Bad Boys & Naughty Girls – You Gotta Love ‘Em

I love the challenge of creating anti-heroes/heroines, making a borderline human being into something more. And the closer to the dark side they are, the better I like it, as a reader and an author. The guy could be dark and brooding, but give him a dog (or a baby) and readers will know instantly that he’s worth loving. Or the woman could be an assassin, but give her a younger sister that she’s protecting for a good reason and I’m on her side.

The popularity of the anti-hero (man or woman) continues to be a strong trend in literature and in pop culture. With their moral complexity, they seem more realistic because of their human frailties. They are far from perfect. They tend to question authority and they definitely make their own rules, allowing us all to step into their world and vicariously imagine how empowering that might feel.

Some classic literary anti-heroes that are personal favorites of mine are:

Holden Caulfield in the Catcher in the Rye by J. D. Salinger, Roland Deschain in Stephen King’s Dark Tower series, Lestat in Anne Rice’s Interview with a Vampire, Hannibal Lecter (as Clarice’s white knight) in Thomas Harris’s Silence of the Lambs, Heathcliff in Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights, and even Scarlett O’Hara in Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind.

And here is a short list of noteworthy anti-heroes from the small screen:

On the TV show, HOUSE, Dr. Greg House is addicted to pain meds, a by-product of his damaged leg. He’s also obnoxious, abrasive, brutally honest, and definitely politically incorrect in how he deals with patients, but he’s damned good at what he does—saving lives. His public face appears to be a detached man who ridicules any real human emotion, yet he’s fascinated by true emotion too. It’s as if he’s an outsider looking in, an observer of the whole human experience. We never quite know if he really cares about his patients or is merely obsessed with being right as he puzzles out the reasons for the illnesses.

On the cable show, DEXTER, the strange anti-hero, Dexter Morgan, is a serial killer with a goal. He hunts serial killers and satisfies his blood lust by killing them. He’s got peculiar values and loyalties with a dark sense of humor. And he’s absolutely fascinating to watch.

On the new show HUMAN TARGET, Christopher Chance has a dark history. He’s a do-it-all anti-hero, former assassin turned bodyguard, who is a security expert and a protector for hire. He works with an unusual and diverse team. His business partner, Winston, is a straight and narrow, good guy while his dark friend, Guerrero, is a man who isn’t burdened by ethics or morality. Each of these men has very different feelings about what it takes to get the job done, but they’ve found common ground to work together. And their differences make for a fun character study. (My favorite character is Guerrero and I wish his character had more airtime.)

I’ve put together a list of writing tips that can add depth to your villain or make your anti-hero/heroine more sympathetic, but let me know if you have other tried and true methods. I’d love to hear them.

1.) Cut the reader some slack by clueing them in early. Your Anti-Hero/Heroine has a very good reason for being the way they are.

2.) Make them human. Give them a code to live by and/or loyalties the reader can understand and empathize with.

3.) Make them sympathetic by giving them a pet or a soft spot for a child. Write the darkest character and match them up with something soft and you’ve got a winning combination that a reader may find endearing.

4.) Show the admiration or respect others have for them.

5.) Give your villain and anti-hero similar motivations for doing what they do. Maybe both of them are trying to protect their family, even though they’re on opposing sides.

6.) Give your villain or anti-hero a shot at redemption. What choice would they make?

7.) Understand your villain’s backstory. It’s just as important as your protagonist’s.

8.) Pepper in a backstory that makes your anti-hero vulnerable.

9.) Give them a weakness. Force them to battle with their deepest fears.

10.) Have them see life through personal experiences that we can only imagine but they have lived through. They must be much more vulnerable than they are cynical to deserve the kind of significant other that it takes to open them up to love.

11.) Make them real. To be real, they must have honest emotions.

If you have favorite anti-heroes you’d love to share, I would love to hear from you. And tell us why you like them so much. I’d also like to know if you have any other writer tips to share on creating anti-heroes. Creating them can be a challenge worth taking. Editors sure seem to love them too.

13 thoughts on “Bad Boys & Naughty Girls – You Gotta Love ‘Em

  1. Couple of my favorites from the movies are Rick Deckard from Blade Runner, and Richard Riddick from Pitch Black. (I guess he has a series spun off for his character, although I’ve never seen it).

    In my current WIP, the “villain” turns out to be a bit of an antihero in his own right, so I’ve had to make him very flawed, yet sympathetic in the end.

  2. Nice post and great list of tips, Jordan. As I started reading, the first name that popped into my head is the Dark Knight, Batman. Lets face it, he’s a vigilante who takes the law into his own hands. He could be convicted in any court as a criminal. But he’s also the last resort when it comes to fighting crime. And even his enemies respect him. His kinder side shows up as Bruce Wayne, a multi-millionaire who has everything but true happiness in his relationships. So as he battles the bad guys, he also has to fight for a normal life that we all know will never come. Batman may not be the best example, but he is a good one for a writer to pattern after.

