If you dare to write about less-than-charming characters, you don’t need to redeem them with an ending in which they see the error of their ways, mend their faults, and allow their flinty hearts to be transformed into a choir loft of goodness.

You see, Hollywood movies have greatly influenced audience expectations to such a degree that bad people are expected to become good, endings are expected to be tidy and hopeful, and outcomes are expected to be laced with sunshine. Fiction can, and should, mimic life, with all its messes and discomfort and disquiet. Fiction should also prove just how complicated and troubled many people are.

In fiction, sometimes it’s difficult to categorize the various character types, especially when the characters’ morality cannot be easily defined. This chapter is about a kind of protagonist — meaning he’s the focus character in the story—who sometimes has the morality we’ve traditionally come to associate with bad guys, which is where the term anti-hero comes from. An anti-hero is a protagonist who is as flawed or more flawed than most characters; he is someone who disturbs the reader with his weaknesses yet is sympathetically portrayed, and who magnifies the frailties of humanity.

In days of old, especially in the eighteenth century, protagonists were often heroes and antagonists were usually villains, and they were often depicted in stories as either good or evil, clearly delineated as black and white. My hope is that this chapter, and the book as a whole, will prove that, as in real life, characters come in many shades and types. An anti-hero is a protagonist who typically lacks the traditional traits and qualities of a hero, such as trustworthiness, courage, and honesty. If he were assigned a color, it would be gray.

Often, an anti-hero is unorthodox and might flaunt laws or act in ways contrary to society’s standards. In fact, and this is important, an anti-hero often reflects society’s confusion and ambivalence about morality, and thus he can be used for social or political comment. While an anti-hero cannot slip into a white hat, he will always:

  • have the reader’s sympathies, although sometimes his methods will make this difficult.
  • have easily identified imperfections.
  • be made understandable by the story events, meaning that the reader will come to know his motivations and likely will be privy to his inner demons.
  • have a starring role in the story.

An anti-hero is often a badass, a maverick, or a screw-up. You might want to picture Paul Newman playing the title character in the film Cool Hand Luke, Clint Eastwood as Harry Callahan in Dirty Harry, or Bruce Willis playing John McClane in Die Hard — slightly scruffy and worn, sometimes moral, but sometimes not. If the character is a woman, perhaps her slip is showing and her lipstick is smeared, she sleeps with men she doesn’t know well, and she often cannot fit into traditional women’s roles.

An anti-hero can also play the part of an outsider or loner—a “little man.” This kind of anti-hero often possesses a fragile self-esteem, has often failed at love, and is sometimes estranged from people from his past. Perhaps the best-known anti-hero of our time is Tony Soprano of the television series The Sopranos. Bridget Jones of Helen Fielding’s Bridget Jones’s Diary, Sam Spade of Dashiell Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon, Philip Marlow in Raymond Chandler’s stories, Gulliver of Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels, and Randall McMurphy of Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest are also well-known anti-heroes. The reader loves these characters because they are realistic and relatable — just like the people in the reader’s life, they’re imperfect and roiling with contradictions.

Anti-heroes can be rebels in search of freedom or justice, and they’re usually willing to take the law into their own hands. They often occupy a gray area between good guy and bad guy—John D. MacDonald’s Travis McGee comes to mind, as does Jack Sparrow in the Pirates of the Caribbean films. Robin Hood was an anti-hero, as was Wolf Larsen in Jack London’s The Sea-Wolf. Of course, there have always been real-life anti-heroes, such as Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Wild Bill Hickock, Calamity Jane, and Bonnie and Clyde. Sometimes fast living, sometimes an outcast, and never superhuman, this character type provides you with lots of latitude in exploring themes and issues, often amid a true-to-life environment.

Anti-heroes can be obnoxious, pitiful, or charming, but they are always failed heroes or deeply flawed. Often riddled with paradoxical traits and qualities, they resemble real people more than any other type of fictional characters do, and they are increasingly popular these days in fiction, film, and television.

One of the most important qualities to remember is that anti-heroes rarely, if ever, reflect society’s higher values — or what we like to think of as our society’s values; their thinking and values are often antithetical to those of the norm. For example, the sort of traits valued by most members of society — such as honesty, strength, integrity, and compassion — will not always be exhibited by an anti-hero in a story. Or, he might have a character arc where he grudgingly adopts some of these traits. Traditional depictions of fictional characters meant that main players were good guys with traits that we all want to emulate. Anti-heroes turn that assumption upside down.

And here is the trick to creating anti-heroes: They always possess an underlying pathos. Most characters come with flaws, neuroses, and “issues.” But with an anti-hero, these problems are more noticeable and troublesome, and they sometimes get in the way of forming intimate attachments. There is always something that is screwing up the anti-hero’s plan, and that something is usually from his past. A story with an anti-hero in a starring role might depict how a person cannot easily escape from the past, particularly deep losses.

Characteristics of an Anti-Hero

It takes a fine hand to draw an anti-hero because this character requires a great deal of nuance to arouse complicated reactions in the reader. As we’ve just discussed, an anti-hero is a character that the reader roots for, despite his flaws and the bad things he’s done or how he justifies these misdeeds. Sometimes the anti-hero is able to toe the line between good and evil, but often he’s a danger to himself and others. Sometimes an anti-hero also has a remarkable ability to compartmentalize. Perhaps he kills an enemy or a bad guy, then in the next scene shows up at a kid’s birthday party, apparently unruffled by his recent grisly task.

