Be a contrarian. Write about the Antihero.
April 16, 2015
I HAVE ALWAYS BEEN a character-driven writer. In fact, I happen to believe that if you write great characters, you can walk them through just about any storyline and the readers will come. People need to care about the characters in your writing. If they don’t—if they could not care less about John or Beth or Frankie—what story is going to save your book?
So how do you write interesting characters? I’ll let you in on a little secret I’ve discovered, and it’s not just about writing great characters—it’s about great writing, great composition in music, and just about anything else:
Who wants to read about the same old cliche (fill in the blank: school teacher, mechanic, cop, soldier, teenager)? The answer, sirs and madams: no one.
Enter the antihero.
One dictionary defines the antihero this way: “A central character in a story, movie, or drama who lacks conventional heroic attributes.” In other words, contrary to the “classical hero”.
When I was a child, I was really into comic books. Not collecting, but reading (although everyone—even eight-year-old—dreamed of stumbling across a First Issue Superman). In fact, I attribute this time in my life to that first seed of creativity being unknowingly planted in a dank, well-watered corner of my soul (and therein my muse began to grow). My best friend at the time was a fantastic artist, even at such a young age. I was okay at drawing—but I have always been realistic about my talents (or lack thereof). I can carry a tune, but I would never presume to think I needed to be parading myself in front of American Idol judges; I was a good athlete, but I knew I was never destined for the NBA or NFL.
So I discovered my talent. The written word. Even a comic book needs words to bring it fully to life. But the reason I bring up my love for comic books as a child is not to deep dive into the birth of a dream, but rather to point out an (arguably) interesting factoid. I didn’t gravitate to Superman or Captain America or Wonder Woman (okay, Wonder Woman, yes, but that’s an entirely different discussion).
For me it was:
The Amazing Spider-Man.
I found the darker heroes far more interesting. And now look at the list of some of the greatest television shows in the past few decades, and their respective protagonists:
Breaking Bad (high school chemistry teacher turns meth drug lord)
The Sopranos (ruthless, merciless mafioso)
The Wire (cops just dirty enough to dispense justice)
The Shield (cops WAY dirty enough to dispense justice and line their own pockets when it hurts no one innocent)
Shameless (just watch the show; you’d never believe me if I told you)
Nurse Jackie (best show you probably aren’t watching; best pill-addicted nurse anywhere)
Game of Thrones (where does one even begin?)
Deadwood/Justified (both Timothy Olyphant; same lawman, willing to do whatever it takes to bring in the bad guys)
Sons of Anarchy (the ultimate ride in antiheroes)
Vampires, werewolves, serial killers, mafia kings, drug dealers. Since when, you ask, did our cravings bend so perverse? I don’t believe they have; this is our most basic nature. And that, dear writer, brings us to the rub:
Making a character an antihero makes him or her more like the rest of us. That’s right. Human imperfection: desire for revenge, addiction, habits, tempers, loss, grief, etc. If you’ve lived more than two decades, you’ve most likely discovered the indelible truth that life is not roses, as the fairy tales taught us as children but, rather, a series of challenges, upturns, demoralizing downfalls, tragedy, happiness, sadness, incredible beauty and fascinating ugliness.
By human definition, Life is bipolar. Schizophrenic. Sociopathic, even.
It’s definitely far from perfect, and so are we. Which is why the antihero is so appealing to readers: he/she is a character to which we can RELATE. Have you ever noticed that most of the funniest comedians, from Bill Cosby to Ellen DeGeneres to Louis C.K., tell stories and jokes that have to do with every day living, and the closer they come to reaching us where we live, the funnier they become.
Same concept with not only an antihero but all of your characters; the more they face life in the imperfect way each of us does, the more reality you breathe into them, and the more the reader is willing to invest in them.
My favorite in-genre writer and personal idol, James Lee Burke, said something in a talk I attended that resonated more than anything else he said (paraphrased):
“Nothing is better than the antihero, but you must follow one, unconditional rule: you cannot have him or her commit any unforgivable action.”
There are quite a few actions you can attribute to your antihero (uh, serial killer?)—yet if you attempt to make a child molester or an abusive, misogynistic pornographer the hero of your book, you are likely going to fail. There are some things that, culturally, we cannot (nor, in most if not all cases, should not) accept in any shape or form. Beyond those handful of examples, however, there are myriad options to make your antihero everything from an alcoholic who falls off the wagon (tame) to a mafioso kingpin who kills without conscience (extreme, but clearly doable).
So let your pen cover the page with fascinating studies in humanity and your characters will thank you for it again and again.
And so will your readers.
R.S. Guthrie grew up in Iowa and Wyoming. He has been writing fiction, essays, short stories, and lyrics since college. “Black Beast: A Clan of MacAulay Novel” marked Guthrie’s first major release and it heralded the first in a series of Detective Bobby Macaulay (Bobby Mac) books. The second in the series (Lost) hit the Kindle shelves December of 2011. Reckoning closes out the trilogy. For now…
Guthrie’s “Blood Land” is the first in the Sheriff James Pruett Mystery/Thriller series and represents a project that is close to his heart: it is set in a fictional town in the same county where he spent much of his childhood and still visits. The sequel, Money Land, hit the shelves Christmas Day, 2012. Honor Land, the third in the bestselling James Pruett Mystery/Thriller series is due out in 2014.
Guthrie lives in Colorado with his wife, three young Australian Shepherds, and a Chihuahua who thinks she is a 40-pound Aussie!