The Mandalorian. Artemis Fowl. Dustfinger. Kaz Brekker. These antiheroes and countless others have captured the imaginations of viewers, readers, and fangirls with such ferocity that traditional heroes struggle to compete. But what makes audiences love the cowardly Dustfinger, the calm Mandalorian, and the clever Artemis Fowl? Certainly not their morals, because when we first meet them, they’re far from paragons of virtue.
Yet halfway heroes have a magnetic pull, and our job as writers is to figure out why. We’ve resolved to “look for ways to explore meaningful themes while delighting our readers,” not because we crave attention from fangirls, but because antiheroes create powerful portals for hope. Redemption is a universal sign of hope, and antiheroes who sacrifice their goals for love, truth, or justice are perfect reflections of it.
But before an antihero can turn toward the light, he needs to start with a dark heart, and if three specific components of his character are underdeveloped, he’s more likely to repel or confuse readers than engage them.
Trait #1: Authenticity
The definition of an antihero is sandwiched somewhere between the diabolical, mustache-twirling villain and the righteous, muscle-bound superman. Antiheroes are nice on occasion, and their intentions aren’t always malicious, but they’re desperate enough to use underhanded tactics to get what they’re after. Artemis Fowl kidnaps, blackmails, and steals to rescue his father. The Mandalorian leaves a trail of casualties behind him in pursuit of his prey. Dustfinger is a traitor who’s loyal to no one except the life he lost. And Kaz Brekker sees every man as a pawn to be manipulated in his quest for vengeance. Each character steamrolls biblical values to survive, gain wealth, or save loved ones.
If this description sounds like your character, the good news is that you’ve successfully invented an antihero. The bad news is that you’ve completed the easiest step. Now you must prove that he’s as bad as he seems. As you’re bringing him onto the stage, you may be tempted to pare down his rottenness. After all, if his behavior is utterly repulsive, won’t readers hate him?
To some degree, yes, they will. When you throw an antihero into a room and give him free rein, he’s going to make readers uncomfortable. In the Mandalorian’s opening scene, he cuts a guy in half with a door, then freezes his bounty in carbonate. Artemis poisons an addicted fairy to obtain intel. Dustfinger is just plain creepy. And Kaz blackmails a guard with a perverse secret. None of these antiheroes are immediately likable, and readers aren’t sure what to think.
But the readers your story is meant for will applaud your daringness. They’ll be curious about how you’re going to handle your character’s toxicity and wonder if he’ll change. The readers your story does not appeal to will shut the cover, and believe it or not, that’s the reaction you need to trigger. Antiheroes flirt with, and even wallow in, darkness. Kaz’s machinations at the beginning of Six of Crows scratches the surface of the twisted world that the rest of the book focuses on. The Mandalorian’s violence tells readers that most fights in the television series won’t be settled over a cup of coffee. Readers deserve a warning shot before they plunge into a murky story. If you soften your antihero’s flaws, you won’t set accurate expectations, and when he reveals his true colors, you’ll disappoint readers.
However, to make your antihero less difficult to swallow, surround him with characters who don’t share his ruthlessness. Artemis’s bodyguard, Butler, is uneasy with his charges’ dastardly schemes and says so at different points. Dustfinger’s friends are brave and loyal as opposed to his spinelessness. And a teammate is appalled at Kaz’s treatment of a traitor he exposes.
Side characters who disapprove of the antihero’s actions help to balance him out. First, they keep readers from drowning in a world where right and wrong blur into gray, because their perspectives separate the two. Second, they imply that the author doesn’t support the antihero’s agenda, which indicates that over time he’ll recognize his mistakes and reform.
Logic demands a shady introduction because darkness contrasts light. Readers won’t understand the depth of a character’s growth until they’ve observed his original condition. Crafting an antihero is a long, challenging process, but if readers are willing to tolerate an unpleasant first glimpse at the character, their revulsion will fade as they learn more about him.
Trait #2: Defining Characteristics
Flaws shape a character into a decent antihero, but his talents transform him into a remarkable one. When an antihero bares all his vices, he must also display his gifts to curb readers’ disgust for long enough to invest in the story.
