Let's Discuss Antiheroes

More specifically, what do you do to keep up that balance, when a character is a bad person but not a ~villain~? How do you keep a character who's morally lacking or even bankrupt in a light which makes sure that they can be an ally to, or even the protagonist themself?

It usually seems like there's a thematic line that the hero won't cross, but the anti-hero will, but then there's another line that neither will cross, and this ultimately puts them on the same side in the broad view. The hero might never, ever purposefully kill, and when using violence, will use minimal force, or try to knock out their enemy quickly and efficiently. The anti-hero might be much more savage, beating enemies half to death and making them suffer, but still won't ever purposefully kill. Or, the hero won't kill under any condition, but the anti-hero will in the right circumstances. A simple example, but it's often a question of standards.

It needn't stop at how far they will go. A hero lacking any of the other archetypical pillars would also qualify. Take Ciaphas Cain, for example, a commissar (morale/control officer) from the WH40K universe: he's cowardly, doesn't really like running headlong into battle, and only becomes a "hero" to keep himself safe throughout the missions he's sent on. This inadvertently makes him highly recommended by the higher ups which puts him into even more dangerous tasks, forcing Cain to go above and beyond the art of the skin-of-his-teeth survivalist.

Anti heros are all about bringing characters down from that unreachable pedestal Superman and his fellows traditional stood upon.

Some more interesting anti-heros

- The Nier Automata playable cast (A2, 2B, 9S): androids fighting on the behalf of humanity that question their own existence, forge bonds with each other, and come across significant moral conflicts. 9S's part in ending E comes to mind as a particularly neat sample of an anti-hero

- The main cast of Cowboy Bebop: quirky space crew out to make the green off of bounty hunting, each with their own baggage, and none of them very noble by archetypical hero standards.

- Then, a really old one, Gilgamesh: featured in The Epic of Gilgamesh and lit classes near you, this guy is the epitome of MGTOW with the power to back his lifestyle up. Dude did what he wanted, damn the consequences.

I keep the motives of such characters a mystery. Even a 'bad man' in the right company may appear like a 'good guy' if his motives are unknown. Any character, good or bad, can become grey.

Nice, nice, thanks for all your ideas!! Personally, I do tend towards the line that won't be crossed approach in most cases. There's also the situation where the people who are wronged by the character don't hold it against them, or others who know about their wrongdoings don't. For another example, I have one character who was genetically modified to be a weapon, but left to her own devices has ended up having weird, twisted homicidal urges layered over her natural personality. When she ends up accidentally blinding a close friend, years later he states that he will never forgive her for that, but that he pities her and wants to be friends again, because in his eyes they're both victims, and being blinded by her is not the worst thing to ever happen to him.

I find antiheroes work best when they're portrayed as people who aren't inherently moral, but whose goals happen to align with that of morality. As an example: I have a book with a guild of villains who frequently kill anyone who tries to take over or destroy the world, not because they can't bear to see innocents hurt but for the simple fact that they have to live there too. Protecting their own interests means protecting the world as a whole. In a more obscure sense, if I wanted to steal the most money I could and I targeted the nearest place with those amount of fund and it happened to be a bank: I'm a thief. Now, changing nothing else, if the nearest place that suits my robbery goals was instead a criminal stronghold, and in the act of robbing them I cripple their enterprise therefore reducing local crime, I'm an antihero. Not because anything I wanted or was doing changed, it just lined up with what's generally considered to be moral. This method lets the anitheroes be as bad as they need to, yet still seem lovable because, intended or not, their actions are causing good.

It depends on how you define "hero". Odysseus was a celebrated hero at one time, but in a modern context he's an arrogant jerk who would fit squarely in the anti-hero archetype.

It's also worth considering the differences between the anti-hero and the Byronic hero.

Depending on the situation, a dash of self-awareness can also help. If the character knows they're "bad" in the eyes of society, or the protagonist, and speaks up in that manner, they could still be seen as an ally. "How could you even suggest that?" "You know why. Suggestions like that is why you come to me for advice."

