Writing 101: The Anti-Hero

Great stories are about great characters...but that doesn't necessarily mean those characters are good guys. Sometimes, the main character is an anti-hero. 

Look, No Hands!

I believe that writing about an anti-hero is some of the toughest writing anyone can do. Anti-heroes do not have a lot of redeeming qualities. They aren't just flawed, they're almost impossible to like.

Almost impossible. There's a delicate balance to writing an anti-hero, a virtual tightrope walk that authors must undertake. Will you cross safely to the end of the book...or fall on your face? 

Not Quite a Villain

A good anti-hero isn't all that likeable. They do questionable things, they hurt good people, they make mistakes and sometimes they commit downright evil acts. But here's the rub: you don't want your readers to hate your anti-hero. You want them to like this character...in spite of all the bad things they do. In a word, that's difficult. Keep a few things in mind, and keep that dark anti-hero something less than loathsome.

  • Reason: Anti-heroes are logical. You don't always agree with Scarlett O'Hara, but you understand why she's behaving this way. This is the key. If your anti-hero is acting without cause, their evil actions are just senseless. Make your anti-heroes reasonable people who shun society's rules for a specific reason, and I am much more likely to like your character.
  • Redemption: Give your anti-hero really nasty qualities. Make them terrible if you like. But add some redeeming factor to their overall character. Becky Sharp was a terrible wife, mistress and employee, but she tried to be something of a good friend. She made a final gesture of friendship when it mattered most, and for this we can like her.
  • Regret: When someone does a bad thing, they usually know it's bad. If they feel sorry about it, then we can try to forgive that person. The Grinch is an all-around awful guy, but in the end he regrets his actions. Make sure your anti-hero feels something about what they're doing or what they've done. Without regret, there can be no pardon. And if I can't forgive your character, I can't really get into them, can I?
Give your anti-heroes the gifts of reason, redemption and regret...and they won't be such an evil character after all. Good anti-heroes are multi-faceted, complicated and thoroughly interesting. People will keep turning pages to see what the character will do next, but only if they can find a little bit of like amid all that dislike in their hearts.

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