Prompt: The Anti-Hero

The following is a tutorial and prompt for Writers in the Grove by Lorelle VanFossen and Patti Bond.

“Casting someone who people love to hate is absolutely critical.”

Bravo-TV’s Real Housewives producer Andy Cohen spoke on CNN’s “Why Donald Trump is the Perfect Real Housewife:”

If reality stars are going to make it big, they’ve got to amp up the drama – and by drama, I mean totally insane behavior.

Donald Trump is the perfect Real Housewife — the perfect villain — in the sense that some of us cannot stop talking about how much we freaking hate him. We can’t stop retweeting his deranged rantings. We cannot stop fact checking his obviously false statements. We cannot keep looking at each other — whether in real life or on a comments board — and asking, Can you BELIEVE this guy!?

In short, we cannot look away from the specter of Capital “C” Crazy before us, even if we shove an entire basket of deplorables over our heads. If Trump had a “Real Housewives” tagline, it might be, “Hate me all you want. I’ll be back for more.”

This is not a discussion about politics, but a look at a fascinating type of character often found in fiction as well as the real world: the antihero. Antiheroes are fascinating and compelling characters, and often set in the fine line between hero and villain.

The article offered a shortlist of reality TV casting requirements, which define well the concept of an antihero.

  1. 1s the character willing to say or do just about anything to be famous?
  2. Is the character polarizing among other characters and viewers?
  3. Is the character highly charismatic, yet highly offensive?
  4. Is the character predictably unpredictable?
  5. Does the character live in their own world, out of touch with reality (delusional)?

Like watching a car accident or train wreck, we can’t tear our eyes away from them. This is what makes a good antihero character for television, film, theater, or fiction.

The Hero and The Antihero

The hero is admired for courageous acts or nobility of character. The hero’s quest is a popular plot device with a person who goes on an adventure, wins a decisive victory, and comes home transformed.

The traditional hero fights with honor and will never hit an opponent when he is down. He almost always makes the right decisions, is a friend to all on his side, and is a generally well-rounded character. The hero fights on the side of obvious good, and often (though not always) will be the leader of a ragtag bunch of misfits.

He will always win his fights, and if he doesn’t, you can count on there being a rematch later in the story, which he will win. His intentions are pure and he’s nigh-incorruptible.

Basically, you know a traditional hero when you see one. – The Write Practice Blog

Examples of real heroes include George Washington, Florence Nightingale, Marie Curie, Mahatma Gandhi, Susan B. Anthony, Leonardo Da Vinci, Neil Armstrong, J.F. Kennedy, Walt Disney, Helen Keller, and Eleanor Roosevelt. Literary heroes include Batman, Superman, Harry Potter, Elizabeth Bennet (Pride and Prejudice), Oliver Twist, Fanny Price (Mansfield series), and Indiana Jones.

SherlockThe anti-hero is a central character that lacks the conventional heroic attributes such as idealism, courage, or morality. They often possess dark personality traits including dishonesty, aggressiveness, and confrontation, the opposite of the hero, often considered a sociopath. Sometimes anti-heroes (antiheroes) will do the right thing at the end, but usually out of self-interest rather than moral righteousness.

The anti-hero lives in a universe with a more cynical, ambiguous moral code. He will have visible character flaws, and he will doubt himself. They will perform heroic acts, like a traditional hero, but unlike a traditional hero, who has both the physical and moral capabilities to be heroic, the anti-hero usually has neither.

Anti-heroes are often the right-hand man or rival of traditional heroes, or the protagonist in postmodern literature or film, or in deconstructions of the traditional hero. – The Write Practice Blog

A well-written antihero and villain connects with the readers. Most readers will boo the villain and cheer on the antihero because they like him. Most villains don’t inspire empathy, where the antihero is familiar to readers, they see themselves in the antihero character, ambivalent, dispassionate, and separate from the world around them while trying to find a way to be liked and accepted. Antiheroes have the best intentions at the beginning. An antihero is a complicated character that makes the reader challenge their thinking and possibly beliefs, but rarely change their character by the end of the story.

An example of the antihero ambivalence is from The Stranger by Albert Camus:

Maman died today. Or yesterday maybe, I don’t know. I got a telegram from the home: “Mother deceased. Funeral tomorrow. Faithfully yours.” That doesn’t mean anything. Maybe it was yesterday.”

