Showing posts with label antihero. Show all posts
Showing posts with label antihero. Show all posts

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.