Like all main characters, understanding an anti-hero’s character arc is crucial in designating his role in your story. After all, you’ll need to know if his good behavior is accidental, or if he is redeemed by the story’s events. One trick to creating an anti-hero is to fashion his primary traits so that his essential nature and personality are clear to you as you craft each scene he appears in. Then you need to know the why of these traits and beliefs—in essence, how he came to be. If your character is lawless, rebellious, or obnoxious, it is likely that your character will somehow justify these behaviors.

An anti-hero is not simply a badass who cannot follow the rules. The reasons for why he acts as he does, along with his self-concept, are important to the story. Another trick to creating a complicated anti-hero is to shape his less-than-moral traits and acts into a profound statement about humanity. As you create anti-hero characters, consider that they:

  • are not role models, although we secretly would like to kick ass like they do.
  • can be selfish and essentially bad people who occasionally are good.
  • are sometimes unglamorous and unattractive in character as well as in appearance.
  • can be motivated by self-interest and self-preservation, but there is usually a line anti-heroes won’t cross, which sets them apart from villains.
  • often have motives that are complicated and range from revenge to honor.
  • forced to choose between right and wrong, will sometimes choose wrong because it’s easier.
  • can play both sides with good guys and bad guys, profiting from both.
  • can sometimes be coerced to help underdogs, children, or weaker characters, and they sometimes do so voluntarily.
  • can embody unattractive traits and behaviors, such as sexist and racist attitudes, and violent reactions when wronged.
  • can show little or no remorse for bad behaviors.
  • are usually a mess of contradictions.

Heroes Versus Anti-Heroes: Identifying the Differences

The role of a hero as the main player who drives the story has been around for centuries. Heroes somehow embody the forces of good and overcome great odds to succeed in the story. In classical stories, a hero was always extraordinary, might have divine ancestry, and was more of a demi-god than human. Hercules is this type of hero.

Over time, the term hero came to be no longer associated with god-like types but instead came to mean an extraordinary man or woman who overcame great obstacles, who often sacrificed him- or herself for a cause, who displayed courage when facing the story’s problems, and who held moral and exemplary traits. Heroes appeared in myths, epic poems, operas, fairy tales, and, in fact, most story types.

But so the story contains suspense, heroes are never perfect; in fact, in the tradition of Aristotle, they possess a fatal flaw that can be their undoing. But because they are heroes, part of their quest is to rise above this flaw so that their grace, perseverance, and greatness of spirit can inspire and uplift readers. Heroes in fiction are also designed to learn from their mistakes; often they rise from the ashes to defeat the bad guys.

In many of the character types discussed in this book, there are no absolutes, as in “a villain will always be 100 percent evil” or “a hero will 100 percent good.” If there were absolute truths about every character type, it would make our jobs as writers easier, but we’d also end up with parodies or caricatures of the human condition. Likewise, anti-heroes can be difficult to classify because they vary so broadly, and there are few absolute traits shared by every type. You’ll know an anti-hero is in story because he’s in the starring role though his morals and motives are questionable, and despite his moral traits, or lack thereof, you will still sympathize with him. Here are some general differences that I hope will clarify on which side of morality you’ll find an anti-hero, and how an anti-hero is the antithesis of a traditional hero:

  • A hero is an idealist.
  • An anti-hero is a realist.
  • A hero has a conventional moral code.
  • An anti-hero has a moral code that is quirky and individual.
  • A hero is somehow extraordinary.
  • An anti-hero can be ordinary.
  • A hero is always proactive and striving.
  • An anti-hero can be passive.
  • A hero is often decisive.
  • An anti-hero can be indecisive or pushed into action against his will.
  • A hero is a modern version of a knight in shining armor.
  • An anti-hero can be a tarnished knight, and sometimes a criminal.
  • A hero succeeds at his ultimate goals, unless the story is a tragedy.
  • An anti-hero might fail in a tragedy, but in other stories he might be redeemed by the story’s events, or he might remain largely unchanged, including being immoral.
  • A hero is motivated by virtues, morals, a higher calling, pure intentions, and love for a specific person or humanity.
  • An anti-hero can be motivated by a more primitive, lower nature, including greed or lust, through much of the story, but he can sometimes be redeemed and answer a higher calling near the end.
  • A hero is motivated to overcome flaws and fears, and to reach a higher level. This higher level might be about self-improvement, a deeper spiritual connection, or trying to save humankind from extinction. His motivation and usually altruistic nature lends courage and creativity to his cause. Often, a hero makes sacrifices in the story for the better of others.
  • An anti-hero, while possibly motivated by love or compassion at times, is most often propelled by self-interest.
  • A hero (usually when he is the star of the story in genre fiction, such as Westerns) concludes the story on an upward arc, meaning he’s overcome something from within or has learned a valuable lesson in the story.
  • An anti-hero can appear in mainstream or genre fiction, and the conclusion will not always find him changed, especially if he’s a character in a series.
  • A hero always faces monstrous opposition, which essentially makes him heroic in the first place. As he’s standing up to the bad guys and troubles the world hurls at him, he will take tremendous risks and sometimes battle an authority. His stance is always based on principles.
  • An anti-hero also battles authority and sometimes goes up against tremendous odds, but not always because of principles. His motives can be selfish, criminal, or rebellious.
  • A hero simply is a good guy, the type of character the reader was taught to cheer for since childhood.
  • An anti-hero can be a bad guy in manner and speech. He can cuss, drink to excess, talk down to others, and back up his threats with fists or a gun, yet the reader somehow sympathizes with or genuinely likes him and cheer him on.
  • A hero can be complex, but he is generally unambivalent; an anti-hero is a complicated character who reflects the ambivalence of many real people.
  • An anti-hero’s actions and ways of thinking demand that the reader think about issues and ask difficult questions.

For more on this topic, check out Bullies, Bastards & Bitches by Jessica Morrell.