Welcome to part two of my series on writing bad people! Last week, we talked about writing villains, and, today we’re going to be talking about how to write antiheroes, aka morally ambiguous heroes aka the absolute best kinds of characters. This article will talk about how to write a compelling character who isn’t necessarily good, and might in fact be very very bad.
So, before we get into how to write an antihero, let’s take a moment to define what an antihero is, and what it’s not.
What is an antihero?
An antihero is a character in your novel, either main or side, who is in some way morally ambiguous.
What is the difference then, between an antihero and a villain? For the purposes of these two articles it’s simply their role in the story. An antihero is either your protagonist, or a major side character, while the villain functions as the primary antagonist of the story.
The villain is the primary antagonist of whoever your main character is. If your main character is Darth Vader, then he is an antihero and Luke Skywalker is the villain—the antagonist—of the story. If your main character is Leia, then the villain is Darth Vader. They’re simply the main antagonist for the person who’s story you want to tell.
Every character is the hero (or anti-hero) of their own story, so if you want to write compelling villains, it’s important to also learn how to write compelling antiheroes.
How to tell if you’re writing an antihero
Before you write your antihero, you should always take a moment to figure out if your character IS an antihero. More often than you would think, creators think they’re writing an antihero but they’re actually writing a hero.
Let’s use my novel as an example. In Not Even Bones, the main character, Nita, loves dissection. She adores dissecting human and monster bodies, cataloguing their parts, learning about the mechanisms of their body, and researching monster biology.
This does NOT make her an antihero.
Loving dissection and biology and research isn’t mainstream, and maybe it’s a little odd, but it certainly doesn’t make her in any way morally gray.
However, her mother murders the people that go on her dissection table, and then sells their body parts on the internet. Nita is aware of this, but choses to ignore it and pretend she doesn’t know what’s happening so she can continue dissecting. THIS makes her an antihero.
Ignoring murder for her own gain? Definitely an antihero. Liking dissections? Nope. That’s not on the same level.
Why is this an important distinction to make?
If you treat something like it’s morally gray when it’s not, one of two things will happen when people read it.
- Some readers will get angry that you’re talking about how ‘dark’ the character is, but not showing it. It’s the ultimate example of show don’t tell—if you’re not showing darkness but calling the character dark, readers will get frustrated.
- Some readers will take you at your word and internalize that something is bad when it’s not. For example, in this case, liking biology or being fascinated with how the body works. People internalize a lot from books, especially kids.
So! Before you start writing your morally ambiguous character, list the things you think make them morally questionable and see where on the moral spectrum they fall.
How to write compelling people who are also terrible
So, now that I’ve spent some time explaining what and who an antihero is, let’s go through some tools on how to write one effectively.
- They don’t have to be likeable—they have to be interesting.
If I can impart one thing on you, let it be this: don’t bend over backwards to make your character likeable. I don’t need to like your antihero. I don’t need to want to be friends with them. If the thought of meeting them in a dark alley at night terrifies me, that’s okay!
This is the number one mistake I see with writers making antiheroes—they’re so caught up on needing to justify the character’s actions and make them relatable, they water them down so much the characters aren’t engaging anymore.
Actions the character takes don’t have to be justified to the reader—they have to be justified to the character. Your character can makes excuses to themselves, but don’t, as the author, try to make excuses for them in the text. It comes off as inauthentic and takes away their agency. The only person your character needs to justify their actions to is themself. If you do your job right, then they’ll feel rounded and complex enough that we, the reader, will follow. And remember–if your character wants it, the reader will, by extent, want it too.
What you want is for readers to be interested in your main character. To find them fascinating and compelling. To read about them with bated breath, to wonder what they’ll do next, to feel excitement and engagement in their story.
For that, your character doesn’t need to be likeable or even relatable. They need to be interesting.
- People contain multitudes
People are like diamonds, containing thousands of facets. You see different facets depending on what angle you look at them from. A character should have many aspects to their personality, good and bad. They may be a brutal ruler, subjugating and enslaving the population, but they might also wholeheartedly love their sibling. They might kill people for cash but also love gardening and spend hours every day tending to the hydrangeas in their garden. One does not preclude the other.
