Wednesday, April 17

3 Ways To Create An Antihero Your Readers Identify With

3 Ways To Create An Antihero Your Readers Identify With

Yesterday I asked a friend what kind of short story I should write next. He thought about it for a moment and said, "Why don't you write something from the bad guy's perspective?"

At first I was like, Heck ya! That would be fun!

Then it hit me: how could I get a reader to identify with the bad guy? After all, they're the bad guy. We root for the protagonist, in part, because the antagonist is so horrible we want the other guy to win.

It's a problem.

The Villain As Hero

A few days ago Joel Jenkins sent me a link to his article, Writing Unrepentant Characters in which he discussed the challenges of using an antihero.

An antihero is ...

No, not anteater. Though having an anteater as a protagonist would be cool.

Here's Wikipedia's take on what an antihero is:
An antihero ... is a protagonist who has no heroic virtues or qualities (such as being morally good, idealistic, courageous, noble, and possessing fortitude), blurring the line between hero and villain. (Antihero, Wikipedia)
Writing a story that had an antihero for a protagonist could be refreshingly different. It could be surprising and interesting, and both those things are the opposite of boring.

Which is good.

But here's the problem: how are we going to get a reader to identify with our protagonist if they're no better than the villain?

(How to get your readers to identify with your protagonist)

In her article, The Flip Side: Writing Villain Protagonists, Liz Bureman puts her finger on the problem. She writes:
We’re used to rooting for our protagonists. The easiest way to get an audience behind your character is to give them a moral compass that consistently points toward good.
So how are we going to get an audience behind a character whose moral compass consistently points toward evil?

(Jim Butcher on how to build a great villain)

I think there are three ways we can do this.

1. Evil is skin deep

This kind of an antihero (arguably) isn't really an antihero, they're more like a misunderstood hero.

Yes, they have terrible manners and, sure, they don't know how to talk to people without deeply offending them (Monk, Holmes from Sherlock) but, deep inside, they're a good person.

Or at least they're not bad.

Perhaps they don't love everyone, but at least they love someone. That makes them human enough to identify with.

What makes it possible for a reader to identify with this kind of antihero is that: 

a) They aren't really evil.

The traits that mark the hero as different, that make him or her an outcast, are superficial. Sherlock Holmes knows he is smarter than everyone else, with the possible exceptions of Moriarty and possibly his brother Mycroft. And he doesn't in the least care what people less intelligent than him think.

Except for Dr. John Watson.

And his landlady Mrs. Hudson.

And Irene Adler.

And ...

He actually does care ... at least in certain circumstances.

b) The antihero has a redeeming trait.

I think (a) and (b) overlap. Holmes' redeeming trait is his love for Watson. We're not exactly sure what kind of love it is, but it's there and it's enough to make him (somewhat, marginally) relatable.

2. Lesser Of The Two Evils: The enemy of my enemy is my friend

Here we have what I think of as a 'true' antihero. He's (or she's) not just socially awkward--perhaps made so because he has an amazing and unusual ability (a gift and a curse)--he's the kind of person who would kill you if the money was right, and it wouldn't bother him in the least.

What makes it possible for a reader to identify with this kind of antihero is that:

He is fighting someone worse, and that someone worse wants to kill characters you identify with.

Also, the antihero often has the admirable (or minimally decent) quality of not going back on his word, though perhaps for him it is a mark of professionalism rather than morality.

Whatever the reason, if you make a deal with him to kill the bigger 'big bad' then you can be sure ... okay, relatively sure ... he won't turn around and kill you when he's done.

Though if you don't pay him he probably will. Nothing personal.

Examples: Riddick from The Chronicles of Riddick.  Also, possibly, Hannibal Lecter.

3. Familiarity Makes The Heart Grow Fonder/Shared suffering

For me this is the trickiest category.

Imagine someone irredeemable. He's evil. Heck, evil people think he's evil.

And you've had to spend years together.

Perhaps you're in the same cell together. Perhaps he's your dad. It doesn't matter why, the essential thing is that you've shared a lot of time together.

He's saved you a few times (for completely self-serving reasons, but still) and you've saved him a few times (perhaps because he keeps you alive and you like being alive).

Shared experience--repeated exposure to the same person--can build a bond.

Yes, sure, if this person is continually rude to you, insufferable to be around, no bond will form. You'll go to bed each night dreaming of pressing the button that ends the evil so-and-so's life.

