Storytelling

Creating Distinct and Grounded Anti-Heroes

Deadpool has bloody methods and an inability to play well with other heroes.

People are flawed, complicated, and strange, but heroes are often simplified and put on pedestals. We don’t need to make everything dark and gritty, but pretending that humanity is spotless limits our stories.

That’s where anti-heroes come in. They subvert heroic stereotypes; rather than a selfless white knight that does everything for noble reasons, an anti-hero might be a greedy thief interested in saving their own skin. In similar circumstances, a hero and an anti-hero will act differently. That means anti-heroes can address issues that may be passed over in stories with conventional heroes.

What Anti-Heroes Can Bring to a Story

Anti-heroes bring different things to the table than standard heroes.

Subverting Expectations

Typical heroes are very specific types of characters that often fall into rigid roles, but anti-heroes twist expectations by breaking standard conventions. Audiences have expectations about what drives typical heroes and how they act; however, when your anti-hero makes a choice that a hero never would, it can add interest and excitement to your story. Since protagonists usually win by the end, an anti-hero can set up for an ending where the protagonist fails.

Showing a Different Perspective

Morality is not a simple or binary system. Social views can change over time and differ from place to place. Standard heroes often like to pretend that they’re always at their best, but anti-heroes buck that tradition. Showing the stories of people we’re not used to hearing about can remind us that there are many different viewpoints and beliefs, and not all of them are accepted or mainstream.

The story’s setting, the audience’s culture at large, and their individual beliefs will change who is and isn’t an anti-hero. By depicting an anti-hero with questionable actions, then showing those actions in a positive or negative light, you can also push your audience to see things differently.

Enabling Character Change

Characters shouldn’t be stagnant. Everybody makes mistakes, and learning from them is a key part of living. But typical heroes often have too few flaws to learn from. Then they always learn the best possible lesson and become better people.

Anti-heroes encourage us to let the main character screw up once in a while; then we take away something important from the experience. Your character can start as an anti-hero but then learn from how they screwed up, which will make them a typical hero. Although, they might also pick up the wrong message, becoming more vicious and rough. Either way, they change, and that creates a strong character arc.

Components of an Anti-hero

Analyzing characters by their motives, methods, flaws, and design gives us a clear idea of how to craft them.

Motive

You imagine a savior as someone who nobly defends the downtrodden, but Autumnlands shows us that isn’t necessarily the case.

Motive tells us a ton about a character. Typical white knights are driven by selfless goals, but anti-heroes can pick from more options by stepping out of the limited heroic archetype. While any type of hero might slay a dragon, they will make a different impression if they do it for the reward. This change in perception is important; characters will be perceived as terrible people if they fight for the “right” side for all the wrong reasons.

Spoiler Notice: The beginning of Kurt Busiek’s Autumnlands.

Example

Kurt Busiek’s Autumnlands depicts a caste society where wizards rule over everyone from their flying cities.The wizards try to summon a savior but instead pull a brutal soldier into the world. The ritual ends up driving the city into the ground, and the tribes sitting at the bottom of the totem pole take up arms and start massacring the wizards.The savior freely admits he knows the wizards are dicks. The only reason he fights for them is that he made a split-second choice of sides when he was summoned. He even understands that there is always a losing side, which tells us of his experience with endless war. He fights simply because that is all he knows. The savior could easily have been a villain, but this perspective makes him a protagonist with some questionable qualities.

Method

Nimona is a complicated character with some questionable tactics Nimona is a complicated character with some questionable tactics

Anti-heroes typically take up immoral or unconventional tactics. Characters with noble motives could have extreme methods if they believe the ends justify their means. Anti-heroes can even be psychopaths, using violent, deceptive, and manipulative tactics. They might sacrifice other characters to achieve their goals.

Example

Noelle Stevenson’s Nimona is an assistant to the super villain Ballister Blackheart. They end up fighting against the Institution, a government agency guilty of some pretty heinous things. Nimona is a trickster and shapeshifter who is comfortable with leaving bodies behind and making tough decisions. Far from heartless, she is a complicated and compelling character with some bloody methods.

Flaw

Jessica Jones has a number of issues to deal, including alcholism. Jessica Jones has a number of issues to deal with, including alcoholism.

All characters should have flaws, but there is a different and deeper need with anti-heroes. Heroes like Superman are portrayed as being better than the average man, and his flaws aren’t related to immorality. In general, anti-heroes are usually a little less moral, as they are often imperfect people put in extraordinary circumstances. Often, they have vices or personality problems. It’s common for anti-heroes to have trouble working with others for all kinds of reasons, including pride or just plain being a jerk.

Example

Netflix’s Jessica Jones is pretty clearly designed to be more of an anti-hero. She suffers from alcoholism, a disease that sometimes hinders her relationships with others. That’s not as telling as her personality, as she is prickly and doesn’t play well with others. Her surly and rough nature don’t stop her from being a hero that sometimes helps people; it just helps define her.

Design

Rorschach is far from a nice person, but his tragic back story explains a lot about why that is. Rorschach is far from a nice person, but his tragic back story explains a lot about why that is. Watchmen by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons

You can add a lot of detail to a character by shaping their appearance and background. Outfits, scars, and even hygiene can say a lot about a character while simultaneously setting them apart. Their past history or upbringing is important, and even if you don’t tell that story, consider how it impacts who they are and how they act later in life. Often, anti-heroes have especially dark beginnings that end up affecting them later on.

Example

Rather than go for the low-hanging fruit that is Batman, let’s think about Alan Moore’s Rorschach. All the major characters in Watchmen have unique costumes, but what sets Rorschach apart is his sordid and depressing life as a child. He ends up a brutal killer with thoroughly religious and reactionary social views. I also appreciate Rorschach’s mask – his views on morality may be black and white, but he’s pretty damn far from a white knight, given how much literal dirt and blood covers him.

