Anti-Heroes: Why We Love Them & Keys Ways to Give Them Depth

Jordan Dane
@JordanDane

After John Gilstrap’s post yesterday on The Code, a nostalgic reflection on storytelling in his lifetime, it got me thinking about my favorite type of protagonist – the anti-hero.

One of the first “in your face” anti-heroes I remember came from the small screen – HOUSE. He said things we might secretly wish we could and get away with it, but when TV audiences saw how deeply flawed he was, coupled with his vulnerabilities and quirky sense of right and wrong, he became endearing and very watchable.

Here are a few outstanding anti-heroes for your consideration:
Michael Corleone from the Godfather
Walter White & Jesse Pinkman from Breaking Bad
John McClane from the Die Hard movies
Don Draper from Mad Men
Tony Soprano from the Sopranos
Ray Donovan from the show by the same name.
Jack Bauer from 24
George Costanza from Seinfeld
Patrick Jane from the Mentalist
Dexter Morgan from Dexter

These amazingly memorable characters have introduced a broader use of gray into classic Hollywood’s black and white world of storytelling where the bad guys literally wore black hats in early films. Anti-heroes aren’t pure heroes in the classic sense. They have flaws and baggage that make them borderline villain, but not quite. It’s up to the author who creates them to infuse something redeemable, even if the author simply gives them a dog, like JOHN WICK.

So why the change toward anti-heroes and why have they become so intriguing?

You’d have to look at how much our world has changed, the complex nature of our lives has shifted our moral compass and made resolutions ambiguous. The simple white hat cowboy may appear weak unless he’s willing to confront dark villains who aren’t hindered by a moral code. Anti-heroes are “over the top” strong in their field and are willing to break conventional rules to save the day once they commit to the fight and cross the point of no return. They right the wrongs that seem insurmountable because they are larger than life and don’t let rules or laws get in the way of justice.

Why are we drawn to anti-heroes?

For me, I see them as flawed. They’re not perfect, like classic heroes in Hollywood or in literature were portrayed. I can relate to them better because it makes me feel as if, given the right circumstances, anyone can rise to the level of hero if they have a cause worth fighting for. We also want to see if they are redeemable. Give your anti-hero a chance to grab at redemption in your book and see if he takes it. Or will he find love from a strong woman? Once we get hooked on an anti-hero, we root for them and feel their pain more when they fall. We want them to get back up, because they’re “every man.” And the fact they are not cookie-cutter, and do surprising things and are unpredictable, they make the storytelling fun.

Who would have rooted for a high school teacher turned drug dealer if we hadn’t learned of his cancer, his concern for his family in the face of his financial meltdown, and his rising medical bills. He’s bucking a broken health care system like David standing before Goliath. He’s more worried over his family than his own recovery. He’s got nothing to lose.

Anti-heroes change our way of thinking about confrontation and empowerment. The right anti-hero can give voice to our frustrations and give us an alternative reality to find justice.

Below are tips to add depth to your anti-hero/heroine & make them sympathetic:

  1. Give Them a Reason—A reader will lose interest if your character is a complete jerk for half the book. Sprinkle in the valid reasons for them being who they are and clue the reader in on these reasons early so they can buy in, even if the other characters don’t know their motivations.
  1. Does Gender Make a Difference? In general, I’ve noticed that readers accept bad boys faster than they embrace a female lead character who isn’t perfect. I don’t know why this is, but it can make crafting your female characters a challenge.
  1. Make them human—Give them a code they live by or loyalties a reader can understand and empathize with. Even a dark anti-hero/heroine has a softer side. In Silence of the Lambs, Hannibal Lecter was Clarice’s protector with his peculiar brand of loyalty.
  1. Give Them a Soft Edge—If you give even the toughest brooding character a pet or a soft spot for a kid, they will be endearing to readers. Write the darkest character and match them up with something soft and you’ve got a winning combination.
  1. Show Respect—Everyone looks up to a good leader. Show that others admire or respect your dark character and the reader will too.
  1. Stick Redemption under Their Nose—Give your anti-hero a shot at redemption. What choice will they make?
  1. Make Them Vulnerable—Pepper in a back-story that makes your anti-hero vulnerable—betrayed by love, lost an important person in their life, or other tragic experience. Make them fearful of something, perhaps even themselves.
  1. Forge Them from Weakness—Alcohol or drugs, adrenaline addict, insurmountable grief, or fear of the dark. Force them to battle with their deepest fears, making them worth someone’s struggle to win them over.
  1. Make Them Corrupted by Life—Have them see life through personal experiences that we can only imagine but they have lived through. Make trust an issue because they have been betrayed. 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 someone else.
  1. Make Them Real—To be real, they must have honest emotions. That means you, as an author, must delve into the murky corners of your own mind to get into their heads. It’s not always an easy thing to do.

