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Writing Criminals/ Anti-Heroes
Writing has come a long way from the classic stories of heroes and villains. Nowadays, a writer has to do more than just give their antagonist a pistol and a hat to convey that they are “bad,” and the concept of all-bad characters has been debunked altogether. There is the chance for the hero to be the underdog, or to be from the wrong side of the tracks, whilst the squeaky-clean golden boy reveals an underlying evil. This is the world of the anti-hero, and it’s fantastic. However, it can be difficult for writers to break the spell of clean-cut protagonists and dirty-rotten-scoundrel antagonists. If you want to write a compelling criminal or anti-hero, they’re going to have to have some heart.
What is the difference between an antagonist and an anti-hero?
- Typically, the anti-hero is in fact a protagonist. Rather than being the squeaky-clean Gene Autry cowboy, the anti-hero may be more of a Jean Valjean—someone who’s doing the wrong thing for the right reasons, or who has a strong moral likability despite their checkered past.
- USA Network uses the anti-hero often in their original series. For example, Mike Ross of Suits uses his photographic memory to fib his way into a job at a law firm. In the past, Mike used his talents to fraudulently take the LSATs for other students in order to finance his marijuana habit. Audiences are endeared to Mike when he comes under the tutelage of power lawyer Harvey Specter because they realize he is, at his core, just a kid from the wrong side of the tracks trying to make things right. This allows the audience to go along with his lie, rather than condemning him for it. In the end, audiences root for Mike and don’t want him to be found out. USA uses this same formula in shows like Burn Notice (about a burned spy who murders and hijacks in the interest of clearing his good name and keeping his family safe); White Collar (about a former criminal who helps the FBI catch thieves whilst fighting his own urges to forge and steal); and Psych (about a lovable loser who feigns psychic ability as he assists the police in crime solving).
- Anti-hero criminals should have a solid reason for doing what they do. Perhaps the bank robber is trying to provide for his family, or the hacker is desperate to protect the private information of others.
- Consider William Goldman’s The Princess Bride. The true villain is not Wesley, the “Dread Pirate Roberts,” or even the motley crew assembled by Vizzini. The truest villains are Humperdinck and the Six-Fingered Man, two characters presented as upstanding citizens and leaders of the kingdom. The people presented as antagonists actually have hearts of gold. Inigo is a swordsman who has likely committed many murders, but he’s really on a journey to avenge the death of his father. Fezzik is presented as a mercenary, but he’s really a lovable giant who’s been roped into a bad business by a cruel master.
- Typically, the anti-hero isn’t great at sticking to or completing their mission, but boy do they try. They are guided by conflicting morals but are often more passionate than their cookie-cutter counterparts. The chains that bind them are sometimes stronger than they are, but it is their spirit that makes them appealing.
- Often, the anti-hero is bound by something beyond their control. Maybe it’s a disability or a financial circumstance that leads them to take other routes to get what they want or need.
- The anti-hero is not always openly tragic. Sometimes, they can be very smooth and charming. Consider the men of the Oceans 11 films, who make robbing a casino look like a boys’ night out. Obviously, they are breaking the law, but they make it look like fun. They aren’t good enough to be the pure-hearted protagonists, but the tables are turned so you’re rooting for them over the clumsy security working the casino. Any time you’re rooting for the villain over the cops, you know you’re reading or watching a solid anti-hero at work.
Here are links to help you on your way.