An anti-hero makes for a popular main character these days. Think about Walter White from Breaking Bad or Jack Sparrow from Pirates of the Caribbean or Lady Macbeth or Scarlett O’Hara or Lisbeth Salander from The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. These protagonists aren’t necessarily “bad guys” but they’re not typical heroes either. They aren’t perfect, that’s for sure. Sometimes they’re quite selfish. Other times they do actively illegal or immoral things. Still, they’re the main character, and readers root for them. How do you write an anti-hero that’s not simply unlikable? What’s the difference between an anti-hero and an antagonist? Read on for my top tips for writing anti-heroes.
How an Anti-Hero is Different Than a Hero
A typical literary or cinematic hero is unambiguously a good guy. He or she might be good-looking, kind to children and other living things, and always choose the moral path. Think of a classic hero as the white hat-wearing Superman-style good guy. He is easy to distinguish from the villain, who is selfish, mean, and dangerous. Here’s more on writing classic, but varied heroes: The Main Cast – Writing Heroes.
The anti-hero straddles both worlds. The anti-hero might do some things that are selfish (I’m looking at you, Scarlett O’Hara), but this person usually has their own moral compass that they follow (like Lis Salander, of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo). Even if their methods are unusual (like Jack Sparrow), they have their reasons (like Walt White). An anti-hero is the hero of their own story.
They Have Their Reasons
Very few people want to read a whole book about someone who is unlikable. Think about how you deal with unlikable people in real life. You avoid them. That doesn’t mean your anti-hero can’t do things that are of questionable moral character (in fact, that’s often how they are), it’s just that the reader has to understand why they did them. Understanding the reasons these characters do what they do is key to making them a hero and not a villain.
For instance, in Breaking Bad, Walter White starts off as a put-upon science teacher who’s a devoted family man. Him getting picked on makes us feel sorry for him. His devotion to his wife, his kindness toward his baby, and his tenderness with his disabled son make us like him. Then, when he’s diagnosed with cancer, we feel even more sorry for him. When he uses his scientific skill to start to cook meth, we might not approve, but we understand that he has his reasons. Make sure your heroes justify their actions (in their own minds, at least).
They Have a Moral Compass
Even when we disagree with people, if we see that they follow their own credos in a non-hypocritical way, we at least respect them for it. Take, for instance, Jack Sparrow. Sparrow is a pirate, so by definition, he is a criminal. He’s a rascal, he’s funny (which is endearing), and he’ll do the right thing—at least in contrast to those who are totally bad. He believes in freedom, and beliefs matter.
Lis Salander is one of the great anti-heroes. She’s surly, not friendly, and lacks most social conventions. She also has an off-putting appearance. She can be violent at times, and she’s a hacker. However, she does everything to stop a madman. She has suffered greatly and uses her powers to help others. Once we know this about Lis, we root for her.
The main takeaway about an anti-hero is that they’re the hero of their own story. They have their reasons for doing what they do, and at least at first, they believe their means justify their ends. They do need something that makes them likeable, however, whether it’s misfortune, humor, or another quality that draws us to people, even people who aren’t always perfect.