The art of the anti-hero

Posted: November 8, 2013 in Writing
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The anti-hero can be an extremely difficult character to create, but when it’s done right, they’re often more compelling than your traditional hero. But what exactly is an anti-hero?

An anti-hero is a character that lacks the traditional qualities of a hero. That means he or she may not be courageous or moral or willing to sacrifice themselves for others. In some cases, the anti-hero can actually have a villainous nature, but due to circumstances outside of their control, they act the part of the hero.

If an anti-hero is part villain, then why would we be at all interested in them as our main character? Anti-heroes are more flawed than traditional heroes and in many cases that makes them feel more human. Their mistakes and the subsequent consequences are bigger. There’s no easy road for an anti-hero, and these qualities can make them feel more relateable.

There are hundreds of examples of an anti-hero. Off of the top of my head, I can think of Sherlock (from the BBC show), Severus Snape, and Dexter. Each of these characters has varying degrees of the anti-hero “gene,” and we like them for different reasons. Some of them also work better than others.

Sherlock is my favorite. He’s a sociopath. He’s crass and has a serious superiority complex, no matter how deserved it may be. He’s assumptive and doesn’t do well with people. And yet we love him. Why? John Watson is a big reason for that, as we tend to see Sherlock through his eyes, but there’s something more. It’s because Sherlock is so horrible that, when he breaks down and we see actual love and compassion, it makes it all worth it. There’s nothing better than when a character whose heart is encased in stone gets the chance to show everyone what he’s really like underneath his unfriendly exterior.

Severus Snape is the midway point between Sherlock and Dexter. On the one hand, he’s a pretty horrible person. He’s spent years and years picking on a boy simply because he hated that boy’s father. Prior to that, he was a Death Eater. And just because he decided to switch sides, it didn’t mean that his prejudices disappeared. Snape could often be juvenile and manipulative, but he had one single saving factor: love. Everything Snape did for Dumbledore was in the name of his love for Lily. And while it’s hard to truly care about someone who did the things Snape did, it’s also difficult to hate someone for loving a human being as much as he loved Harry’s mother.

DEXTER (Season 2)

Dexter is a difficult case in terms of an anti-hero. He’s a serial killer who kills murderers. Do you see the conundrum? On the one hand, he’s a murderer himself. He’s a psychopath. He is sick and twisted and not nearly the person he appears to be on the surface. And yet, what he does in his spare time is kind of heroic. He solves the crimes and dispenses of criminals in ways the police force can’t. What he does is by no means legal, but is it actually wrong? That’s a hard question to answer, and not one I’m prepared to address. This is partly because Dexter often crosses that line from anti-hero to villain. I’ve only seen one season, so I’m sure he grows and changes, but his lack of empathy and lust for blood often sends shivers down my spine.

There are several types of anti-heroes and several levels at which they can be found, but overall, anti-heroes can be an interesting sub-category in which to file away your main character. Their flaws are their greatest assets, and everyone loves to see a bad guy turn into a good guy. (Why do you think Despicable Me is so popular?)

Who’s your favorite anti-hero? Are there any anti-heroes you just don’t like? Have you ever tried to write one? If so, was it easier or harder to write than a traditional hero?

  1. Anti-heroes are extremely difficult to do well. I think Rowling did brilliantly with Snape – superficially the archetypal bullying and petty teacher than most of us tripped over at school, but as the layers were explored his depth emerged. Rather well done. Holmes? Not so much in the original literary form, but of course the character’s become such a trope that reinvention with depth for the modern context is a necessity. A couple of others I’d raise are Harry Flashman – George McDonald Fraser’s version, not the one out of Tom Brown’s Schooldays. A complete poltroon who Fraser portrayed as very difficult to like..though you did end up sort of liking the guy in the end. And ‘Slippery Jim’ De Griz, Harry Harrison’s anti-hero from the Stainless Steel Rat series.

    • Karen Rought says:

      Snape is definitely one of my favorites. He’s so complicated and although it is difficult to forgive him for some of the things he did, you can’t help but really understand where he’s coming from in the end.

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