Friday, August 16, 2013

Writing Reluctant and Anti Heroes

Reluctant heroes have always been one of my favorite types of protagonists. Why? Because I personally think they have more character over all. Sure, I love those really awesome heroes who just go in and do what's right without even having to think, but then I also love those reluctant heroes who might take more convincing, but always turn out good in the end. Sometimes you might want to yell at them, and deck them for their stupidity, but you have to love them anyway. Today I'm going to be talking about writing reluctant and anti heroes (and also the difference between them)

First off, let's talk reluctant heroes. The reason I decided to write this post is because in my current WIP A Company of Rogues which I introduced a while back, my hero, Michael Crandon, is very much a reluctant hero, and I have really enjoyed the dynamics of writing a character like him as I have never really gotten to do that before.

Reluctant heroes are protagonists who are thrust into situations which force them to act against their will and become the hero of the story. In my story, Michael is trying to make a quiet living for himself and stay out of trouble as much as possible when he finds out that an old enemy from the days when he was a thief, thinks he stole an emerald necklace that they had tried to steal before on a botched heist. If that isn't bad enough, a young man shows up on his doorstep looking for help after having gotten tangled up with Michael's enemy. Michael knows he has to do something about it, and grudgingly decides to try and figure it out.

The first thing to know about reluctant heroes, is that they usually initially only do things if they somehow profit in it. Apart from Michael's conscious--which he always denies he has--he knows that he will never be able to achieve the peace he wants if he doesn't figure out a way to get his enemy, Randall, off his tail. Thus, he decides to help Reilly, mainly for his own gain. This doesn't mean that your hero doesn't also suffer from scruples or inner compassion--it just isn't at the forefront, and they rarely let it show to others.

It might take a while for reluctant heroes to rise to the occasion, and sometimes, they might need a push, in some cases a brutal one, to get them going. A lot of times, reluctant heroes are also self-professed cowards. Whether they actually are cowards, or they just say that as an excuse to not do what's right, is up to the author.

A good example of a reluctant hero (and one of my all time favorites) is Dustfinger from Cornelia Funke's Inkheart books. Dustfinger really is a coward, and he likes to pretend he doesn't care for anyone but himself, and often he can come across as really not a very good guy. You might still think of his negatively even when you know more about him, but he was also very much able to rise to the occasion and sacrifice everything for the people he cared for. If you need a good reference for what a reluctant hero is, do read Inkheart as Dustfinger is a prime example.

So, as a recap:

Reluctant heroes are heroes who need a kick out the door sometimes; perhaps it's something that happens to them to change their mind, such as the death of a loved one, or maybe they see some sort of self gain in the venture to make them take part in it--in which they only expect to go part way, but usually end up doing more than they ever considered they were capable of.

A reluctant hero can sometimes be a completely hatable person initially, and this is okay, as long as he changes for the best in the end.

A reluctant hero must always be a dynamic character. He has to learn something by the end of the book/series, otherwise readers are not going to find him very likable. He must overcome his reluctance and rise to the occasion, whatever that may be. (i.e. If he is a coward, he must willingly put his life in danger for the sake of another.)

Now we can talk about anti heroes.

The difference between a reluctant hero and an anti hero is that, unlike the reluctant hero, the anti hero can be as brave and courageous as your typical knight in shining armor, and more than willing to do what needs to be done. The only difference is that he is not in himself, a good person. In general, anti heroes are the kinds of people you would never expect to be a good person, such as a torturer, a member of a disreputable group of people (use your imagination) or someone on the wrong side of the law. And no, I'm not talking about characters like Robin Hood either. Like reluctant heroes, anti heroes usually do things for themselves above all else, and their personal gain is usually what they think of first, but unlike them, they are rarely cowards.

An anti hero always lives by his own moral code, whether that be moral or no. He might just possibly be technically a murderer, or something just as bad, but in his own eyes, it would always make sense and be for the best. Like the reluctant hero, he has to have his 'rise to the occasion' moment, but it might be different than that of his reluctant cousin.

The fun thing about anti heroes is that there are several different genres of them. First you have the guys that one can either see as a villain or someone in the right, depending on the reader's (or sometimes even the author's) point of view. Then you have the characters (the ones who usually end up being vigilantes or private investigators or other such people) who might technically do the 'right thing' but go about it in a fashion few decent people would think to do (thus the 'their own moral code' thing.) Think a lot of Noir heroes, or others like that.

I haven't really gotten the chance to write a real anti hero myself, but I've always found them fascinating characters. They have the chance to be very dynamic, and while they can sometimes come across as the 'bad boys', they usually are still incredibly likable. Another things is that anti heroes don't always have to change their ways either, or at least not entirely. They should, of course, have their moment of rising to the occasion, but that doesn't have to take their character away entirely. If you write a really good anti hero, readers might not want to see him turn all 'goody goody'.

A good example of an anti hero is Captain Nemo from 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. Some might view him as the villain, others might see him in a sympathetic light, and that makes him an interesting character. The thing that makes him different from an actual villain is that he was turned bad by tragic events. If his home and people hadn't been destroyed, he probably never would have been in the position he was. Characters like this, even if you can't really find much actual 'good' in them, usually have at least a natural nobility underneath it all.

To recap:

Anti heroes are heroes one wouldn't normally expect to be the 'good guy'. They always follow their own moral code whether it be moral or not.

You can actually play them up as the villain, but he must have a defining moment in which he turns around. He doesn't always have to change his character, however, unlike the reluctant hero, who, while he might struggle with his personal character for the rest of his life, is still a very changed man after his defining moment.

I hope this post might help those who are considering writing reluctant or anti heroes. If you have any other tips or examples of the two in books or movies, drop a comment!

Slainte, Hazel


  1. I'm actually not sure whether the two examples that came to mind for me should be classified as anti-heroes or reluctant heroes. Han Solo makes no bones about the fact he's only in it for the money--and yes, he did shoot first! He's also reluctant to risk his life for the Cause. And then Rick Blaine from Casablanca runs a casino, sticks his neck out for nobody, and associates with all kinds of shady types, and really for most of the movie you're not sure whether he's going to end up acting in his own interests. But of course both of them end up doing the right thing in the end.

    I think both of them exhibit traits of both types. They both live externally by their own moral codes, and are initially reluctant to risk their own lives for the good of others; but really both have deeply buried senses of honor that shine through at key moments. I think you're right in that it all comes down to a defining moment in their character arc.

  2. Yeah, I wouldn't call Han Solo an anti hero, he's more of a reluctant type, though I'd probably be more inclined just to label him a lovable rogue :P

    And that's what I love about writing and reading characters like this, because you never really know how they're going to turn out or how it will happen. Another thing is that they just have more depth of character.