Dustfinger, Kaz, the Mandalorian, and Artemis each boast specific skills during their first few appearances. Dustfinger is a master of fire. Kaz is a brilliant planner who confidently controls dangerous situations. The Mandalorian is a gunslinger with unshakable nerves and a sharp aim. And Artemis is exceptionally smart for a ten-year-old. While each of these characters exercise their talents for nefarious purposes, their ability to survive, thrive, and improvise earns readers’ admiration, which keeps them interested.
Memorable antiheroes also have habits and personalities that match their skills. Dustfinger is a liar, the Mandalorian is a hard-core religious fundamentalist, Kaz’s cruelty allows no room for love, and Artemis is calculating and cold. You need to equip your antihero with similarly noticeable skills and a unique disposition. Once you’ve done that, he’ll conform to predictable patterns. Because Kaz is cruel, he won’t be fazed if his teammates get hurt. Because the Mandalorian is committed to his religion, he never removes his helmet.
The pinnacle of an antihero’s story is when he breaks his own cycle. Dustfinger is, for once, honest. Artemis’s selfishness falters, and he chooses mercy. The Mandalorian lifts his helmet to save a child. And Kaz slips up and reveals that he cares about someone. When you establish behavioral patterns early on, the moment that the character deviates should symbolize a shift in his arc.
Again, side characters will play an important role by reinforcing the antihero’s foibles. For instance, side characters poke at the Mandalorian’s determination to keep his face hidden, and Kaz’s teammates often protest his heartlessness. How side characters respond and compare to an antihero inflates his reputation so that when he demolishes it later, the incident stuns readers.
Trait #3: Backstory
Although the previous two traits will produce a cool antihero, readers still might despise him. Fancy tricks and a bad attitude don’t equal an emotionally compelling character. Rather, those are the trademarks of a jerk.
Wayward heroes intrigue readers because of their mystery. How did they become corrupted? Was it a conscious decision, or did a tragedy embitter them? The idea is to intersperse hints about an antihero’s past before unloading all the information that’ll evoke empathy from readers.
Dustfinger was dragged away from his family and trapped in a world he hates. Since he’s afraid of loving others, him risking his life to save a boy becomes monumental. And when the Mandalorian trusts an android to help him while he’s injured, viewers sense the significance of his surrender. An antihero’s backstory demonstrates that confronting his flaws is excruciating.
One of the noble purposes of fiction is to increase our understanding of others’ experiences. Knowing an antihero’s past and how it affects him in the present reminds us that our friends, family members, enemies, and coworkers have wounds that influence their negative behavior too.
However, an antihero’s backstory can become an excuse instead of an explanation if you’re not careful. A story that rewards a character who refuses to take responsibility for his mistakes will cheapen any grace he receives, and side characters who accept an antihero’s faults because of his sad past will come across as pushovers. An antihero must eventually wake up to his degradation so he can reverse it. Otherwise he’ll devolve into a full-fledged villain.
Surprising and Inspiring Readers
Antiheroes are tricky, because when you layer them with sympathetic backstories, impressive skill sets, and a few bad habits, readers start to like them. Many stories stop there, and readers are forced to either justify their favorite antihero’s sins or abandon him.
But the most moving stories don’t push antiheroes into moral quicksand without tossing them a rope. When an antihero collides with the realization that his worldview and actions are wrong, our consciences are refreshed. We once again remember that vengeance, though satisfying, will leave us empty, and that every human being, no matter how broken, has a chance at redemption. Antiheroes are teachers of hope, and our task is to ensure that their lessons are unforgettable.
A long time ago on a hill not so far away, Gabrielle Pollack fell in love. Not with ice cream or cats (though those things are never far from her side) but with storytelling. Since then, she’s been glued to a keyboard and is always in the midst of a writing project, whether a story, blog post, or book. She was a reader before becoming a writer, however, and believes paradise should include thick novels, hot cocoa, a warm fire, and “Do Not Disturb” signs. Her favorite stories include Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn saga and Nadine Brandes’s Out of Time trilogy.
As those who know her will confess, Gabby is a whole lot of weirdness packed into one INFP. Sharp objects, storms, and trees are her friends, along with stubborn characters and, on occasion, actual people. When she’s not writing, she’s shooting arrows through thickets and subsequently missing her target, jamming on the piano, and pushing her cat off her keyboard. She hopes to infuse her fiction with honesty, victory, and hope, and create stories that grip readers from the first page to the last. Her other goals include saving the world and mastering a strange concept called adulthood.