We may not always like the protagonist of a story. A bumbling nerd like Walter Mitty (The Secret Life of Walter Mitty) or a self-absorbed opportunist like “Captain” Jack Sparrow (Pirates of the Caribbean) needs to grow on you over time. Their comic pratfalls may be the only thing preventing you from feeling utter disdain for them.
As a writer, your inclination may be to write a protagonist who emulates your values and makes decisions based on your own sensibilities. That’s not always possible or desirable. People are shaped by their environment, to their benefit or detriment. Here, we’ll be exploring the idea of creating a protagonist who is an “anti-hero”.
The two most common questions at this point are: (1) What is the difference between a hero and an anti-hero? And (2) what is the difference between an anti-hero and a villain?
First off, the protagonist of a story can be either a hero or an anti-hero. We can see the world through the eyes of either one. The world can act upon and change the hero or the anti-hero, for better or for worse. Either can follow a story arc that is the mythic “hero’s journey”. The difference may simply lie in the method and attitude employed when interacting with others, solving problems, or attaining objectives.
What separates the anti-hero from the villain may be as simple as asking a basic question: Who is the protagonist of your story? If we watch the de-evolution of the Joker — and, in the same vein, Tim Burton’s version of the Penguin — the archenemy of Batman may garner some sympathy through a backstory that makes him a victim of circumstance. But no amount of past bad fortune could compensate for the horrific actions of the incarnations brought to the screen by Heath Ledger (The Dark Knight) and Jared Leto (Zack Snyder’s Justice League). As neither was the protagonist of either movie, it’s a no-brainer to label Ledger and Leto as antagonists and anything-but-anti-heroes. Clearly, these guys are villains.
Over time, we’ve blurred the line between hero and anti-hero, just as we’ve blurred the line between anti-hero and villain. Is Harley Quinn (Suicide Squad) an anti-hero or a villain? Is Batman a hero or an anti-hero? If your answer is “it depends”, then that is the right answer! For a variety of reasons, we’ve developed the habit of redefining backstories. Not so long ago, such a phenomenon was known as a reboot or a redux. But then along came quantum mechanics (of all things!) and we invented multi-verses. Now, if you want to radically change the personality and appearance of a character, you just set the story in an alternate universe. How’s that for pulling off a major lifehack!
Marvelous movie marketing magic aside, we would have a better grasp of things if we look at the anti-hero that doesn’t morph from one script to another. After all, a character arc with no discernible arc leads to confusion and dissatisfaction. Consider the case of Harley Quinn. While you may think that she abruptly transformed from villain to anti-hero, I would suggest that Harley’s dark secret has always been her inability to accept herself as she was, causing a propensity to “act out” as a form of self-preservation. That she fell head-over-heels in love with the abusive Joker has little to do with motivation and everything to do with raw emotion. Post-Joker, Harley will readily be the champion of the downtrodden (hint: her superpower is Empathy!) while still thumbing her nose at what is moral and right. These are societal constructs that she — who holds a Ph.D in Psychology — easily identifies as shams and clever tools of manipulation, not unlike those tactics of her former lover. For these reasons, I see Harley’s erratic behavior (from story to story) as logical and expected progression along the character’s arc.
In simpler days, a straight-up anti-hero like Paul Kersey (Death Wish) is bred by the most horrific of personal tragedies, combined with totally ineffectual law enforcement and justice systems. We become willing accomplices to the resulting spree of vigilante justice that makes Kersey the ultimate righteous avenger.
Over time, savvy young audiences compelled us to become more creative with our dark heroes, spawning complex but nuanced psychological studies that stretch reasonable boundaries without bleeding into the fantastic. Case in point, Dexter Morgan (Dexter, based on Darkly Dreaming Dexter) — a serial killer(!) who preys on other serial killers(!!). What’s not to like?
By contrast, was Walter White (Breaking Bad) in sufficiently dire straits to justify his transformation from lowly science teacher to drug kingpin? By his own admission, he relished the level of control that he never had before. In the same breath, he asked us to pity him and his circumstances. Did we go out of our way to find redeeming values where none existed? Or did we see a part of us in him? Are we justifying our own actions in a vicarious way? (Good heavens, I hope not!)
If all else fails, go the Robin Hood route. Omar Little (The Wire) is a shotgun-wielding stickup man whose favorite targets are drug dealers. Little is humanized through his disdain for profanities, the care he gives to his mother, his homosexuality, and a strict moral code of not harming “civilians”. All traits that break through a stereotype of simply being an opportunistic street thug — yet, without entirely negating that possibility. What do the outcomes of his actions tell you?
So where does all this leave us? Intentionally, I’ve thrown all sorts of scenarios at you. Each example shows a different approach to the same challenge. Your anti-hero will, of course, be driven by motivation. He or she must see their behavior as being justified and the best course of action, given the alternatives. Moral dilemmas are tricky, because each society (Romulan vs Klingon, to give us something relatable) has its own established social mores that drive the local code of conduct. So be sure to define those early on. You can and should stretch the boundaries, and risk alienating some portion of your audience. Consider this an indication that you’ve established an emotional connection, for better or for worse. Work with it.
There’s no right way to do this. Every audience is different and you can’t predict why a character resonates with them. Write on!
About Joe Gruberman:
Joe Gruberman is an Arizona-based writer, educator, and award-winning multimedia producer. His latest two films, ELEVEN ELEVEN and RAISING BUCHANAN, are available on most streaming platforms.