Writing an Antihero

Potter wasp 2We sometimes think of heroic characters as very “squeaky clean” types. They slay dragons, they hold the door for strangers, they give up their seats on the bus to needy folks, and they rescue baby animals from all kinds of predicaments. Except when they don’t.

The antihero does the hero’s job, narratively speaking:  he or she is integral to solving the story’s problem, he or she is in conflict with the villain, and if it’s a romance, he or she will probably be part of it. However, an antihero goes about these tasks with a very different moral attitude than a traditional hero. Antiheroes, by definition, have some characteristics that make them seem unsuitable for or undeserving of the hero’s part.

Greed, lust, a short temper, long-held grudges, and a tendency to party hard are just some of the features we can find in an antihero. They’re not just a hero with a flaw – they are deeply flawed or troubled characters who may even come across as villainous in the first part of the story. However, writers should be careful not to add too much grit when they’re creating an antihero. The contest to see who could create the darkest, edgiest, meanest antihero ended in the 1990s, and readers are more likely to be bored than entertained by characters who are defined entirely by their roughness.

A large part of the appeal of antiheroes comes from their potential for deep, complex development as people over the course of the narrative. They almost never lose the characteristics that made them ‘un-heroic,’ but they generally develop improved strategies for coping with their world and maintaining the relationships that are most important to them. While your antiheroes definitely need to have their share of faults and rough patches, they also need to have the capacity to learn and grow as people.

Adding Suspense to Character Development

Joules looking up at a peachA little over a year ago, I landed wrong after hopping a fence and sprained my ankle badly. Although it doesn’t hurt anymore, it didn’t quite heal right, so my left ankle is much knobblier and more puffy than my right. This kind of thing happens to people all the time. We’ll get through some calamity – minor or major, physical or mental – without severe permanent damage, but we’ll be marked by it in some way for the rest of our lives.

Fiction writers will frequently create characters who have been shaped by a traumatic event in their pasts. These characters may have strange mannerisms or attitudes; they may be difficult to get along with; they may even show impulses that shock the reader at first viewing. It’s tempting to explain these quirks as soon as humanly possible, but giving into that temptation might not be a good idea.

When you have a main character with a troubled past, you have the opportunity to add a degree of suspense to your character development. The character’s behavior becomes a mystery that the audience wants to solve – but not too quickly. In real life, people carefully set boundaries about the parts of themselves that they see as the most vulnerable. The audience expects your characters to behave the same way, only letting their guard down and revealing the secret to the mystery when they’re talking with someone they trust completely.

Ideally, the moment when a characters’ old wounds are finally explained to the audience is dramatic and satisfying. The reader finally has an explanation for behavior that has mystified them throughout your story. To pull this off, however, you need to be sure to realistically portray your character keeping their guard up until the moment is ideal for an important revelation which has a significant effect on the plot.

Writing Exercise: A Character’s Diary

Olive picker female olderThe first-person mode isn’t for all of us. It can be hard to carry a whole narrative on the shoulders of a character’s personal perspective; you need to pay attention to the character’s voice while still having that character tell us all the information we need to follow a story.

That being said, I still think it can be helpful to write in a first-person perspective now and then. In particular, I think it can be helpful to craft a diary entry for a character – or two, or twenty, if you feel the need. They don’t have to be long, and they don’t have to follow any particular format. Indeed, you might find that one character jots down lists and bullet points, while another prefers more conventional paragraphs. Some characters might keep careful track of the weather, while others might be particularly concerned with another character’s behavior toward them.

You may even find that a diary entry turns into another, and another, and another until you have enough material to fill a book. This is great, but you must be careful to edit your diary entries so that they follow some sort of plot. Make sure that you leave out entries that take us too far away from what is happening in the narrative you’ve created. Cutting out excess wording can be an unpleasant experience, but it’s sometimes necessary to transform this writing exercise into a marketable narrative.

Although I have written longer stories in a diary format, I prefer the third person for the vast majority of my work. Diary entries, for me, are more of a tool I use to get a good feel for a character. It helps me develop their speech patterns, the kind of metaphors they use, and the things they notice about the world I’ve built for them. It seems fitting that for the vast majority of my readers, these diary entries will remain a bit of a secret.

Two Easy Ways to Ruin Your Character’s Life

Walnuts with nibble holesIn general, your readers want to see your characters succeed in the end of the story. Whether their end goal is a romantic relationship, a mystery solved, or a victory over the forces of evil, your story’s characters should eventually achieve it in one way or another. However, if you want to make you story really satisfying, your characters will need to encounter some serious obstacles on the way to getting what they want. Part of your job as a writer involves throwing a wrench into your characters’ plans at the worst possible times.

Some of the problems your characters encounter will be products of chance. A storm might strand the characters in a strange place, for example, or a flat tire may cause a delay that leads to disastrous consequences. Although you might annoy your reader with long strings of unlikely coincidences or improbable events, it’s perfectly acceptable to use a chance occurrence as a way to set some of your plot events in motion.

Chance events aren’t the only forces that should come between your readers and their ultimate goal. The schemes and actions of your story’s antagonists should also manage to throw a wrench in the protagonist’s plans for success. These characters don’t have to be chessmasters who plan out intricate chain reactions of events; in fact, something as simple as blackmailing a protagonist or trying to seduce someone’s lover can cause enough turmoil to sustain the plot of a novel.

