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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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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