In partnership with Creative Screenwriting and ScreenCraft, “First Draft” is a series on everything to do with screenwriting.
How do writers craft protagonists that are engaging, compelling, and interesting? Enter the anti-heroes.
The anti-hero archetype can be traced back to classical Greek drama, but was popularized in the Romantic period by Lord Byron, whose contribution to the concept earned him his own sub-category of anti-hero, the Byronic hero. The American Heritage Dictionary defines the anti-hero as: “A main character in a dramatic or narrative work who is characterized by a lack of traditional heroic qualities, such as idealism or courage.”
Anti-heroes are this generation’s go-to protagonist. But why? The answer can be relatively simple—audiences love them because they often have the courage to say what we all would like to say and do what we all would like to do, but don’t. They are void of the rules and regulations that society has created over the years, whether it’s based on law and order or sociological expectations.
They don’t have the morals that most in the mass audience have. If they are wronged, they don’t go to the law. If they are flawed, they don’t try to atone and apologize for it. They are who they are, do as they wish, and take care of themselves in their own unique way.
Cinema is escapism, fantasy, and role-playing at its best. So when we go into that theater and the lights go down, we can become those characters, if not for just a short period of time. So when we have an anti-hero as the protagonist, we get to live vicariously through them for a couple of hours and then enter the real world with our morals and ethics intact.
But anti-heroes aren’t easy to write. Too many writers believe it’s a simple formula to follow, thinking that an anti-hero is just an asshole that happens to be the center of the story—someone that does the exact opposite of what a hero would do. There are some truths to that approach, but that’s just scratching the surface of what it takes to write an anti-hero that will engage audiences.
So what are the elements that make for a great anti-hero? How do writers craft these types of characters in such a way that audiences embrace them?
Here we will break down the different types of anti-heroes and investigate how their creators manage to straddle the line between relatability and distance from the audience.
Scroll through to learn the types of anti-heroes, popular anti-hero representations, and the anti-hero’s core characteristics.