As a case in point, I’d like to point out that on Wikipedia, Hamlet appears on the List of Anti-heroes, but then is defined as a Tragic Hero. The following types are often portrayed as antiheroes, but if your antihero falls into one of these categories, he’s not Antihero antiherous.
As you can see, all of the above can easily be mistaken for antiheroes, and often are. There’s nothing wrong with writing one of them. But I beg you, if you’re going to label the poor bastard, please apply the proper one!
So, you’ve decided you like my definition best and you want to try your hand. How the hell do you do that?
Creating the Antihero – And Keeping Them Anti
Q: How can a writer develop an antihero with whom audiences will empathize?
A: Just make them good characters, meaning they should have all the human equipment — hopes, dreams, fears, flaws, blessings, etc. Maybe they started out as optimists or innocents who got burned by life. They are wounded in some way. Maybe they had noble aspirations that got crushed or corrupted. They should have some flamboyant, colorful, flashy, charming, or skillful aspects. They can be appealing by their contempt for the hypocrisy of conventional heroes or society itself. They can be attractive because they get to express something the audience feels deeply and strongly. They fulfill some wish: to see the crushing authority of the world defied, to escape from social restrictions, to act on impulse without inhibition.
-Chris Vogler, author of The Writer’s Journey, in an interview
I’d like to bring in three of the greatest antiheroes of all time: Gollum from Lord of the Rings, Gerald Tarrant from the Coldfire Trilogy, and Hannibal Lector from Silence of the Lambs. Most of you are probably familiar with at least one or two of these guys. If you’re planning to write an antihero, you should become uncomfortably intimate with all three.
They’re about as different as three guys could get. I’m not going to say too much in order not to spoil your pleasure in discovering them for yourselves, but I’ll give you some hints without naming names. Two of them started out as “good guys” before something went terribly wrong; one was a predator all along. One of them was a simple country bumpkin; the other two were sophisticated men of culture and refinement, one rich, one part of the middle class. One of them is psychotic, one a creepy sociopath, and the third a coldly logical killer who only gradually reveals a deeper anguish. Two of them earn the readers’ sympathy through wit and sophistication, the other through pity. One of them is imprisoned with no hope of release, one free but under compulsion, and the third the virtual lord of a world.
I go through that list of differences by way of showing that a narrow definition of an antihero doesn’t lead to a flat or stereotyped character. He doesn’t even have to be a he – I just haven’t happened across any truly great female antiheroes. But despite their differences, they all share some common traits that make them antiheroes in the truest sense:
1. They Do Really Bad Things. Murder, cannibalism, lies, theft, psychological torture, rape, betrayal…. There’s not much that these guys will stick at, and not much they haven’t done. No matter how slick or sophisticated some of them are, no matter the pity they inspire at times, they are Not Nice. You couldn’t construe them as heroes without a serious psychological makeover.
2. They Are Not the Villain. Evil, hated and feared, they may be – but they’re not the Big Bad that the hero is trying to defeat. They may be a servant of it, a reflection of it, a symbol of it, a victim of it, totally unconnected but still an enemy of the hero and all he/she stands for, but they are not the evil the heroes must defeat. And the hero hates them like poison.
3. They Help the Hero from Enlightened Self Interest. Somehow, the world (Earth or otherwise) being what it is, they end up helping the heroes achieve their goals. Personal enmity has to be set aside and they all have to pull together against the Big Bad. There is never any certainty that this happy state of affairs will continue. These are antiheroes, after all, and it’s quite possible that they will make an alliance with the villain, or give in to their own darkness or selfish impulses, and turn on the hero. Sometimes, they actually do. No one is ever sure of their loyalties, least of all the hero. However, one thing is crystal clear: everything these guys do, they do for themselves. If any altruism appears, it’s soon revealed as a ploy or a momentary lapse. Refer back to Point #1.
4. They Are the Ones You Hate to Love. All of them start out as people you despise. Slowly, as more of the character is revealed, you start to like them against your will. At the end, whether they get their just deserts or not, you’re rooting for them. And horrified that you’re doing so. Put it like this: when I first read the Coldfire Trilogy, I went from, “I hope Tarrant gets killed off” to “Okay, but not before he helps the hero” to “Only if I get to do it myself” to “Pleasepleaseplease let him survive this omigod“. But the character hadn’t changed. My perception of him had. That’s vitally important: an antihero doesn’t have to change much, but what you reveal about him/her must change the reader’s perception drastically. In the antihero’s case, most of the dramatic movement comes not from the character, but the reader.
