A few people asked for a rant on anti-heroes. This is a collection of thoughts loosely organized around that topic.
1) Moral ambiguity or not?
Supposedly, an anti-hero is someone who’s a major character in a story and yet takes morally ambiguous actions—or at least actions that don’t tend to fit under what a reader thinks of as “heroic.”
So what happens if an “anti-hero” only kills people who are shown to totally deserve it, or if her use of torture is preceded by seven arguments that show (at least to the author) why it’s justified in this case, or if he brags that he doesn’t care about anybody and yet he cares for a helpless innocent orphan child as soon as he gets the chance?
I don’t think those are anti-heroes. I think those are normal protagonists whom the author is trying to cushion, as authors usually do, against ever making a mistake.
If you have an anti-hero whom you want to make morally ambiguous, you have to give up most of the moral justifications. An anti-hero may well have set up his or her own moral codes, but they’re not going to match the usual definition of “good.” And his or her actions have to run the risk of being objectionable; otherwise, the author is just flirting with or teasing the audience with the specter of immorality.
I would consider Roland Deschain, from Stephen King’s Dark Tower series, an anti-hero, at least in the early part of the series, because he lets nothing get in the way of his quest for the Dark Tower. The narrative puts an obstacle in his path that most authors would use as an opportunity to demonstrate their protagonist’s innate compassion; Roland doesn’t take the bait. (I’m avoiding spoilers here, but if you’ve read The Gunslinger, you know what I mean). On the other hand, I don’t think Locke Lamora, from Scott Lynch’s series, is an anti-hero, because the justification of all his actions is carefully planted in the narrative. Though he’s a thief, he only steals from nobles who “deserve” it. When he becomes violent, it’s for the sake of friends. And so on.
So, consider. What exactly is the degree of moral ambiguity you’re going to permit your anti-hero? Is it real complexity, or just a way of escaping unpunished from actions that would earn severe disapproval in the real world? Is it truly a choice between two evils, or a choice between an evil and a right thinly disguised, with the character always choosing the right? If the character claims to pursue an ethic of self-interest or choosing the greatest good for the greatest number, does she actually do so, or does she flinch when it comes time to put it to the test? (Though I despise the philosophy of the greatest good for the greatest number, I think it would be interesting to see a fantasy character who actually took this to its logical extremes. Where it shows up, though, it always means rescuing the heroes of the book, while the sacrifice-oriented mentors or guardians kill off unimportant side characters).
2) What traits does your protagonist lack?
For an anti-hero, I think this is at least as important as deciding what they’re actually like. Otherwise, you’ll turn out to have a hero the moment you stop keeping an eye on the little buggers.
For example, here’s a list of some traits that fantasy heroes often have:
- Compassion for everyone around them
- An open mind (this goes back to the fact that overtly racist/sexist hero/ines are very rare, even when it would make them fit better within their culture)
- Drive to achieve some goal that is not simply personal (personal ambition is Bad)
- A conviction that they are unworthy or unsuited to their chosen task or any honors that they earn (self-confidence and self-esteem are likewise Bad)
- Skill in speaking, even when they think they’re fools
- Very strong personal bonds, such as friendships and love affairs
- Ability to perform the (seemingly) impossible
- A dislike of change, hence the amount of heroes who end up restoring the “good” status quo at the end of the story
- Exaggerated sensations of angst and guilt
So, let’s say you go through that list and decide that your anti-hero is going to be a coward, extremely self-interested, unequal to persuading other people to join her with her words alone, and prone to double-crossing people when it works. And she stays true to those characteristics. She isn’t loyal to someone who can’t benefit her, she runs away from fights, she abandons a group goal to concentrate on her own, and she isn’t an eloquent speaker; she just hands over money to hire help.
Already you can see that this is going to be a very different story from one about a completely heroic heroine, or even one about a heroine who starts out thinking she’s self-interested and then changes her mind halfway through the book, usually because she adopts a child.
The trick becomes keeping an audience’s interest, because one thing true anti-heroes do is turn some people off.
3) Make them like his other traits.