  3. Good post, Jordan. The thing about Dexter that I can’t get past is how any decent cop father could allow him to be a successful serial killer. I don’t find Dexter the least bit sympathetic, but I really do enjoy watching him go from one fix to another. Dexter has been showing a bit of compassion and emotion lately. If he is a serial killer he has no feelings of compassion, just the ability to mimic emotion or no way to feel actual empathy.

    I do enjoy a good bad guy.

  4. Hey Kathryn–I love Riddick too. And yes, they did more with that character that Vin Diesel played in the movies.

    And like you, I love the challenge of pushing your anti-hero to the brink of being unlikeable (or at the very least–unpredictable) before you find one detail that will endear him or her to the reader. It’s like a tightwire balancing act, but the personal rewards are worth the extra effort.

  5. I love Batman too, Joe. And every big screen batman who has portrayed him, each actor has brought a new aspect to the character, but I’m kind of liking Christian Bale’s version because his portrayal seems more complex with similar traits and backstory to the original. Great example.

  6. Hey John–Yeah, Dexter’s pappa was a stretch for me too, but the premise of the series and the TV show wouldn’t be the same without that bit of weirdness. Maybe the father was balancing his idea of justice with the only way he could have protected his son from his own nature and the law. Strange though. And the TV show killed off his only lifeline to normal by having his wife murdered and leaving him with children.

    And you’ve nailed the one aspect to this show that gets me–are his emotions real or believable? He vascillates between being a really great serial killer of serial killers to a guy who wants to fit in–and that doesn’t compute for me either. His connection to his sister…all that seems inconsistent with the killer he is.

  7. I also wanted to mention Elmore Leonard’s TV series on FX – Justified. Man, I am totally addicted to that show because of the great characters and I’ve got to read the original novella that the show was created from.

    Leonard has said about his own writing style, that “if it sounds like writing, I rewrite it” and he has also said, “Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.”

    He’s creatively behind this TV show and that’s very apparent. Very gritty stuff that can sometimes be hard to watch, but even harder to look away.

  8. Have to admit I don’t watch too much TV anymore, but years ago one of my favourite anti-heroes was the dude from “Forever Knight”, 800 year old vampire guy who felt guilty about sucking people’s blood and makes up for it by being a cop.

    My current WIP features one of my previous good guy characters, CIA deep cover agent Kharzai Ghiassi who has a penchant for silliness and ultra-violent behaviour. Through a tragic event he is suddenly dipping his feet into the dark side. Haven’t worked out yet just how far he goes, or if he comes back to the light at all. One thing is certain though, the good guys don’t want him on the other side…he’s baaaaaaad news with a bulletproof smile.

  9. Hey Basil–I am so intrigued by your character. And with the humor that I know is in your books, his dark side should be laced with it, for sure. That makes for an enticing combo of dark to light.

    One of my bad guys in EVIL WITHOUT A FACE was a Russian former military man who was so unpredictable. He had the discipline of his military mindset but once he got into the private sector, he loved being the shark and it changed him. And I let the reader in on his coy cynical sense of humor that usually highlighted a major cruel streak, but the scarier he was, the more my readers would fear for my bounty hunter woman.

    I wanted the reader to think this guy was on the verge of violence almost everytime he was on the page. He really scared my editor. Guess she thought he’d give her a paper cut…a really nasty one.

    And I think with a character like yours, endearing your character to your readers through humor and other things your guy values, will make for that much more of a tragedy if he suddenly turns to the dark side, so kudos for venturing into a more challenging character study.

    One of my favorite authors is Robert Crais who said in an audio interview that he writes in constant fear, but he trusts the talent that got him to where he is. He said this after he thought his readership would disown him after he wrote LA Requiem, one of my favorites of his (which is saying a lot).

    Keep the faith, Basil. Every time you post to our blog, I take notice because you never fail to surprise me. That’s storytelling, baby.

  10. OMG, Michelle–Deadwood was great. Such an intense show. A very cutting edge western.

    And if I was still writing on, I would be writing more episodes featuring Guerrero for Human Target. I’ll have to check out that site to see if anyone is doing that. HA!

  11. Hey, has anybody read the Repairman Jack series by F. Paul Wilson? Jack is a fabulous anti-hero—just a regular guy from New Jersey who lives under the social radar as an underworld hitman who “repairs” tragic wrongs inflicted on innocent people. In doing so, he descovers he’s been tapped since a youth to save the world from insidious forces in a conspiracy theory against mankind that defies reality. Check out RMJ is one of my favorite series.

  12. Hey Kathleen–Thx for your comment. Repairman Jack sounds like a GREAT character. The hitman angle reminded me of Lawrence Blocks Hitman book about Keller who is a contract killer going through a midlife crisis. But Jack sounds really campy and fun, especially with the world at stake. HA! I’ll have to check this series out. Sounds great.

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