Villains V. Anti-heroes: What’s the difference?

What? Why do you people always expect me to have an answer?


Villains are the ones that you love to hate. They are eyeball glue for fiction readers. Seriously–want to ensure that the reader will keep turning pages? Give them a well designed villain and an equally matched hero, and they will finish your book and get that Kindle pages read graph to sky-rocket.

When we think about the basic set up of a novel, what do we think of? Hero + Villain = story? Most of the time. Let’s look at that a bit closer.

Most people go that route because it is a less risky formula. It is easy, accepted and authors choose it for those reasons. The likeable protagonist is common because:

*The reader can identify with them easily and put themselves in the character’s place.

*The character embodies all the good things about ourselves and the world around us that we want to believe in.

*They offer one half of a classic dynamic that readers respond to on an emotional level.

Villains, adversely, prey on the primary and earliest fears of the reader. Remember that monster in your closet when you were six? He’s back. They open up our minds to the idea that not everything is as safe as we might have thought. They activate the fight or flight response in us that is hardwired into our brain (thank our ancestors for this trait. Try running from a hungry cheetah whilst hunting down your breakfast.) Or just go to Subway. Easier.

So–this conventional view makes sense. Hero that stands for all that is right and pure + Villain that is evil incarnate and stands for all the things we fear =


What if we want to do something different? What if we want to risk using an anti-hero as our protagonist? Can you do that? Of course you can. You can do anything–you’re an author.

Anti-heroes are an interesting and conflicted character type to work with. Though the reader may not easily be able to see things from their point of view and step right into those tarnished shoes, anti-heroes are built with some form of redeeming quality. The reader may not agree with them, but they will surely be able to understand why they act as they do. Also, the anti-hero does not have to be fully redeemed by the end of the story. That makes for an unexpected character arc.  Lets take a look at some differences between anti-heroes and villains

Anti-hero: The anti-hero is almost never a willing participant. They do what they do because they have no choice.

Villain: Do what they do out of selfishness and a desire to conquer. Willingly plot and plan against protagonists (or in the case of super-villains, everyone else.)

Anti-hero: Can be very average, or even very unattractive, both physically and morally.

Villain: Can be unattractive, but is rarely ever just an Everyday Joe.

Anti-hero:  Highly versatile and able to transition between scenes easily. Just killed a bus full of bad guys? No problem. Show up two minutes later for his daughter’s graduation looking not the slightest bit disturbed.

Villains: Ego makes them a show off. Just killed a bus full of good guys? Take over the hero’s daughter’s graduation event to use the mic and brag about it.

Anti-hero: A mess of contradictory qualities. “I hate animals rights groups. I will kill them all. Oh…a kitten. I love kittens.”

Villains: Rarely have any redeeming qualities and have no issue being evil.

Anti-hero: Complex MO

Villain: Power, revenge, powerful revenge–selfishness.

Anti-hero: Can often appear to blend in with the good side as well as the bad side, equally as easily.

Villain: Imagine Otto Octavius sitting quietly through a hero awards ceremony. Yep.

Anti-hero: when forced to make a choice between two paths, one right, one wrong–will sometimes willingly choose wrong because the results are faster or less dangerous.

Villain: Chooses wrong because of the pure joy of being evil.

So now that we know some of the differences, we can easily also see some of the similarities.

Both character types do bad things–but for different underlying reasons.

Both types live at the edge of society and make choices that the reader might not make, but will certainly find enthralling.

Both types have issues with authority, but for separate reasons.

Both types can be motivated by self interest, although the anti-hero can often be motivated by love or the desire to protect someone or something.

Both types of characters require the reader to think beyond what they see in the every day world. They make the reader feel vulnerable–frightened even. You want your readers to feel something.

So how do I build a good anti-hero? The anti-hero is an excellent choice for an author. He or she does not have to fit a specific cookie-cutter type. Your Anti-hero can be outrageously sexy, or the guy on the hijacked plane with the bald spot and the stained t-shirt. They can swear every other word and be a racist, an ex-con, a loser who is at the lowest point in their life. Whatever you choose to do with them. Whatever works best for your story.

Here are the important things:

*They must have some sort of reason for their actions, and the reader must know what that reason is. Give them a back story. What made them who they are?

*They must be equal in intelligence (although it may be displayed differently) to your villain.

*They must display their reluctance at some point in the story–otherwise they are just a willing hero with some less than savoury qualities.

* If heroes are blue and villains are red, think of the anti-hero as purple. He is a combination of all traits, to be used at your will and command.

* He usually will have a fragile sense of self worth–this can make him both dangerous and demotivated–so give him a strong reason to care.