A lot of anti-heroes have senses of gallows humor and cunning that allow them to get revenge on their enemies, because that makes them more amusing to read about. And certainly, if you’re writing about an anti-hero, especially one whose career puts him in danger quite often, you could do worse than this.
I think an ordinary, limited person also makes a fine anti-hero. She won’t have the killer magic or the incredible skill with weapons that often gets the normal heroine out of trouble. She may not be able to sweet-talk her way out of there, either. Instead, she has to figure out what thing within her power to offer her captors when she’s thrown in a jail cell and told she’ll be executed tomorrow morning. This exercise is good for the author’s brain, because it gets them out of the “normal” pathways of heroics, and it’s good for the audience, so that they can see what clever thing the author will come up with next.
Or you can have someone who’s an excellent psychologist, in the “reading people” sense of the term. She could get out of trouble, survive, and punish her enemies by manipulating people, playing them against each other, and destroying relationships from the inside by her knowledge of the partners’ fears and jealousies.
Anti-heroes may not be very nice people, but they can still be interesting.
4) Make this anti-hero a normal citizen of her culture.
Say you’ve constructed a fantasy culture with many fine artistic and scientific achievements, but it’s still not a utopia, and it doesn’t hold to many of the cherished ideals of Western liberalism. (Notice that I said “ideals,” not “realities”). So you have slavery, or open persecution and discrimination against a racial or religious or linguistic minority, or constant class warfare. Fantasy heroes are usually fighting to change this—not by revolution as such, but by restoring some older status quo, like a legendary kingdom, where things were better for more people.
A fantasy anti-hero might exist as happily in this culture as a fish in water, and oppose any struggle to change it. After all, why change it? He’s not being hurt, and nor are his interests or the people close to him, and that’s all that matters, right?
The key to writing a story like this, I think, instead of a simplistic one where the rebels are the heroes and the defenders of the status quo are the villains, is to make the justifications of the defenders of the status quo familiar and reasonable-sounding. I’ve found a very good source of arguments like this in listening to American citizens argue about foreign aid, listening to whites argue about racism, and listening to men argue about sexism. Learn how those arguments go; then give them to your anti-hero. You’ve got a person who can do quite horrible things and yet rest easy with herself, because the structure of her beliefs sounds convincing.
5) Give another perspective.
The problem with writing solely from an anti-hero’s perspective, especially if it’s first-person, is that it can come to sound as if the anti-hero really is a hero. (It doesn’t help that the author often has that impulse I mentioned above, to cushion the protagonist against making mistakes, and that the audience is often willing to identify the central character as being right no matter what he does).
So write from another perspective. Write from a heroic one, too—but make the hero a minor character instead of the protagonist. When the anti-hero inflicts magical leprosy on a person who once insulted him, that perspective is there to remind the reader how someone outside the anti-hero’s head might view that particular reprisal (that is, as being completely over the top).
6) Stunt certain emotional responses.
In the case of the magical leprosy, the responses stunted are reflection and horror. Where a heroine might want to punish someone with a disease for insulting her, but then she’ll stop and reflect and be ashamed of herself, the anti-hero flings the spell and goes about her normal routine, perhaps feeling nothing but a quiet satisfaction.
Anti-heroes have to, I think, be less introspective than heroes, because otherwise the natural tendency is to show them coming around to other points-of-view and questioning themselves, and that almost inevitably leads into a story where they’re not anti-heroes anymore. They’ll probably also lack responses of deep horror, terror, exaltation, love, and other dramatic emotions that many fantasy heroes swing through. They can still feel fear and joy and love, of course. But those emotions won’t rule their lives to the point of driving them to do the impossible or the impossibly risky while ignoring their personal safety, the combination of traits that usually rules when the fantasy hero is performing some heroic act.
Try writing a less introspective character. It’s an interesting challenge, especially if you’ve been accustomed to writing people who did more thinking and talking than doing. If you do want to write an introspective anti-hero, then I think you’ll need the reasonable-sounding arguments I referred to in point 4: he or she will have to have some reason for being able to live with what they’ve done when other people in the society around them disapprove.