How to Write an Unforgettable Antihero
Their methods are questionable, and their moral compass doesn’t always point north, so what makes an antihero worth rooting for? In this post, we’ll look at what makes a character an antihero, different types of antiheroes, and tips for writing an antihero that your readers will want to follow.
What is an antihero?
An antihero is a protagonist that lacks the typical characteristics we associate with heroes, such as courage or compassion. They may even embody some negative attributes associated with villains or antagonists, such as ruthlessness or deceit.
While they may have some similar traits and can sometimes be confused with one another, it’s important to remember that antiheroes are not villains or antagonists. Their motivations are mostly good—at least from their point of view–and they can often justify or rationalize their actions.
To use an example from television, think Walter White, the chemistry teacher turned drug dealer from Breaking Bad. The series opens with Walter struggling to make ends meet and getting hit with a terminal cancer diagnosis. Realizing he has very little time to provide anything substantial for his family, he teams up with a former student to make and sell methamphetamine. Walter knows that meth causes a lot of harm, but his love for his family outweighs these concerns, making him a classic antihero.
Types of antiheroes
There are three core types of antiheroes: pragmatic, unscrupulous, and hero-in-name-only. These types can be looked at as a sliding scale, with the pragmatic one being closer to what most would view as a traditional hero and the hero in name only being one step removed from a villain. The further up the scale you move, the less likely it is your antihero will have a transformative arc big enough to make them into the traditional hero readers are used to.
The Pragmatic Antihero
The pragmatic antiheroes are realists. They know what needs to be done and will do it by any means necessary. They may be morally good, but they’re not above using questionable methods. Unlike the traditional hero, these antiheroes will kill the villain if deemed necessary. Though they usually won’t cross that line unless it’s for the greater good. With these antiheroes, many times, “the end justifies the means” is a motto they live by.
Katniss Everdeen in The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins could be considered a pragmatic antiheroine. Katniss is motivated primarily by survival— and when she enters the arena, she is prepared to kill other tributes to stay alive. Walter White falls into this category as well.
The Unscrupulous Antihero
The unscrupulous antiheroes tend to be more morally gray or ambiguous. Their actions are usually based on past traumas or inner conflict. They’re driven out of self-interest rather than altruism, and while they may do the right thing sometimes, it’s not always for the right reasons. They won’t hesitate to push anyone out of their way to accomplish their goals and get what they want.
In Leigh Bardugo’s Six of Crows duology, gang leader Kaz Brekker is an example of an unscrupulous antihero:
Every act of violence was deliberate, and every favor came with enough strings attached to stage a puppet show. Kaz always had his reasons. Inej could just never be sure they were good ones.
The Hero in Name Only
This one blurs the line and borders on being a villain. These antiheroes may be amoral, and if they weren’t the protagonist of the story, they’d be viewed as villains. Similar to the pragmatic antihero, this one will do whatever needs to be done by any means necessary. However, unlike the pragmatic one, their intentions are often not good, since they’re usually driven by greed and selfishness.
Joe Goldberg in You by Caroline Kepnes is a perfect example of this type. If Joe’s story were being told by anyone else, he would clearly be the villain. Manipulative and murderous, Joe succeeds at being an antihero because, despite his actions, he wants to find love— and what’s more relatable than that?
Tips for writing antiheroes
Make them complex and flawed
If you want readers to root for an antihero, they’re going to need some redeemable traits. We need to see a balance of negative and positive attributes in their character. Their negative attributes may be at the forefront when we first meet them, but be sure to reveal their positive attributes over the course of their journey.
Develop their backstory and help us connect and understand their traumas and past hurts. This doesn’t mean readers will accept or excuse their actions, but it will help them empathize with your antihero. Don’t be afraid to use faulty logic, either. Have them make bad decisions for the right reasons or good decisions for the wrong reasons.
In Six of Crows, flashbacks give the reader new insight into Kaz's motivations:
The swim back from the Reaper's Barge had been Kaz's rebirth. The child he'd been had died of firepox. The fever had burned away every gentle thing inside him.
Survival wasn't nearly as hard as he'd thought once he left decency behind. The first rule was to find smeone smaller and weaker and take what he had.
After suffering the trauma of being conned out of his inheritance, losing his brother, and nearly dying from a plague, Kaz is motivated not just by survival but a desire for vengeance. The reader is able to sympathize more with Kaz, even as he manipulates and harms others, because we have a greater understanding of what is driving his actions.
Show their internal conflict
Show your antihero’s internal conflict when taking them through their character arc. The struggle between solving the problem the way they’re used to vs. growing and finding new ways to solve problems. This doesn’t mean they’ll change their ways, but it can be an opportunity for growth, even if it’s a small step.
Make their motives messy and complicated. Antiheroes' motives aren’t always pure. Many times, they’ll have selfish reasons for what they do. That’s part of what makes them an antihero. Since they’re motivated by personal interest rather than altruism, they’ll make many mistakes on their journey. Some mistakes they’ll learn from quickly, and some they’ll repeat many times before the lesson sticks, but all of it’s important for their arcs.
Highlight them with supporting characters
Antiheroes need supporting characters that can highlight their good traits or challenge their bad ones. Sometimes this can be done by pairing them with more traditional heroes or mentors.
In The Hunger Games, Katniss’s ruthlessness is contrasted by the gentleness of other characters, such as her sister Prim. In the very first chapter, we see the differences in how Katniss and Prim view the world:
Sitting at Prim’s knees, guarding her, is the world’s ugliest cat. Mashed-in nose, half of one ear missing, eyes the color of rotting squash. Prim named him Buttercup, insisting that his muddy yellow coat matched the bright flower. He hates me. Or at least distrusts me. Even though it was years ago, I think he still remembers how I tried to drown him in a bucket when Prim brought him home. Scrawny kitten, belly swollen with worms, crawling with fleas. The last thing I needed was another mouth to feed. But Prim begged so hard, cried even, I had to let him stay.
While attempting to drown a kitten isn’t exactly traditional hero behavior, this scene actually helps the reader become more sympathetic to Katniss by seeing her through the lens of her relationship with her sister.
Include character growth
Your antihero’s arc should include some type of transformation or growth. They don’t need to have full redemption or transform into a traditional hero, but they should at least overcome one of their major flaws by the end of their journey. Although they’ll learn and grow from their mistakes, they’re still far from perfect and are flawed characters. They may still operate out of hurt wounds sometimes.
Once you’ve figured out the type of protagonist you want to create, if you use the tips above, you’ll be on your way to creating an antihero readers can’t help rooting for!