How to Write a Compelling Antihero

From Writers Helping Writers:

What is an Antihero?

Heroes embody courage, perseverance and skill. They can easily turn into villains when they use their talents for personal gain. This means antiheroes are like their name suggests … a character that DOESN’T have or has twisted the classic hero attributes, for whatever reason.

Lots of writers believe antiheroes ‘have’ to be protagonists, but this is not the case. An antihero can be ANY main character – protagonist, antagonist or even secondary – that has ‘gone wrong’ when it comes to being a hero.

Iconic Antiheroes

In I Am Pilgrim by Terry Hayes, our protagonist Pilgrim is contrasted with the antagonist, Saracen. Pilgrim is supposed to the ‘classic’ American spy thriller hero, whereas Saracen is the threat to the Western world from the so-called ‘Axis of Evil’.

As the story continues, it becomes clear the two are both not only antiheroes, but doppelgängers. They are the same men, but on opposite sides. In contrast to reader expectation, Pilgrim is arguably NOT the ‘good’ one, nor is Saracen the ‘bad’ one.

In the TV series Breaking Bad, Walter White’s arc is ‘Mr Chips becomes Scarface‘. Facing a terminal diagnosis for lung cancer, White’s intentions to provide for his family after his death are understandable and good. However, in doing this he descends onto a rocky road where he becomes a drug kingpin. NOT good!

In the Marvel movie Black Panther, Erik Killmonger is a genocidal murderer and wants to bring Wakanda down, whom he blames for his father’s death. He is evil, but he is right: Wakanda did him a terrible wrong. His own family abandoned him as a child to keep up appearances.

In Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn, Amy Dunne is the voice of spurned women everywhere. She discovers her husband Nick has betrayed her, so decides to take him down by utilizing society’s misogyny in her favor.

Amy proves she will stop at nothing to make him pay. Knowing most women are murdered by the men in their lives, she fakes her own disappearance and frames Nick.

Link to the rest at Writers Helping Writers

1 thought on “How to Write a Compelling Antihero”

  1. Not impressed.
    First, the OP is much too in love with GONE GIRL, whose Dunne is as wellno antihero but a good old fashioned sociopath. She is no different from FATAL ATTRACTION’s Alex Forrest.

    Second, her idea of antiheroes is way too fuzzy. Humanizing villains and giving them understsndable motivations doesn’t make them antiheroes. BREAKING BAD’s Walter White is a villain from day one. He *knows* he is doing wrong. And doesn’t care. That is basic villainy. (Minor nit pick: a bit of proofing would’ve helped: “Whilst ‘comic book villains’ were often three-dimensional characters that disrupted everything because they wanted to, now antiheroes are much more complex as standard.” Old comic book villains were anything *but* three-dimensional. And they have not become antiheroes for being given depth.)

    Third, the other example, From I AM PILGRIM is no antihero. Deconstructing a classic archetype does not an antihero make. The (tired by now) premise of the story, good though it might be, is just a retread of the old SPY VS SPY trope. No antihero there, just two antagonists both doing good. From the audience point of view, either is a hero or villain or both or neither.

    Antiheroes are a very specific character that doesn’t just tbink tbey are doing good, they actually *are*. The key trait of antiheroes is they do things that the audience can approve of in ways or for reasons the audience should find problematic. What differentiates a hero from an antihero is the audience’s mores. And those change over time.
    (One of the seminal heroes of early SF, Richard Seaton (a product of the 20’s and 30’s) was for decades an exemplar of fictional heroes for his defense of humans across the universe, terran or alien. By today’s standards, he is a genocidal specieist. On a galactic scale. A true believer of “suffer not a live enemy to exist”.
    (Not content to destroy every last planet of a hostile civilization he pursues the last surviving ship of the species across the intergalactic void, zillions of light years, to engage and destroy their last remnant. The good guy. :D)

    The dirty secret of antiheroes is that, well-written, the audience identifies with them, even while tsk-tsking in public. Hence the -hero part. Antiheroes are heroes gone off track. Often via slippery slope or skewed values. Comics are rife with them, they are among the most popular archetypes but they’re not limited to the comics.

    The DEATH WISH movie franchise (1974) features a classic (and unmistakeable) antihero, architect Paul Kersey, whose wife is killed by an NYC mugger. Looking to make sense of the senseless death, he arms himself and goes out into the same environment, running into his own mugger. Who he immediately kills. He finds hd likes it so he sets out to clean the city of criminals (yay!) by killing them on sight. (Uhh, yay?)

    This was around the time Marvel first introduced Frank Castle, the Punisher, as a foe for Spider-man. DC COMICS followed a decade later with the Adrian Chase version of VIGILANTE, a more nuanced take on the concept. (Chase was a prosecutor who lost his family to crime so he took on a costume and arsenal to go after orgznized crime bosses and the corrupt enabling them. Unlike Punisher he avoided cops other “heroes” and innocents. He even quit when he was appointed Judge only to come back to stop a copy cat using his costume and name but not MO. The series ended when Chase realized how far he’d sunk and judged himself.

    That particular breed of antihero pops up regularly in all kinds of fiction and occasionally the rezl world. But it’s not the only version. TNT’s LEVERAGE featured a team of misfit excriminals doing what they do best, hacking, scamming, stealing, breaking and entering, occasional assaults, all in the service of “doing good”. The first series ended its multiyear run when the team leadermade a deal with law enforcement where he took the fall for all their crimes and the team got a pass as long as they stayed clean.

    Amazon is now running a sequel series with most of the same cast where the misfits are back in business under new management. Same goals.

    Which is a roundabout way of saying that the only way to write a proper antihero is to understand your target audience. And their mores. One person’s determined hero is the next’s antihero is the next’s true villain. Which means the story must reflect this because everybody is not going to sympathize with the character or their deeds. See GONE GIRL above. How many people are going to see it as a good thing to fake your death and frame your husband, sending him to jail and death row? Other than the OP I don’t think many people see that as a *good* thing. (Unless it’s in a caper comedy like RUTHLESS PEOPLE. 🙂 )

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