Anti-heroes: not exactly heroes, not exactly villains. The complicated soul that is so difficult to define. They are the complex characters whose life choices we detest, yet we still find ourselves rooting for their happy ending. So why is that?
What exactly is an anti-hero? How do they function? And, how can we craft a masterful anti-hero for our own novel?
To properly break down anti-heroes, we need to take a good look at a couple famous faces that exude anti-heroism:
Now, some of these faces may surprise you- like, say, Rory Gilmore. Now, how in the world is precious, perfect Rory Gilmore considered an anti-hero?
Plainly put, an anti-hero is a protagonist whose negative qualities often make decisions for them. Usually, they lack conventional heroic qualities such as idealism, courage, or morality. An anti-hero fights pretty unheroically for his own wants and desires, while a hero would fight heroicly for the wants and desires of others. Anti-hero characters are considered “conspicuously contrary to an archetypal hero”. Still, this definition is considered debatable. See, anti-heroes are amongst the most disputed characters in the fiction realm. Many authors find that the definition of “anti-hero” is more widely encompassing than others believe it to be. Some writers even claim that all characters, good or evil, have anti-hero characteristics and therefore defining an anti-hero altogether narrows character dimension!
Debate aside, there are always three defining negative characteristics found in all anti-heroes:
1) Selfish/self-centered goals
2) Finds justification for self-serving actions
3) Bows predominantly to negative characteristics (such as ignorance, bigotry, selfishness, cowardice)
Scott Pilgrim has all three characteristics. Poor, silly, hormonally charged Scott had a girlfriend who was crazy about him- sweet, naive, devoted fan Knives Chau. But Scott met gorgeous, mysterious, purple-haired, roller-skate queen Ramona Flowers, and completely forgot about poor, sweet little Knives in no time (and consistently).
Scott’s lack of consideration, general cowardice, and self-serving attitude left Knives battling for Scott, and these two great ladies pitted against one another. He acknowledged this but did little about it. And so, aside from his selfish one-track mind, that made Scott’s greatest flaw his lack of empathy. This lack caused him to bend to negative desires constantly without concern for how it affected anyone else. Yet, little did Scott know, the girl he was crazy about was more self-serving than he was. And in this way, Scott was forced to face his own flaws head on, in multiple ways.
Erik, or The Phantom of the Opera also had all three characteristics. The only difference here was that the Phantom lacked any moral compass whatsoever because he had no formal education of one. Therefore his actions were far darker, his decisions more severe, and his desires more inflamed. He loved hard, he hated hard, and he knew nothing less than complete devotion to his passions. This drive found him forfeiting the feelings and desires of those he loved most in order to get what he wanted no matter the cost. He felt entitled, justified, in getting what he wanted because he “gifted” Christine Daae her magnificent vocal talent and because his miserable past kept him from knowing true love. And so the destruction he caused left him even more alone and sadder than ever.
Then there are characters like Rory Gilmore who may embody one or two anti-hero characteristics. Constant justification is one of those dastardly negative traits all anti-heroes tend to have. And Rory is no exception. Rory endlessly focuses on her wants and what suits her with little thought to how it affects others. She always justifies her own negative actions, convincing herself and others that she deserves everything she aims to have. Some of these more prominent selfish acts were when Rory took for granted her loyal, loving boyfriend Dean and fell for dark, mysterious Jess while she was still with Dean. Then, a season or two later, she reconnected with a then married Dean. As the two grow closer, Dean cheats on his wife Lindsey with Rory. Rory’s mother, Lorelai, catches the aftermath and Rory defends herself endlessly, even calling herself “lucky” to have had her “first time” be with “her Dean”. Yikes. Soon, Dean leaves Lindsey for Rory but only a couple months later Rory leaves Dean again for a more interesting, ivy-league boy named Logan, leaving Dean’s life in shambles. Oh selfish, short-sighted Rory, how profoundly you make us groan.
So, with all this negativity, how can we still possibly adore some of these characters? How can we possibly love a character so self-serving? And specifically, what keeps this character type from being a flat-out villain? These four redeeming factors commonly found in this character type keep all anti-heroes from being categorized as villains:
1) Relatable/believable weaknesses or mistakes
2) Damaged, dark, or sad origin story
3) Typically fighting on the side of the “good guys”
4) We watch the story from their POV
Not all four characteristics are always found in every anti-hero, but typically one or two are included.
