Anti-Heroes and Villains: What’s the Difference (and How Do You Write Them Well)?

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Most stories, at least these days, don’t have flawless heroes and evil cackling villains. Readers – and writers! – tend to enjoy more complex characters.

At what stage, though, does a dark hero (aka “anti-hero”) turn into a villain?

The line between them can be a little blurry, and is as much about story role as it is about morality. Some characters can be tricky to categorise, and may potentially move from one role to another – especially in a series of novels. (In the Marvel movies, for instance, Loki is arguably an anti-hero in Thor and a villain in Avengers.)

In writing and literary circles, you’ll often hear “protagonist” and “antagonist” being used instead of “hero” and “villain” because these are a bit more emotionally neutral and describe a function within the story rather than a type of character … and this is the framework we’re going to use.

Quick note: if you’ve studied literature as part of a degree, you might have a rather different, more classic, definition for “anti-hero”, along these lines. That’s not what I’m discussing here (sorry)!

Anti-Heroes: Deeply Flawed Protagonists

The classic hero(ine) – think Captain America, in the Marvel films, or if you want a more literary example, Pamela or Clarissa in Richardson’s novels – tends to be brave, good looking, morally upright, strong (if male) … and so on.

Anti-heroes tend to subvert expectations. They’re – just about – on the “good” side of things, but they may not be particularly pleasant people, and they might well resort to some shady tactics to get things done.

Some of my favourite examples of anti-heroes are:

  • Elizabeth Bennett in Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice – while she’s a fairly mild example of an anti-hero, she is not a conventionally pretty, tame heroine; she’s snarky, has her faults, and is too quick to believe Wickham and hate Darcy.
  • Gerald Tarrant in Celia Friedman’s Black Sun Rising trilogy – though he could, at least early on, also be categorised as a villain, and he’s right at the very dark end of the anti-hero scale.
  • Jack Sparrow in Pirates of the Caribbean – he’s a pirate, and pirates are pretty much inevitably anti-heroes (you also get villainous ones with even lower moral standards).
  • Dexter in Dexter – a serial killer. But he is very much the protagonist and our main viewpoint character – we don’t get anyone else’s voiceovers, for instance – and he follows a moral code, only killing particularly nasty characters.
  • Sherlock Holmes in Sherlock (and to an extent, in the original novels) – who describes himself as a “high-functioning sociopath”, and can be downright rude to other people.
  • Elsa and Kristoff in Frozen. Elsa was originally intended to be the villain, though Disney changed the plot (and in doing so, made their film a runaway success). Kristoff is the slightly snarky, aloof type of anti-hero.

 

In stories with a romance-based plot (ending in a marriage/relationship), there’s often a heroine who’s the main viewpoint character but also a male lead who we call the “hero”. These heroes, too, can be anti-heroes:

  • Will in Emma Davies’ Letting In Light – who is grumpy and aloof, and at times rather mood-swingy, towards the heroine – part-way through we learn why and he becomes a more sympathetic character.
  • Darcy in Pride and Prejudice – taciturn and refuses to dance, even when there are ladies in need of a dance partner (apparently a grave social sin). The archetype for the brooding anti-hero.

Tips for Writing Anti-Heroes Well:

  • Let them grow and develop – but be careful not to lose everything readers love about them: their dry wit, perhaps, or their outspoken nature.
  • Even if they’re on the very dark end of the anti-hero spectrum (particularly early on) do give them some nice moments in there too – give the reader a reason to root for them, and a hope that they’ll become someone better eventually.
  • Let them have a moral code, even if it’s not one that accords with most people’s. Maybe they’re outright rude to everyone, even their friends … but they always keep their word.
  • Give them a reason for behaving the way they do. That could be an unhappy childhood, losing a loved one, suffering a broken heart, going through a traumatic event … whatever fits with your story and the character.

Villains: Antagonistic Force, in Person Form

Villains can run a fairly wide range from misguided and misunderstood to pretty nasty but with some attractive qualities to horrific people with no redeeming features.

In some novels, there isn’t a villain at all. There is an antagonistic force, but it’s something more like “society’s expectations” or “terrible weather” – something impersonal that causes the protagonist’s struggle.

Sometimes, the villain may not be the primary antagonistic force. There may also be a villain and a greater, more evil villain (in which case the less-evil villain can potentially step into an anti-hero role).

I like villains, whether they’re the snarky-misunderstood sort or the truly evil sort. Here are some of my favourites:

  • Jack Angel from B.A. Paris’s psychological thriller Behind Closed Doors – he’s one of the most irredeemably evil villains I’ve encountered, and the reader doesn’t feel a shred of sympathy towards him.
  • Joffrey Baratheon from Game of Thrones – again, a particularly unsympathetic villain with no redeeming qualities.
  • Lord Voldemort in J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series – another “easy to hate” villain. During the series, we get some details about his background, and while these make it easier to understand why he’s so evil, they certainly don’t excuse him.
  • George Wickham in Pride and Prejudice – not powerful enough to be a particularly evil villain, but certainly a nasty piece of work (especially as, like so many villains, he’s superficially charming).
  • Hans in Frozen – like Wickham, he seems like a charming love interest at first.
  • Spike in Buffy – for several seasons, he’s firmly in the “villain” role, but then shifts firmly into anti-hero territory by the end.

Tips for Writing Villains Well:

Villains can be very tricky to do well, especially as they tend to get much less “screen time” than the hero. In many stories, the villain works in the shadows or isn’t really recognised for who they are till part-way through.

A few things to keep in mind:

  • You certainly don’t have to create a villain who’s sympathetic, but creating someone who’s evil simply for the sake of it generally won’t work well. They need some sort of goal, however misguided or terrible it might be. Jack in Behind Closed Doors is a good example: everything he does is a step towards his ultimate (and horrific) goal.
  • Like anti-heroes, there should be some reason they’ve become villains. It could be past unhappiness, over-indulgent parents, or (in the case of non-human villains) perhaps it’s simply in their nature.
  • Villains are unlikely to be redeemed. If they are, they weren’t the main antagonistic force, and they may be shifting from a villain to an anti-hero role.
  • Don’t let your villains (or your heroes, for that matter), act stupidly for the sake of the plot. Make any mistakes plausible – e.g. they underestimated the hero’s determination.

 

As a writer, you need to be clear about the function your characters are playing within the story: are they part of the protagonist force – driving towards a hopefully happy ending – or part of the antagonist force opposing them?

If you want to write a dark anti-hero or a villain on the redeemable end of the spectrum, that may require having a greater evil (e.g. societal, environmental, supernatural) that everyone is fighting against. In my Lycopolis trilogy-in-progress, for instance, Seth occupies the dark end of “anti-hero” territory, and – along with the rest of the characters – ends up fighting against supernatural evil.

How do you feel about anti-heroes and villains? What sorts of characters do you love to write about … or read about? Share some of your favourite anti-heroes and villains in the comments … and tell us what makes them work!