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Tips For Writing A Worthy Anti-Hero

You’ve watched them, or read about them, and you knew the main character was the one you were supposed to be cheering for, but . . . what if that protagonist wasn’t always good?

They may be an anti-hero, and if you’re conflicted about them, you’re supposed to be.

Read this: Men’s Health: 19 Anti-Heroes We Can’t Stop Rooting For

Why do we like Anti-Heroes so much?

Anti-heroes are often troubled, complicated, and come with a lot of baggage. Perhaps their popularity is a reflection on a more cynical society that we are drawn to anti-heroes more than the typical good guy.

We may identify with their values.

Moral absolutes aren’t as important to our culture as they once wereThe anti-hero becomes a cynical model of how to live life, for better or worse. We don’t look for anti-heroes to be our moral models. Instead we look at them as they are — solely for the sake of story.

We understand life’s complexities.

An anti-hero based story is removes the veneer of two-dimensional goodness from mankind. These people are often troubled, for good reason. I can identify with them. The anti-hero isn’t going to naturally have the happy-ever-after ending. They may not even end their story on a positive note. And this is far closer to reality than the average HEA.

We’re keenly aware of flaws in ourselves and others.

Sophisticated readers are often well-versed in psychology and can see nuance of character. Authors who develop these nuances have opportunities to intrigue readers so they are willing to follow the not-so-nice protagonist anywhere.

What characteristics can your anti-hero have?

  • Your anti-hero may have trouble following rules. 
  • They may cringe and shrink while others step up.  
  • Your anti-hero may have unreconciled issues with others.
  • They may be bad conversationalists, gossips, or unknowing saboteurs.
  • Your anti-hero may have trouble handling their anger or being patient with others.
  • They may demonstrate bitterness with past hurts.
  • Your anti-hero may be a little delusional or paranoid.
  • They may have burned a few bridges. They can’t go back to certain situations, restaurants, dry cleaners, grocery stores, jobs, vacation spots, etc because of their bad behavior, even if they believe it was justified. 
  • Your anti-hero may have a mental illness, but if they do, research this well and portray it authentically. Check out this resource for any help you may need. 
  • They may want to be better, but don’t have a lot of confidence in their abilities to grow and change. They may be stuck in a mindset, refusing to grow. This could be an indication of really how much they hate themselves. 
  • Your anti-hero still may desire virtue and nobility, but they don’t know how to attain it. And because they see it others, they think that perhaps it’s fake. Or, they may sneer at the virtue of others, questioning motives. Or maybe they are so intently jealous of the virtue of others, that they translate this into hatred and bitterness. 
  • They have to have some sort of attractive, redeeming quality: good looks, razor sharp wit, brains, wealth, or creativity. If they didn’t have this, then your reader would avoid them and let them live in their stories unread. 

Is your protagonist flawed? Is your ending not-so-happy? As you develop your anti-hero, consider that their flaws and possible “unlikeability” may be exactly what appeals to your reader. Your anti-hero’s story could be a story of reality — no matter what the genre or setting. Lean in those conflicts and that not-so-niceness. With your anti-hero, you may have a story worth telling.

Katharine Grubb is an author, poet, homeschooling mother, camping enthusiast, bread-baker, and believer in working in small increments of time. She leads 10 Minute Novelists, an international Facebook group of time-crunched writers. She lives with her family in Massachusetts.

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