Let’s consider relatable weaknesses. Weaknesses or mistakes make any character relatable in the eyes of the reader. Granted, some of these weaknesses may be terrible, like a character who falls in love with someone who is not their boy/girlfriend or husband/wife (ahem, Rory). But, if we’re all being honest, this is a relatable, realistic flaw because this awful, selfish action is rampant in the world, therefore making this character believable.
Often times we hear the term “make your characters human”, a tip imploring writers to give our characters relatable, realistic flaws. But, there are actually two sides to that term. There are general flaws most humans have such as telling a white lie, being lazy (ahem, Scott Pilgrim), constantly finding fault in others, or having anger issues (ahhhem, Phantom). Those characteristics are realistic, human flaws the general audience relates to because most of us battle with these flaws ourselves. However, the anti-hero reaches even deeper into the human flaws realm. The flaws of the anti-hero most of us wouldn’t dream of acting on, but we’ve heard of people who have done such things themselves. These flaws include cheating, bribery, drug abuse, stealing, compulsive lying, even committing murder! Now how are such treacherous acts considered human, relatable flaws if most of us don’t do such things? Because we realize and understand that humans are capable of committing these acts.
So if your character commits these darker “human” acts, how does it not make them a villain?
One, because some anti-heroes generally recognize their mistake as a terrible one, even if they do it anyway, like Scott Pilgrim and Rory Gilmore. Villains do not typically acknowledge their actions as terrible ones. They wholeheartedly believe in their terrible actions as the true answer and they see absolutely no fault in what they do (typically). However, some anti-heroes do see their actions in a similar light, like the Phantom. Two, because the story is typically set from their POV, so we undergo what they undergo and therefore we take their side. And three, because there is generally some justification in the anti-hero’s actions. Justification comes in the form of a believable excuse imbued with (possibly) noble intentions or- more commonly- in the form of a dark origin story.
What redeems Rory is in the end, is that her flaws are relatable and believable. And, Rory usually discerns when she’s being self-centered, even if it’s long after she’s gotten what she wanted. She will even apologize for her actions at times! And, because she’s on the side of the “good guys”, or, one of the Gilmore Girls, we don’t view her as a sort of villain to the Gilmore Girls story line. We simply view Rory as a nice, smart girl who makes really selfish choices at times.
As for redemption in the instance of Scott Pilgrim and The Phantom of the Opera stories, both guys were simply out to win the hearts of the gals they loved. Phantom composed beautiful songs for Christine and confided his musical talent in her, making her a star in his Opera house. And, Scott Pilgrim was literally fighting on the side of the good guys by versing Ramona’s seven evil exes in order to stay with her. Awwww what sweet, weird, noble causes! Now, their actions are justifiable so we root for their happy ending. And, we root even harder for these guys’ happy endings because they both have that second reason working for them as well: a dark/sad origin story.
Phantom was abandoned as a child, left with nothing but a debilitating flesh-eating disease that made others fear and abuse him. Essentially, he never knew love, say for his love for music. Scott, on a lighter note, was dumped by a girl whom he believed was the love of his life. She went on to become a mega rock star, further digging the heel of heartlessness into his own dreams of a becoming famous musician.
A dark or sad past garners sympathy for the anti-hero. And that is the precise difference between the reader viewing your character as an anti-hero versus a villain. Sympathy. There is something in their actions, no matter how selfish or self-serving, that is justified by us, the reader, because we know about their dark past. Therefore, we find ourselves avidly rooting for their happy ending even if it is insanely selfish!
I think the funny thing about the anti-hero is this: the anti-hero represents the selfishness in all of us. They represent a side we all battle with. And in that idea, there is some glory, some amount of admiration we have for the anti-hero because this character type, essentially, “redeems” the sinner in all of us. We make allowances for these characters because they are more honest with their flaws, and in that way, we find pardon for our own flaws. For a moment, we are that character, and we cheer for their happy ending.
And this is just one reason why all writers should try creating an anti-hero in their story. Readers have a love-hate relationship with anti-heroes, thus making them one of the most engaging characters in a storyline. Anti-heroes truly are a rock anthem of character crafting.
How about you? Is there an anti-hero you find especially interesting? What is your thought on the anti-hero debate? What makes for a great anti-hero? Write in the comments section below your thoughts, I’d love to hear what you have to say!