Every story has a hero - usually the MC who is good and virtuous and easy to cheer to victory - and then the villain or antagonist who stands in the way of said hero achieving his altruistic goals. Personally, I'm all about the anti-hero, about the the less-than-chivalrous dude in the back who's unwittingly dragged into saving the day when he'd really rather you didn't involve him.
Exhibit A - one of my favourite anti-heroes from YA fiction, Damon Salvatore of The Vampire Diaries. Yes, he has become the main love interest, but before he was Elena's boyfriend, he was enemy number one and decidedly more villain than hero.
If he wasn't so good-looking, would we still be interested in this dude? I'm not so sure, but we are and it goes beyond tall, dark and handsome. The thing that makes us love Damon despite all his many, many villainous qualities is that we can see through the blood-stained exterior to the emotionally unstable, damaged and vulnerable gooey black centre of his heart. A lot of what he does, he does for love and while we might not be able to forgive him, we can certainly overlook his mass-murdering as long as he continues to protect the people he loves.
Exhibit B - for a more contemporary example of the sort of guy we might actually meet in real life. Here's another anti-hero from a not-so-YA TV show: Jax Teller from Sons of Anarchy.
- Main characters don't always have to be the good guys. In fact, anti-heroes often make for more interesting characters because they are inherently conflicted and have to show us a lot more of themselves before we can start rooting for their cause.
- Give your anti-hero something to care about so that we can see their vulnerability. If Damon didn't love Elena or if Jax didn't have his sons, there'd be no 'good' reason for him to do what he does and we'd be a lot less wiling to forgive him his long list of indiscretions.
- Let them grow. The anti-hero arc doesn't have to be a journey towards righteousness, but the anti-hero should have some self-awareness, should at least acknowledge their tendency towards the dark side and perhaps consider the possibility of redemption.
- Regardless of how selfish and cruel the anti-hero might be it in a book, movie or TV show, if they commit one selfless act for the betterment of another, I'm sold. This one act shows us that there is a kernel of decency buried deep, deep down inside and that they are capable of more good than they might realise.