5. They Do Not Get Saved. I don’t mean that they die in the end, although they might. I mean that none of these guys are redeemed. None of them repent their crimes, they do not turn good, they don’t wallow in regret and try to set everything right. They’re in this for themselves and themselves alone through the bitter end, and while there might be some flashes of hope for redemption, it never comes. But in the end, the service they’ve provided for the hero balances the scales just a bit. After all, the hero couldn’t have won without them. And so we forgive them their sins, we wish them the best even while we hope something awful happens to them so they won’t ever have the chance to hurt anyone again, and we end up satisfied with their fate.
That list of five points is a good tool to measure your antihero with. It’s what I used to create my antihero, Adrian Sykes, and it kept me from letting my sympathies clouding my judgment. It also helped me direct the readers’ perception of him. When Adrian started getting too sympathetic, I’d drop in reminders of his dark past and the fact that he’s still the same bastard despite his current alliance with the hero. Worked like a charm. Adrian stayed anti and turned out to be one of the best characters I’ve ever had the pleasure to write.
So how should one go about creating an antihero? Every story is different and will require a different type of antihero, but here are some general guidelines to help you along:
1. Which Bad Guy Is Best Placed to Help the Hero? Your antihero does no good at all if he/she can’t help the hero achieve the story’s goal. But you have a lot of leeway here. This could be a confederate of the villain who’s out for revenge, a common thug with insight or information (or simply the lack of conscience it takes to do the dirty work that must be done), a bad guy who wants to see the villain fail for some reason (hey – even a good reason, like the villain being too evil for the antihero’s taste)…. The possibilities are endless. The antihero may not even be that much of a bad guy. What you do need is someone with selfish motives, no or very few moral hang-ups, and a motive. It helps if they’re willing to play all sides against the middle.
Remember: the focus on the hero can be as great or as little as you like. If you want the antihero to be the star of the show, by all means! But make sure there’s a character there fighting the good fight and reminding us that the antihero’s morals and motives aren’t the ideal in the story’s society. There also needs to be a villain showing us what the true evil is.
2. Round ‘Em Out. I cannot even begin to tell you how important it is
to thoroughly work out the antihero’s background and motivations, and then judiciously dole out that information throughout the course of the story. You’re playing a dangerous game: too much sympathy and good impulses, and you’ve got an unlaundered hero on your hands. Too little, and you’ve got another villain. Read about the three antiheroes I’ve mentioned above and watch how the authors play the game to perfection. They balance everything good with something bad, and vice versa, keeping the antihero from tilting too far either way. And they always make every action make perfect sense when measured against what we know of that character.
In my case, I didn’t reveal Adrian’s background for a very long time. By that time, the fact that he’d started life as a pretty decent guy didn’t hurt his status as antihero, because the reader had seen too much of what he’d become. And yet, his amoral approach to killing for hire is balanced by the fact that he’s provided a lot of help to the hero. When he starts looking too nice, I bring in a bit more of his history as an assassin and humanize his victims. When he starts coming across as pure evil, I show there’s a heart in there somewhere. Lemme tell ya: tightrope walking without a net is far easier than balancing an antihero!
3. “Such Civil War Is In My Love and Hate”. Thank you, Mr. Shakespeare! A hero can have some not-so-heroic traits, a villain some charming or admirable ones, but no other character sets us at war as much as an antihero does. We’ve already discussed the history and motivations of the antihero. The other part of that is who this person is now. They can’t be overwhelmingly awful. Every bad trait – bad breath, sadistic impulses, what have you – must be countered by something attractive. Not balanced, necessarily, but the reader has to be given something to latch on to, since this is an ally of the hero and neither of them like it. In Tarrant’s and Lector’s cases, it’s elegance. Lector’s a verbal sophisticate – even if you haven’t read the book or seen the movie, you’ve been subjected to the infamous line about him eating a man’s kidney with a glass of Chianti. Tarrant is suave, a perfect gentleman, and attractive. Gollum is none of those things, but there’s a trapped innocence about him that really makes you hope he can be salvaged. Little flashes of the person he might have been come out, and you’re torn: he seems beyond redemption, but you want to believe that he’s helping the heroes out of some remnant of goodness.
