Author and RU contributor Heather Webb  talks about the allure of the anti-hero, the guy you want to hate and yet can’t stop thinking about…
I don’t watch much TV. In fact, I binge on one show per year on Netflix, maybe two if it’s a good year in television, but that’s about it. (There are just too many good books to read.) But recently I’ve become addicted to the political thriller House of Cards and the indomitable Frank Underwood. With each episode, I find myself absolutely gripped—both fascinated and horrified by this character. I wait with bated breath for his next brilliant comment, his crocodile smile, and the twist of his knife in someone’s back. Another superb detail I adore is that Frank is from a small town in Georgia so his lilting accent and charm almost make you believe he’s a gentleman. Almost.
Frank Underwood got me to thinking. What’s so great about him? He is egotistical, driven, conniving, adulterous—even murderous, yet he’s an amazing orator, a statesman with manipulative skills that are unparalleled, and above all, powerful. Also? He loves his wife. Though his needs are often first and foremost, he truly loves his wife and it shows. Frank isn’t the only anti-hero that has drawn my attention in recent months. I’ve really locked on to them in the last year. But why?
In search of an answer, I skimmed my myriad of bookshelves (Yes, I’m a print girl, despite my smart phone, fancy computer, and e-reader device. The experience of reading this way just isn’t the same for me. I like to stroke the book covers and…I digress.). So I skimmed my books, looking for these dark characters and after I had gathered a few, I analyzed what made them so dadgum fun to read. This is what I discovered:
Traits that make a Devious, Yet Delectable Anti-Hero:
- Complex Motives: Let’s face it, we love complicated. It’s just a heck of a lot more interesting than simple, or plain. An anti-hero’s motives are typically tied up with a scarring past that sets them on a path of self-protection at all costs, revenge, or, occasionally helping the underdog to take down the big bad conglomeration, or human trafficker, or baddy that’s the ruling power.
- Contradictions: We’re all paradoxical beings, therefore I believe every character should exhibit shades of ambiguity, but anti-heroes have the corner of the market on contradictions. Internal conflict to the extreme is what drives their emotions, beliefs, and impulses. This is a big part of what make them so utterly fascinating.
- Intimacy issues: These also derive from a crippling hurt in a character’s past, and are, therefore, tied up with motives. This isn’t so different from writing a classic protagonist, except that once again the issues must be edgier, more intensified for the character to classify as an anti-hero. Remember that you want to make your readers YEARN to understand the character, to feel for them, pity them. This is HUGE, the pity piece. If we don’t have some sense of compassion for the anti-hero, then they’re poorly crafted…or they may be set up too much like an antagonist—the bad guy we hope will be conquered. (A note of caution: Be careful with crafting your antagonists vs. anti-heroes. An anti-hero is “good” at their core and there is always a line they will never cross.)
- A “Good” Side-kick: Whether this person is a sibling, lover, business partner, or beloved pet, many, many stories weave in someone who believes in the anti-hero, or cares about them. This side-kick may act as a mirror, which is a perfect device to help show the anti-hero’s arc. Take Frank Underwood. One of the main reasons you like the guy is because his beautiful wife Claire stands behind him, even when she knows he’s done something completely off-the-charts WRONG. It helps you forgive him a little and gives you hope that we’ll see more of the man she fell in love with.
- Character Traits that shock us: These traits could range from “isms” like racism, sexism, and ageism to hack sawing murderers, and sucking human blood. We love to feel shocked and outraged by these flaws—but ONLY if the character wrestles with them, and ONLY if they change over time. Which brings me to my next point.
An anti-hero is a character who views morality as a hindrance to their goals. At times, their actions can be as hideous as an antagonist, but what enables us to forgive their poor morality and misdeeds is to witness their STRUGGLE TO CHANGE. This struggle is what each one of us can relate to, regardless of wealth, position, or stature. It’s the sliver of humanity and remorse, the glimmer of something GOOD inside this anti-hero that makes the reader root for them. If the anti-hero wrestles against his faults, we want to him to succeed in his goals so that he may have REDEMPTION. This is the key to the entire story arc in novels with anti-heroes.
Who is your favorite anti-hero? Do you prefer to see men or women as this type of character and why?
Author Clara Kensie presents: Reading, Writing, and Marketing the Serial Novel on Tuesday, July 8th.
Bio: As a freelance editor, Heather spends oodles of time helping writers find their voice and hone their skills–something she adores. She may often be found twittering helpful links, sharing writing advice and author interviews on her blog Between the Sheets, or teaching novel writing in her community. Her favorite haunts are right here at the fabulous Romance University.org and the award-winning WriterUnboxed.com.
Her first women’s historical, BECOMING JOSEPHINE , released to much acclaim in Jan 2014 and her second, RODIN’S LOVER, releases from Plume/Penguin as a lead title in 2015.