Being a Better Writer: Writing an Anti-Hero

Well, it’s Wednesday! And here I am with the promised Being a Better Writer post! Plus, as you can likely guess, I survived the MRI of my knee! Now I’m just waiting for the doctor to give me a call and let me know what’s up.

In other, closer to BaBW-related news, however, there are changes coming! I won’t specify anything right now (I’d rather tease), but I will say that the first of them is that Colony finally has advertising! That’s right! Not just word of mouth or what I have here on Unusual ThingsColony is now getting broadcast by Amazon’s Ad service. Which … is actually a lot different from what it was when I first took the time to look at it way back when. It’s changed quite a bit. Anyway, that’s just the tip of the iceberg on some exciting new developments coming. Check back soon, and you’re sure to see some of them!

Oh, and Shadow of an Empire is close to beta. That is all I’ll give away for now, but if you’d like to get a sneak-peek, keep your eyes posted on this site in the coming weeks. Or you can support over on Patreon for an early look at the first seven chapters of the Alpha Reader copy!

Right, enough news! Let’s talk business. Specifically the business of the last topic from Topic List Ten! And a request topic:

How to write an anti-hero.

Now, we’ve talked about anti-heroes on here before, and in fact if you have not read that post I’m going to stop you right here and make a very strongly worded “request” that you go read it. Sands, even read it before writing this post, not only to refresh my memory on anti-heroes but to check up against what I’ve written before on the topic. And this post will be written with the full assumption that you have read said post immediately before reading this one, because it provides a lot of background context on anti-heroes that I’m going to be assuming you’re already aware of in order to tackle today’s topic without spending several thousand extra words on it that I’ve already written.

So, let’s get down to business. You’re going to write an anti-hero. Or, at least, you want to. How do you go about this?

Well, the first step is going to be deciding whether or not you need an anti-hero for the story you want to tell, as well as looking at what kind of story you want to tell to see if there’s an anti-hero subtype that works with that story.

This might sound strange, but anti-heroes—especially the classical anti-hero—work best with a story that’s designed to showcase the facets of character they bring to things. They’re a specific type of character, and if you stick them into a story where they either serve no purpose or don’t mesh with the elements, well … why bother? You’re either exerting extra effort to make something work or doing your own story a disservice. If your only reason for wanting to write an anti-hero is because the “dark and edgy” cliche antihero is really popular … Well, let’s just say that while it isn’t a good reason, you should still examine the story you have in mind for such a cliche.

But moving away from that cliched mess, take a look at the story you want to tell and how well it meshes with an anti-hero as opposed to just something like a protagonist who isn’t good at what they do. Do you want to tell a story that takes a cynical outlook on the whole existence of heroes? A modern anti-hero is a good fit for that, given that part of their design is taking the traditionally heroic archetype and presenting alternate twists on it. Want to write about a hero that really isn’t a hero? That’s the classical subtype.

Note that neither of these types are limited to just the quick examples I offered, but that’s why you should know the various types of anti-heroes and be able to stick them into your story in your mind. Ask yourself what the story does to them, and also what they bring to the story. Look at what the types of anti-heroes would do to the plot. Would they interact with it? Take it in the right direction? Or would they be a distraction, something that distracted from what you wanted the story to do? Anti-heroes can be powerful characters in their own way, powerful lenses, really, which means that putting them in the right or wrong place can be crucial.

Okay, that done? You’ve figured out whether or not you need an anti-hero? Good! We’ll assume you do, and move into the next bit: actually writing them.

From this point on, there’s a lot that can change depending on how you want to tell the story. Perspective is going to matter. As will point-of-view choice.

For example—and we’re getting some heavy spoilers here for SUPER MODEL from Unusual Events, so be warned—Wanderer is an anti-hero of the modern type. While his actions seem heroic, they’re entirely selfish and in no way altruistic. However, the reader doesn’t know this for the majority of the story, because the perspective character, Samantha, doesn’t know it either. In fact, she spends most of the story convinced he’s an altruistic hero for the city because that’s all she can see from her location. This viewpoint serves to make the realization of the fact that Wanderer isn’t a hero but an anti-hero all the more jarring … and then reinforce Samantha’s own heroic and noble inclinations when she takes his place at the end of the story, putting all the energy and faith she’d had into Wanderer’s “heroics” into herself.

