Happy Sunday, and happy writing!
Happy Sunday, and happy writing!
“I’m often painted as the bad guy, and the artistic part of me wants to hand out the brush” – Criss Jami, Killosophy
Everyone loves a hero, like Hercules or Superman, who is pure of heart, fights for the good of everyone and always prevails. However, over time these types of characters can become mundane, their victories predictable and hollow. The audience knows the hero can never be defeated so they yearn for more to sink their teeth into. Enter the anti-hero.
The anti-hero is someone who is a protagonist but is lacking traditional heroic qualities. They will still have good intentions at heart for the most part but are afflicted by hamartia, a flaw in their character which dramatically complicates matters.
In some video games, a player can be asked to choose their character’s alignment; lawful good, true neutral, neutral evil, etc. An anti-hero would be classed as chaotic good, a person who will achieve their goals without regard for authority or law.
Because of the distinct character tics that anti-heroes possess they can be significantly more intriguing than a traditional hero who can do no wrong. This is because readers can connect with and relate to the anti-hero on a basic human level. They are how we often envision ourselves, and so they draw us in.
So how does one create an effective anti-hero and what are some examples? Here are 3 tactics to keep in mind when writing an anti-hero.
There are many different ways that the anti-hero can raise the ire of the audience.
Be careful not to push the envelope too far. Instil your character with too many undesirable traits and you risk getting the reader offside or even worse, turning your anti-hero into an outright villain. If your character traipses around hurting people or behaving badly without reason then they are not an anti-hero and the audience will fail to empathise with them. Even if they are seen to be working on the side of evil, such as Severus Snape in Harry Potter, they must have hidden agendas for good and show enough glimpses of this to keep them balanced.
There are many characters who tread a fine line between hero and villain. A very complicated anti-hero is Sula Peace in Sula by Toni Morrison. She is seen as the personification of evil by her hometown when she returns after a long absence. Her apparent disregard for social conventions have the town seething but little do they realise she is actually bringing the town together and improving their lives.
Another quintessential case is Bruce Robertson in Filth by Irvine Welsh. He is an alcoholic, drug addicted, violent, manipulative, masochistic, narcissistic man. A truly vile character that has the saving graces of being a law enforcement officer. He is slightly redeemed by the motivation he has for his family and there is sympathy to be found in his plight. This brings us to the next consideration.
As much as the audience might be frustrated by the anti-hero they must also be delighted, charmed, or moved for the character to be a successful literary feature. Similarly to flaws, there are multiple avenues to explore in order to get the audience behind the heroes back.
Put ‘simply’ the anti-hero is incredibly conflicted and complicated. Some of their actions would ordinarily mark them as evil but at heart they are always good. It is a difficult and nuanced task to create the perfect anti-hero. Push too far one way and you are left with a more one dimensional character which the audience will find either too pure and thus boring or too vile and thus inaccessible.
Here is a list of all the texts mentioned above (with a bonus extra) to provide plenty of valuable insight into anti-heroes.
I’ve never had a character come to me fully formed and ready to go. They come to me like ghosts and I have to make them real by getting to know them over time. Creating (good) characters is hard work, but when you take the time and effort to make them ’round’ it’s always worth it.
So what is a ’round’ character? E.M Forster wrote in Aspects of the Novel, that:
“The test of a round character is whether it is capable of surprising in a convincing way. If it never surprises, it is flat… It has an incalculability of life about it – life within the pages of a book.”
Someone once told me that if you can imagine the character existing outside of the novel, if they have lives that reach beyond their role in the book’s plot, they’re round. It’s all about putting life back in those ghostly figures that first appear.
But it’s not always so easy to create a round character. One approach is to let the characters reveal themselves to you, to really sit down and get to know them.
Write out a set of questions for your character and conduct a kind of interview. This gets your brain thinking about all sorts of random details that you can use for background info to help round out your character. If you’re not sure what to ask, check out this list of possible questions.
HINT: This works even better if you don’t know the questions beforehand. Have a friend do the asking – it’ll keep you on your toes!
Have a chat.
Imagine physically meeting your character for the first time (maybe in a cafe, or at the library – it depends on the character). How does the conversation begin? How do they respond to you? This is great for picking up body language and visualisations about the character.
HINT: It’s not recommended to tell people who aren’t writers that you’ve been ‘talking with your characters’. They just don’t get it. Believe me.
Fill out a job application.
This idea comes from an article on The Write Practice. It’s a great way to work out the facts about a character. Don’t forget the important yet sometimes over looked details like age, date of birth, and previous work history.
HINT: As the article says, don’t hesitate to add more parts to the job application and really scrutinise your character.
Write a letter.
Not many people write letters anymore, so this is a great way to learn more about your character’s motivations, their past, their friends, and so on. It’s a good exercise for creating tone and voice as well as vocabulary.
HINT: Don’t post it!
Happy writing 🙂
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