Tired of writing about the same old heroes? She leaps tall buildings. He saves an entire town. They have their flaws—sometimes kryptonite, sometimes anger, often hubris—but how can you make them more compelling?
I’ve written about extreme characters before, those fictional people at the edges of the bell curve. On one side is the true hero, a character who is brave, clever, noble and outstanding in every way. But what about the character on the other edge of the bell curve? The antihero? He or she may be nasty, dishonest, corrupt, disagreeable and alienated. In other words, they're human.
Literature is populated with antiheroes: Shakespeare’s Hamlet and Lady Macbeth, Rhett Butler and Scarlett O’Hara in Gone with the Wind, Holden Caulfield in Catcher in the Rye, Sam Spade in Dashiell Hammett's The Maltese Falcon, Phillip Marlowe in Raymond Chandler’s short stories, Lisbeth Salander in Stieg Larsson’s The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, Frances Urquhart in Michael Dobbs's House of Cards trilogy, Dexter Morgan in Jeff Lindsay’s Darkly Dreaming Dexter—the list goes on.
There’s a disturbing lack of female antiheroes in literature, but screenwriters seem to be making up for it on television and in movies.
So what makes an antihero? It all has to do with a balance of good and evil. Let’s look at Rhett Butler and Scarlett O’Hara.
In Gone with the Wind, Rhett is a West Point dropout, a reprobate who moves to South Carolina and becomes a blockade-runner in the Civil War. He’s described as a professional gambler “who loved the pleasures of women and liquor, the comfort of good food and soft beds, the feel of fine linen and good leather, who hated the South and jeered at the fools who fought for it.” Not an illustrious résumé but as he says, “With enough courage, you can do without a reputation.”
If these were his only qualities, he’d make a convincing antagonist, but there’s another side to Rhett. He’s pragmatic, intelligent, generous and insightful. He’s more perceptive than anyone else in Scarlett’s life, with the exception of Mammy, whom Rhett describes as “a smart old soul.” He recognizes that Scarlett is selfish and greedy and he even calls her on it, but at the same time he sees her as bold, daring and fascinating. During the relentless advancement of the Northern military, he’s nearly killed rescuing Scarlett and others in the town. He says he won’t risk his life or his fortune for a war that’s doomed to fail, but later, knowing the Confederacy is crumbling, Rhett joins the army.
We also learn he’s the guardian and perhaps the father of a little boy whom he supports at a New Orleans boarding school. He’s a much better parent than Scarlett is to her son from a prior marriage and to their daughter, Bonnie. As it turns out, Rhett deserves more credit and respect than he gets from Scarlett and the townspeople.
So how can a nice guy with such endearing qualities be an antihero? Because we admire him more than we despise him, and that is the key to creating a plausible antihero.
Let’s look at Scarlett, who’s a real match for Rhett when it comes to flaws. Outwardly, she’s an empty-headed, flirtatious, helpless southern belle with all the womanly virtues expected in the pre-war society, but we soon see another side of her when she steals her sister’s boyfriend. She also makes a play for Ashley Wilkes, who has already committed himself to Melanie. To spite Ashley, Scarlett marries Melanie’s bland, dull brother. She treats Rhett with scorn, but when she needs him, she does her best to seduce him, hoping he’ll rescue her from the Northern scourge.
Why would a smart, worldly man like Rhett love Scarlett? He sees right through her public persona and recognizes she’s narcissistic, spoiled, materialistic and dishonest, but he respects her intelligence, courage and determination to survive. We admire Scarlett because she manages against terrible odds to save her home and what’s left of her family. She tends to the wounded soldiers and saves the lives of Melanie and her baby. Scarlett O’Hara is an extreme character with true grit, and above all she is mesmerizing. She is one of the most remarkable antiheroes in literature.
Like any worthy protagonist, she has a character arc, going from a pretentious, silly girl at the beginning of the novel to a strong, independent woman by the end of it. Rhett Butler also changes. In the beginning, he’s only interested in making money off the war and winning Scarlett’s love. In the end, he becomes a patriot and no longer gives a damn about Scarlett.
If you want to create an antihero, here’s how to go about it:
1. Make a list of your protagonist’s good qualities. Like Rhett, he may befriend prostitutes, love children, rescue people in need and risk his life for others.
2. Then make a list of his flaws—and they should be big ones. He doesn’t live by society’s rules. He makes decisions that could land him in prison, he’s motivated by self-interest and has no remorse for his behavior. He’s complicated.
3. Balance your lists. Your hero should have as many admirable qualities as he has flaws. His behavior and beliefs are extreme, but when it comes to choosing sides, you want him on your team. You want him protecting you.
4. Don’t overdo it. The characters you create must be plausible. You’ll have to use your finest writing skills to delicately balance their honorable qualities with their faults and to make their transformation believable.
5. Construct a protagonist you would like to spend time with (unless it’s the serial killer Dexter).
A compelling, complex antihero is worth a passel of average heroes. The reader, knowing the character is unpredictable, waits in suspense to find out what he’ll do next. Try transforming your own protagonist into an antihero. He may surprise you.