An antihero is not a villain. Villains are considered “pure evil,” beyond redemption. They cannot be redeemed, have no morals, and their self-interest tends to know no bounds. The world is better and safer without them. With a well-written antihero, there is hope for redemption, but even a selfless act is done out of self-interest. Heroes walk away “better and stronger,” whereas antiheroes just walk away.

Examples of real antiheroes include Bernard Goetz (NY Subway Vigilante), Mao Zedong, Joseph Stalin, Oliver Cromwell, Kim Il-sung, Ivan the Terrible, Malcolm X, Richard Nixon, Vladimir Putin, Mussolini, Al Capone, John Dillinger, Fidel Castro, Henry the Eighth, and Yasser Arafat.

Examples of fictional antiheroes include James Bond, Sherlock (Sherlock (BBC)), Snape (Harry Potter), Hamlet, Holden Caulfield (The Catcher in the Rye), Quentin Compson (The Sound and the Fury), Amy Elliot Dunne (Gone Girl), Beetlejuice (Beetlejuice), Jay Gatsby (The Great Gatsby), Rincewind (Discworld), Lucifer (Paradise Lost), Bilbo (The Hobbit), Dexter Morgan (Dexter), Angel (Buffy and Angel), Sami Brady (Days of Our Lives), Veronica Mars, Don Draper (Mad Men), Django (Django Unchained), Scarlett O’Hara (Gone with the Wind), Othello, Riddick (Riddick movies), Shrek, and V (V for Vendetta).

Hero vs Antihero

The following is a comparative list based upon the list by Anthony Ehlers on Writer’s Write, and other sources.

Hero

Antihero

idealist

realist

conformist, peace keeper

rebel

stands up to bad guys, faces great odds

stands up to authority, even if it is well-intentioned

faced conflict bravely, head-on

will try to get around conflict, tries sneaky strategies

motivated by pure intentions (light)

driven by basic urges (dark), but may turn to a higher calling by the end of the story

classically handsome or beautiful, looks the part of the hero

can possess no beauty or has unusual looks (sometimes), and may swear, drink, sleep around, take drugs

always gets or loses the girl

not interested in love’s rewards

is extraordinary, possesses gifts and talents

might be plain, undistinguished, with no special talent other than manipulation

always on the right side of the law

often criminal, thief, or manipulates the law (“end justifies the means”)

always pro-active, makes decisions

passive or pushed into something against his will

stereotypical Knight on a White Steed

often the Fallen Angel

overcomes flaws and fears, reaches for a higher level

always motivated by self-interest and what they can get out of it

succeeds in his goals, unless story is tragedy

often fails or is redeemed by story events, or remains unchanged

can be complex but is usually never ambivalent

can be mysterious, unfathomable, and unpredictable, often neurotic, selfish, mean, dishonest, apathetic, and oblivious, often sociopaths (villains tend to be psychopaths)

According to C.S. Lakin of Live Write Thrive:

  • Make the character flawed.
  • No matter what his actions are, the intentions are always good.
  • Find a good reason to justify why he is bad and explain it to the reader.
  • Show him making difficult decisions with self-interest.
  • Give him enough qualities to make the reader sympathize with the character.
  • Make the character change and influence lives.
  • Make the character a realist.

Emily Wenstrom of The Write Practice adds:

  • He follows his own moral code.
  • He is the master at something.
  • He has a softer side.
  • When bad, he is horrid.

Antihero Examples

In summary, a well-written good antihero is one with:

  1. Flaws
  2. Noble intention
  3. Redeeming features
  4. Ambivalence

Examples from the fiction world of antiheroes include:

ShrekShrek: The green ogre is an recluse, aggressive, isolationist, wishing to be left alone in his stinky, swamp world. He accepts that people treat him like
a monster. He is forced into a hero’s quest to rescue the princess with great protest with his antagonist, the donkey. He is a character in constant conflict with himself and society. He is ambivalent about the world outside, and does just about everything out of self-interest. After rescuing the princess, he returns to the swamp alone, not changed by the journey. In the end, he rescues the princess again with an act of self-interest and a little redemption.

