A is for Anti-heroes

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Welcome to “Authors’ Tips – A to Z of Writing”

This is a new series of blog posts where eight of us – Devika Fernando, Preethi Venugopala, Paromita Goswami, Adite Banerjie, Ruchi Singh, Sudesna Ghosh, Saiswaroopa Iyer and I – will post on a myriad of writing-related topics with the topic corresponding to the Alphabet of the Week.

We are starting with the letter Α, a very good place to start, and Adite has set the ball rolling with her post on Authenticity in Writing. I am writing on A is for Antiheroes…

Anti-heroes are the coolest, the most rebellious, horribly conflicted creatures. They are actually heroes (men or women) only they don’t know it yet. They tend to get as villainous as they possibly can without actually crossing the line into outright villainy.

If they did cross that line, they’d be villains, wouldn’t they?

And that’s where the definition of the antihero lies:

  • Somewhere between hero and villain.
  • Not the antagonist, but not quite the adorable, flawless protagonist either.
  • Not chocolate-sweet, but also not strychnine-level evil.

Complex. Dark. Just the way we like them.

It can be hard to write them.

In ‘Take One Fake Fiance’, I wrote a dark Tanay Devkumar – suspicious, paranoid, possessive. Then, as I read and reread his scenes, I was agonized. Was he too negative? Too dark? Violent?

Final Cover TOFF 50%

I went and erased or softened some of the things he’d done. I reread him and crossed my fingers, hoping I hadn’t diluted the complicated man that he was. Apparently, I hadn’t – a critic on Goodreads called him borderline. She gave the book a one-star, but I exulted – I had created an A-for-Authentic anti-hero!

Why is Tanay an anti-hero and not an antagonist?

Good question. After all, he has selfish motives when he agrees to help Mita, the female lead in ‘Take one Fake Fiance’. It is for self-gain and not out of a sense of altruism.

Also, he is fiercely opposed to her goals, even using some shady means to thwart her, so why do I call him the anti-hero and not the villain of the piece?

It’s easy – it’s because he has many redeeming features. He’s kind to and gentle with old people, and is polite to people who help him – people in the service industry. He is a devoted brother, a caring, grateful friend. Most of all, Tanay hates and is disturbed by his inability to stop behaving badly where Mita is concerned.

It is this conflict between who he is and who he wants to be that saves Tanay Devkumarit keeps him on the sweet side of the line between good and evil. Antihero

Tanay transforms into a hero – and that is where an anti-hero differs from a villain or a true antagonist – he can change. He changes mentally and/or spiritually to become a worthy protagonist.

My favorite anti-hero is Jack Sparrow (Pirates of the Caribbean), if not Darcy (Pride and Prejudice) sigh – tough call!

When writing your anti-hero, don’t be so soft that you end up with a character who is bland and uni-dimensional; on the other hand, don’t make him so hateful that the readers loathe him and put down the book.

It isn’t easy to create an anti-hero, but it isn’t impossible if you keep some pointers in mind. Here are tips on how to write an anti-hero who stops well shy of pure villainy:

  1. Build something into the character that readers will love – animal lover, humorous, fervent environmentalist…It is hard to completely hate somebody who loves kittens, for example.
  2. All humans have contradictory traits – good and bad – so should the anti-hero. These contradictions will make him real for the reader. It will remind them of somebody they know – maybe even remind them of themselves. We want readers to see glimpses of goodness in the anti-hero, even though, in the early part of the story, it’s all mainly bad-ass-ness. Show that the heart is gold even if the deeds are devilish.
  3. Give them a strong, compelling reason for their bad behavior – Tanay, for example, had a terrible childhood fraught with separation and desertion issues, which makes him suspicious and possessive.
  4. Don’t make them irremediably immoral. Weak and flawed, yes, breaks a few rules, yes, immoral, no! Immorality is hard to forgive and most readers will likely lose all sympathy with your supposed anti-hero. We can’t have that happen, so even if your anti-hero is an art thief, make her upright in her dealings with other people, or meticulous and fair in the distribution of the ill-gotten wealth.
  5. Make sure the anti-hero transforms. Where, initially, he may shun traditionally acceptable behavior, and his actions may be screwed-up, have his character arc develop such that he is forced to become more responsible and is able to escape the shackles that tie him down to the anti-hero role.

To complete the discussion, this delightful list distinguishes between a hero and the anti-hero – it has been adapted from Writer’s Digest:

Hero Anti-hero
An idealist A realist
Has a conventional moral code Has a quirky and individual moral code
Is extraordinary Can be ordinary
Is always proactive and striving Can be passive
Is often decisive Can be indecisive or pushed into action against his will
Is a modern version of a knight in shining armor Is a tarnished knight, and sometimes a criminal
Is motivated by virtues, morals, a higher calling, pure intentions, and love for a specific person or humanity Can be motivated by a more primitive, lower nature, including greed or lust…but he can sometimes be redeemed and answer a higher calling…

Do you have a favorite anti-hero? Or if you’re an author, have you ever written an anti-hero? What was he/she like?

Read other posts related to Authors’ Tips – A to Z of Writing

12 thoughts on “A is for Anti-heroes

    1. Reet Singh

      Absolutely, Adite. It should be the first step, I think – get to know your characters before you get into the thick of things!

    1. Reet Singh

      Thanks for visiting, Devika. It is an intriguing concept, the anti-hero, and I was happy to get under the skin of what it means to be one!

    1. Reet Singh

      Exactly, Preethi – it is hard work but worth it if you can get authors to love-hate your anti-hero!

  1. Jitendra Mathur

    I have penned a murder mystery novel (in Hindi) and presented a kind of anti-hero in that who is not the typical villain but a combination of protagonist and antagonist. Basically he is an idealist and a very nice, virtuous person from inside but believes in punishing the bad ones by his own hands and settling own scores himself. The title of my novel (e-book) is Qatl Ki Aadat (a habit to commit a murder).

    1. Reet Singh

      Sounds interesting, Jitendra – I am sure your readers appreciate the anti-hero in your story. All the best.

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