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 =
SEEN IT ALL BEFORE
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
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.