DISCUSSION:

1.) Who are some of your favorite anti-heroes and tell us why? (from TV, movies, or books)

2.) Do you have any other anti-hero crafting tips to share?

My anti-hero – Mercer Broderick as Mr. January. Preorder ebook for $2.99 at Amazon.

Zoey Meager risks her life to search for her best friend in a burning warehouse, only to cross the path of Mr. January, a mysterious man with a large black dog completely devoted to its master.

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About Jordan Dane

Bestselling, critically-acclaimed author Jordan Dane’s gritty thrillers are ripped from the headlines with vivid settings, intrigue, and dark humor. Publishers Weekly compared her intense novels to Lisa Jackson, Lisa Gardner, and Tami Hoag, naming her debut novel NO ONE HEARD HER SCREAM as Best Books of 2008. She also pens young-adult novels for Harlequin Teen. Formerly an energy sales manager, she now writes full time. Jordan shares her Texas residence with two lucky rescue dogs.

23 thoughts on “Anti-Heroes: Why We Love Them & Keys Ways to Give Them Depth

  1. You had me at Michael Corleone! What a great list of examples, and what a fabulous list of tips.

    I’m coming up thin on anti-heroines. Maybe Nurse Jackie, or Scarlett O’Hara. Perhaps Catwoman. It’s hard to think of strong examples. Do you think it’s possible that anti-heroines aren’t as beloved because people inherently think women should be maternal and nurturing? Do you think the anti-heroine will become more popular as women take a more equal role in society (status in the workforce, for example).

    (And for the record, I’m not trying to lead this down the road toward a political/feminist debate. I’m just curious about your thoughts on the matter.)

    • Uma Thurman in Kill Bill
      The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo – Lisbeth
      I didn’t see Kill Bill, but in Dragon Tattoo, Lisbeth wasn’t the lead in book 1. She was a compelling secondary character who deserved her own backstory focus or a spin-off.

      I think female anti-hero protags are more challenging to write because of how we view the feminine persona. If you simply write a male anti-hero & switch names to make him a woman for the shock value, viewers or readers have their biases & may not warm up to a dark female character the way filmmakers & writers want them to.

      I have a woman anti-hero in my Mercer’s War series – Mr January’s Keiko Kayakova. I’m completely drawn to her & immediately realized she has a backstory I need to explore & a path forward that will take her into darker situations to test her. I want to see if she is redeemable. She may choose not to be, but my heart aches for her, even when she kills. She’s like a train wreck. I can’t turn away, but a character like this is a risk to write.

      I think female anti-heroes are worth pursuing. I’ve found them a blast to write, but the fact that there are fewer of them can be attributable to the fact that there simply are more male heroes than female. Male heroes appear to be bigger box office draws for film. I hear male actors are paid higher because they draw a larger audience.

      Maybe as we (as a society) see more female anti-heroes, in leading roles, we’ll accept them more. I hope so.

  2. Why is it–and I am likely the most offending offender–when we illustrate things about writing here, we go to movies instead of books?

    Mayhaps because of the finite numbers of movies–I still refuse to stiffen my upper lip and call them films–and the virtually unlimited numbers of books, we will more likely have seen the movies than read the books. I know my book choices would not be a lot of peoples. Some who choose my kind of books may well choose a lot more of my kind of books.

    ‘Tis a mystery not so well contemplated, except by people like me.

    • Hi Jim.

      As you’ve said, It’s easier to illustrate a point based on TV or films because it’s more likely people have seen the show/movie. It reaches a broader audience around the world. With so many book genres, not all readers would read the same book.

      It would be a better world if more people read.

      After I was published, I was drawn to movie makers & script writers & found common ground in creating something magical from virtually nothing but a blank page. I hadn’t realized how much I had in common with film makers, directors, actors, script writers.

    • Jim, I’ll go ahead and be the heretic. Movies and television have had far more influence on my storytelling sensibilities than books have, and in many ways, I believe they provide lessons that every modern writer can learn from, and would be foolish to ignore. Television in particular demands a pithiness in storytelling that has changed the nature of all commercial fiction. It’s visual and impactful. Back when I taught at the Governor’s School at the University of Richmond, I would use television commercials–the good ones, the emotional ones–as examples of effective storytelling. You get an entire arc–a beginning, a middle and an end–all over the course of 30 to 60 seconds.

      I wonder if Dickens would make a dime if he was starting out today. He took so long to get anywhere in a story. As writers, we have to feed the audience if we want to make a living, and audiences are impatient.

