The world of storytelling is packed full of memorable heroes and villains that linger long after the story is over. Whether it’s the resilient Jason Bourne from the Bourne Supremacy or the unnerving Hannibal Lector from Silence of the Lambs or the more glamorous marvel characters of Spiderman and Wonder Woman.
But what about those heroes and villains that don’t fit the mold? The heroes and villains who don’t walk down the stereotypical heroic or villainous path?
Welcome to the realm of the anti-hero and the anti-villain.
In this article, we’re going to look at how we can create a multi-layered, engaging, memorable anti-hero or anti-villain. How might we define such characters? What are the characteristics of an anti-hero or anti-villain?
What defines an anti-hero?
The anti-hero is a character who lacks the conventional attributes of a traditional hero. If you dig a little deeper, you might say that it’s a hero that does the right thing, but maybe not for the ‘right’ reasons or using the ‘right’ method. Characters like the Witcher, Klaus from the Umbrella Academy and Eva Polastri from Killing Eve are heroic characters but are motivated by conflicting personal goals.
Christopher Vogler talks about the anti-hero as a ‘special kind of hero, one who may be an outlier or villain from the point of view of society, but with whom the audience sympathizes.’ And that’s what we’re trying to do: create sympathetic protagonists for our readers.
Not all anti-heroes are created equal. You can think of them as existing on a spectrum. We have the:
The imperfect or reluctant hero
These are characters who veer off the traditional path with some reluctance. Think of agent Jack Ryan from Tom Clancy’s novels who isn’t cut out to be an agent but grows into the role, or the unassuming Bilbo Baggins from The Hobbit who is thrust into an adventure role but would much rather stay safe in his Shire. Mitch McDeere in The Firm is forced to fight the villain as does the Scientist Dr. Ian Malcolm in Jurassic Park. Stephen R. Donaldson’s iconic anti-hero, Thomas Covenant, is also a great representation of this type. These anti-heroes have a character arc through the story – a reluctant hero that rises to the challenge and is forever changed by his experiences.
The morally grey & unscrupulous hero
They were never cut out to be heroes. They’re happier chasing after their own pot of gold, but despite themselves, they make quirky and effective heroes. Consider the rather unreliable and humorous Jack Sparrow and the quick-witted Tyrion Lannister who has spent all his life trying to keep out of trouble. Mercenaries like ‘bad boy’ Hans Solo and David Gemmell’s Waylander also fall into this category. Also, Sherlock Holmes who ends up helping people to serve his own ends (more on this later). These anti-heroes can have their own character arc, like Han Solo who begins as a scoundrel and ends up joining the rebellion. Or they can remain unchanged by the events of the plot, as Jack Sparrow inevitably does.
The whatever-the-cost hero
These are heroes who lead with a mission. They are fixed on doing the ‘right thing’ at whatever the cost: Batman, Jack Reacher, Lisbeth Salander, Walter White, Severus Snape, Dexter Morgan, and Marty & Wendy Bryde. These anti-heroes rarely, if ever, have a character arc. They stay the same
What defines an anti-villain?
Broadly speaking an anti-villain is a villain who isn’t straightforwardly evil nor entirely unsympathetic. The anti-villain is a character who lacks the conventional attributes of a traditional villain. They have heroic goals, personality traits, and virtues but are ultimately villainous. Their desired ends might seem promising, or like they would build toward a utopia, but the means that they use to get there are evil. For the most part, the anti-villain has no moral compass and can not see the evil of their actions.
“I’ve always liked grey characters more than black and white characters. I look for ways to make my characters real, and make them human. Characters who have good and bad, noble and selfish well mixed in their natures”George R.R Martin
They may have a moral compass that makes it difficult for them to carry out their dastardly deeds. The spectrum can range from
- A reluctant villain: Draco Malfoy, Walter White, Frankenstein’s Monster
- A villain with a moral code: Dexter, Konstantin in Killing Eve, Raymond Reddington from The Blacklist.
