The Main Cast: Writing Anti-Heroes

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Lisbeth Salander, Deadpool, Gillian Flynn’s girls, Han Solo. Commonly known as rebels, realists, selfish, sneaky. Anti-heroes often don’t seek to uphold altruistic virtues. Multi-faceted anti-heroes abide by their own scruples. Their flawed decision-making skills make them compelling characters because they don’t comply with societal norms. However, what separates an anti-hero from a hero, or better yet, what separates them from a villain?

Where are Anti-heroes on the Hero Spectrum?

In my last post, The Main Cast: Writing Heroes, I gave you a wide variety of hero flavors:

  1. The Plucky HeroI will fight for those in need! 
  2. The Clueless HeroWait, I’m a hero? How did this happen?
  3. The Whiney HeroBut I don’t want to go and leave my comforts … 
  4. The Loner HeroI got this, step back and watch. 
  5. The Tragic HeroIf I could do it all over again, I would have made better choices and survived.

If the Plucky Hero is at the top–the nerdiest rule-follower in the bunch–then the tragic-hero is at the bottom of the pile, setting fire to the rules. Our anti-hero falls in around number three or four. They are frequently loners, can be whiney–especially when called out to do things they don’t want to do– and they make terrible decisions for their own personal gain. They are voted ‘most-likely to spray paint smile faces on the posted rules.’

The Anti-hero’s Journey–What Separates a Hero from a Villain

It’s one thing to write a messy character and call them a villain, it’s another to call them an anti-hero. The distinction comes in redemption or a choice (or choices) made that elevates them above their normal punk-ass state. Not unlike the hero’s journey, the anti-hero must also go through some real changes to rise above their own stink.

So yes, they need to leave their known existence, and maybe <gasp> make some friends that overlook their horrible qualities. They need to hit rock bottom and have that moment of what the hell am I doing with my life? Then they need to get it together and face their demons. After that, they can go back to their old ways, but will they be the same? Hopefully, from now on, they’ll be a little less of a sociopath.

Make them Messy, Really Messy

Readers love to read about characters that live outside our perceived norms. There’s a reason people love trash tv shows, people behaving badly are fascinating. Therefore, your anti-hero should become a window into a world where most people don’t feel all that comfortable. This character should have qualities that make them the opposite of a Dudley Do-Right. The uglier, on the inside (and the outside!), the better. Bad habits? Yes, please. Disgusting quirks? Hell, yes.

The real joy will come as we watch someone rise up and sort of redeem themselves. Push your readers to question their own judgey judgementalness. I wrote a character that was an overweight, functioning alcoholic funeral director, mother. I’ve attended over fifteen book clubs and every time, there’s one person (usually a woman) who finds my main character appalling. I always ask why and the answer is always the same–because she’s a terrible mother. 

Somehow, somewhere, a ‘rule’ was posted stating that women couldn’t be terrible mothers. I’m not advocating child abuse, but sometimes mothers screw up. That’s normal. However, not everyone is okay with this. What I’m saying is this, the trope of bad mother hits a nerve with people. As a writer, you’d be wise to find these tropes and exploit them when you craft your anti-heroes.

However, at the end of the day, make sure you have redemptive moments. Otherwise, you’ve just crafted a villain.

Do you have a topic you would like us to cover? Let us know about your suggestion. 


About Author

Heather Rigney is a fiction writer, blogger, journalist, and art teacher based in Rhode Island. Author of The Merrow Trilogy--a dark, historical fantasy novel that deals with homicidal mermaids, the colonial suppression of women, and a present-day alcoholic funeral director trying to make sense of it all. Her writing has been featured in Motif Magazine and Stone Crowns Magazine. By day she teaches art at an all-girls Quaker school and at night she tries to be creative while avoiding too many sweets. You can read more about Ms. Rigney on her website:

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