7 Tips for Creating an Antihero

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7 Tips for Creating an Antihero

Chapter 5 “Characters” – Section 2.2 “Antiheroes

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"I'm drawn to the classic antihero, the guy who's probably made a bunch of mistakes and really has the capacity to go either way. That's the most interesting type of character for me to watch, to see what decisions they'll make. There's a lot of gray area there for a writer to explore."
-Kurt Sutter

One of the most trending and most debated archetypes in modern storytelling is the antihero. As with most fictional conventions, people have different opinions about what constitutes an antihero—ranging from a hero who is dark and brooding, to a villain who is the main character of the story. But in the interest of clarity and conversation, I will be speaking about the antihero in specific terms that I find most clear and distinguished from other archetypes. For our purposes, the antihero will be defined as a protagonistic force who, with ultimately selfish motivation, inadvertently finds themselves helping others or fighting a greater evil. This is not someone who starts out neutral but becomes good along the way, but someone whose self-centered goals push them to the end. 

Using that definition, I will give some tips that I have found useful in working with this archetype. Please note that I am discussing heroes, antiheroes, and villains in terms of how they work as character archetypes; I am not discussing general protagonists and antagonists as plot devices. In other words, your character does not have to be the hero to be the protagonist/main character.

Tip 1: Understand what separates an antihero from a dark/gritty hero.

Just like with a hero or a villain, what truly makes an antihero is motivation within the context of the overarching plot. Whereas a hero's goals will be altruistic (even if they go about it in a rough, dark, or brutal way), an antihero's ultimate motivations will be selfish. Now that isn't to say that everything they do is selfish, but their core motivation regarding the story as a whole will definitely be so. In other words, they can push a child out of the way of a moving car, but their ultimate goal will still be to torture and murder the terrible villains who did them wrong. On the other hand, a dark or gritty hero, even if they do things that aren't particular heroic like murder or treat others cruelly, is ultimately fighting for some greater good.

Tip 2: Understand what separates an antihero from a villain.

Now you may say that this character sounds a lot like a villain, and for good reason. The same character could work just as well as a villain as an antihero. What distinguishes them is circumstance. An antihero is simply a villain who incidentally happens to find themselves acting for the general benefit of others or the destruction of a greater evil. If you have a story where Lex Luthor is the protagonist, fighting to keep humans safe from alien slavers in order to protect his own business interests, he becomes an antihero within the context of that story. Despite his usually being a villain, his actions in protecting others and fighting a greater evil give him an antiheroic role in the story.

Tip 3: An antihero does not have to be moody.

When people talk about antiheroes, I often note that they are just discussing a moody hero that likes to dress in black clothing. Fortunately, a great antihero can consist of more than just leather and dark eyeliner. An antihero can be a joyously insane anarchist, fight the forces of imperialism. They can be a gruff pirate, fighting for freedom to sail the seven seas. They can be a playboy business tycoon, making money by usurping the old powers of money in order to make more for themselves. When creating an antihero, you have so many moods, character types, and motivations to choose from. So don't feel bogged down by what people typically expect from an antihero.

Tip 4: Antiheroes can be highly conflicted.

A character's motivations being selfish does not make them singularly bad or selfish people. I mean, think about what any of us do on a day to day basis. Though we may do some altruistic things here or there, the majority of the things we do are just attempts to satisfy our own needs. It just so happens that an antihero's needs are more dramatic and extreme due to the situations in the story. So when you create an antihero, don't feel like you have to make them callous and singularly determined to finish their goal, no matter the cost. Hell, we'll be more impressed if the antihero is conflicted about hunting down the villains, torturing them, and murdering them. We'll be even more impressed if the antihero has aspirations to be a good person, but is simply more driven to complete their objective. So feel free to sprinkle in some realistic inner conflict in regards to their actions.

Tip 5: Take advantage of the more relatable nature of the antihero.

More so than heroes and villains, antiheroes are empowered when they act out of the less noble part of their nature. They can act out of their impulses to be angry, cowardly, greedy, charitable, and even noble—as the situation warrants. And we can accept this as we are not concerned with how unheroic or dastardly they become. We empathize with them and give them a sort of pass to demonstrate a wide array of varying behaviors (as long as they line up with that character's nature) because we know how flawed and broken they are. A temptation is to make antiheroes even more inhuman and darkly surreal than heroes or villains. And though this can sometimes be appropriate, you could be losing one of the greatest powers that comes from the antihero, which is their humanity.

Tip 6: Give your antihero vulnerability.

