Ah, the anti-hero, the protagonist that we love to hate. They might be ruthless, vile, selfish, and insane, but there’s something about them so undeniably human that we must know more about them. We might be hoping for their redemption, or maybe they’re doing the things we secretly wish we could do.
The trick with the anti-hero is making them unlovable, but still interesting enough that everyone wants to know about them. People are fascinated with dark and creepy characters because they are willing to do things that readers themselves will never do, but if the character gets so dark that they’re unrelatable, it doesn’t feel as personal. Most characters who people are willing to follow despite their questionable morals have something to make them feel justified. If not, they’re in a familiar enough place that it feels like the killer could be right at your door…
So how do you create a bad guy interesting enough that people want to follow them for a whole book?
Here’s how to write a thrilling anti-hero:
You probably already have something that sets the character apart from any other character. Sherlock solves seemingly impossible mysteries; James Bond is a super-spy; Jack Sparrow is the haphazard former captain of a now-ghost ship; Captain Ahab has a vendetta against a whale… Each one of them has a talent or identity that makes them memorable. If they don’t have something unique, they’re not only a bad character, they’re also a boring character.
People might cheer on good characters just because they’re good. Bad characters require a lot more interest if anyone is going to take an interest in their activities.
Give them a motive.
You character needs a reason to do the things that they do. Even the worst villain has something to motivate them. No one wakes up one day and decides to become a villain (unless they’re insane, of course, which is a motivation in itself).
Take Joseph Goebbels, one of Hitler’s generals. He was one of the strongest political forces in the genocide of people with disabilities, but he himself was born with a deformed leg. Maybe he thought he needed to rid the world of everyone like himself, and all the evil he did was because he hated himself. That sounds like a fascinating motivation for a villain or anti-hero.
Giving your character a good motive makes them seem realistic, and it makes readers want to root for them even if they can’t.
The classic villain motivation is protecting someone they love. Insanity or delusions is another famous one. It could also be the way they view themselves, like Joseph Goebbels. Some recent shooters have committed their acts because they wanted their name to be recognized; others want to make a statement about how they feel the world has mistreated them. Some people have done terrible things in the name of a cult or belief system, and some have been swept up into bad situations because of peer pressure, like violent gangs. Look at the news for other examples of real people who did heinous things and see what their motives were.
If your main character is emotionless, she might be emotionless because she’s depressed or shutting something painful out of her life. Or she might be sociopathic, which affects a lot about how she sees the world. She might be trying to overcome her sociopathic tendencies but feeling like a victim. The more you understand the twisted way your anti-hero sees the world, the more vivid the character will be.
Find their boundaries.
What lines won’t your character cross? If your readers are going to root for them in spite of everything, there usually has to be some kind of moral or emotional line they won’t cross. That could be a certain demographic they won’t hurt because they know it’s wrong or something that triggers memories. Delusions or belief systems could also prevent them from hurting certain people.
Batman is one of the most popular anti-heroes right now. He has motivation – justice for the villains in the city of Gotham, tinted with some revenge for his parents. And he has boundaries – he won’t use guns, and he won’t kill anyone. So even when he enters morally questionable grounds, like deciding justice for himself and beating the crap out of people, his boundaries give him a moral ground that people can relate to. A lot of people even consider his actions justified. After all, we’re talking about the Joker, right?
Richard Chase was a serial killer who would choose his victim’s house at random, but if their door was locked, he wouldn’t go in. He decided that if the door was locked, he wasn’t welcome, but an unlocked door was an invitation to come in. He was completely, violently insane, but even in his heavily deluded mind, he had boundaries.
Look for contradictions.
If someone would stop at nothing to achieve their goals except for one little thing, there’s bound to be plenty of contradictions in their life. If they’ll kill anyone who gets in their way except children, they’re not following any logic. What determines that children’s lives are worth more than adults’ lives? Why are their lives worth more than other people’s? If life isn’t worth living, why are they trying to improve everyone’s lives in their own twisted way?
Drawing attention to those contradictions brings more insight into both their personal struggles and their messed-up views of reality. The modern BBC Sherlock, for example, is probably my favorite anti-hero. He’s a self-declared sociopath, and he only helps people because he happens to find it fun. (At least, so he says.) But it’s clear that he actually does value certain people, including John Watson and Mrs. Hudson. That often causes contradictions in his behavior, because he often finds himself doing things where it’s obvious that he cares. Those kinds of contradictions bring out his growth as a character while he learns to overcome his sociopathic tendencies.
Challenge their status.
An anti-hero doesn’t want to be good; that’s what makes them an anti-hero, after all. But sometimes they’ll be faced with choices that challenge their decision to be the complete opposite of hero. Maybe they’re afraid of losing things they care about. Maybe they’re getting unwanted attention for something they’ve done that appears to be good, or maybe they’re starting to wonder if they’re in too deep. Questioning their identity as the bad good guy is going to bring out all the best and worst in them.
Every time something happens in the plot where they’re faced with a moral question, the readers are going to wonder if the character will do the right thing. If you’ve created a character that seems real, relatable, and engaging, you can be sure that your readers will be rooting for their redemption, even if they wouldn’t want them to totally become the hero they have never wanted to be. They will be in constant suspense to see if their actions will be justified in the end.
An anti-hero is very hard to balance. It’s impossible to judge for yourself whether they’ll come across as unrelatable or even too lovable. You are going to need critiques, beta-reading, and editing to help you hit that perfect balance. Find some people you can trust to be completely honest in their critiques. You’re going to need a few of them, because not everyone is going to have the same perspective. Ask for their insight on whether they like the character or if they want to like the character. No one will be able to tell you what your readers will think better than your readers themselves.
What do you think? Did I miss anything? Let me know in the comments.