It’s not easy; writing a good anti-hero may be one of the toughest jobs a writer can face. It can’t be a simple case of cut and paste good and bad traits into one person and hope for the best. These are some of the most complex characters because they are based on complex concepts.
At the root of it all an anti hero is one of three things; a good person twisted by life to be bad, unpleasant, or bitter, a bad person who comes to see the error of their ways, or an unassuming, unheroic, or otherwise unworthy person thrust to greatness without warning or their consent. In all three cases you have to make it plausible for the reader.
Katniss Everdeen is an essentially moral, compassionate, and upstanding girl who has been made tough, callous, and manipulative by the realities of living under a harsh, violent, and deadly regime. She is an anti-hero because she is willing to be a sacrificial lamb for her sister, but pretends to love Peeta, sacrificing his feelings, in order to up her own chances of survival.
Vesper Lynd is an Anti-Hero in her role as a Bond Girl because she is a double-agent who initially works against the hero, but later tries to turn (once again) to aid him. Borderline sexism in Vespers arc aside she embodies one of the most common female anti-hero archetypes; the bad girl turned good by a male hero. It’s a tired trope, but original takes on it still bear fruit.
Bilbo Baggins could be said to be an anti-hero because of his nature. He’s unassuming, unheroic, perhaps a little snobbish, stuffy, and skittish, but underneath this he is brave, loyal, and courageous. Unfortunately this is one of the least common anti-hero types, perhaps because it’s subtle, and quite subdued.
As a writer you may have to put in much more time, effort, and work in order to create an anti-hero that connects well with your readers. Balancing explanations so that they don’t seem to be soppy excuses for bad behaviour is a difficult job that few master. One such person, however, is Joe Abercrombie, author of the First Law Trilogy. His protagonist, Logan Ninefingers, is my ultimate Anti-hero (and imaginary best friend/dad, don’t ask) because he balances the good and the bad so very well despite the extremities to which they go. Furthermore, you care about Logan; I cared so much that when I read a short story written by Abercrombie which depicted him in the bad old days of his youth I was quite distressed by just how bad he was. This is what you want from your readers, and if you want to see it in action I suggest you read the trilogy, and the short story in Sharp Ends.
There is no straightforwards rule of thumb when it comes to writing an anti-hero, so instead of pretending there is I’m going to give you some basic advice and follow it up with a dissection of why Logan Ninefingers works so well.
- Write their history; an anti-hero has to have good reasons for being the way they are if you want to connect with as many readers as possible. You don’t need to tell the reader everything, but you need to know it so that you can characterise them consistently. Write out the key points of their life, and note how they change as their life progresses, think about why, and how this will change the way they interact with others.
- Avoid cliches; a female anti-hero who is bitter, angry, and aggressive because she was sexually assaulted or abused is a tired, somewhat offensive trope that can work, but is so overused as to be of little value. In fact, if you hint at a “bad” past with a female anti-hero it’s probably what people will assuming is about to be said (which merits avoiding it alone), or that she lost her father to some tragedy, bad guy, etc. Try to spin old traumas in new ways. For example, the heroine of Let Us Prey (A belter of a film, by the way), Rachel Heggie is a police officer who was kidnapped and sexually abused as a child. Rather than making her aggressive, bitter, or angry the experience has made her uptight, cold, and somewhat snappish, but she remains a good police officer and good person. Though both are plausible reactions to such an experience, the latter is less often seen in books and on screen, perhaps because it’s less obvious and dramatic.
- Make them sympathetic (at least a little); despite what conventional wisdom and common advice might tell you you do not have to redeem them, and you do not have to make them likeable, but you should make them understandable if they are not likeable. If your reader can’t get behind their actions, or their personality, they need to at least empathise with their reasoning. For example, if your anti-hero is avenging a friend the reader may not like them when they torture someone, they may not agree with their killing of this person, but they will certainly understand the rage and grief that drive them to do these things. even this smallest sliver of understanding can be truly key.
The breakdown; a case study
This is a breakdown of why I enjoy Logan Ninefingers as an anti-hero, so don’t take it as gospel. This is more of an insight into how the reader reacts to a good anti-hero.
Abercrombie never tells us Logans exact age, and neither does he give us a concrete timeline for what happened (or how it happened). Logan is a little unreliable; Sharp Ends only heightens this impression.
You see, the way Logan paints it in his narrative is that he was a bad, bad man in his youth. He fought with everyone, killed many people, but he did it for Bethod (his friend and King) so that they could bring the country together under one banner, thereby bringing peace. He’s quickly placed in a sympathetic light; the world he lives in seems to have a personal vendetta against him due to his past. We find out that his family was killed, and he and his dozen (his group of fighting men) were rounded up, exiled, and declared outlaw by Bethod. This is framed as a betrayal; Logan was a villain, but he was one with a good cause, and he was later betrayed and thrown under the proverbial, medieval-esque bus by the man who spurred all the violence on. This Tyrant becomes the antagonist (one of) however indirectly, and we labour under the idea that Logan is, if not innocent, the injured party.
Furthermore, we begin to suspect that he has something wrong with him; a defect of the mind that causes blackouts and extreme violence as well as a split-personality of a kind. It could be called Berserker Rage, or severe Schizophrenia with a tendency for psychotic breaks from reality. Potato-potato. Who knows, right?
Then the narrative progresses and we have to weight this past, his good intentions, and small kindnesses against starker information; a secondary character nicknamed Shivers reveals that Logan promised his brother mercy in a single combat, took him prisoner, and then disembowelled him and nailed his head to his standard. This incident is illustrated in its horrifying glory in the short story found in Sharp Ends.
The short story is told from Bethod’s point of view, and paints a picture quite different. Logan is out of controlled, he’s killing indiscriminately. In fact, Bethod is frightened of him; everyone is, and Logan is happy to use this to his advantage.
Logan’s narrative is laced with such contrasts; betrayals and attempts at redemption juxtaposed with horrors from the past, a desire to change thwarted by his own broken brain.
Logan’s narrative is one which asks if there are somethings which are beyond redemption and forgiveness. It’s unflinching, and it doesn’t wipe his slate clean because he’s the protagonist. This is why he’s one of the best anti-heros I’ve come across in any genre or series. If you want to write an anti-hero well, you could do worse than to simply read the First Law Trilogy and take notes.