- A strong-headed but misguided villain who tires of being on the ‘wrong’ side or they might try to make amends for their bad behavior: Arthur Fleck (Joker), Erik Killmonger (Black Panther), Daenerys Targaryen (Game of Thrones), Magneto (X Men)
Doesn’t the anti-hero seem similar to the anti-villain?
Yes, you’re right to think that the anti-hero sounds a lot like the anti-villain. There is a blurred line between the anti-hero and the anti-villain. If a hero and a villain live on extreme ends of a spectrum, the anti-hero and the anti-villain inhabit the area of grey in between. Both have complex and likely unconventional moral codes. What separates them is their objects of desire – is it for the greater good or for evil?
Isn’t the very concept of ‘good’ and evil subjective? Absolutely, which is why people have different responses to an anti-hero or an anti-villain.
Your anti-hero or anti-villain might evolve over your story.
If we look at the example of MI6 agent Eve Polastri and paid-assassin Villanelle, what do we see? Both Eve and Villanelle find that it’s difficult to be true to their paths. Eve’s affections for Villanelle lead her to make unheroic choices. Villanelle finds it hard to be a villain when Eve is around. As a result, both characters ‘subvert’ their traditional role of hero and villain. By Season 3, both characters take active steps to cross the line, Eve enjoys killing someone and Villanelle tries to join MI6.
The magic needed to create your irresistible character.
If there is a magic quality that these characters have, it’s not likeability but their ability to enable empathy. As Mckee says: Likeability is no guarantee of audience involvement, it’s just an aspect of characterization.”
The ‘glue of empathy’ is what binds us to the anti-hero and the anti-villain and we hold a level of fascination for them. If done well, we remember them years after watching or reading about them.
How can we create empathy for our characters? We can start by asking some questions to help us bring our characters to life.
3 questions to help you define your anti-hero/ anti-villain characters.
Drawing from the Story Grid Editor’s six core questions, here are some questions to ask yourself when considering your anti-hero and anti-villain.
- What do they want? What do they need? Here you must ask: what is the character’s external want or goal? We also want to understand what their inner need might be. Hint: the inner need may well be more opaque, more hidden, so much so that they might not know their inner need even if we can see it
- How do their sense of morality and their inner worldview enable or hinder their external want? Anti-heroes and anti-villains are likely to encounter a moral dilemma that makes them question their role e.g. Tom Ripley questions his decisions and weeps as he kills his love; Eve Polastri wants to capture the assassin but she’s bored with her life and seeking excitement, and has a hidden dark side. Alternatively, they might hold a steadfast moral position that conflicts with the law or societal norms. Jack Reacher and Dexter both hold steadfast moral principles but these principals are at odds with the law. If you’re unsure about the morality genre, read up on the secrets of the morality genre.
- How does the character behave in the showdown? What conflict does it reveal? In an action and thriller story, our characters will face a ‘hero at the mercy of the villain’ scene. This is the ‘showdown’, the core event. Your characters have a chance to show us their conflicted nature. Reacher’s steadfast moral stance and unambiguous worldview allows him to kill villains with no hesitancy. Eve Polastri is confused by her inner conflict and ends up stabbing the villain then regretting it immediately.
One of the best ways to find inspiration for your character and to reflect on the true nature of the anti-hero and anti-villain is to study characters in some masterworks. With that in mind, we’ll now answer these three questions for some famous anti-hero and anti-villain characters.
Raskolnikov – Crime and Punishment
- What does the character want? And what do they really need? Raskolnikov wants to save his sister from poverty and possible prostitution and murders an unscrupulous pawnbroker for her money. He wants to get away with the murder. He needs redemption – self-transcendence – to save himself.
- How do their sense of morality and their inner worldview enable or hinder their external want? Raskolnikov, despite his attempt to justify the murder, has a strong moral compass. This leads to him spiraling into a dark place, and his inner worldview has taken a downturn from a positive value to a negative value.