But let's say they're not rude to you, that they watch your back, that they're there for you. They're a friend to you. Not to anyone else, but to you.

If you could communicate that in a story, then perhaps a reader could identify with this kind of protagonist.

What makes it possible for a reader to identify with this kind of antihero is that:

- They're polite. I know that probably sounds odd. But if a character has no other redeeming qualities I think they have to be marginally polite, at least to folks who don't disrespect them (Hannibal and Barney).

- Mutual need. The antihero is protective of another person, not because he likes them but because either he needs them or because of his particular pathology. Hannibal was decent to Barney because Barney respected Hannibal. But if Barney had slipped up, Hannibal would likely have still eaten his nose.

Also, Hannibal liked Clarice Starling (in part) because he reminded her of his sister. In the book, Hannibal, we learn that Hannibal thinks that, in an odd and very crazy way, Clarice is his sister. He doesn't kill Clarice--instead he remakes her personality--because it ties in with his pathology.

Example: In Supernatural Dean Winchester befriended a vampire when he was in purgatory.

This is something I'm still thinking about, feeling my way through.


I'm curious, have you ever written a story with an antihero? If so, what kind of antihero did you use? Would you do it again?

Other articles you might like:

- Publish Your Own Magazine On Flipboard!
- How To Write Episodic/Serialized Fiction
- Larry Brooks On The Structure Of Short Stories

Photo credit: "Project 50 - Day #6 (Midnight)" by seanmcgrath under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.


  1. I did, I've written a trilogy with my antihero Alexander Crown, mercenary turned philanthropist. He first drove my novel Dubrovnik, made a historic discovery in "Vitruvian Man" and found the fountain of youth in Regeneration. Crown developed ethical qualities while seeking freedom in a war-torn country and I'm negotiating to write a fourth novel featuring this dare-devil creature. Thanks for asking.

    1. Wow! Sounds like a kick-ass antihero and just the sort of books I'd love to read.

      Thanks for your comment! :-)

  2. Interesting topic.

    I am unsure where lies the boundary between antihero and antagonist.

    I tried to read Stephen Donaldson; The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant, the Unbeliever; but I found the antihero so unattractive that I did not finish the first book. Nor did I read another.

    In the movie The Day of the Jackal, the villain was attractive, active, and competent. He was also ruthless: he killed people because they were a threat to expose him. Yet I ― and others ― were surprised and disappointed when he missed his shot at De Gaule. On the other hand, the hero was plain, passive, and pudgy. (He seemed passive only in contrast to the villain.) It came as a shock when the hero won to realize that "Hey, he's the good guy."

    I find I cannot articulate my thoughts on this subject with the precision I want. I shall think on this some more.

    1. It's interesting you mentioned Stephen Donaldson's _The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant_. That book, the first, was recommended to me by a friend as an excellent example of an antihero.

      I didn't much care for it; as you say, there wasn't much to root for. I didn't care about the protagonist. I also didn't finish the book, I don't think I even got half way through.

      In the comments on Google+ a couple of people brought up Dexter. I only watched the first couple seasons but I was surprised to find that I cared about Dexter and whether he was caught. I think it might have to do with the fact that he knows he's a monster but he doesn't want to be one. That, and the horrific childhood experiences he had.

      Good discussion, thanks for your comment Antares.

  3. I once wrote (and then didn't revise or send off, and have to get back to) a villain-main-character who, it turns out, it driven by an obsessive love of beauty. Like, to the point of taking apart people and countries to understand it. I didn't know that was his PoV when I started, but by the end, I kinda love him. I think, like I think you said, there has to be a hook, something the reader can relate to, even in the worst person, for it to be a success.


    1. "... driven by an obsessive love of beauty."

      That's a wonderful idea!

      "I think ... there has to be a hook, something the reader can relate to, even in the worst person, for it to be a success."

      Yes, I agree. I talked with a friend about Dexter the other day--we both watched the first two seasons--and though Dexter is a serial killer he has human qualities. He wishes he wasn't a monster, he feels strongly about protecting children, and so on.

      Thanks for your comment! :-)

  4. I think my favorite way to make people love an anti hero is to make them really, really good at what they do. The Italian Job or Ocean's 11 movies do this, where you're rooting for villains because they're just so GOOD at being BAD.

    1. Love that! "They're just so GOOD at being BAD" How true.

  5. And i never loved Sherlock more than when he defended mrs. Hudson. Spot on.

    1. Thanks Christine! That was my favorite scene of the series.


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