What is an Antihero? How to Write an Unconventional Protagonist

antihero

Everybody loves a story in which the hero is the ultimate good guy and triumphs over evil — like Superman or Harry Potter.

But beware. The #1 mistake you can make when developing characters is creating heroes that are perfect.

What reader can identify with perfection?

The most memorable, plausible, believable heroes exhibit human, flawed behavior.

Examples:

  • Hannibal Lecter in The Silence of the Lambs
  • Holden Caulfield in The Catcher in the Rye
  • Jay Gatsby in The Great Gatsby
  • Scarlett O’Hara in Gone With the Wind
  • Walter White in Breaking Bad

These less traditional character archetypes are so morally conflicted that they can often make much more realistic heroes than their traditional counterparts.

In this post, let’s explore the antihero archetype and examine five different types you can use to create a compelling character readers can’t help but love hating.

What is an Antihero?

It’s a protagonist who lacks qualities portrayed in a traditional hero, like morality and courage, and often embodies behaviors you’d expect in a villain.

The motivation of antiheroes is mostly good — or they believe it is. Like villains, they are often sincere in justifying their behavior.

But they don’t always act for the right reasons. They are who they are — good when they need to be, bad when they believe circumstances dictate.

Fiction that resonates with readers is true to the human condition — characters must feel like real people in real situations.

One particularly satisfying character arc for an antihero that can make him resonate with readers and become unforgettable is when he becomes traditionally heroic in the end — like Scrooge in A Christmas Carol.

5 Types of Antiheroes

antihero

Too few real people change for the better throughout their lives. Things don’t turn out the way they dreamed, and they can become disillusioned, even bitter as reality sets in.

That’s one reason many escape to fiction — to live vicariously through someone for whom things turned out differently.

The antihero’s character arc must ring true, however. The last thing you want is your reader to say, “That would never happen.” When a surprising turn arises, it should seem inevitable but not predictable.

So, types of antiheroes you can create…

Classic

The opposite of the traditional hero, this antihero is incapable of waging a good fight, self-absorbed, full of self-doubt, fearful, anxious, and not exactly the most balanced aerialist on the high wire.

Ideally, his character arc sees him become a true hero by overcoming the obstacles to his ultimate goal.

Examples:

  • Frodo from Lord of the Rings
  • Bilbo Baggins from The Hobbit

Knight in Sour Armor

The most common antihero isn’t all that bad. His history explains, but doesn’t excuse his behavior.

He may be smart, know right from wrong, and ultimately have good intentions — he’s just a witty, sarcastic cynic who goes about things in the most logical way he believes possible.

Ideally, his character arc will see him overcome his shortcomings.

Examples:

  • Haymitch Abernathy from The Hunger Games
  • Severus Snape from Harry Potter
  • Han Solo in Star Wars
  • Robert Ludlum’s Jason Bourne
  • Marvel’s Iron Man

Pragmatic

This antihero type knows right from wrong, but if something needs to be done, he’ll deal with the consequences. He’ll even kill if necessary.

Examples:

  • Sherlock Holmes
  • Tyrion Lannister in Game of Thrones
  • Edmund Pevensie in Chronicles of Narnia
  • Wolverine in X-Men

Unscrupulous

Similar to the Pragmatic antihero, this type will do anything to achieve his ultimate goal, but his morals are non-existent.

His character arc is basically flat, with him still doing whatever it takes to overcome his objective. Regardless how ruthless his actions, his intentions may be good.

Examples:

    • Rambo
    • Jack Sparrow in Pirates of the Caribbean
    • Conan the Barbarian
    • John Wick

Hero In Name Only

Of all antihero types, this guy most blurs the line between hero and villain. His intentions are not mostly good; more often they’re not good at all.

In fact, he’s morally and ethically neutral. He does what has to do — to protect someone he loves, exact revenge, and he would qualify as the villain, were he not the protagonist.

We still pull for this antihero, but he might not win the day like the Classic or Knight in our Armor antiheroes.

Examples:

  • Walter White in Breaking Bad
  • Huckleberry in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn

What’s Your Favorite?

Choose one type and brainstorm whom you might create to fit it.

If you’re an Outliner, my character arc worksheet can help you get to know your hero.

If you’re a Pantser (like me), you might rather dive directly into the writing. Do what works best for you.

Just remember, your antihero must overcome his obstacles, rise to the occasion, and win against all odds.

But he has to grow into that from a more than normal flawed state.

Credible, believable, antiheroes with dramatic character arcs make for the most memorable protagonists you can imagine.

I’m eager to see what you come up with. Let me know.

jerry-jenkins

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