I’m about to begin a new novel featuring an antihero for a protagonist. In my previous science fiction series, the heroes were truly heroic. They were flawed, made occasional questionable decisions and real mistakes, but at the end of the day, the fundamental qualities that made up their personalities were loyalty, bravery, compassion, and commitment. In other words, heroic qualities.
But this new anti-hero I’m playing with – she’s a different animal entirely. As her personality unfolds, I’ve been thinking about what makes an anti-hero an interesting and effective character.
We can relate to them somehow.
An antihero is by definition a flawed character. She’ll have shortcomings, vices, and bad habits for sure, but those qualities shouldn’t turn readers off from her entirely. Rather, those qualities should make her seem human – complicated, but human. Wolverine’s brooding nature fits with his life history and experience, and we understand why he is the way is. We may see ourselves reflected in Ron Weasley’s bumbling nature.
Even antiheroes evolve.
Characters shouldn’t remain stagnant throughout any story. They are necessarily changed by the trials and tribulations they face, and an antihero is no different. She should face challenges that rub against her nature and force her to evolve. Dexter, one of my all-time favorite antiheroes, falls in love (in his own sociopathic kind of way), something his damaged character shouldn’t have been able to do.
They have redeeming qualities too.
An antihero is still a multi-dimensional human being and should have positive personality traits mixed in. Maybe she’s snarky and drinks too much, but she’s also fiercely loyal. Han Solo may be a sarcastic, intergalactic smuggler, but he’s also street-smart, funny, and eventually a loyal friend.
They have a moral code, even if it’s outside the legal one.
The fundamental difference between an anti-hero and a villain is intent. An antihero doesn’t intend to purposefully do harm to innocents. Carried too far in an irredeemable direction, we will, in fact, have a villain. Dexter only kills bad people. Severus Snape was protecting Harry all along. Han stuck around to help Luke blow up the Death Star. If those characters had made different choices, or didn’t have hidden, noble agendas, they could have easily fallen into villain territory.
Some of my favorite characters are antiheroes. They tend to be complex, but when they slay the dragon, or fall in love, or solve the mystery, it turns out we’ve been rooting for them all along.