- How does the character behave in the showdown? What conflict does it reveal? In the showdown of the book – the core event – Raskolnikov confesses to the murder. This is the classic ‘exposure of the criminal’ combined with ‘sacrifice of self’ for self-transcendence. He could have chosen to not confess. This makes Raskolnikov an intriguing anti-villain or anti-hero depending on your interpretation.
Villanelle – Killing Eve
- What does her character want? And what do they really need? She wants to do a good job – to be respected in her profession (as an assassin). What she needs is validation and love.
- How do their sense of morality and their inner worldview enable or hinder their external want? She appears to be wholly immoral. She doesn’t spare anyone when tasked with a job. However, her worldview, that of disillusionment is rattled when she meets Eve, she’s attracted to Eve, and has finally found a glimpse of meaning in her life. This gets in the way of her completing her role for the Twelve (her bosses). Her dry sense of humor reflects her childlike worldview which is one of her many charms.
- How does the character behave in the showdown? What conflict does it reveal? In the final showdown, Villanelle finds Eve in her apartment, and rather than attack and preserve herself as the villain, she lets her guard down, is romantic with and is stabbed. Villanelle is an unusual breed of anti-villain as we empathize with her, despite her terrible deeds.
Lisbeth Salander – The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo
- What does she want? And what does she really need? Lisabeth Salander is a hacker and a private investigator. She wants to help Blomkvist solve the case of the missing girl and the unidentified murdered women. What she needs is acceptance from society and to be loved, but this won’t happen immediately for her and until justice has been served in subsequent books
- How do their sense of morality and their inner worldview enable or hinder their external want? She has her own brand of morality, which is that she will do whatever it takes to take down anyone who she sees as a threat to her. This allows her to solve the case with Blomkvist. However, her worldview is at disillusionment which means that she is distrusting and antagonistic towards most people, which can get in the way of her sleuthing. Finally, what makes her a perfect anti-hero for this role is that she is not the 6 foot 6 inch Jack Reacher bringing her brand of morality and justice to bad people, she is small, smart woman.
- How does the character behave in the showdown? What conflict does it reveal? In the showdown ‘hero at the mercy of the villain’ scene in the first book in the series, Salander finds Blomkvist as he is about to be murdered by Martin Vanger. She attacks him to save Blomkvist then goes after him when he runs away, which leads to him having a car accident.
Tom Ripley – The Talented Mr Ripley
- What does he want? And what does he really need? Tom wants Dickie to love him, and he wants the lifestyle that Dickie has allowed him to have. It’s unclear what he needs – he needs his sexuality to be accepted but his need for Status seems to be more important. He needs happiness.
- How do their sense of morality and their inner worldview enable or hinder their external want? While Tom’s first act of murder was heated, his subsequent killings are more calculated. His ability to kill doesn’t help him get the love he needs, but it does fulfill his desire for wealth. This adds to his grayness – not a villain for the sake of being bad, but one with real regrets.
- How does he behave in the showdown? What conflict does it reveal? The core event/ the showdown in a crime story is the exposure of the criminal. Tom Ripley is in love but he fears that his lover Peter will find out the truth about the ‘secrets in his basement’ – and he kills him to make sure he isn’t revealed. Tom Ripley is a villain but he sobs as he kills his love, and realizes that he is doomed to be alone (he moves from worldview disillusionment). While we know his killings are wrong, we empathize with his inner suffering.
- What does he want? And what does he really need? Within each book, Jack wants to save the victim and see justice served. He needs to uphold the values his mother taught him. He doesn’t need external validation or anything else. Across all series, he wants to travel America as a free man, unhindered and unburdened.
- How do their sense of morality and their inner worldview enable or hinder their external want? Reacher would much rather ignore the crime he sees around him as he travels through the towns and cities of America but his strong sense of morality forces him to stop and take action. His simple and minimalist approach to living means that he can travel under the radar – he owns very little: a toothbrush, an ID, and the clothes on his back. His Reacher brand of morality means that he is ok stealing money from villains and using violence to save the victim, quickly.