Along with the topic of keeping your antihero human, is giving them vulnerability. Again, the typical convention of writing antiheroes is to make them emotionless badasses who shoot first and ask questions later. They don't have emotions … that's sissy stuff. But the effect of that is a three-fold negative. You first lose an element of the humanity that made your audience want to relate to that character. Then you make them seem less awesome because, let's face it, it's not very brave to do badass things if it's just a walk in the park for you. And last, you make them far less interesting as you rob them of potential depth. Now, that isn't to say that your antihero can't put on a facade and pretend to be an emotionless machine of ruthless will, only that there should be hidden hurt and weakness within them if you want them to be complex and interesting characters.

Tip 7: Allow the reader to feel mixed feelings towards the antihero.

One of the signs that your antihero truly is one, is through the reactions you and your readers have to that character's actions. Throughout the story, readers should feel that the antihero's actions are not sound or right. In fact, they should feel downright disappointed when that character fails to adhere to basic standards of morality. If the gritty actions that your hero performs are always supported by you and your readers, then it is likely that you have merely created a gritty hero who is just doing bad things to people who deserve it. Truly despicable actions shouldn't just be a bit unpleasant or overboard, but outright wrong by the standards of the world and the author. This is a difficult task to accomplish, but know that grave mistakes and wrongdoings will empower the sentiment of antiheroism and make your story feel distinguished and bold to the reader.

Weekly Recommended Watching: Black Butler First Season (Though one of the two antiheroes is stereotypically dark and moody, there are very few characters who capture the essence of what it is to be a coincidental hero with selfish motivations as Sebastian and Ciel. I personally think the experience is better if you pretend like there is no second season, as it ends so perfectly. But that is up to you.)

Write-a-Novel Exercise 5.2.2

If you are creating an antihero character, write in a few sentences how you plan to use each tip in regards to designing your character.

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LostLibrarian's avatar
Best way to write an Antihero? Don't try to write one... :D
I'm honestly tired with all those halfhearted gray ones who act cool just to be cool *sigh*
I still think, that instead of going for a concrete type of hero it's better to just build a world fitting the theme and then just throw the protagonist in it. If the world is gray and harsh, it's easy for the character to turn into an antihero (or an even more shining hero). Reversed one could build also up a nice world with really nasty background. But give me something more than just being the antihero. Building the world around a special trait often just leads to plotholes and incoherent worldbuilding.

There are way too many novels nowadays who just throw in the antihero to have him in there. No reason for him to act that way, to goal that he can only accomplish this way, no past where he got his scars. People being bad for the sake of it is the pit for many villains and sadly there are even more people falling into the same trap with Antiheroes. Being gray and edgy isn't character and being cruel is nothing that just falls from the sky. Soldiers are firing over each others head so that they don't have to kill, many of them suffering deeply after just a few weeks. So if you go and give me a hero who can abandon something without pressure - break him before that. Break him and make him even more broken with each of his "good deeds". And with this one gets an antihero the reader can relate with... because he isn't cool for the sake of it but merely ignores/accepts his broken side...
DesdemonaDeBlake's avatar
I agree with many of your objections and your opposition to an antihero used for flippant reasons. However, I would say that there are writers who want to write a story centered around a dynamic and unique antihero character. For these people, I feel like purposefully planning and designing an antihero who is not a cliche and who is not shallow, would clear up a lot of the problems you rightfully have with the archetype.  
wisahkecahk's avatar
Insightful and well summed of indeed!!!
I too am drawn to conflicted characters (such as SPAWN) and also agree that they typically are the more interesting to read.
DesdemonaDeBlake's avatar
Thank you :) Yes, antiheroes can be a lot of fun.
Aeolanyira's avatar
Would a character who mainly pretends or chooses to be a selfish asshole for most of the story still be an antihero? 
To others s/he would fit the criteria of the antihero perfectly but deeper motivation may show (as a story progresses) they aren't as selfish as they appear.
Or would they be more a hero in disguise?
DesdemonaDeBlake's avatar
That would be a hero in disguise :) We're judging this in terms of character motivation.
This was wonderful! Thank you!
DesdemonaDeBlake's avatar
Leopold002's avatar
As always, straight forward and to the point. Food for thought.
SeraphenaParks's avatar
Do you have any tutorials on writing/conveying internal conflict with characters?
DesdemonaDeBlake's avatar
No, but that is a beautiful idea that I will write down for later. Thank you. 
SeraphenaParks's avatar
Thanks! I always struggle with that aspect of writing. That and fight scenes.
DesdemonaDeBlake's avatar
Well I'll be renewing my tutorial on fight scenes in the coming months. The old one is severely outdated. 
TheDevilReborn's avatar
Love this one. For insightful. :)
DesdemonaDeBlake's avatar
I'm glad to hear it :)
TheDevilReborn's avatar
Hehe, sounds like I've been doing something right, then...!
Thanks for sharing, man
Fujin777's avatar
The-Albino-Axolotl's avatar
Now do one for an anti-villain.
DesdemonaDeBlake's avatar
Seeing the popularity of this request, I will do some research and get to work on that tutorial. Villain will probably come first though. 
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