Point being, SUPER MODEL is a story about an anti-hero … but from the perspective of someone who isn’t aware that the hero isn’t a hero and struggles with the disillusionment her discovery otherwise brings. Wanderer is a clear anti-hero, but only once the perspective moves close enough for the protagonist (and the reader) to see it and make sense of everything odd that had happened up to that point.

The perspective you write an anti-hero story from, then, will determine how you approach things too. A sidekick to said anti-hero might be perfectly aware that the anti-hero is, in fact, an anti-hero. Or they might be stuck on hero worship and unseeing of the anti-heroes flaws. Perspective matters no matter what you write, to be sure, but it can really matter with an anti-hero because of what they are.

For example, let’s dig a little deeper into writing on the classical anti-hero. If we’re writing from their perspective, one of the elements we need to be sure to capture is that they aren’t aware enough of their own flaws to realize they aren’t a hero, or that they’re making things worse. An anti-hero, for example, with no skill in stealth or the blade charges in to save the day … and due to their ineptitude, gets everyone captured, only to rationalize that everyone was going to be captured anyway, and at least now their skills and talents are in with the rest of the group! There’s a lack of awareness there, at least for a time, that keeps the anti-hero screwing things up, or on the rare occasion they “succeed” actually making things worse for everyone.

Note that I said ‘for a time.’ As pointed out in the full post on anti-heroes, a classical anti-hero may come to the realization that they’re not a hero as things move on, at which point they may give up or resolve to try even harder and make everything even worse.

All of this is something you’ll need to plan for in advance, or at least acknowledge if you’re a discovery writer, so that you keep your “hero” consistent and moving in the right direction over the course of the story. Are they going to suffer some sort of turnaround and become heroic? Or are they going to continue on their own course and possibly self-destruct?

A lot of this comes down to how you want your characters to grow, in what direction, and what story you want to tell, then keeping that in mind and within the framework you’ve established, as well as the perspective. Will your classical anti-hero embrace their own shortcomings and resolve to be better? Refuse to acknowledge them? Flip around and realize that they’re becoming the villain? This is all up to you.

Now let’s shift gears and look at the modern anti-hero for a moment. Will they be different? Well … yes and no. While they’re a different type of anti\-hero from the classical anti-hero, it doesn’t change how we approach writing them, just what those facets of writing them are. The modern anti-hero, for example, knows that they’re not as much the heroic type. They’re usually aware of their cynical nature and approach, but may not care or may have accepted it.

Again. perspective starts to matter here as to how you’ll approach things. In the aforementioned (and spoiled) SUPER MODEL, the Wanderer is fully aware that he is an anti-hero, and more importantly to his character, he doesn’t care. At all. Meanwhile, the perspective of the protagonist, the one who saw him as a hero to be admired and looked up to, was completely blindsided by the revelation, which fueled the story. The perspective that the story was written in determined how it developed; Wanderer’s own would have been far different from Samantha’s.

So, just like with a classical anti-hero, the perspective you approach your modern anti-hero from will fuel a good portion of how you write them. The differences, of course, lie in the differences between the two types and what you choose to pursue (which means YES, you should have read that other post already, hint hint if you haven’t) and what sort of story you want to tell.

And with that said … I really can’t say much more outside of “make a plan” (or don’t, discovery writers among us) and go get to it. If you were hoping for “write this kind of scene” with this post, well, you’re going to be disappointed. Use of a character archetype is broad, and therefore up to you and the type of story you want to tell … plus practice. Lots and lots of practice, just like with anything else.

So, you’re writing an anti-hero? Decide whether or not they’re going to fit your story, what possibilities they open up for you. Then what perspective you’re going to approach them from and why. From there, write! Get them out on the paper and make them come to life!

That’s all for this week! See you next week for the first topic from … Topic! List! Eleven!

Until then, good luck, and keep writing!

Be a hero and support via Patreon!

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