Antiheroes are everywhere. If you know me, you already know my two favorite antiheroes are Tom Ripley (Matt Damon, The Talented Mr. Ripley) and Rodion Raskolnikov (Crime and Punishment). Others favorites are Tony Montana, Don Corleone, Hannibal Lecter, Jason Bourne, Lady Macbeth, Tony Soprano, Scarlett O’Hara, and Ray Donovan. You could probably name another dozen or two in a minute.
We like these guys. Why? Because they secretly do what we would like to do. Well, for the most part. I’m not fantasizing about killing people. Eating them is not on my bucket list either. However, the antihero touches a core thread in all of us. They create their own rules and we root for them. Didn’t you feel kind of bad for Ripley when he and Dickie were out on the boat? Dickie said some awful things. And Ripley didn’t really mean to kill him, right? Didn’t we all hate the obnoxious Freddie Miles (Philip Seymour Hoffman) and cheered when Ripley FINALLY bashed the guy in the head? Freddie had it coming, after all.
Reading or watching the antihero can be fun but writing an antihero is tough work! My antihero, Clara Winslow, is a liar and a killer. Staying in that mindset is a constant battle within myself. I WANT my hero to have good qualities, to be honest and trustworthy. She is neither. So not only do I have to make her a bad girl, but I have to make you LIKE her!
So, let’s cover some basics. There are exceptions but these are the general rules:
- Antiheroes don’t have the same values as normal heroes
- Antiheroes don’t follow the typical character arc
- Antiheroes don’t learn from their mistakes
- Antiheroes are self-destructive and unapologetic
- Antiheroes make bad decisions which causes them more grief
- Antiheroes don’t change by the end of the story
Antiheroes have something in their past- an angst, an injustice, that allows us to sympathize and understand why they do what they do. Hannibal Lecter’s sister was killed and eaten when they were just children. Damn! That would mess with your head! Doesn’t make it right but it helps you to understand the character better.
Antiheroes are markedly flawed but they also need a soft spot. The common “pet the dog scene” where your antihero saves the drowning kitten, helps the old lady. This needs to happen early in your story so the reader goes, “Aww! What a great guy!” There needs to be something endearing in your antihero. Tom Ripley cried at the opera. Tony Montana loved his sister. Hannibal loved liver with a nice Chianti….oops. Got off track. Hannibal liked art, music, and Clarice. He had feelings for her. They all had feelings. Those feelings enabled the reader/movie-watcher to relate to the antihero. Relating to the antihero makes them likable. Antiheroes aren’t all bad. Other characters aren’t all good. Human beings are complex. Your characters should be as well. Who are your favorite antiheroes? What allows you to relate to or feel sympathy for those characters?