“Show me a hero, and I will write you a tragedy.” – F. Scott Fitzgerald
I have always been obsessed with antiheroes and other characters who coast on moral ambiguity and spend as much time dancing in the dark as in the light. While there are numerous kinds of protagonists, the antihero is by far my favorite. While dissecting the individual character archetypes of heroes and villains and everything in between can be an entire series, I will be writing about the antihero in this article.
If you want an entire series on these archetypes, make sure to let us know in the comments below!
After being inspired by Aaron’s recent Writer’s Corner article on creating the perfect character, I decided to take a deep dive into one of my favorites types of character: the antihero.
What is an antihero?
Every once in a while, there comes a character you just aren’t sure about. You know the one I mean. He doesn’t necessarily have a name, and you don’t know if you believe the one she gives you, but they are there and you can’t ignore them.
A dusky stranger sitting in the corner, inexplicably aware we are watching them. You think to yourself, this guy? He is who we are rooting for here? And he doesn’t do much to change your mind. The stranger gets up and leaves the restaurant or the bar and doesn’t leave a tip. He may not have even paid the tab. What a dirtbag. Times and pages go by, and we discover the stranger is dying of cancer, and wasn’t a good person before his diagnosis.
And sometimes it is more extreme.
Now we are following a handsome man in a suit walking through the streets of New York City. He is a Wall Street executive or some such thing. It doesn’t matter. The novel never makes it clear exactly what he does. The man is a jerk. He harasses a homeless man, and teases him by asking him if he takes American Express when the man begs for money before laughing with a friend and walking away. Nothing happens for twenty or so pages, before something happens. In the middle of a long, flowing sentence the man stops, and lets us in on a secret: He is a complete fucking psychopath. No one in the room seems to notice his admission.
And he is not kidding.
A hundred or so pages after this episode, he brutally murders a colleague out of the blue because the man has a better business card than him. If you haven’t recognized the story, it’s American Psycho by Bret Easton Ellis, an excellent if not overwhelmingly violent novel about yuppie lifestyle in the 80s and the excesses of the life; a lifestyle Ellis critiques through the lens of a man, Patrick Bateman, who murders a wide variety of people in an attempt to feel something at all in emptiness of his life.
We are in another city now. A broken man is standing on the ledge of a building. He wears a cape and cowl, and broods over the city, thinking of the cold dark night ahead, much like the one wherein he witnessed his parents being brutally murdered in front of him as a child. Somewhere far away, a distant scream shakes him from a waking nightmare and he glides off into the night, to seek an end to another crime, usually by breaking limbs and busting skulls. Batman is many things, but subtle is not one of them.
While their moral code may lay in different places, both Bateman and Batman can be considered antiheroes.
Though the main characters of their individual stories, they all lack the typical qualities of the idealized hero that we have come to know and love. An antihero will not always do the right thing, or the just thing. Hell, they won’t even necessarily follow any kind of a moral code, broken or not, but they are the characters that the writer chose to place in the spotlight, and they are who we are stuck with, love them or hate them.
Frequently they are out for themselves, or to serve their own needs. An antihero might stop to help someone along the way. They might learn something and grow. Or they might not. It is one of the reasons why they are so fun to read and write and watch, even if they would be horrible to encounter in real life.
Dancing with Shadows
Antiheroes are always morally gray, but it is up to you to decide how close the darkness they reside; consider Batman standing on the ledge.
Batman is basically a good guy, no matter which way you slice it. While his methods have been debated for years and he is probably about as morally complex of a mainstream superhero as we are ever like to get, Batman is also an antihero. Batman is broken, damaged in many ways, a dark symbol of justice for a city ridden with corruption, darkness, and nights that never end; not so much a glimmer of hope, but rather a vengeful spirit stalking the night and those that prey on the innocent.
Even in his own universe, he may not be the symbol of hope that someone like Superman is, but Batman is what Gotham has, and they have to live with it. For better or worse, he is our lens into this world.
