Why are antiheroes so captivating? What makes the likes of Loki, Han Solo, Jack Sparrow, Scarlett O’Hara, and Lady Macbeth worth following as characters?
Here’s my theory: antiheroes refuse to be bound by expectations or social conventions in the pursuit of their goals. They feed fantasies of our darker natures that can resonate with our own desires more than that of their heroic counterparts. These characters invade our subconscious and invite us to consider taboo behaviors and worldviews.
Antiheroes can also be wholly unpredictable. While heroes put others first and villains go out of their way to hurt people, antiheroes are wild cards. At any given moment, they might throw someone overboard or invite them for a drink. They could stab a friend in the back or risk their own life to save them. Readers have no idea what the character will do next, which adds to their intrigue.
An antiheroine leads the story in Wish Hunter, an urban fantasy novel that I created alongside authors Jordan Riley Swan and Hero Bowen. Nadia is a manipulative marriage counselor who steals wishes from her clients—wishes that most don’t even know they possess. Her antiheroine nature is part of what makes her interesting and complex.
With Wish Hunter in mind, here are three tips for leveling up the antihero in your life.
1. Give them an understandable motivation.
Your character needs a rationale for their bad behavior, even if they can’t articulate the driving force to themselves. Their motivations might be unsympathetic or disproportionate to their response, but they should be clear. You want readers to experience the character’s humanity and not just see them as a catalyst for conflict.
In Wish Hunter, Nadia lies to her clients and uses dirty tricks to steal wishes that people have earned by saving a life. However, she does it to pay off a family debt and revive her dead husband. Nadia finds ways to rationalize her own actions because, to her, the ends justify the means.
Antiheroes are often consequentialists, believing that positive outcomes are all that matter. Many antiheroes also have a sense of grandiosity where they believe they can achieve great things. Those types of motivations drive their behavior in ways that are understandable, even if their responses aren’t what most people would do in that position.
2. Embrace the bad.
Don’t chicken out when it comes to making your characters unlikable. You can’t have ruthless murderers who have never so much as kicked a puppy on the page. If the reader never sees them act like a jerk and they’re just “all talk,” then they’re not really an antihero. So, instead of having the character save the cat, make them kill the cat—and then eat it.
Sure, you can have a character whose prickly exterior gives way to an ooey-gooey heart of gold, but to maintain that antihero status, their actions and choices need to match their attitude. Have them betray loved ones and intentionally hurt innocent people, whether they feel guilty or not. Nadia makes the ultimate dick move in stealing a wish from someone who earned it by saving her life. Selfish choices are a defining quality of antiheroes.
3. Show a glimpse of goodness.
Every card-carrying antihero is a mixture of positive and negative traits. Oftentimes, those qualities stem from the same seed. A character’s confidence might be one of their strengths, and they can lead armies to victory—but that confidence might swerve into arrogance and hubris. Or maybe they’re incredibly cunning and easily devise the best strategies—but often at the expense of playing their allies as pawns.
Underneath every “evil” quality lies the potential for true benevolence. Although Nadia steals wishes from her clients, she truly cares for them and wants to help them have fulfilling lives. Even antiheroes should have soft spots and virtues. Giving a glimpse into that inner goodness will provide depth and nuance to their characterization.
Readers love to follow characters who strive to be good but who don’t always succeed, because that’s true to life. As Donald Maass shares in his book The Emotional Craft of Fiction:
“That said, nothing builds reader involvement more surely than a character whose moral struggle pervades the tale. When readers hope, beg, and plead with you to let a character turn toward the light, you have readers where you want them. A character who is good is good; a character whom we want to be good is even better.”
If you love antihero protagonists and urban fantasy, then Wish Hunter was written with you in mind! The novel is available on Kindle Unlimited and in paperback, along with an audiobook narrated by Lisa Flanagan on Audible. You can check out more writing craft conversations over on the Story Garden Publishing YouTube channel, as well as on my main channel Quotidian Writer.
Diane Callahan strives to capture her sliver of the universe through writing fiction, nonfiction, and poetry. As a developmental editor and ghostplotter, she spends her days shaping stories. Her YouTube channel, Quotidian Writer, provides practical tips for aspiring authors. You can read her work in Consequence, Short Édition, Translunar Travelers Lounge, Riddled with Arrows, and The Sunlight Press, among others.
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About the Authors
HERO BOWEN grew up in a mystical wilderness, where battles were fought on windswept hills, dragons were slain by bygone warriors, and majestic castles lay before her doorstep. She had little choice but to take up that ageless tradition of storytelling to keep the ghosts of those heroes and heroines alive.
JORDAN RILEY SWAN is a wild word hunter living in the far and dangerous reaches of rural Ohio. He spends his nights tracking down big-game stories, capturing them in paper cages, and training them to be better tales.
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About Wish Hunter (The Savannah River Series #1)
Nadia Kaminski’s family has stolen wishes for generations, auctioning them off to skeevy business tycoons and politicians in back-alley deals. Their operation is simple enough. Find someone who gained a wish after saving a life. Trick the wisher into sharing a deep secret. Steal the wish.
And as a marriage counselor, Nadia has more access to people’s secrets than most.
But when Nadia comes across the perfect opportunity to steal a wish for herself, she takes it—and the rock star she’s stolen it from desperately wants his wish back.
As Nadia tries to figure out how to get rid of the cocky thorn in her side, she must face off against vengeful wish hunters, her all-too-powerful family, and the consequences of her own desires—because stealing wishes can be a deadly affair.