Anti-hero is not a clear-cut definition; it’s a sliding scale with Superman on one end and Punisher towards the other. At one extreme, we have a nearly flawless demigod, and at the other we have a damaged mass murderer of criminals. Ultimately, all protagonists fall somewhere on the spectrum, and determining where is a key step in the building process. Craft your protagonists to fit your tale, and it can allow you to comment on touchy subjects like morality just by depicting your characters well.

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Comments

  1. Hunter-Wolf

    But lately there has been a surge in villains playing the main role in the story as it seems anti-heroes are growing old/boring nowadays, and i mean straight-up villain not extreme anti-heroes, sometimes it works like in case of Walter White from Breaking Bad (who is in no way an anti-hero) because of how well executed the series was, how good Bryan’s acting was and the fact there were some other side characters to root for and care about .. with all that it worked, it’s IMO one of the best examples of villains as protagonists.

    On the other hand there are terrible examples of that, the Thorns book trilogy is one of them, the protagonist is just a murderous blood-thirsty rapist, so is his entire group of bandits, and the people he is fighting against are equally bad, with pretty much no character to root for and noting but senseless rape and murder going on it’s really hard to read, it simply is so bad that it could make people disregard the whole idea of villains as protagonists.

    An example that i’m not sure how to feel about is Nightcrawler, the main character again does really terrible things (mostly for terrible reasons), and they get away with most of it, on one hand at the end of the movie i’m not even sure what was the point of the story, and that’s kinda too depressing, but on the other hand Jake Gyllenhaal acting was so damn good, there were a lot of intense moments and interesting new things to learn about the inner-workings of getting new on the screen so it evens out in the end .. i can’t say it’s the best example but at least the movie itself has redeeming qualities despite it’s main character lacking any.

  2. Tyson Adams

    It is interesting that the bad-guy protagonist is often mistaken for an anti-hero. There is a fine distinction that as far as I can tell is related to how cool the character is.

    As an example, Dexter is a bad-guy. He is a serial killer with no redeeming qualities, but he is written and portrayed as the protagonist so that we empathise with him. He can’t be an anti-hero just because he preys on bad people because of Harry’s code. We think he is cool because he is killing bad-guys, who we are set up to regard as worse.

    • Oren Ashkenazi

      You think so? In the first two seasons at least, Dexter struck me as a clear anti-hero. He cares for his sister and his girl friend, even if it’s in a weird way. Perhaps more importantly, he’s aware of his own murderous impulses and channels them into killing other bad people. He doesn’t seem any worse than a lot of other protagonists who kill lots of bad people with less reason.

      Frank Underwood on the other hand, strikes me as a full on protagonist villain, because he isn’t trying to do any kind of good. He’s just in it for himself.

      • Tyson Adams

        I think that is the viewer buying into liking Dexter whilst forgetting he is a monster. He doesn’t actually care for his sister or family, particularly Rita. Although it is implied in the books that he does care a bit about Cody and Astor because they are like him. The awareness of his urges is more about him not getting caught and how Harry (foster dad) trained him.

        Essentially, without Harry’s training he would just be another serial killer. He isn’t killing bad guys to stop them being bad, he’s killing bad guys because he’s a bad guy and wants to kill.

        Should be noted my view is more influence by the books, as I got bored with the TV show early on. It is very clear just how little empathy he has for those around him, and makes the distinction of him being a protagonist more clear.

        Although, anti-hero vs villain/protagonist article sequel, Oren?

      • Carly

        Anti-heroes can be like that as well, I think.

    • Hunter-Wolf

      I don’t think it’s about coolness factor, but rather their motivation, anti-heroes and villains have a common point … It’s that their methods are dark, brutal, messy and/or illegal.

      On the other hand the main difference between the two like i said is their goals, why they are doing those terrible things, that’s why anti-heroes keep the “hero” part, they are trying to do something “heroic” but their methods are just unsavory.

      But the villains who take the protagonist mantle are usually only out for themselves, both their goals and methods are terrible, Jake Gyllenhaal’s chatacter in Nightcrawler is a villain, he lacks any redeeming qualities and does plenty of terrible things all for very selfish and materialistic reasons, he can’t be called anti-hero under any circumstances.

      While anti-heroes like Jessica Jones from the Marvel TV series (or the Punisher from Daredevil S2) do plenty of terrible things (killing, kidnapping, public property destruction, torture .. etc, etc) they still have both redeeming qualities as well as good motivations, thus making them feel quite heroic despite their messy methods.

      • Tyson Adams

        I agree.

        My point about coolness is about how people often confuse the villain protagonist for the anti-hero. We get suckered in by the character’s charisma, or by identifying with aspects of their character or ideals, or we are set up to empathise with them. Psychopaths are often charismatic and are able to manipulate others, but make them the protagonist and we might end up forgetting they are bastards.

  3. Carly

    Sherlock isn’t necessarily heroic, and often solves cases but forgets to think about the people, but isn’t a psychopath, since he would never intentionally hurt someone, and his friends are Lestrade, John, Molly, Mrs. Hudson and Mary.

  4. Carly

    I might’ve forgotten to mention that, in Yu-Gi-Oh!, Atem and Seto Kaiba are anti-heroes. Atem is pretty brutal and although he did save his people and the world from darkness before, he’s also driven people insane and killed a lot of bad guys. And Kaiba only helps out when his brother is in danger. Most of the time, he and Atem are competing against each other and often times, Kaiba LOSES, and he’s a jerk.

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