Obviously, it’s easiest to give the antihero some sophisticated or physically attractive traits in order to get the reader to accept this deal with the devil, but it’s not the only way. I just happen to be a sucker for the heartless debonair types. Remember: if your antihero is ugly, deformed, or truly sadistic, you’re going to have to work a hell of a lot harder to earn the reader’s acceptance. What they’re doing for the hero must be enough to overcome the revulsion. Those little flashes of beauty in them must be played up all the more. Conversely, you’ll need to tone down the attractiveness and emphasize the negative if your antihero is Christian Bale/Angelina Jolie gorgeous.
4. “Myself Corrupting, Salving Thy Amiss”. One of the most powerful tools you have is “There but for the grace of God go I.” Portraying your antihero as Everyman makes it that much harder for the reader to condemn him/her. That’s where all of that hard background work pays off dividends. If you show how this character ended up evil, and show that the hero could have ended up the same way, you’ve just fired a fatal shot. Lector is an exception here: as far as I know, Thomas Harris hasn’t yet suggested that we’ve got a sexual psychopath sleeping within us – although I believe that Lector does (sorry, folks, it’s be awhile since I read the book or watched the movie). Tarrant and Gollum both are shown to be people who took the wrong path. We see the decisions or mistakes they made and shudder because we realize that in their situation, we might have done the very same thing.
There’s a classic example of this in the Highlander television series. I’ll try to be succinct: Methos used to ride with an Immortal named Kronos, who raped, pillaged and burned across several continents, giving rise to the legend of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. Fast forward several thousand years. Methos, as he puts it, got over his angry adolescence and is a fairly decent guy. But Kronos isn’t, and when he returns, all hell breaks loose. Methos is sucked in. Not sure who’s going to win, he plays Kronos and McCloud (the hero, of course) against each other until the end, where the hero wins. McCloud asks Methos why he didn’t simply kill Kronos and avoid all the agony. Methos tells him that “We were brothers. And if I’d judged him worthy to die, I’d be judging myself the same way.” Powerful stuff, folks. Powerful.
The same thing happens with Frodo and Gollum. Same thing again with Tarrant and Damien, the hero. We’re reminded that the hero is not so different from the antihero here. The antihero is a dark reflection of the hero, who they might have been, who they might become. All of the other techniques I have mentioned are paintballs compared to this cannon.
And this is a fantastic way to take some wind out of your hero’s sails. One of my favorite moments between Adrian and Ray, my hero, is when Ray is busy condemning him, full of moral outrage, painting his crimes in lurid detail, and Adrian shuts him down with a mild, “And how does that make me different from you?” Adrian points out that he’s a hero to the people he killed for. Ray’s a hero for killing his own people’s enemies. They aren’t so different at core. Of course, Adrian adroitly avoids the huge disparity in motives: Ray kills to save lives, Adrian kills to pad his savings account. But the sentiment is there, and we start to see Adrian in a whole different light.
5. And, Finally, A Healthy Dose of Pragmatism. There’s something about the guy who’s not out for world domination or salvation that’s damned attractive. We know that rooting for the person who’s only out to save his own skin or see to his own creature comforts perhaps isn’t the noble thing to do, but let’s be honest, folks: how many of us want to make grand sacrifices or go through Herculean effort when we could vege in front of the TV instead? I think that’s why so many antiheroes get our vote. We like the person who’s in it for no one other than himself, because it makes sense. We can empathize with the desire to make money the easy way, avoid grievous bodily harm, and weasel out from in between clashing titans any way possible. Not every antihero will be a pragmatist, of course, but there are plenty of them around. If you’ve got a mafia guy going to the FBI, and you want him to be an antihero, having him sell out the Mob because he wants to save himself works just fine. Readers get it. They won’t mind so much if he doesn’t have a change of heart.
We’ve come to the end of my semi-comprehensive look at the true antihero. I’m going to close this with what I’ve come to call the Reader Meter. If you want to know if you’ve succeeded in creating the perfect antihero, spring your story on an unsuspecting Wise Reader and ask them to tell you how they feel about the character throughout the story. You should get a Daisy response: I love him/I love him not, right up until the very end. If the antihero ends up ruined, dead or in jail, you should hear, “Well, I guess it’s justice, but I feel sorry for him.” If they walk away scott-free, you should
get, “I know what he did was wrong, but I’m so glad he’s okay!” If you hear that, you know you’ve got the closest thing to the perfect antihero you’ll ever get in this gig.
And trust me when I say: writing a successful antihero is the most fun you’ll ever have. Clothed, anyway.