Image: Matthew Loffhagen
Readers love antiheroes. Complex, often morally questionable characters who make the choices heroes won’t or can’t, and open up exciting new ways of experiencing the world.
Choosing to write an antihero gives an author a lot of freedom for the plot to go anywhere they like, but it also presents unique challenges in characterization and structure.
So how do you write a great antihero, the kind that readers obsess over, even as they find themselves unable to root for the character’s success? It’s a little to do with presentation and a lot to do with author knowledge, but it’s also almost entirely dependent on your ability to understand that you’ll have to create from scratch some elements that heroic characters have automatically.
But, as ever, first things first…
What is an antihero?
As a term ‘antihero’ is more about what it doesn’t define than what it does. As far as general use goes, an antihero is a central character who lacks traditional heroic virtues or goals.
That’s all well and good, but it’s a definition that’s too wide to be useful for writers. It covers, for example, both the cowardly, comedic wizard Rincewind from Terry Pratchett’s The Last Continent and the psychopathic killer Patrick Bateman from Brett Easton Ellis’ American Psycho.
Rincewind lacks the traditional hero’s bravery, and even the willingness to engage with the world around him, with many gags based on the premise that in trying to run from various problems he nevertheless ends up accidentally solving them. Bateman, meanwhile, is such a violent and transgressive character that, according to Alison Kelly of The Guardian, ‘in some countries [the book] is deemed so potentially disturbing that it can only be sold shrink-wrapped’.
While there is overlap in almost all areas of writing, clearly a subgroup of character which includes both these examples needs some further delineation.
This delineation can be found by asking:
‘How does the reader feel about the character’s actions?’
In the case of Rincewind, and other characters like him, the reader is allied with his goals as much as they would be a hero’s. This applies also to roguish heroes, or those characters who have a dark past but switch to the side of the angels. Unheroic they may seem, but structurally they fulfill the same role as heroes in other stories.
For these sort-of-antiheroes, the reader is still allied with the character, and the goal of the writer is that they should ‘accept’ them. The reader is asked to invest emotionally, and to care about the character’s journey and success in such a way that they can be said to support them.
More fitting of the ‘antihero’ title are characters such as American Psycho’s Bateman, and Alex from Anthony Burgess’ A Clockwork Orange. Characters like this really are the antithesis of heroism, and the writer never expects the reader to fully support them. While they may feel ownership of the character, and may invest in their exploits, they will never accept them. They do not support their journey and success, but rather are interested in how they unfold.
The unacceptable antihero
That’s not to say that the reader can’t like an antihero, or even that they can’t eventually side with them, only that they are not automatically in agreement with their goals.
Readers have an automatic empathy with positive goals. Set off to kill a dragon, or solve a crime, and it’s already accepted that these are things a person would want to do. An explanation can enhance characters, but their goals are already justified.
When an antihero’s goals are negative or destructive, however, the reader’s assumptions are turned on their heads. If a character wants to murder, steal, or hoard gold, then the reader asks why. This is why so many stories that centre around an antihero are really just extensive character studies. Authors take the reader’s questions and use them to drive the story.
Writing a great antihero depends on your ability to harness and control this lack of understanding. In unskilled hands it’s enough to drive a reader away – why follow a character who you don’t agree with or understand? – but for a skilled author it’s the enigma that makes the antihero the most fascinating character type of all.
Discordancy and fascination
Readers are used to being the central character’s ally, so when the antihero rebuffs this support they’re not just left with an absence, they’re left with an awareness of that absence.
Initially the antihero feels more removed than a regular hero would at the same point in the story. From this point there are two directions you can go. The first is to play up the enigma of the antihero. This can be seen in books such as We Need to Talk About Kevin. The entire novel is an exploration of what exactly is wrong with the titular character and his mother, and what caused it. The author, Lionel Shriver, takes control of Kevin’s otherness, and teases out possible explanations and insights to the delight / horror of the reader.
The other path is to make the antihero as engaging as possible. This can be seen in Chuck Palahniuk’s Fight Club, where radical anarchist Tyler Durden is portrayed as incredibly gifted and charismatic.
I asked if Tyler was an artist. Tyler shrugged… What Tyler had created was the shadow of a giant hand… he said how at exactly four-thirty the hand was perfect. The giant shadow hand was perfect for one minute, and for one perfect minute Tyler sat in the palm of a perfection he’d created himself. One minute was enough, Tyler said, a person had to work hard for it, but a minute of perfection was worth the effort. A moment was the most you could ever expect from perfection.
– Chuck Palahniuk, Fight Club
Palahniuk enhances Durden’s presence by giving his ethos center stage. His actions, villainous though they are, are compared to the humdrum nature of the narrator’s life prior to meeting Durden.
Fight Club’s final act is based on the narrator’s, and the reader’s, realization that Tyler’s charisma and confidence have obscured the presence of something truly dangerous, while We Need to Talk About Kevin reaches a climax when even Kevin admits he doesn’t understand what or why he is.
