Thursday, January 16, 2014

For the Love of the Anti-Hero

Is it really January 16 already? I've barely recovered from Christmas and it's less than a month til Valentine's Day! On the topic of love, today I'd like to chat about anti-heroes. I'm not talking about the tattooed bad boys with hearts of gold that seem to pervade YA and NA, I'm talking about mean-ass fiends who manage to get under our skin and worm their way into our hearts even though we know we shouldn't let it happen.


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.
Behind his smirk and charm, Damon is pretty monstrous. For those of you who haven't watched the series or read the books and don't want spoilers, look away now... right, still with me? Let's recap. Damon is a vampire and enjoys being a blood-sucking fiend. He has manipulated countless women into his bed - including the close friends of his girlfriend - which is basically rape! Every time he has a bad day, he throws a tantrum and rips out a few throats. He revels in his paranormal power and will gloat unashamedly about his many conquests. He kills humans/werewolves/witches/vampires and anyone else who stands in his way without any remorse. He harbors grudges and visits vengeance generation upon generation. He has zero problem with torture, zero problem with using people - even those he loves - and zero problem with the fact that you don't like his methods.

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.

Like Damon, this guy is seriously badass and unapologetic about it. Unlike our vampire fiend who I have very little chance of bumping into in a dark alley, Jax-types and I have probably already crossed paths. Potential spoilers ahead, you've been warned...

Jax is the president of a motorcycle gang, the kind of gang that's into drug smuggling and gun running for the likes of Mexican cartels and the IRA. He's been to jail more than once and has been responsible for a significant body count both on US soil and abroad. He'll kill for his club. He'll kill for pride and reputation, for power and revenge, and he'll kill to protect those he loves without even batting an eye. Jax breaks the law - usually several laws at once - without much remorse and is not above using torture, extortion and blackmail to get what he wants even when it involves sacrificing those closest to him if it suits his end game. This does not a nice guy make. However, what ultimately makes this bad-boy extraordinaire lovable, and what makes us forgive his many villainous ways, is that we know Jax has a good reason for doing what he does and only has the best interests of his sons at heart. He's a good dad and everything he does, he does to protect his boys from the type of life he's lead.

So why do we keep falling for fiends like Damon and Jax? Anti-heroes, in contrast to the typical Captain American stereotype, are more like real-life people. They are flawed, corruptible, susceptible to weakness, which makes them easier to relate to. Anti-heroes often carry around a ton of emotional baggage, which indicates a level of vulnerability (even if they won't admit it) beneath their hard-as-nails exterior and it's that vulnerability that screams 'just hug me' to the audience. 

So what does all of this mean when it comes to writing and crafting characters?

  • 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.
Do you prefer traditional heroes or do you like troubled anti-heroes? Who's your favorite anti-hero?


  1. I love this post. I am a huge fan of the anti-hero. Two of my all time favourite books have anti-hero MCs. Thomas Covenant and Robert Hogg. I am fascinated by anti-heroes and would pick up another book featuring one in a heartbeat!

  2. Hooray for the anti-heroes! :)