Rooting for the Bad Guy: The Definition of an Antihero

novel writing process Sep 10, 2023

What is an antihero? And how do you make your reader root for them?

Here at The Novelry, our mantra is ‘happy writing’ and we foster a community of supportive writers who delight in their writing journeys. But we have a dark side, too!

We are champions of the antihero, the villainous protagonist who’s deeply flawed, who makes terrible decisions, but who – ultimately – we love to hate.

On the blog today, as part of our season answering your questions on literary devices, our writing coach El, or L.R. Lam, the Sunday Times bestselling author of nine novels, shares their six tips for writing an antihero who will have everybody rooting for them.


Always Rooting for the Antihero


Feel free to put on the Taylor Swift song as background music if you’re so inclined. Today I’d like to talk about the joys and frustrations of writing an antihero.

A protagonist is almost always a story’s hero, and so much story structure falls around the hero’s journey – the call to adventure, the refusal of the call, meeting the mentor, crossing the threshold, and so on. We know the traditional hero almost always prevails.

But what if you’re not writing from a heroic perspective, but someone... antiheroic? Should this character prevail?


So what does the term antihero mean?


An antihero is a character who, though they might occasionally do the right thing, often does so for the wrong reasons.

The term first came into use in 1714, though the idea of a character who is cowardly or morally grey is far older.


Let’s look at some examples...


Achilles in The Iliad isn’t perfect. Neither is Sir Gawain from Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Macbeth. Othello, who tilts particularly villainous by the end. Victor Frankenstein. Holden Caulfield.

Plenty of us still love a good villain (as evidenced by the many crushes on Ben Barnes as the Darkling in Shadow & Bone). The Beast in Beauty and the Beast is an antagonist at the start. Darth Vader gets an eleventh-hour redemption.

With the Beast, though, we’re never put in his head.

There is the prequel Star Wars trilogy, where we watch Anakin go from innocent child to the Darth Vader we love to hate in the main trilogy, but the story ends once he turns to the dark side.

An antihero almost forces the reader to put themselves in the shoes of someone who, if we saw them from a more traditional hero’s viewpoint, would be the villain.   


That’s not to say that any character who is a hero is without flaw.


Every character you create or read about falls somewhere along a scale of morality. A perfectly perfect hero, after all, can be boring.

Take the latest Dungeons & Dragons: Honour Among Thieves movie: Xenk, played by René-Jean Page, is the definition of ‘lawful good’. He is hyper-competent and noble. He can be relied upon to do the right thing. As such he is hard to take seriously. We can’t connect with him enough to really root for him. We are a lot more interested in the ragtag band of characters doing the right thing despite their own selfish reasons for it.

We love a loveable rogue (especially if played by Chris Pine).

Without flaws, there can be no change, no growth, which is one of many reasons we are drawn to stories.

But how flawed is too flawed?


You will have come across an antihero in film, songs, games, music you hear, lyrics you listen to and on the internet. Taylor Swift wrote the most famous lyric in 'Anti-Hero', one of the most well-known songs by Taylor Swift.


When does a hero with some issues tip over into antihero?


There isn’t a clear line in the sand – hero on one side and antihero on the other.

If your protagonist does things unavoidably bad as agreed by society, like a serial killer, they’re probably going to be an antihero.

If your protagonist does things unavoidably bad as agreed by society, like a serial killer, they’re probably going to be an antihero.

A well-known example is Dexter Morgan from the TV series Dexter. He’s a serial killer who funnels his urges to kill by killing other serial killers. It’s not exactly the healthiest coping mechanism, but we can see the reasoning: he’s arguably causing a net good by killing people worse than him. We root for him!

I played with a similar idea in of one of my cyberpunk thrillers, Shattered Minds, where the main character, Carina, only kills people within dream drug trips to save others from herself. Then, of course, there’s The Talented Mr. Ripley by Patricia Highsmith, with her quintessential antihero.

Both main characters from Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn have antiheroic qualities – particularly Amy.


Which brings us to the antihero and genre...


Antiheroes are common in psychological thrillers and crime.

Fantasy has examples, too, like the classic Elric of Melniboné by Michael Moorcock or, more recently, the protagonist of many a grimdark novel. 

I’d argue it’s difficult to pull off an antihero in a genre like romance, because – even with an enemy-to-lovers set-up – your reader needs to want your characters to find their happily ever after.


Here are six tips to keep in mind if you want to write an antihero:


1. What are their heroic qualities? What are their villainous qualities?


An antihero does terrible things or things that put them at odds with society, and so they are painted by the majority as a villain.

But they aren’t!

Make sure you know their more noble qualities too. Are they doing terrible things for a good reason? Are they doing good things despite being a terrible person? Do the ends justify the means?


2. We don’t have to like them, but we need to understand them!


An antihero should be as well-developed as any other protagonist, with a want and a need. What’s the lie they believe about themselves? What has made them the way they are? A ghost from the past? Almost certainly.

An antihero should be as well-developed as any other protagonist, with a want and a need.

Your antihero is probably going to have some trauma. They should be psychologically complicated and maybe demonstrate the dark triad of psychopathy, narcissism, and Machiavellianism.