Either option is fine, but what will never work is leaving the otherness of the antihero unaddressed. It can be fixed, as it is with Durden, or developed, as with Kevin, but if you simply proceed as if it is not the case – or leave it until later in your work to address – then the discordancy will only grow more apparent and more irritating to the reader.
Many authors try this, introducing an antihero and then having the author accompany them through the story with no attention paid to their lack of automatic connection. The result is harmful to the work but seldom dramatic: the reader simply realizes they do not care about the character they’re stuck with. Think of reading a book in which a character seems spoiled. You are less likely to care about their tribulations or goals, and too much time in their company is tiring.
Whether you decide to play to your antihero’s otherness or compensate for it, knowing their backstory is essential to success.
Backstory and truth
I’ve written about backstory before, and everything I said then is especially true for antiheroes. For regular characters, 60% of their backstory should be unrevealed. I don’t mean you should withhold details, but that for however much you share with the reader you should know even more.
The effect of knowing such a huge amount of backstory for characters is that you understand their truth on a fundamental level. This is incredibly important for antiheroes, because if their goals aren’t self-explanatory then you need to have the explanation.
Knowing why an antihero is who they are allows you to portray their actions in a consistent manner. This will be apparent to the reader on a subconscious level, allowing them to see that there is a consistent truth to the character which is out of their reach.
You can’t fake this level of detail, but if you can create it then readers will understand the complexity under the antihero’s surface and be fascinated by it.
In A Clockwork Orange the antihero Alex is a murderous, rapacious gang member. The reader is never given a complete explanation for his behavior, but it’s suggested that the society in which he lives – coupled with the excess of adolescence – is partly to blame.
To simply have Alex be a murderous criminal would provide spectacle, but no insight. Instead, Burgess gives Alex a system of belief – he is a hedonist. He hurts other people because he enjoys it, and because he accepts that as adequate justification.
Because of this underlying system of belief, Burgess is able to write details which speak to a deeper complexity in Alex. He truly appreciates classical music, a detail which should feel incongruous to his violence and evil but instead feels true. Why? Because it is an extension of the character’s hedonism. The music is grand and indulgent – his appreciation is not separate from his violence, but comes from the same impulses.
Even when Alex abandons violence at the book’s end he doesn’t do it because he has learned to be moral, but because he no longer enjoys it. He resolves to settle down and raise a family because the biological urgency of youth has gone, and he thinks he might find pleasure there. The reader is therefore presented with an ‘ultraviolent’ sociopath who loves classical music and eventually stops his violent ways to get married. None of these details seem like they should work together, but the consistent truth of Alex’s character is such that the reader understands them all as an extension of his underlying personality.
Similarly in We Need to Talk About Kevin, Kevin seems to be partly motivated by the fact that his mother, though she doesn’t like him, partly understands his nature. This leads to many acts which seem confusing out of context, half love and half disdain, but speak to a deeper complexity that keeps readers hooked on the idea of unravelling the truth.
“Nothing is really happening. You read the paper, or if you’re into that sort of thing you read a book, which is just the same as watching only even more boring. You watch TV all night, or maybe you go out so you can watch a movie, and maybe you’ll get a phone call so you can tell your friends what you’ve been watching. And you know, it’s got so bad that I’ve started to notice, the people on TV? Inside the TV? Half the time they’re watching TV. Or if you’ve got some romance in a movie? What do they do but go to a movie? All those people, Marlin,” he invited the interviewer in with a nod. “What are they watching?”
After an awkward silence, Marlin filled in, “You tell us, Kevin.”
“People like me.”
– Lionel Shriver, We Need to Talk About Kevin
We understand and empathize with heroes. The more traditional they are, the more fully we are able to project ourselves into their role. Heroes, then, allow us to learn about ourselves by accompanying a proxy through a hypothetical situation.
In comparison, what do antiheroes show us? They can show us other people, or on a deeper level, those parts of the human condition that we acknowledge but do not understand. Why, when we know one thing is right, would someone choose to do the opposite?
This question is important because it doesn’t have a satisfactory answer. The human condition is incredibly complex, and our understanding of others is always based on our own assumptions. To achieve full understanding of another ethos is a rare thing, and this is what the antihero provides.
Through your antihero the reader experiences the ‘other’, which is why it is so vital that there is a consistent truth to your antihero. Equally, the only way to write a truly great antihero is to never fully expose them. We don’t really know if Kevin could have grown up good if his mother liked him, we don’t really believe that a less totalitarian society would fix Alex, and by the end of American Psycho we’re not even sure if the antihero has actually carried out his misdeeds.
We’re too entrenched in our own views and biases to fully invest in another philosophy; the best we can do is try to understand that these philosophies exist and try and empathize with or understand those who hold them. Explaining your antihero spoils them to a degree, because it supposes that we can unpack and understand an alternative philosophy. It presents these philosophies as broken versions of something understandable, when what is far more true, and far more tantalizing, is that they are something whole and yet entirely other. Tap into that feeling and you’ll have an antihero that keeps your readers coming back for more.
Who’s your favorite antihero? Do you prefer them aloofly other, or invitingly evil? Let me know in the comments.