What Makes a Good Anti-Hero?



The anti-hero is one of my most favorite characters, partly because he/she is guilty or ignorant of multiple moral wrongs taking the low road while taking the high road in the end.

There is a difference between a villain protagonist and an anti-hero.

Being able to clearly define your protagonist as a villain, by seeing that objectively in the story they play the role of the villain while someone else plays a heroic role that the villain protagonist is opposing and conflicting with, helps tell you if you’re dealing with a villain protagonist or an anti-hero. When there is in fact someone else in the role of villain while your protagonist arcs toward a heroic attempt at some conflict resolution which the other identified villain attempts to disrupt, then you probably are dealing with an anti-hero.

As I understand it, they’re sort of opposites – the anti-hero is unlikable on the surface, and does a lot of minor misdeeds, but when push comes to shove always does the right thing. On the other hand, a villain protagonist is likable and seems like a good person most of the time, which makes it easy to root for them even though they do some truly horrible things. Basically, the anti-hero does all the little things wrong but the big things right, whereas the villain protagonist does all the little things right but the big things wrong.

I love Tim Dorsey’s anti-heroes, Serge and Coleman. Serge is a genius and Coleman is an addle-brained, leftover hippy mentally stuck in another era with a serious drug habit. They are, in many ways, polar opposites, but share a deep sense of their definition of right and wrong. Serge is smart and Coleman is dumb. That’s an excellent combination for funny.

They’re almost always up against a detective who is (sometimes deliberately) falling short of identifying them as the culprits. Sometimes, he knows they’re the culprits, but turns a blind eye for the better good.

Serge and Coleman are serial killers in Florida, but they only bring death to those the reader would really like to see die. Like vigilantly justice. Scammers, assholes, mean people who hurt the vulnerable and weak. So you can’t help but root for them, even though you know they are bad guys. Their methods are scientifically fascinating. I don’t think they have ever killed anyone the same way in the eight books I have read.

I’ve been learning from Facebook the many things that people are repulsed by and the things they want society to rectify. Taking notes, I’m looking at the possibility of having of having one or two of my characters morph into anti-heroes. It will take some creativity to pull off, but the wheels are turning.

Can you think of anti-heroes you admire?


38 thoughts on “What Makes a Good Anti-Hero?

  1. Being someone who loves comic books, I can think of a lot of anti-heroes. Punisher, Wolverine, Venom, and Deadpool are the three that come to my mind. The interesting thing is that they don’t always believe they’re heroes too. That’s something I enjoy reading, but can’t always get right in my writing. Just a character who doesn’t violent things for ‘good’ reasons and fully admits that they’re not nice people.

      • I always wondered about the likable part. The four I mentioned didn’t really start out that friendly and two were even villains at first. Though I do see how there needs to be some appeal to make people root for them.

        • I could never turn my villain into an anti-hero, she had no redemption value. But I could take another character in the book who is a petty-thief with a long wrap sheet and work him that way…maybe give him a friend to bounce off of.

          • There does need to be that opening for it. Like for Venom, he showed remorse at killing innocents and claimed to only do so when they got between him and Spider-Man. So when he got over his grudge, he was able to be more of a hero and did the whole ‘I only kill the evil people’ thing.

            • One thing I would struggle with is coming up with creative ways to kill. That’s part of what makes Dorsey’s book so amusing. They are plausible, but highly improbable, and challenging. At least in a superhero comic, they can have supernatural powers to pull that off. I don’t want to steal Dorsey’s idea of having a genius who figures things out scientifically with resources he has available…like magnets and a lobster….yes, he kills a guy with magnets and a lobster. I’m not that clever. My anti-hero might have to have another angle.

              • Sounds like an evil McGuyver. Those kinds of creative kills are really tough to come up with. I do a few of them, but part of it stems from designing the ‘arena’ first. For example, a fight in a kitchen means I’m thinking of what I would find there. Sometimes I even rummage through the drawers to see if there’s an item like an apple corer or meat whisk that would work. It’s a weird focus on environment and then touching on that mean, sinister part of human nature. After all, you need to be messed up to kill someone with magnets and a lobster.

  2. My favorite anti-hero of all time (also one of my all-time favorite characters) is Gerald Tarrant, an undead sorcerer who feeds off fear. He’s a lead character in The Coldfire Trilogy by C.S. Friedman,a fantasy series. A truly mesmerizing anti-hero with a lot of horrible deeds and evil in his past (and present). Ms. Coldman made it possible for her readers to loathe and like the character at the same time which, I think, is not something easily accomplished. For me what makes a good anti-hero is a slim glimmer of redemption deeply buried below the surface.

    Tarrant and the Coldfire series are so haunting, I’ve read the trilogy more than once.

    • I haven’t read that trilogy, but it sounds divine. The anti-hero most definitely has to carry traits of redemption. They have to do enough good to have you rooting for them to succeed. Yet, they have to be loath-able enough to surprise you when they do their good deed in the end.

  3. “Basically, the anti-hero does all the little things wrong but the big things right, whereas the villain protagonist does all the little things right but the big things wrong.”—That’s a great way to summarize it. I like that.

    Having just seen the movie Deadpool, I would say he’s a pretty good anti-hero.

    I haven’t read Tim Dorsey’s books, but now you have me curious.

    • I’ve never tried my hand at writing them. I’m going to work up a couple of character profiles and think of how I would work them. Not sure the best way to tackle this, since I already have a story arc. Hmm.

    • Loved that movie. Funny, when I’m watching a movie or TV I don’t think of them as anti-heroes…just great characters…like Captain Jack Sparrow and Sheldon…but when I’m reading, I do.

  4. This is fascinating. I had never really given this a thought. I think there is a connection (in our love and fascination for these characters) with a certain type of song in musicals, if you can stand such a stretch (my brain is destroyed from a sinus infection). In fact, I highly doubt you will see the connection because it is a figment of my imagination. There is a type of song in classic musicals where the main characters are falling in love, but the song is an ANTI-LOVE SONG. In Oklahoma it’s “People Will Say We’re in Love.” Lyrics like this:
    A practical list of “don’ts” fer you.
    Don’t throw bouquets at me
    Don’t please my folks to much
    Don’t laugh at my jokes too much.
    People will say we’re in love.
    The idea is that instead of the lovers saying “oh I love you I love you I love you.” They deny it. That’s what I see in so many good anti-heroes. They DENY their good nature and instincts and choose to act poorly because they view themselves as much worse than they are.

    • Oh I hope that nasty sinus problems leaves soon. Haven’t figured out what I’m allergic to, but something flairs me up at least twice weekly. Interesting take on the anti-hero image. I’m still processing through this one. They have to be lovable and dis-likable at the same time and that’s hard to pull off. Not really dis-likable, but have features that might prove them less than worthy.

    • Yes! It was great to connect. What fun! Even though I stayed an extra day to unwind, I’m still filled with excitement. It may take me a few weeks to sort through all of the impressive info I came away from the convention with. I’m starting with Steven Kerry Brown’s book “The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Private Investigating”. There will be things my P.I. can’t do, but his his sidekick can, and I need to know what those are. 🙂

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