I took one of those online quizzes recently – while procrastinating instead of writing – and am about 10% morally darker than the average person. I suspect this is because all authors have some narcissistic traits; we want our work to be read and admired!

You could take one of these quizzes and answer as your character to see where they fall on the scale.

Remember that sympathy and empathy are different things. Your antihero is probably not going to be particularly likeable. But if the reader empathises with them and understands how they’ve come to be like this, then they’ll start to care, perhaps even in spite of themselves. They’ll want to keep reading to find out if the antihero will become more heroic or succumb to their fatal flaw.

Your goal is to get the reader to become complicit in what this character has done or to give the reader catharsis. An antihero might do or say something someone might wish they could do but wouldn’t actually.

Your goal is to get the reader to become complicit in what this character has done or to give the reader catharsis.

For example, in Luckiest Girl Alive by Jessica Kroll, which was later turned into a film, her inner monologue is unrelentingly cruel as she picks apart the rich people she’s pretending to befriend. But it is satisfying to read her ripping them apart and, as the story continues, you understand why she has so much mental armour and wonder if perhaps her revenge is justified.


3. What is your antihero’s ‘kill the cat’ moment?


If you’ve read writing craft books, you’ve almost certainly come across Blake Snyder’s ‘Save the Cat’ method. The term comes from a point early in the story when a hero metaphorically (and, every now and again, literally) does something selfless like saving a cat.

Going back to Dungeons & Dragons, Xenk’s ‘save the cat’ moment is a wink-wink, nudge-nudge: he literally drags a cat-person child (kitten?) from the mouth of a giant fish, saving the child and reuniting him with his parents to the applause of the villagers. This moment helps us to recognise the hero as a ‘good person’.

So does your antihero have a ‘kill the cat’ moment where we see them do something awful to drive home that they are not a bastion of morality? For best results, try weaving together both a save the cat and kill the cat moment to create cognitive dissonance.

If your antihero is dark grey on the scale of morality, there should still be a line they won’t cross. For example, maybe they wouldn’t kill a child or a puppy. But they’d think nothing of killing a guard who has chosen to be in the employ of an evil king, even if that guard hasn’t done anything awful. Know the point where your antihero would become an outright villain so you know how to avoid or play with that line.


4. Watch out for harmful stereotypes


Many antiheroes are marginalised in some way or excluded from society.

For example, it isn’t uncommon for villainous characters to have scars on their faces or to have a disability caused by what happened to them previously.

Or, say your antihero is a grizzled detective who has turned vigilante. Do we see his wife and child in Chapter One only for them to be horrifically killed and therefore motivate his descent into antihero? That would fall into the ‘fridging’ trope.

That’s not to say you can’t have a disabled antihero or one who lost people close to them in the past, but, as ever, make sure you approach your characters with care and be mindful of potential stereotypes. You can even use an antihero to, say, critique whether having those ‘dark triad’ personality traits actually makes them a ‘bad’ person.


5. What does the antihero represent about society? How do they speak to your themes?


When you’re writing an antihero, you’ll almost certainly find themes of justice, truth, morality and fairness coming into play. If your antihero has been raised in a position of relative privilege, then the story will probably force them outside that bubble.

Perhaps your antihero has been doing terrible things but hasn’t seen the fallout and must confront the result of their actions. It’s a lot easier to give an order from the comfort of a castle and quite another to stand on the battleground afterwards.

Or is your antihero up against someone so much worse than them that their villainous qualities seem like mere missteps?

How does your antihero symbolise the worst parts of your story world, which in turn critiques the worst parts of our world? 


6. What’s the end of their journey? Redemption? Sacrifice?


 Knowing the end of your antihero’s journey is essential.

Are they going from antihero to hero? Or from antihero to villain? Will they become better or is this the story of their tragic downfall?

The climax of a story often asks a protagonist to change or die (literally or metaphorically). If you know which way your character is going to go, it’ll be easier to seed in some foreshadowing. Will they nobly sacrifice themselves to save someone more heroic than them? Will they become strong enough to do the right thing, despite the cost? Will they be able to grow beyond whatever made them so nasty at the start?

Ultimately, while writing an antihero can be a challenge, it’s an opportunity to write fascinating characters that worm their way into readers’ hearts and minds. So have fun and go forth and write a character we’ll love to hate. 


For more tips on writing and editing your novel, join us on a creative writing course at The Novelry today. Sign up for coursescoaching and a community from the world’s top-rated writing school. There’s never been a better time to join! 



Search music, film and literature for creative ways to show the journey of an anti-hero. Think of the last time you noticed antiheroes in a lyric or in films. Or even a dream! Everybody can hang this term on a character they've encountered. Liz Lemon is the antihero of Tina Fey!

L.R. Lam

Writing Coach at The Novelry

L.R. Lam is the award-winning author of nine novels, with three more under contract. Their books span genres and subgenres of science fiction and fantasy and include False Hearts, Shattered Minds, the Micah Grey trilogy and Goldilocks and Dragonfall, the first in an upcoming trilogy and a Sunday Times bestseller. Before joining us at The Novelry, El spent seven years lecturing on the Creative Writing MA at Edinburgh Napier University. Sign up to one of our creative writing courses today to enjoy El’s one-to-one mentoring as well as a world-class writing program!


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