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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