Batman, even as an antihero, intends to do right, and so is a lighter gray, whereas Bateman from American Psycho is about as close to complete darkness on that moral scale as one can get. But what is the deciding factor? What takes us from justiciar to murderer? When does moral ambiguity become clear enough for us to make a decision about their motivations? And more importantly, why do we need this perspective when a regular hero might do?
I will try to answer those questions here.
Crafting your own Dark Knight
The writer’s decision to use an antihero is usually based on a few concepts: story & setting, motivation, and point of origin.
Story always sets the tone.
While every writer has a different process, it is common for a story to come before a character, or at least for a story to begin to show itself before you dig deeper into the dark recesses of your character’s mind. And the world in which a story takes place often molds who your character will eventually become.
Whether your character wins the lottery or has the worst day of their life, some triggering action occurs (usually within the first few pages, regardless in what format you are writing), and the story begins.
As the story goes on, your characters will typically affect their world as much as it affects them, and as they navigate their world, the rules they play by become clear. So, begin by deciding what story you are telling. Once the story and the triggering action have occurred, how your character navigates their world will tell you more about how to write them.
Telling a gritty crime noir story about a dangerous mystery in a city of plots, double-crosses, never-ending rainy nights? There might be a private eye who’s just as gritty somewhere out there in the night who's out for himself and no one else.
Telling a story of angst and loneliness in a world that only ever seems destined to crush its inhabitants? There’s probably a Taxi Driver out there about to snap under the pressure.
Regardless of the world, motivation is key.
Antiheroes lend themselves to darkness and dark stories because it typically aligns with their morals or lack thereof.
Batman glides through the night looking for crime to fight, but his civilian alter-ego, the billionaire Bruce Wayne, does little to actually effect positive change within the inner city of Gotham outside of the occasionally vague mention of a Foundation for this or a program for that. Yet in Gotham, just as there is a never-ending night, there is an unusually never-ending supply of bad guys for Batman to beat down. Through the comics, movies, and video games, it is made clear that supervillains such as the Joker influence and coerce the poor, the downtrodden and the mentally ill to fight for them, so would it not be better for Batman to sink his millions into better infrastructure, health care, and non-profits that could make a real difference? Or, as the series continues to suggest, does Batman like the never-ending fight as some twisted form of masochistic punishment for his role in his parents’ death? Or maybe he just like beating the hell out of people.
Either way, Batman’s motivation is similar to Patrick Bateman; it is forever self-serving.
And it always comes back to origins.
There always comes that question that most writers either love or hate to answer: what made that character the way they are? The answer is often as complex as the creator’s own life story.
What is it that causes Batman to stand upon a ledge and look down at his city, brooding alone in the darkness? What causes Patrick Bateman to stalk the night? Were they made that way by a life of torment and darkness? Or do they just enjoy it?
These are difficult questions to answer, yet they become a necessity as you develop out these kinds of morally complex characters.
So, ask yourself the questions: Where did this character come from? Am I comfortable around them? When they look in the mirror, what do they see within their soul? Do they like what they see?
Anyway, think you’re ready to write your very own antihero? Let us know what qualities your antihero has in the comments below!
Recommending reading and viewing for more antihero inspiration:
The Sopranos (TV series by HBO)
American Psycho (Novel by Bret Easton Ellis)
Taxi Driver (Film starring Robert De Niro)
Death Note (Manga and anime, not the live action movie)
The Shining (Novel by Stephen King)
Drive (Novel by James Sallis or film starring Ryan Gosling)
The Killing Joke (Graphic Novel by Alan Moore)
The Dark Knight Returns (Graphic Novel by Frank Miller)
About the Author:
Shane is a content and grant writer for the Love Yourself Foundation. Originally from New Jersey, he has lived in Las Vegas since 2013. A recent graduate of UNLV’s English and Professional Writing program, he is now putting his skills to work wherever they are needed. He also has a degree in Criminal Justice from the College of Southern Nevada, which he hopes explains his love of true crime novels and of all things horror. A constant reader and frequent writer, Shane has two novels currently in publication and a few more on the way, including a book of poetry due this fall.