Being a Better Writer: The Antihero

Before I get into today’s post, I just have something else I want to say first. To all those who turned out this last to help support me by buying my books for the first time or tell others about them: Thank you. It was a big help, and even that little influx of cash is going to go a long way. Again, thank you for buying and sharing, and I hope you guys get as much enjoyment out of Dead Silver and One Drink as you do out of all the other stuff I’ve written. And if you can, when you’re done, please leave a review—an honest one. Even if you hated the book, reviews play an important part in other people picking up the book and taking a look at it.

Now, one other announcement before I get into today’s Better Writer post: Patreon.

For a while now, I’ve received both private messages and the occasional comment on my other site asking after the ability to donate money to me. Which I have turned down. In light of an announcement last week about my financial troubles on my other blog, the question was raised again. And again, I had to say that I wouldn’t take donations. However, Patreon seems to be a little different, and I started looking into it. The biggest difference is that it’s not just a blind donation. While it does have the ability to just straight out do by default what many donation tracks end up being (fill this bar and I release something new) it also has a monthly mode, which I like. How that works is that people pledge to support a certain amount each month to you, and then each month they get a “bonus” as a reward. In my instance, that bonus would be preview chapters or advance looks at other stuff.

Anyway, that’s what I’m looking at doing, so expect more on that as I work out more details. And just for those of you who were really looking for writing news, Beyond the Borderlands is looking like it’ll drop in May sometime. I’m close enough to the end now that I feel giving it a loose release date that isn’t too hard to hit is feasible.

Now, onto the usual stuff!

Antiheroes. I’ve been hearing a lot about them in the last few weeks, since I’ve been talking about heroes quite a bit. Without fail there’s been at least one “but I like anti-heroes because insert-reason-here” response, sometimes more. And I wasn’t exactly surprised. Antiheroes have really taken a place in the public mindset over the last few decades. After all, they’re darkier and edgier, which plays really well to some crowds. And they’re usually cynical, which also plays well to a certain crowd. But there’s one teensy problem with that.

Those aren’t antiheroes. And no, I’m not joking.

What we think of in the modern day as an antihero isn’t actually an antihero at all, though with such popular misuse of the term, the word has shifted a bit. A more proper name would be the “modern antihero,” though again, the antihero part has basically been stolen by public misconception.

You see, what most people think of as an antihero—the brooding, troubled, edgy, red-and-black not hero—isn’t really an antihero. They’re just not a hero. They’re a cliche, really. Also, they bear a strong resemblance in character scope to Sega’s Shadow the Hedgehog, who might as well have been stitched together through judicious use of “the ‘antihero’ checklist.” But these aren’t actually an antihero. The antihero is something different.

The Classical Antihero
We’ll start with the classical antihero, which is where antihero as a concept originates. The classical antihero goes all the way back to the ancient Greeks, who as we’ve discussed, invented the modern definition of a heroic type. Well, while they were at it, they set some terms for other things. While a hero was someone who faced great challenges and then made sacrifices while overcoming them, all for the greater good (this is a simple explanation), an antihero was someone who, well, didn’t quite. But it was how they didn’t that mattered.

For instance, both a hero and an antihero were standing for something that was good, right? Well, in the antihero’s case, they would end up finding out after they’d succeeded that they actually hadn’t accomplished anything at all (sort of like the environmentalist who chains himself to a tree only to have it be the only tree left in the middle of the complex that goes up around him) or maybe even worse, they’ve helped the antagonist accomplish their goals instead—ie in their attempts to produce the greater good they actually end up producing evil. Or just proving completely worthless at stopping it.

Or, it could be something else. The antihero, for example, could fail at being able to overcome the challenges in their path. They might be an individual who dives into the fray with the right intentions and the right end goal, but completely lacks the skills and capabilities to perform and ends up failing in spectacular ways. In this instance, one could argue that Buddy, aka, Incredi-boy from Pixar’s The Incredibles is an antihero when he arrives at the start of the film. His intention is in an arguably good place, and he clearly has a helpful goal in mind … but he lacks any of the skill or talent to see that everything he tries doing to help is actually making things worse. Where Mr. Incredible would have been completely fine without his help, Buddy’s insistence on being a hero and doing heroic deeds actually makes things worse for everyone around him (and sets him on the path to being a villain in the process) because he’s blind to his own shortcomings and flaws.

This is the classical antihero archetype: A character who is trying to be heroic, but barely having any success through their own failings or lack of ability, and often coming out worse-off than before in return for their actions. These characters were also often the opposite of the classical Greek hero in design too. Where the heroic type was usually in form with the Greeks as an idealized figure in both physical prowess, personality, and capacity, the antihero was not. An antihero would be cowardly, for example, or full of sell-doubt where a hero had confidence.

To summarize, the classical antihero was really a character who was trying to be a hero in spite of the fact that they were in many ways an “inverse” of a hero in the skills or areas that mattered (particularly in the field of results). They made things worse, no better, or at the very least stayed “neutral.” They lacked the talents and skill that a hero was supposed to have, and as a result couldn’t stand up to the more lofty capabilities of one. They were weaker.

And there’s a number of ways that this can be used in a story too. You can have the character who starts out as an antihero but recognizes their own weaknesses and flaws and grows into, if not a hero, than a character that is better than who they were. We can do a tragedy, where an antihero continually makes things horrible for everyone and ends up losing what they had at the end because of their own misplaced trust in their own actions. There’s a ton of uses.

The Modern Antihero
But … none of that’s really why any of you came today. Or at least, why most of you came today. You’re here because you want to read about the modern antihero. Or as some places call it, the “nineties” antihero. This is because this concept of an antihero sort of exploded in the nineties where before it really wasn’t much of a thing.