Alternatively, similar to what Scott said, keep the motivations cloaked in mystery. Garak from DS9 comes to mind. He had his own agenda that sometimes aligned with the main cast, and the mystery of his past helped make him a fascinating character (compared to Dukat, who would fall in the "villain" category... and having Garak and Dukat not get along also helps, come to think, so maybe have your "bad person" also dislike the villain). And (if memory serves) when Sisko came to Garak for advice on getting the Romulans involved in the war, Garak was all 'are you SURE you want to see this right through?'. Apologies for those who have no idea what I'm talking about.

From Wikipedia "An antihero, or antiheroine, is a protagonist who lacks conventional heroic qualities such as idealism, courage, or morality.[1][2][3][4][5] These characters are usually considered "conspicuously contrary to an archetypal hero".[6] Although antiheroes may sometimes do the "right thing", it is often for the "wrong reasons" and because it serves their self-interest rather than being driven by moral convictions.[7]"

So self-interest more than for ideals like honour, duty or love. Han Solo in New Hope is anti-heroic to start. Luke is heroically idealistic.

The Wikipedia definition is accurate but I think some antiheroes are more antiheroic than others. By that definition, Grif Vindh (the protagonist of Pay Me, Bug! and A Rake by Starlight would be an antihero because he's a criminal -- but he doesn't (I think) come off as strongly in that vein as perhaps Snake Plissken would, because the story presents his POV as the "normal" one. In other words, the first story focuses on the crew of ne'er-do-wells trying to get out of a bad situation, and the second story has them swept up in political events that aren't their fault. Usually antiheroes have a sharp contrast to... um... antihero against? If the contrast is taken from the real world, the story usually explicitly calls it out.

In heist stories (which the first one is) the readers/audience is usually wooed into full-throated cheering for the protagonists as proper heroes (i.e., Ocean's Eleven) as opposed to getting them on the protagonists side in spite of specific off-putting qualities (like Riddick in Pitch Black, or Plisskin in Escape from New York, or any number of Clint Eastwood westerns).

By that definition, I've never written an *actual* hero. All of my characters count as antiheroes (or worse). I think they're less "antihero" and more "honest portrayal of the human race".

The truth is, the vast majority of people doing good things are *not* doing it for the sake of doing good. They're in it for the thrill, the self-aggrandizement, the income, the hope of a future career in politics, access to attractive sexual partners, because it's a group activity with friends, and so forth.

And that's without accounting for downright *dark* motives. Hunting down and revenge-killing a psycho who murdered your best friend, as an example... that is not a hero, that is a killer who happens to be doing society a favor. Or shilling for an ideology all while standing on the backs of the True Believers to claim political power (the fact that nobody can even tell WHICH ideology I'm talking about should tell a novel in and of itself). Having power over others in general is a powerful motivation for evil people... and being seen as a hero is often an easier path than being known as a monster.

So in light of "very few people who do good actually ARE good", it's actually quite easy to mesh antiheroes into the story. With exception for a handful of unrealistic archetypes, *everyone* is an antihero once you strip back the facade.

A hero does the right thing for the right reasons. An anti-hero does the right thing for the wrong reasons. They can get along, even be allies, but there is always going to be a philosophical difference between them, play off of that.

I can't believe nobody has brought up D&D alignments yet.

@unice- I was pleasantly surprised as well.

Would you like a multi-paragraph rant on why alignments are stupid? I can provide one.

Only if it's amusing.

That, I can't promise.

@Jim - As a True Neutral, I have no strong feelings one way or the other, except a powerful drive to make sure other people are aware of how ambivalent I am. :P

I for one love the Kobolds ate my baby alignment chart. (also, how you choose your alignment. you drop a coin on the grid, and where it lands is your alignment. I always end up blonde)


What does the D&D alignment chart have to do with anti-heroes?