When structuring your story, it’s important to show several different facets up front. Start your story with one facet and then switch to another. For example, start the book on your gang lord murdering a man who betrayed him and making a ruthless example of him, then next chapter switch to a different facet, for example, spending time with his family.
We often call this a ‘save the cat moment’ (a term coined by Blake Snyder) to show that our heroes are relatable by having them do something ‘nice.’ I’m not a fan of this particular framing because I don’t feel like ‘save the cat’ is sufficient. It shouldn’t be a moment, it should be a facet of personality that carries through the whole novel.
When building a character, make multiple facets of their personality. They’re not a one-trick pony. Explore how they deal with each aspect of their life. What do they do with their off time? Their on time? Who or what do they care about? What are their personal goals? Professional goals? What are they willing to do to get what they want? What have they done to get it already? How to the various facets intersect—do they ever come into conflict with each other?
Remember, someone who only does evil things for evil reasons isn’t very relatable. They don’t feel very real and so there is a layer of distance between the reader and the character that prevents them getting fully invested. But someone who does both evil and good? That’s scary, because that’s real. Because then they become the kind of person you might know. Balance your evil aspects with good aspects to help create a multidimensional character with flaws and foibles who your reader can invest in, even if—especially if—it scares them.
- Develop what lines the character will and won’t cross
One of the major differences between a hero and an antihero is how they face their problems. An antihero should have just as much at stake as any other protagonist, but they should handle it differently.
For example, let’s say the premise of a book is that a girl wants to win a dance competition. A hero might practice every day and evening, working tirelessly for her goal. However an antihero might take a different path. She might put laxatives in her competitors’ food so they’ll run off to the bathroom in the middle of the competition.
But would your antihero go further? Would she stoop to pushing competitors down the stairwell to win? Breaking legs? What about murder?
Draw lines so that you know how far your characters will go. It’s important to figure out what lines your character is willing to cross and which they aren’t. It doesn’t have to be spelled out in text—the character themselves may not even realize it!—but it should be something you, the author, are aware of so that you can accurately gauge their actions in any situation.
Protip: The exploration of how far your character is willing to go often makes a great character arc for an antihero!
- Let them breathe Many books have a tendency to pull back or sugarcoat bad things. Stop. Let your characters be free to be who they need to be, don’t try to make them less bad than they are. Make them multifaceted, but don’t try to stop their antihero tendencies. Let them commit the crimes they need to commit. As long as it’s in character and your character is well rounded and multifaceted, the readers won’t abandon you.
- Critically examine your female antiheroes There’s an issue where people like to call female characters ‘antiheroes’ in situations where we’d call them simply ‘heroes’ if they were male. Be aware of these prejudices and critically examine your character: are they actually an antihero, or is there some ingrained sexism and misogyny here making me think that? Would I be writing this scene with this much judgment if the character were a man? How can I write it so that I’m not treating a woman like a criminal for what would be considered normal for a man?
Take some paper and make a list of facets of your character’s personality. List at least three facets. Give details about them, and how they might conflict with each other in various circumstances. Think about how the character might handle that.
Got it? Then good luck! I hope some of these tips have helped you.
For inspiration, here’s some books with good antihero main characters:
- Not Even Bones by Rebecca Schaeffer (yes, this is my book, some blatant self promotion here ;))
- This Savage Song by Victoria Schwab
- Artemis Fowl by Eoin Colfer
- To Kill a Kingdom by Alexandra Christo
- Cracked by Eliza Crewe
- The Female of the Species by Mindy McGinnis
- Jade City by Fonda Lee
- The Hanging Girl by Eileen Cook
- The School For Good and Evil by Soman Chainani
Rebecca Schaeffer was born and raised in the Canadian prairies. Her itchy feet took her far from home when she turned eighteen, and she hasn’t returned for more than a few months here or there since. You can find her sitting in a cafe on the other side of the world, writing about villains, antiheroes and morally ambiguous characters.
Her debut, Not Even Bones, is about a girl who dissects and sells monsters on the internet. The sequel, Only Ashes Remain, comes out in September.