)

  10. Great article Victoria!

  11. Pingback: Heroes Misjudged: On Public Perception and Your Heroic Character | Creative Writing with the Crimson League

  12. I think you made an excellent point that you need a more typical “heroic” presence to balance out your antihero. Antiheroes are so popular now, I’ve found myself reading a few books where the entire cast of characters is made up of antiheroes. Even if the writing is fantastic, having a whole book of antiheroes can get tiresome.

  13. Pingback: Does Your Hero Laugh in the Face of a Three Act Structure? | Lara S. Chase

  14. Thanks so much for writing this post! It’s super helpful–and lemme tell you, I’m wrestling with my antihero right now and this was like a little beacon of salvation. 🙂
    I think my favorite antihero would have to be Odysseus. He doesn’t really seem like it on the surface, but if you really dissect him…there’s a lot there.

    • I agree, there’s totally a lot there!!! I’ve always enjoyed the story of the Odyssey…. never really thought of Odysseus as an antihero but now I’m considering the argument and it fits in a lot of ways…. *mind blown*

      • Ahahaha!
        Random note: Do you have any advice on the subject of characters who won’t cooperate but won’t “tell” you what they want?

        • Hmmm…. that’s tough!!! My thought would be to try to really get to know that character. Think about his or her past and really break down who he or she is and why that is. What major events shaped that person’s life? Sibling and parent relationships? Finding faith? Maintaining faith? Religious disenchantment? Career? Etc. That’s the only thing I can think of…. that is SOOO hard!!!

          I know if I’ve found that when my characters wouldn’t cooperate it was because I didn’t know enough about them. I don’t know if that’s the case with you or not 😦 Wishing you the best of luck! Keep me posted.

        • Thanks! I’ve been working on this jerk for a year now, but I think you have the right idea. I think I worked on his dark side too much and I need to figure out his “lightness” if you will.
          Thanks so much! I’ll try to keep you posted. 🙂

        • It’s definitely important to realize how an antihero or any somewhat (or very) negative character also has some good qualities. 🙂

  15. Reblogged this on Cronin Detzz "Writer's Block" and commented:
    Good post about “anti-heroes” (think: Han Solo). What are your thoughts regarding character development for an unwilling hero? Do posts like this one help you with writer’s block as it relates to supporting characters?

    Keep writing & keep sharing! – Cronin Detzz

  16. Me again! My jerk is cooperating and I am ecstatic! He’s not, though, but I so do not care!

    Also, another great antihero would be Dean Winchester from Supernatural. We’re supposed to root for him, but he isn’t someone a lot of people would wanna hang out with; he’s an alcoholic, he’s crass, and he womanizes. He also refuses to realize that he’s smart (he built a friggin’ EMF detector out of a Walkman) or that he’s worth something. There’s more, but I’m not braining well right now and this is turning into a novel in and of itself.

    Anyway, thanks for the awesome advice!

    • Yea for a cooperative jerk!!!!!!! 🙂 I have to admit, I don’t watch supernatural. But I am a major Whovian and big fan of Sherlock. People often lump those shows all together, so I imagine I would like it!

      • Oh, yeah! Let’s hear it for cooperative jerkwads! 🙂

        It’s nice to meet another Whovian/Sherlockian! Supernatural, I think, is a bit of an acquired taste, partially because seasons one and six were just so weird, but I think you’d like it. I mean, once you get past the first few seasons, it gets pretty gory, but just like with Sherlock and Doctor Who, it’s surprisingly character-driven. Which is really nice.

  17. Pingback: Seeing Myself in my Villains: An Author’s Nightmare??? | Creative Writing with the Crimson League

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