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.

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As a writer, do your characters invade your “real life”?


“Careful, dear. You’re acting like your character.”

That was my husband’s warning to me last week, after I survived a risky (and slightly smelly) stand-off with a mentally challenged dude on board a tram in Portland. For the roily details, see last week’s post, Too close for comfort.

I escaped from that little adventure with nary a scrape. In fact, I ended the episode with a thumbs-up sign and a jaunty little wave; but seriously, my part in the encounter was stupid. I could have gotten my ass seriously kicked by that guy, or worse.

All of which got me to thinking: To what extent (if any) does our writing affect our choices and actions in “real life”? Is there a bright red line that is never crossed between fantasy on the page and reality? Or do you find that there is ever any psychological “page-bleed,” as they say in the publishing world?

In my case, last week’s tram episode was completely out of character for the “real me,” Kathryn Lilley. Ever since I was an adolescent, I’ve always been a shy, retiring soul. I’ve traditionally avoided eye contact with strange men, much less interaction. In the past, I would never have tried to remove a mentally disturbed person on public transportation. (And let’s be honest—what I did was supremely stupid. I’ve been told by a number of Herman Munster-sized, macho-macho guys that the only reason I’m alive today is that I’m a woman, and that I stayed utterly calm throughout the encounter. Seriously, my heart rate didn’t even increase. I have no idea why.).

But ever since I started writing the Fat City Mysteries, I’ve found that I’ve been getting deeper and deeper into the emotions of my main character, Kate Gallagher. And now, I’m like one of those actors who stays “in character” between shooting scenes of a film. In many aspects of my life, I find myself coming up with quicker ripostes, more assertive actions—bottom line is, I’m acting more like Kate.

So my question is, is this experience a unique and unhealthy response to getting too deeply involved in the writing or characterization process? Have the rest of you experienced anything remotely similar?

But just as a reassurance to myself, I have made a solemn vow—no matter how much Kate Gallagher inhabits my thoughts and feelings, going forward, I will never, ever again attempt to toss someone off a tram.

It can be way too hazardous to your health.
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