Writing the Anti Hero


Anonymous asked: “Hi Lizard. What are your opinion on writing a good anti hero? What if I have a main character who’s motivations are selfish and methods are deplorable and still want people to root for them?”

I get questions about anti heroes all the time and I think sometimes people forget what an anti hero is. Anti heroes are simple heroes that seem to lack heroic qualities though are thrust into this role anyway.

This means that sometimes they are flawed, sometimes they don’t look the part of the hero, they might be a bundle of nerves and stress in the face of danger, or morally ambiguous. I just read Libba Bray’s The Diviners and its protagonist Evie O’Neill is definitely an anti hero. She’s a young, glib flapper-girl who loves to party. She’s a bit ditzy and silly and even selfish at times. She’s not particularly a good friend or considerate person but she’s not heartless. As you read, she feels like a protagonist and like a hero, but here and there you see instances where she disobeys her Uncle to go out partying or says something selfish to her friend Mabel. She’s not perfect – far from it – though she would be unlikely to admit it. She tries to do the right thing in times when it matters, and she often does, but that’s never a given. She’s mostly good and I think that’s an important distinction.  

The thing is anti heroes are not always going to be the most likable people if they are the kind of protagonist who does the wrong thing. It’s a given. Not every reader will love them because of that, but for the right reader, it’s great. Holden Caulfield is a quintessential anti hero. And just about half the people who read The Catcher in the Rye hate it because of him. Growing up, it was one of my favorite books, but I was one of those right readers for it. I found his flaws relatable and his faults human. Again, he was mostly good. 

 Other examples include Lisbeth Salander from Stieg Larsson’s The Millennium Trilogy and Winston Smith from Orwell’s 1984. 

When setting out to write an anti hero, I think most of the mistakes come in overdoing it with the character’s bad behavior. A lot of the time now I think when people think anti hero, they think Breaking Bad’s Walter White and I hate to break it to you, but Walter White is not an anti hero. Within a few seasons, he’s not a hero anymore. He’s just bad. So he can’t be an anti hero. Let’s not debate this. There are other interesting things that go on with his character arc, but if you want to write a character like that, it’s a different conversation. 

Anti heroes are still heroes. There’s even a whole different category for the heroes that fail and their flaw results in a horrible demise (ie: tragic heroes, Hamlets of the world). So, you have to remember that. They often want to save the day at least on some level. They usually are more good than evil and even when they’re evil, the thing I see most is their bad deeds are relatable bad deeds. They might not do the right thing but they do the human thing, the easy thing, the understandable thing instead. 

That’s not a rule across the board though. Dexter Morgan from the TV series Dexter is an anti hero. He’s a serial killer. He kills people. That is a really bad evil, but at the same time, he has a strict moral code. He kills other serial killers, which is a little bit better. He’s a bit of a vigilante. At the same time, he likes kids. He’s nice to people in his daily life even if he doesn’t especially like them. He is kind of a good guy at the end of the day, even if he happens to also be a serial killer. The fun with this is that there’s a sense of humor. We see into his head and his logic which is framed with comedy so we can more fully see the begrudgingly good side of his personality. 

In the end, I think no matter what you’re writing, write it to the best of your abilities. Terms like anti hero, tragic hero, hero, etc. don’t matter all that much to the reader as they’re reading the story, it’s all about writing interesting an interesting story however that may be. 

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