It might be a little harsh to say that good storytellers have a knack for ruining their characters’ lives, but it’s essentially true. Making it too easy for your protagonists to get what they want can bore your readers and leave you with very little to write about. Instead, use a combination of chance occurrences and antagonists’ actions to make your characters work for the goal they want to achieve.

The Expected and the Unexpected in Archetypal Characters

Pomegranate - texture when splitAvoiding ‘cookie cutter characters’ is a sound policy for writers. At best, your stories will turn out to be predictable and boring if you fill them with characters your audience has seen before. At worst, you’ll be ridiculed for your laziness and branded as a plagiarist for the rest of your career.

However, there’s no need to panic if some of your main characters bear a strong resemblance to the main characters of another story. In fact, many well-crafted and popular works of fiction are built around characters that fit into a well-known mold. We refer to these characters, who have traits that make them unique but still conform to a common profile, as ‘archetypal characters.’

The psychologist Carl S. Jung discusses archetypes heavily in Man and His Symbols. Archetypes, Jung explains, function as symbolic representations of important elements of our personalities. The ‘lone wolf’ archetype, for example, represents our drive to be self-sufficient and free from depending on others who could prove unreliable or untrustworthy. Although John McClane, James Bond, and Batman have unique personalities and will never be confused with one another, they all fit into this same archetypal mold.

Audiences like reading about archetypal characters not just because we can all identify with them on some level, but also because they give us a set of expectations that the writer can play with for our amusement. Some of these expectations are essential to the archetypal character and should not be subverted too drastically, but others are less essential and can be played with more freely. For example, readers may feel a little disappointed if the stoic warrior breaks down and becomes a believer in the Power of Friendship ™ at the end of the book; however, they will be delighted to learn that he has a soft spot for soppy love ballads or a tendency to be extra-cruel to enemies who abuse animals. Subverting some of the elements of archetypal characters makes them unique, and it sends the hopeful message that we’re not as defined as we think we are by the roles we play in our own lives.

Archetypal characters make a writer’s job easier, but they are not as effortless to use as a character that’s simply been stolen from another work. When writing an archetypal character, writers should be observant of not only what the reader expects of these characters, but also what the reader does not expect.

Perfect Realism Means Imperfect Characters

Split pomegranateLike everyone else who started writing by composing fanfiction, I was conditioned by my early teens to recoil and cringe at the phrase “Mary Sue.” While many writers (especially very young ones) love writing about beautiful, brilliant, well-loved characters who get everything they want with minimal effort, very few readers enjoy reading about them.

In all kinds of fiction, readers want to learn about realistic, well-rounded characters who must face their own inner demons as well as whatever external conflicts await them. Portraying your characters’ personal flaws is an important part of developing them. Although some of your characters might overcome some of their flaws over the course of the story, many of these foibles will remain part of their personality throughout the narrative.

When deciding what kinds of flaws your characters will have, try to include at least a few flaws that will impede their ability to get what they want over the course of the story. This will make your characters’ development crucial to the progression of the plot, and your readers will find themselves even more engaged in both your story and your characters. For example, the plot of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice hinges in part on Mr. Darcy’s ability to overcome his upper-class pretensions and help the Bennets out. The reader has a strong motivation to get invested in Mr. Darcy’s personal development because it is essential to his and Eliza’s getting what they want at the end of the story. It may be his good characteristics that attract Eliza, but it is his flaws which endear him to the reader and make him such a beloved character centuries later.

Flawless writing does not feature flawless characters. Develop your characters to be fallible creatures with well-rounded personalities, and make sure that their flaws function in some way as obstacles to the successful resolution of your story. This will keep your readers engaged with your story and help them get invested in your characters.

Why Your Fiction Needs Flat Characters

My Pictures0004Good writers are always striving to develop dynamic, memorable main characters in their fiction. A story’s protagonists and antagonists should have clear, compelling motives; they should undergo a clear change as the story progresses; and they should be fleshed out enough to be believable. If your story’s cast is full of one-dimensional characters whose lives remain unchanged throughout the narrative, it will be difficult to keep the reader’s attention.

However, you still shouldn’t assume that all of your characters need to be popping off the page as much as the stars of your story. Many settings require you to include a supporting cast of characters who are necessary to the world of the narrative, but unnecessary to the narrative itself. If you take the time needed to develop every minor character who appears, then your narrative can easily turn into a bloated mess that confuses your readers more than it entertains them.

Many writers don’t like to think of themselves as using flat characters intentionally, but there is no need for a flat character to be a boring character. You can easily bring flat characters to life in the reader’s mind by using one or two unique, memorable traits to describe them. Although you don’t want to denote characters with quirky traits to the point where they all become gimmicky caricatures, you can draw the reader’s interest by describing a few interesting, memorable details. It’s easy to picture the waitress in worn out Chuck Taylors, for example, and we can make some assumptions about what she might be like, but this brief characterization doesn’t draw us away from our heroine’s nervousness as she waits for her date to arrive at the restaurant.

Effective writers make their minor characters flat for the same reason that they make their major characters round and dynamic: to draw the reader’s attention and hold it for the duration of the story. Although using vivid and interesting details can help bring minor characters to life, there is no need for an excess of information about them.