      • Hi John. Great perspective. Thanks for joining the discussion.

        On your Dickens example, I have mixed feelings about how writing has changed to perhaps fit the shorter attention spans of readers. I’ve noticed my taste in reading has changed, even though I’m an avid reader and enjoy books everyday. But then, as you say, there is an amazing visual component to film, TV, and yes, commercials. In a nano second, a creative commercial can project emotion in a succinct way. Truly amazing and a lesson for writers, to be sure.

  3. Cowboy hats and anti-heroes sent me straight to Clint Eastwood and his no-name character through his series of spaghetti westerns. Later, Eastwood brought us Dirty Harry, and eventually Walt Kowalski in Gran Torino.

    The Ilona Andrews’ character, Kate Daniels, starts as an anti-hero, eschewing involvement with others and following her own code of behavior. As the series progressed, she morphed into something of a reluctant hero instead.

    Kathy

    • Good additions, Kathy. Eastwood came a long way from his earnest cowboy Rowdy Yates in Rawhide. Tons of great classic anti-heroes in his film career.

      Thank you.

  4. Laurence Sanders had a female anti-hero in I believe “The Fourth Deadly Sin.” She was a serial killer and was given a chance at redemption when she fell in love with one of her victims.
    Good post.

    • Hi Elaine.
      I find it hard to believe that a true serial killer would actually fall in love. Authors can make it happen because it’s their world to create, but from everything I’ve read from FBI profilers, serials “with a heart” would be unrealistic.

      Thanks for your example. I’ll ck it out.

  5. Fantastic tips, Jordan! I once had a big-named publisher reject a manuscript because the protagonist wasn’t “squeaky clean,” spouting nonsense that readers don’t want a hero with one foot on both sides of the law. Thankfully, she was wrong.

    Some of my favorite fictional characters are anti-heroes. Hannibal Lecter tops the list. Really looking forward to Mr. January.

    • She was dead wrong. That’s hilarious. That kind of character is your niche and your voice. It pays to understand who you are as a writer, like you do. And it’s great to have publishing options these days.

      It cracks me up when publishing industry professionals aren’t more attuned to trends that have transpired over decades. As buyers of unpubbed books, they used to try and anticipate trends or shape what they have a vision to see. But publishing buyers today only want sure things they can cherry-pick from indy sales or famous authors. They rarely take a chance at newbies, even if the writing is solid–not like they used to.

      Thanks, Sue. 🙂

  6. A classic anti-hero often cited in written fiction is Holden Caulfield in The Catcher in the Rye (J. D. Salinger). Another, I think, could be Rachel from The Girl on the Train (Paula Hawkins).

    Would someone like Huck Finn (book of the same name) have been considered an anti-hero, do you think?

    • Great additions, Eleanore. I think Huck could be an anti-hero in that he’s an outsider & a rule breaker. Fun suggestion. Thank you.

  7. Raymond Reddington is probably one of my favourite anti-heroes on TV right now. It’s his charm and his loyalty to Liz that counterbalances his violent nature.

    And like John Gilstrap, movies and TV has influenced my writing more than any one author, especially with humour.

    • Absolutely. Blacklist has a great anti-hero & James Spader does a great job portraying Reddington.

      Like John & you, I get a lot from the big & little screens. When I want a visual for action scenes – car & fight scenes – I get a visual inspiration & take notes. I research character motivation or body language, using great actors as examples. There’s also excellent writing on TV/cable/streaming. Tons to learn. Thanks, Mara.

  8. How about Patricia Highsmith’s Tom Ripley? I didn’t really like this character, but I was compelled to keep reading.
    As far as a female anti-hero goes, Amy Dunne in Gone Girl springs to mind. Wouldn’t the femme fatale also fit in to this category, although they were usually minor characters?
    Thanks for a great post Jordan.

    • Hi Linda. Great additions to the discussion. I’m wondering if Amy would be considered an anti-hero in GONE GIRL. She was pretty dark. Her husband seemed more victim than her, but both needed therapy. I would call Amy a frightening villain/femme fatale. What a compelling character.

      I’m glad you liked the post.

  9. What a terrific list of character tips, Jordan. *bookmarks, steals*

    House was my favorite anti-hero. Tom Ripley is a great mention, too. I feel like in the books he leaned more to the villain side. Did you ever see John Malkovich in Ripley’s Game? He’s my favorite Ripley, with the exception of Alain Delon.

    Great post.

    • With the rich way you craft your characters, Laura, I can see how anti-heroes would intrigue you. Thanks for adding to the convo. Hugs.

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