Antiheroes: Bad, but Not TOO Bad

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Antiheroes are, generally speaking, bad boys (and girls!) with rough exteriors and a multitude of flaws, but good hearts. What separates likable villains from antiheroes is, at the end of the day, who they are deep down. Without compromising your character’s charming dickishness, it’s important to make sure that at their core, they’re just a decent person with flaws. Even keeping this in mind, antiheroes are especially prone to feeling like stereotypical stock characters…but it certainly doesn’t have to be this way. Here are a few tips on crafting the perfect imperfect person—

Don’t make antiheroes sexist, racist, homophobic, etc. Your readers will not like them, nor should they.

Just don’t do it. Regardless of your views, know that in this day in age, it’s really not okay for good guys to be prejudiced. Honestly, I’ve never come across a good antihero that I wouldn’t imagine being left of center, or at the very least not particularly socially conservative. It undermines both the “bad boy / girl” aspect of the character, and the whole “secretly nice” thing. In general, be very wary of having your character pick on the underdog. Seriously, instant bad guy. Always be careful about characters crossing “the moral event horizon”—doing things that readers will find truly unredeemable. Number one thing I can think of is rape, or violence towards women, children, or animals.

Think before you write about how your antihero’s antiheroism is embodied. What sets them apart from your run-of-the-mill protagonist?

Are they cynical? Dry, vaguely judgy sense of humor? Inability to be vulnerable, with a tendency to push people away? Any of these things can add depth to an antihero, especially when you consider why they are the way they are. It’s okay to have some very morally grey behavior from your character. Some of my favorite antiheroes are pretty evil at first glance (or second, or third). For example, Damon Salvatore from The Vampire Diaries (admittedly, shitty teen drama…but I love it). He kills people, and screws people over constantly. But he’s also incredibly loyal, has many moments of empathy, and really improves over time as far as the care he shows for other people. And not insignificantly, he’s brutally hot…

Aghhhhh.

On that note, it can be really effective as far as reader engagement (and really fun, and easy) to use your antihero’s “dark side” to make them more attractive and compelling, especially as a love interest.

Generally this necessitates your character actually being somewhat good looking. But attitude is much more important, and can make your average Joe incredibly attractive. For example, I have a huge crush on Lip Gallagher from Shameless. He’s short and kind of funny looking, but inexplicably hot. Smirking is a powerful thing, and dry wit is great too. Some “bad” behavior in itself makes a character more appealing. Anything that makes your antihero seem confident, even cocky, and projects an air of effortless cool is good. If your antihero is male, there are definitely certain gestures that up a man’s attractiveness. BTW, female antiheroes are awesome too, and there should be more of them…but speaking as a heterosexual woman, here are some of the things I find super hot. Driving with one hand. Opening doors for women, or offering his coat. An undone tie around his neck. Forearms with shirt sleeves rolled up. Stretching, arms over his head, preferably shirtless. All thirst inducing.

Sense of humor and intelligence are two VERY important considerations in developing a great antihero. How funny, and how smart is the character? I can’t think of a good antihero who isn’t at least somewhat intelligent and witty, so try to make sure yours has a reasonably high IQ and can make people laugh.

A sweet, dopey guy can be super adorable, but antiheroes are usually smart and at least kinda funny, because one major key to making them likable in spite of their bad behavior is making them charming. This usually requires some degree of quick wit, which really rests on intelligence. And, ya know, smart guys are just cool. While not a “hot antihero”, Hannibal Lecter is literally my favorite character of all time. One could argue he’s more a villain than an antihero, but I disagree. There’s the problem of him killing and eating people, but he’s also witty, loyal and helpful to Clarice, and unfailingly polite (“discourtesy is unspeakably ugly to me”). Most importantly (IMO), he’s an off-the-charts brilliant doctor. Smarts go a long way in making an antihero compelling, and possibly in helping them move the plot forward.

There are countless ways to make your character likable and get across that while they may seem “bad”, they’re not a bad person. It’s crucial to purposefully put moments showcasing your character’s positive traits throughout the story.

This is really the only thing separating an antihero from a villain, so it’s very, very important. One really great way to do this is making your character very loyal to / protective of the ones they love. Odd instances of sweetness and empathy are also very powerful. Self-depreciation can be good. Personally, in fiction or real life, if somebody is an asshole but self-aware about it, unless they’re really reprehensible, I’ll probably like them. One more easy thing that will make a character more likable—make them good with kids and animals.

Many great antiheroes struggle with their own demons, in addition to external conflicts in the story. Don’t overdo the angst, but some amount of self-loathing and confliction can make a good antihero into a great one.

Heap on that self-loathing and frustration, but don’t write Edward Cullen. Angst can turn annoying very, very quickly. But some of it shows the character’s soft side, and can help the reader understand their actions a bit. They may be guilty about their own bad behavior but find themselves unable to stop. Maybe they’re just sad, or avoiding getting close to people as a means of self-protection. Excellent antihero quote from the beautiful, wonderful Damon Salvatore—“When people see good they expect good, and I don’t want to live up to their expectations.”

Consider before and as you write what your antihero’s relationships are like.

How does their grey morality affect how people view and relate to them? They may struggle with their interpersonal life, but as a matter of making sure the character is someone readers root for, it’s a good idea to give them a few solid close relationships. Attachments and loyalty are HUGE in making readers root for an antihero. Without these elements, I might go as far as to say people will not like your character. But it can also be good to have them struggle with disappointing the people they love, and keeping friendships. Giving them someone(s) they care for and are protective of is a great way to turn a would-be villain into an antihero.

Backstory is important when writing antiheroes, and the character’s background should be meaningful as far as why they are the way they are. However––make sure you’re not just using a shitty childhood to justify consistently bad moral behavior. That’s not an antihero, it’s a pathetic villain.

Really, just this. It’s not enough to have someone be a horrible person with no sense of compassion, and try to make it okay by giving them a tragic past. It’s annoying and usually uninteresting.

Bottom line—write a hero, then make them act like a douchebag. Then divulge their biggest secret, which is that they’re actually a nice guy (or a weirdly likable cannibalistic serial killer).