I’m currently reading “The Lies of Locke Lamora” by Scott Lynch, which has me thinking a great deal about anti-heroes. I’ll admit up front that you’ll probably learn more about it than I can cover here by simply listening to this “Writing Excuses” episode.
For example, Sanderson and company will tell you there are at least three common definitions of an anti-hero: 1) A character who is shy, cowardly, weak, or otherwise un-heroic, 2) a vigilante who fights evil by being nearly as bad as they are, or 3) a character who has few redeeming qualities and is generally unlikable.
The first example is rather debatable whether they even qualify. Some would call Frodo in “The Lord of the Rings” an anti-hero because he goes through the whole hero’s journey and then fails. Others might cite Bilbo in “The Hobbit” as an anti-hero, at least in the early parts of the book, as an example because he is a reluctant participant and in many ways a fish out of water. Many will argue this type is not really an anti-hero, but rather a regular hero with a really large character arc, or perhaps a side-character who happens to be the focus character to observe the real heroes in action. I tend to agree.
The second example is often the fodder of comic books. There are numerous examples of characters who, when you think about it, are only considered “good guys” because they fight “bad guys”. Batman, for example, operates nearly as far outside laws as the people he fights against, and the main reason we cheer for him is because the people he fights are worse than he is. He wouldn’t be enjoyable as a character if he just went after pick-pockets and muggers. But because he’s up against super-villains we cheer for him. The Punisher is another example. This definition can be hard to accept mainly because it’s a question of degrees: how far afield of acceptable behavior does a character have to get to qualify?
The third example is the character who is irredeemably horrid, dull, amoral—whatever. They’re completely unsympathetic and unlikable and we mainly read about them to enjoy the train-wreck. The main character in Orson Scott Card’s short story, “Eumenides in the Fourth Floor Lavatory” features a man who cheats on his wife, molests his daughter, and is basically terrible to everyone he meets. We don’t enjoy the story for watching him be terrible, but for watching him get what’s coming to him.
Locke Lamora in the book I’m reading, falls somewhere between definition two and three. He is a con artist and thief, leading a band of thieves. He’s not a nasty, irredeemable person—he’s actually rather likable—but he’s not really fighting evil either. It’s hard to say he’s any more moral than the people from whom he steals.
So why write an anti-hero? Like in my post on profanity, that is something we all have to decide for ourselves. Some may just want to avoid them altogether. They want to write heroes who they have no problem cheering for, and that is okay. Some just want the variety in story an anti-hero opens up. Others find anti-heroes useful in didactic tales, such as Card’s—we want to see the bad guy destroy himself as a reminder that it’s good to be good.
Some enjoy the contrast of including an anti-hero as a foil for a heroic character. The character of Ferrin in Brandon Mull’s “Beyonders” series is a slimy, self-serving guy who we can never entirely be sure of throughout the entire series. He’s like Gollum in “The Lord of the Rings”. You want to believe in him, that he can be redeemed and become good. The uncertainty can keep tension high right to the end.
How do you write an anti-hero without making your story just awful? Here are some thoughts:
1- You don’t. Go with awful. These days there is a growing market for stories about terrible people doing terrible things. Call it avant garde or open-mindedness, or call it a sign of social decay. Either way, there are people who want to read about bad people being terrible.
2- Redemption/Justice. We don’t mind an anti-hero so much if they go through an arc that either redeems them or dooms them. If they turn good, or perform a breathtaking act of self-sacrifice we are willing to forgive all. Sydney Carton in Dickens’ “A Tale of Two Cities” is such a character. The flip side is a terrible person who gets what’s coming to them. It can be fun to watch them think they’re getting away with their horribleness only to have it all catch up with them in the justice-soaked end. Make an example of them.
3- Make them likable/sympathetic/competent. If we can have reasons to feel sorry for them, forgive them, or respect them we can overlook a lot of things. Locke Lamora, for example, was orphaned at age four and raised by crooks. He never stood a chance at being good. He also lives in a highly-corrupt society, so it’s not so bad to watch him stick it to the rich. If he stuck it to a poor shopkeeper, however, we’d have no sympathy for him at all. He is also very smart, very competent at what he does. With that combination it’s easy to overlook that he’s basically a crook who takes advantage of people to rob them blind—even though he doesn’t give to the poor.
4- Make what they’re fighting even worse. Most of your vigilante stories use this strategy. Rogue cops that would make us cringe if we ended up in their grasp become cool when their rogue nature is what allows them to bring the really bad guys to justice. We get frustrated in real life when playing by the rules doesn’t seem to work against some people, and so we love to see someone break those rules in the right way to bring the bad guys to justice. It’s the “Have you killed people?” “Yes, but they were all bad” approach.
These are the main approaches to writing a successful anti-hero. Just be aware that not everyone is going to enjoy reading about an anti-hero. You may end up limiting your audience. I’ll admit I’ve nearly put aside “The Lies of Locke Lamora” on several occasions because Locke, if you stop and think about it, is not a good person. But Lynch takes steps to make it easy to overlook—even forgive—his nasty occupation because it’s clear has many redeeming qualities, and his targets are rich people who we all secretly like to see get taken to the cleaners.
Anti-heroes are not for everyone. Like profanity in writing, it’s up to each of us to decide just how far we’ll go. With so many more options, it can be a difficult decision for some.