When I was a kid, I was taught that a protagonist was the hero of the story. As I got older, I learned that the protagonist was actually the person who moved the story along – they didn’t have to be a “hero.” They could, in fact, be anti-heroes.
That distinction opens up a whole new world of literary adventures. It means you can have an undesirable as your protagonist and it’s okay. The trick is to make some part of the anti-hero relatable or likable.
Chuck Wendig’s Double Dead has a vampire named Coburn as the protagonist, and he’s pretty badass. The thing is, he’s not altruistic or noble. He’s got his own agendas and goals. So what makes him a good protagonist? Well, Coburn comes across as a total douche to pretty much everyone he meets, but he displays tenderness and compassion for a young girl that he winds up traveling with. Through their relationship you see a bit of humanity in the monster. You get bits of insight into a part of Coburn’s nature that is both human and humane, and while you know he’s not a good person, you realize he’s a good bad person.
For me, the most powerful example of anti-heroism came from Doctor Doom. Back in the early 90’s, Marvel put out a line of comics set in the year 2099. Doom was featured in his own book, shown as having time traveled from the present to the future. In that future, the country Doom ruled, Latveria, had all but forgotten its former monarch and was ruled by a greedy cyborg named Tiger Wylde. The comics follow Doom as he tries to wrest power from Wylde. And to do that, Doom has to win over the people. So he begins providing food for the hungry and medicine for the sick. I was disturbed when I realized I was rooting for Victor Von Doom. This was the guy who tried to kill most of my heroes, after all. If Doom’d had his way, Iron Man, Spider-Man and the Fantastic Four would have been demolecularized by some hideous device a hundred times over. And yet, there I was, cheering for him.
Having a villian with a lot of history (like Doom) be the protagonist of your story can be very powerful. But compare that to when Marvel tried to spin Spidey-nemesis Venom off as a hero. The upshot was Venom realized that many people out there are innocents, like he had been before Spider-Man hurt him. (Venom had a bit of twisted perspective on reality. Spidey rejected the Venom suit before it could take over his mind. That hurt the suit’s feelings. I fall squarely in Spidey’s camp on this one, hurt feelings be damned.) So Venom decides he’s going to protect innocents (but he still hates Spider-Man). This didn’t work for me because it was a total 180 on the character’s attitude. Venom suddenly goes from being obsessed with getting revenge on Spider-Man to having an altruistic world view.
Doom, on the other hand, is always a smug, selfish bastard. He’s only looking to restore Latveria so he can seize power. He uses people to achieve his goals, and he’s brazen about it. Still, you find yourself cheering him on because he’s fighting an even bigger evil, and you want to see that evil displaced.
So my takeaway here is this. If you want to have a good anti-hero, exagerrate their negative personality traits, and make sure they have a lot of them. But then give them one thing, whether that’s a relationship or an inner monologue, that makes them relatable, likable and human, because that’s what’s going to make readers stick with them and cheer them on.
Anything you’d like to add on anti-heroes? Sound off in the comments.