A few examples of anti-heroes:

Luke Jackson–Cool Hand Luke


Han Solo

Dirty Harry Callahan

Who hates Shrek? Not most people, I wouldn’t think. He is an oddball character type. Some gross antics, not the best manners, negative and suspicious, suffers from ridicule and not all that excited about saving the day–but people love him for all of those things and more. The perfect anti-hero. (No, you don’t have to have a green character who eats eyeballs as your anti-hero, but he is a good example.)

I realise this is a long post, so I will wrap it up. One of the most important things you can do for your characters and for your readers, is allow your characters to grow beyond your own experiences and beliefs. Have you ever crossed the desert on a grumpy camel to save a princess who will thank you with disdain and ignorance? Me either. I bet I could create a believable character who could. So could you.

Do not limit your characters to only believing what you believe, speaking like you speak, and seeing the world through your eyes. Wherever possible, make them your absolute opposite. Yes, the saying has always been “write what you know,” but that only goes so far. Do you think that Anne McCaffrey really knew the Dragons of Pern or that all of the famous sci-fi writers of the 20th century really travelled to other planets for research? Don’t be afraid to be different. It just might pay off.

Go write.


24 thoughts on “Villains V. Anti-heroes: What’s the difference?

  1. I always think of Punisher, Venom, and Wolverine when someone mentions Anti-Heroes. They seem to be a big staple in comics, but there’s a strange cycle for some of them. At least in comics, an Anti-Hero that becomes very popular often gets softened. They lose their darker edge because they become more marketable and eventually they go full hero. Out of the three, Wolverine and Venom probably had this happen the most. Punisher can’t really be altered much considering his whole thing is ‘I kill the bad guys dead’. I wonder if it’s easier to maintain an Anti-Hero in a novel than an on-going, almost never ending comic book. Movies seem to maintain them well too.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Tim Dorsey has the coolest anti-heroes in his books. Serge and Coleman are hunted by the police because they are serial killers, but they only kill scammers in Florida, and they choose the most inventive and creative ways to kill. His books are tight and hilarious. Old stoners definitely can relate to Serge and Coleman, because they never grew up.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I am not sure where the Characters in my Scrolls series fit in here. Are they villains, Anti-Heroes, the closest to a hero I have is Tremain, the human boy-king that loses his memory near the end of the first book and in the second book appears as Kernick yet still displays Kingly traits. Really I think my characters are a combination of Anti hero and villain. Although there is at least one out right villain in the second book and he is Human..

    Liked by 1 person

      • The problem with the unpredictability factor is some readers are not going to be able to see the motives of the characters and will hence struggle to understand the story arc. I wanted to present a convoluted version of good and evil. But book three will see a deal with the devil and an alliance no one saw coming, I haven’t decided which devil yet as I am still rolling over various scenarios before I sit down to write it, but the deal will go down one way or another of that I’m sure only because it makes sense from a necessity stand point if certain Races are not to go extinct as did the complete genocide of the Kobold in book two. .It’s alright, I had no particular fondness for the Dog-Men and have replaced them in the order of the world with their reptilian brained cousins, the Troglodytes (Lizard Men)

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      • I think people come in with expectations in their heads formed by their own beliefs and by previous books and films they’ve had experience with. Makes it hard on the author when they are telling a completely different story and the reader is inclined to think the author did something wrong when the story doesn’t go as they expected. I guess it’s the price we pay.

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      • I would rather fail in my attempt to be original and try new and challenging writes than to be successful and predictable… or in otherwords, I really don’t think much about the reader while I write, I am more thinking about how I see it and read it and how it appeals to me. Its myself I try to satisfy and continually I come up short which only makes me try harder the next time around to pull off what in my head I am trying to do.

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      • I have to say, those are my favourite novels. I’m having fun watching people try to find something to compare one of my books to at the moment, and then have them say: “well, I can’t think of anything else like it so I can’t compare it.” Maybe in some ways that is safety for us. At least no one is saying “just like…”

        Liked by 1 person

  4. Reblogged this on graemecummingdotnet and commented:
    Part of the reason I’m sharing this is because Ionia is preaching to the converted. But what she’s done here is go into more detail than I would have considered. I just know we are all flawed individuals and when I’m writing a character I try to reflect that. I’d even go so far as to say that the villain should demonstrate some positive traits. In real life the lines blur, and even though I want to entertain, I also think part of that can come from making the reader connect with all characters at some level. The more connected you are, the more you want to find out what will happen next. And it also creates some uncertainty – about who really is the bad guy, and how things will turn out in the end.

    Great post. Read it.

    Liked by 1 person

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