- How does the character behave in the showdown? What conflict does it reveal? In each story, Reacher finds himself at the mercy of a villain. For Reacher we see him weigh-up the moral dilemma of how much damage he needs to cause to fulfill his obligations to protect those that are vulnerable. Despite being a former MP in the army, he doesn’t abide by the law – he does what he needs to do (breaks wrists, kills) to dispose of the enemy as quickly and efficiently as possible. He’s an anti-hero that we wish we had on our side. Our emotions are more than empathy, we admire him.
Jack Sparrow – Pirates of the Caribbean
- What does he want? And what does he really need? Jack Sparrow serves his own needs, it just so happens that his own needs often correspond with the heroes of the story.
- How do their sense of morality and their inner worldview enable or hinder their external want? Sparrow is pretty unscrupulous. He thinks mostly for himself, and as a result, he finds himself in bad situations and no one trusts him.
- How does the character behave in the showdown? What conflict does it reveal? Ultimately, in the showdown, Sparrow finds himself on the side of the heroes by accident and helps them to triumph, the hero Will helps him to escape as a reward, and in the end, Sparrow returns to his pirate ways. (in the first movie, Curse of the Black Pearl).
Hans Solo – Star Wars
- What does he want? And what does he really need? Solo begins the story as a scoundrel only caring about himself and his crew, what he needs is a purpose, a real reason to fight for something.
- How do their sense of morality and their inner worldview enable or hinder their external want? Solo’s worldview is upset when he connects with Luke and Leia and his character arc changes from a selfish object of desire to one of helping the rebellion and his new friends.
- How does the character behave in the showdown? What conflict does it reveal? In the showdown, when Luke is attacking the Death Star, Solo surprisingly returns to help Luke, wounding Darth Vader’s ship and allowing Luke to destroy the Death Star and showing his completed character arc.
Tyrion Lannister – Game of Thrones
- What does your character want? And what do they really need? Tyrion wants to survive and he needs to have a purpose.
- How do their sense of morality and their inner worldview enable or hinder their external want? His need to survive continually draws him back to support his family, who treat him very badly. But once they imprison him and threaten his execution, he is freed from their influence and his sense of purpose draws him to work for the dragon queen.
- How does the character behave in the showdown? What conflict does it reveal? The showdown is the final battle between his family and the dragon queen. His need to find purpose aligns him with choosing what he thinks is a more just, better leader (in the dragon queen) over his own family.
Severus Snape – Harry Potter Series
- What does he want? And what does he really need? Snape wants to support Voldermort and the Death Eaters, that is his nature, but he needs revenge on Voldermort for killing Lilly Potter.
- How do their sense of morality and their inner worldview enable or hinder their external want? He is torn throughout the series of books, but his loyalty to Lilly Potter wins out.
- How does the character behave in the showdown? What conflict does it reveal? His affinity to the Death Eaters allows him to get close enough to Voldermort to betray him.
- What does your character want? And what do they really need? Sherlock Holmes is bored, his want and need is not to be bored.
- How do their sense of morality and their inner worldview enable or hinder their external want? He solves cases for the police because they intrigue him, not because he has any wish to see justice done. If he just solved the cases because he wants to help the victims then he would be a good but ordinary detective, instead he is an intriguing anti-hero. We remain fascinated by him.
- How does the character behave in the showdown? What conflict does it reveal? In the books and the movies, the showdown is always when Sherlock Holmes outwits the villain, but Holmes does not change from winning the case nor does he really care how the outcome affects the villain or the victims, he just moves on to the next case.
It’s time to create your compelling character.
Once you’ve addressed the three questions raised in this article for your character, consider their role across the three acts and how their character needs to behave and change across the whole story. Write out your character’s story arc against the three-part act and compare it to the character arc for your favourite anti-hero or anti-villain. Consider how your character’s complex nature shows up in the all-important Core Event.