In a way, you could argue that the modern antihero is a bit similar to the classical antihero. Again, we have a character who is filling in the role of a hero, and again, he lacks certain elements that would make them a hero. Where the modern antihero differs is in what those elements are.

For instance, a hero will be in things for the greater good. A classical antihero will be as well, though they’ll be much less successful in pulling that off. A modern antihero, however, may not be in it for the greater good. They might be in it for money. Or for attention. Or because they in fact enjoy the violence and the chaos, and are just a shade enough away from sociopath to realize that if they do things this way, the public won’t go after them.

In other words, the modern antihero is the cynical take on a hero, the idea of looking at a hero through a dark lens and asking “but what if they weren’t doing this for the usual reason?” A modern antihero is a character who is similar to the hero, but has one aspect of their character shifted into a darker, more self-serving or less admirable direction. Where a hero would be calm and patient, an antihero might be impulsive and impatient. Where a hero might be kind and caring, an antihero could be rude and callous. What lets them keep the term “hero” in their title is what they’re doing: they’re accomplishing good, even if they go about it sideways or maybe for the wrong reasons.

Another big difference is that where a hero might call these traits flaws and work to overcome them, the antihero does not. The antihero isn’t interested in changing those traits that make them who they are. They acknowledge them, may in fact even like them.

If some of this seems a little nebulous, well, it is. The modern antihero is quite literally a recent creation born mostly of public opinion, which makes it something that is a bit hard to pin down. In fact, if we wanted to, we could sit here with a list of pop-culture favorite characters from every conceivable source and argue all day over whether or not they’re modern antiheroes or just flawed heroes. And there would likely be a multitude of different opinions, each valid. But at its core, when it comes time to remember or identify a modern antihero, remember the primary trait of the modern antihero—that they’re often a cynical mirror of a regular hero. Want to turn a hero into a modern antihero? Look at them and ask “Alright, what if they weren’t doing X because of this, but had a different, more self-serving reason?”

Because that’s really all the modern antihero is when we get down to it: A reimagining of a more typical hero but with one or two differences in motive and composition, while still keeping the majority of the classical elements of the hero. At the end of the day, they’re still accomplishing similar things … but a more cynical manner.

Now, is this a useful character archetype? Of course! Playing with a cynical look at heroes can lead to very interesting stories and concepts. An antihero can be a useful tool to approach tackling ideas about what heroism is or means, or even a way to look at how the life of a hero can affect them when they aren’t involved in being that hero. It can be a way to discuss the pitfalls and downsides of the kind of life a hero leads, or even a dark way to look deeper at the sort of individuals we might initially think are heroes who are not. And don’t forget, a flawed hero and a modern antihero are different things. A hero works to overcome their flaws. An antihero may struggle with them, but they don’t overcome them and don’t aspire to (heroism is often a means to an end of acting on them).

The Cliche Antihero
I figured I’d bring this one up before closing. While this isn’t officially an antihero classification, it almost might as well be these days. A cliched antihero is what I’d consider the “dark and brooding” cliche take on the antihero. You know the type. The one that gets popularized in teen fiction (particularly bad-boy romance), where the antihero is just a “sad and misunderstood” character who’s forever edgy and therefore appealing.

Is it a real character archetype? No, not at all. It’s just a cliche of an antihero, a false “false hero” if you will. A character who appears to be a modern antihero but falls apart under close examination because the actual underpinnings of character design aren’t actually there. Where an antihero can be an examination of a flawed and ultimately unheroic character or a hero with dark intentions, a cliched antihero is held together with flimsy pretext (they’re just so misunderstood! sob-sob) that falls apart under studious examination. They have no real substance, nor actual depth, but are there to simply to appeal to those who like either “dark and edgy” characters (*cough* a lot of teenaged readers *cough*) or to allow the author to pull in readers that like antiheroes simply on the premise alone.

Right, so, where does this leave us? We have the classical antihero, or a hero who fails to actually live up to the definition of what a hero is. And we have the modern/nineties antihero, or the hero with a cynical, inverse twist over the classic hero. And then we have the cliched antihero, who … You know what? We’re not even going to go further on that last one. It’s poor writing. Let’s stick with the solids.

So … two kinds of antiheroes. Now what?

This is actually a bit of a difficult question. As a writer, it should be clear to you that both of these character archetypes are something that you can use. But when it comes to antiheroes, the question is often twofold: should you and can you?

Antiheroes are not easy to write. They can be morally complex, interesting, and be a vehicle for difficult questions and moral concepts, but each one of those topics alone can be hard to handle, even for an experienced writer. Throw all of them together like one does when writing an antihero, and you have a recipe for an incredibly tough balance. This is why while a search for well-known antihero stories can bring up graphic novels or books that have gained critical acclaim, it can also reveal a flood of literature that lies dusty and forgotten on the bookshop floor.

Antiheroes are hard. They skirt the line between fascination, interest, and flaws that push readers away. Creating a proper antihero that balances the aspects of a realistic character with tackling moral issues and then keeping the reader hooked can be a powerful and winning study if done write … but done poorly can be a torpedo. The cliched antihero I wrote about above? That’s what happens when your antihero slips off the highwire.

So, can you write an antihero? Well, yes. Just know that it’ll be hard. And if you’re not careful, what you’ll actually end up writing is a flawed hero, which isn’t the same. In which case, if you’ve done that, you probably didn’t need an antihero anyway.

So, before you sit back to write an antihero, ask yourself what you’re setting out to create. What’s the theme that your work wants to explore? What’s the plot? What’s the end goal? Does having an antihero, classic or modern, serve that goal in any way? Or is it just an attempt to add drama, to pad your readerbase with the infinitely popular “cliched antihero?” Ask yourself these questions while you write, and make sure that whatever you’re doing, you’re using the proper tools for the right job.


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