I love anti-heroes. I like heroic characters, too. But anti-heroes really float my boat. I think I first became enamored of anti-heroes as a teen reading Nancy Collins (Sonya Blue) and Tanith Lee (the demons of her Flat Earth novels). Then along came Richard B. Riddick, who will probably always be my favorite anti-hero (although the franchise is slowly eroding my adoration), followed by the 2012 version of Judge Dredd, and most recently, James Delaney in Taboo.
Because I write the stories I want to read, I write anti-heroes. Hale Hauser and his cousin Jon of Snowburn and Lure of Space are anti-heroes of the Riddick/Dredd variety. The demon lord Jou in Neon Blue may seem like the novel’s antagonist, but in my mind he’s the anti-hero of his own story, very much in the vein of Sonya Blue. There are heroic characters kicking around in my stories, but the characters I really want to wallow in are the anti-heroes.
What draws me to anti-heroes? Some of it is definitely the lure of the bad boy (or girl). Anti-heroes have more fun, it seems to me. They get to say and do things that heroic characters wouldn’t or couldn’t (although they don’t rise [or sink, depending on your perspective] to the level of parodic heroes like Deadpool). They occupy spaces avoided by heroes: the gritty underbelly of their societies. Those are the spaces that draw me anyway, and I’d rather follow an anti-hero down those twisty alleyways than walk the hero’s straight and narrow streets.
But there’s a fine line. It’s only a step or two from anti-hero to psychopath. The character J.D. from Heathers typifies this step for me: at the start of the movie he’s a bad boy on a mission to undermine stultifying high school culture, by the end, he’s a suicide bomber. Nothing against psychopaths, but they’re not the characters whose head-space I want to inhabit for several hundred pages.
So how to stay on the right side of that fine line when writing anti-heroes? Comparing a couple of my favorite anti-heroes, there are some noticeable similarities that I think makes them sympathetic rather than psychotic:
- They have a recognizable moral code. It may not be a mainstream moral code; in fact, most anti-heroes are decidedly anti-authoritarian. But they have their own internal code that they do not violate. (I see this as the feature that separates anti-heroes from fallen characters like Michael Corleone in the Godfather series and Louis Bloom in Nightcrawler.)
- They are survivors. As a testament to their strength of character, anti-heroes survive what kills mere mortals. This necessarily means they have suffered, often at the hands of an authority-figure, and carry the scars of their past suffering with them.
- They protect the weak. This is a corollary of the anti-hero’s survivalism. They are sensitive to victimization and go out of their way to protect those they see as weaker (but deserving of protection) from abuse. (This is the trait that, for me, separates anti-heroes from rogues like Jack Sparrow and sympathetic psychopaths like Tony Soprano and Hannibal Lecter.)
- They are leaders. Anti-heroes may be natural leaders, or they may be lone wolves who assume the mantle of leadership as a defense mechanism, but particularly in times of crisis, anti-heroes lead. Their strength of character and drive to survive draws others to them, and they lead their followers effectively, if ruthlessly.
The combination of these traits make for a character who is still likeable, but can do some seriously dark and unpleasant deeds. Those are the characters I want to get to know. Those are the characters I want to write.
Any essential anti-hero traits I’ve missed? Leave me a comment!