James Bond - Sean ConneryJames Bond: James Bond could be a hero or an antihero, and sometimes he is both. Every book and movie is a form of hero’s journey, he is given a task beyond his control that he must accomplish against all odds. Yet, the character of James Bond is ambivalent. He drinks, smokes, kills, and causes havoc everywhere he goes, often with little or no thought. He is a patriot, doing what he does for a higher cause, because he was trained to do so, not because he is altruistic or a courageous hero here to save the day.

Book cover of the Great Gatsby.Jay Gatsby: Gatsby is an antihero because he represents the American Dream, rags to riches, but he lies his way to the top at every step. The reader believes he is a hero, rising out of the ashes, but his fixation and obsession with wealth is his greatest strength and weakness. He hangs out with the wrong type of people, drinks, does risky, attention-getting things, and the lies pile on higher and higher. He fakes his name and life story, and uses his fake wealth to pursue a woman who is turned off by the very nature of his success. People have great sympathy for his character because he tries so hard to get people to like him. In the end of the story, does he change? No.

Don Draper - Mad MenDon Draper (Mad Men): The popular television show was led by a well-written and performed antihero, Don Draper, in a Gatsby-style story. He is a bastard child born in a barn and raised in a brothel who lies to become a top ad man in the 1950s when television and advertising became a boon business. He is a man of contradictions, a drunk, a loyal company man, an adulterer, a coward, creative thinker, and yet, ambivalent. He reached his plateau and his only goal is to stay there, and not be caught. He is not a hero, driven to win, nor a murderer or destroyer of worlds, though his world is destroyed around him because of lies. People get too close, he runs away. The A.V. Club describes him: “Don is a socially sanctioned confidence man hiding his broken interior with a suit. He doesn’t exist on the good-bad continuum. He is simply a man who wears many masks.”

Psychopath vs Sociopath: Both lack empathy. Psychopath has no conscience, no morals. Sociopath has a conscience but it’s weak. He may know it is wrong but do it anyway, and might feel some guilt or remorse, but not stop.

Patti’s Hero Example

Patti and Lorelle put together an example for the tutorial and prompt of how to take a hero, identify their strongest characteristic, then write the opposite. While the prompt does not require you to write about the hero and their strongest characteristic, just the antihero version, we’ve included both to show you the comparison.

One of Patti’s hero is her father, and his strongest characteristic is compassion.

Example scenario:

Patti is waiting in a doctor’s office for an appointment. She’s alone, scared and nervous.

The door to the office opens and her father walks in.

HERO VERSION

He comes over and hugs her. He sits down and takes her hand, whispering words of encouragement. They will get through this together. When the nurse comes to escort Patti in, her father goes with her, holding her hand, and they face the doctor together. When they hear the results, her father wants to know more, asks questions about pain and treatments. He says he wants to ensure his daughter gets the best care possible, no matter what it takes.

ANTIHERO VERSION

He walks up to the reception desk and asks for her by name. The receptionist points behind him. “Oh, there you are! I didn’t see you.” He sits down and says nothing. Patti takes his hand because she believes that somewhere down inside of him, he cares about her because he is her father, and she needs him. His hand is still and cold. When the nurse comes to escort Patti in, her father asks if he should stay in the waiting room, but Patti tugs his hand and pulls him through into the treatment room. When they hear the results, her father wants to know how much this is going to cost, how long it will take, and talks about how much this will interfere with his work schedule, as well as with his daughter’s life, since this is such an inconvenience to both of them. He says he wants to ensure his daughter gets the best care possible, no matter what it takes.

The following are tips to consider as you write the prompt for the antihero.

  • Show us the character’s ambivalence and self-interest through his actions. Don’t tell us.
  • The reader emphasizes with the story because we’ve all “been there” with someone, and we know the feelings on both sides of the character, the desire to support and the obligation of supporting someone society says you must.

The Prompt for the Antihero

Pen on paper with words The Prompt over them.

  1. Pick a positive character, a typical hero.
  2. Identify their strongest attribute or characteristic.
  3. Write a scene in which the character displays the complete opposite of that characteristic.

References

The following resources will help you learn more about how to write an antihero, one that the reader will sympthasize with, cheer on, but also be a bit disgusted with, making them fascinating.

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