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Wednesday, October 3, 2012

7 Attributes of a Delectable Antihero

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Okay, on to antiheroes.

Why do we love bad boys so much? Why do we love to hate our villains? Why do we love flawed characters?

The answer is that these qualities make the characters more human, which makes them more relatable. It’s hard to love a marble statue, but break that statue down a bit, give it a few chips, a few scares, a few signs of weathering, and suddenly, it has character. (*winks*).

The same is true with our characters. So what makes a great anti-hero?

First, a definition:

Anti-hero: In fiction, a protagonist whose personality can be perceived as being both villainous and heroic together, in contrast to the more perpetually noble characteristics of an archetypal hero or the perpetually immoral characteristics of an archetypal villain. (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Antihero)

So, an Antihero (or heroine) is one whose behavior is very bad, even villainous, but for some reason, the readers find themselves rooting for him/her.

What makes a great antihero? In general, the same things that make a great villain. But also the things that make a great hero. Does anyone know the word dichotomy? In literature it refers to a split personality—one that is perhaps both noble and villainous at the same time. In other words, an antihero.

So, how we do make our readers love our antiheroes?

      1)     Make the reader identify with the Antihero. Make him relatable; make him sympathetic, at least to some extent. This is tricky with an antihero, because you also have to make him villainous. But some aspect of him ought to strike a chord with the reader. In my experience, there’s two ways to do this.

a)     Give him a moral code. (More on this below.)

b)     Give him a sympathetic back story. I've seen this done often and very well. You introduce the villain, show just how deep his douche-baggery goes, then tell his back story. In it, he was abused as a child, lonely neglected, or perhaps went through a ridiculously tragic set of circumstances that embittered him to the world. Does his past excuse his behavior? For a villain, no. For an antihero, perhaps. It just depends on the character and how you want to play it. Either way, at least your reader understands him a bit, now. Whether they agree with him or not, they identify with him. Suddenly, they find themselves invested, and taking sides.

      2)     Allow the reader to get inside the antihero’s head and see the world through his/her eyes. It doesn't matter what POV you write in. Just make sure the reader is privy to the antihero’s thoughts and feelings. It’s too easy to dismiss him otherwise.

Antiheroin: Victoria Grayson of Revenge
Photo Credit: imdb.com
      3)     Give your antihero/ine a specific moral code.THIS IS KEY TO BELIEVABILITY!!! If one moment your character is murdering people
     and the next they’re kissing babies, and it’s unclear why, the reader is going to have a hard time suspending disbelief. That is, they won’t! Hannibal Lecter was the ultimate example of this. Obviously he had no problem with murder and cannibalism, but he hated it when people were rude. He was a great believer in polite conversation and social graces. Bizarre? Yes, but that’s the definition of psychopath, folks.
      Give your antihero/ine a moral code and stick to it. Your readers will both love and believe in them more.

      4)     Don’t let your antihero/ine rationalize or lie to themselves. The creepiest kinds of villains (and therefore antiheroes) are ones that are confident in what they’re doing. They have no qualms about their moral code at all. If they’re killing, it’s because they believe it’s their right, responsibility, true nature, etc. Don’t let them argue with themselves over morals. The hero can definitely do this, but he instant your starts doing it, their status as villain or anti-hero becomes shaky.
      Don’t get me wrong: I've seen plenty of stories where the villain is converted or the antihero becomes a better person. That’s fine. Just understand that at that point, your villain and/or antihero may no longer be filling those respective roles anymore.Suddenly, they might find themselves in the role of the hero. Make sure you’redoing what you want to do with your character, and what your story needs you to do.

Antihero: Damon of Vampire Diaries
Photo Credit: vampirediaries.wikia.com
      5)     Make everyone else in the antihero’s world worse than they are. So, perhaps your antihero is an assassin for the mob. His moral code is that, while yes he does do murder on a regular basis, he does not kill children and he does not kill women, unless the woman herself is committing heinous crimes against humanity. If you’re going to make your audience like this character, you’ll have to surround him with people that have no problem killing women, abusing children, perhaps doing rape. That way, he looks better than those around him and you see that, although he is despicable in our world, he is the noble hero of his own.

      6)     Give your antihero as many positive qualities as possible. Going along with #5, try to give him good qualities to balance out the bad. Perhaps in some secret corner of the city, he keeps and cares for an ailing parent. Perhaps he has a verbally abusing spouse he puts up with.Perhaps he helps in the soup kitchen when he’s not assassinating people, or sculpts orchids to find peace. Give him positive qualities your reader can latch onto.  If they’re going to like him, you have to give them some hope for him. Positive qualities will do this.

      7)     Make him the hero of his own story. It’s been said that everyone sees themselves this way. Make sure your antihero/ine does too. This isn't the same thing as making him like himself necessarily—many antiheroes know how despicable they are—but make him passionate about what he’s doing. Make sure he thinks he’s doing the right thing and has his own hopes, dreams, fears, and goals.

Al Pacino as Richard III
Photo Credit: threepochtimes.com
According to Wikipedia, the term for antihero was coined around 1714 A.D., but the idea had been around for hundreds of years before that. (The ultimate antihero in my book will always be Shakespeare’s Richard III). Antiheroes are more relatable than villains, but often more compelling than heroes. When done well, they can deepen the scope of any story and grip the heart of every reader.

If you want a few examples, there are some great ones currently on TV. Check out Damon on CW's The Vampire Diaries and (pitch perfect!) Victoria Grayson on ABC's Revenge. Holy antihero/ine paradise! Trust me! :D

1 comment:

  1. These are great tips. There is a fine line between hero and antihero. The great ones, like Mal on Firefly have the right mix between hero and antihero.