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Morally Questionable Heroes





What is a hero? I mean, when you think about it, it doesn't have to mean a streak of red and blue racing overhead as Superman gets to his next big disaster in the world. Sure, that's a part of all that, but a hero can a police officer, or a particularly smart detective...or it can just be a loving parent. Perhaps just a good friend. The hero is the one who's willing to make sacrifices for someone else in their time of need. A hero might be someone who breaks up a fight, or a preacher that gives some much needed advice when someone is at the end of their rope. An act of kindness goes a long way. A hero doesn't always have to take on something bigger than themselves. They merely have to take on something other than themselves. Any selfless act will do. When you think about your own stories, who are the heroes in your writing? It doesn't always have to be the protagonist. Side characters and subplots count too. Think about what gives them that bit of an extra shine and how they share it with the people around them, often asking nothing in return.

Got a few ideas in your head? Good. Because we're not talking about 'heroes' in this article! Hehehe! We're talking about anti heroes. Which, I won't lie, can be really fun to write...but, as with everything else considering your craft as a writer...it takes practice and finesse to pull this particular archetype off without it coming off as overly harsh...or even worse...cliche.

So, what is the difference between a hero and an anti hero? The way I like to think about it is...

A hero tries to do good things. An anti hero tries to get good things done.

What that means is that a hero is constantly fighting the good fight, but there are lines that he or she won't cross. They'll try to find a better way. A moral solution that they can live with. An anti hero doesn't have that same anchor when it comes to his or her actions. That doesn't make that character a villain, as they're still attempting to fight the good fight and reach the same result. But for the anti hero, if that means crossing the line...then so be it. If people have to die, if damage has to be done to the city, if laws have to be broken...that can't stand in the way of them making the hard call to get the job done. Period. (Of course, depending on the genre of story that you're writing and the characters involved, this can mean a variety of different things. You can interpret and re-interpret this idea as you see fit.) While this is something that I learned very young from comic books and graphic novels...I know that not everybody is writing that kind of story. Luckily, this same principle applies to almost any story when you think about it.

Let me use the example of a teacher to display my point here. Let's say this experienced teacher is the hero or anti hero of your story. In this role, teachers can be strict, distant, judgemental, overly critical...maybe even cold at times. But ask yourself, what is their goal? Their goal is to push and guide their students to become the very best that they possibly can be. To inspire them to go beyond their limits and become something truly great without ever settling for second best or giving up altogether. Point A is to take on the student, Point B is to elevate them to levels of excellence that they didn't know that they could reach before now. Getting from Point A to Point B is what matters, but their approach may be completely different. Heroes try to do good things, anti heroes try to get good things done. Let's take a look at the difference.

This is a clip from a really touching, feel good, movie called "Akeelah And The Bee". (Awesome movie, by the way!) The little girl in this clip seems to have a phenomenal talent for spelling, and when discovered by a teacher who finds contestants for the national spelling bee competition every year...he sees something special in her and wants to enhance it and get her to believe in herself enough to go for being number one. She's the protagonist, but he is the 'hero' of this story. Pay attention to what he's saying and doing here to begin accomplishing his ultimate goal...


As the hero, the teacher in this movie is tough on her, he pushes her, he tries to get her to focus and discover her inner strengths and talents so that she can prepare for the journey that she must take to get to the place where she deserves to be. He puts pressure on her, he makes demands of her, and she is forced to grow on her own and discover her potential on her own. This is accomplished through inspiration, discipline, and encouragement.

Now...let me show you a different clip. This is from another movie called "Whiplash" (Again, excellent movie!). This teacher has the exact same goal in mind, for the protagonists as well as for the rest of his students. Take a moment to watch this, and see how an 'anti-hero' may handle the exact same situation, and how he plans to get this done.


As you can see in the second example...the inspiration, patience, and encouragement, is not the path taken. Hehehe, obviously. The goal is get this drummer on time, to get it right, and to push himself. And if it takes shame and public humiliation and even threats of fear and violence to get him there...then that's exactly what he's going to do. The end result is all that matters for most 'anti-hero' types. It can be torturous and hurtful and devastating at time...but he's trying to achieve a goal, and this new student is standing in his way. That can't happen.

I always thought that it was lot of fun to write this type of character. I don't want them to be fully hated by my readers...but that doesn't mean that the character has be likable. Hehehe, that does not appear anywhere in my personal rule book. Again...when I was growing up with comic books, it was during those late 80's early 90's era. The era of 'Dark Knight' Batman, Wolverine, The Punisher, Deadpool, Dark Phoenix, and some of your favorite so-called 'heroes' operating on the brink of total madness to the point where you were more likely to get your HEAD cut off than wrapped up for the cops and peacefully sent to jail. Hehehe, no....those days were over.

Have you ever SEEN the old Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles comics before they became a cartoon and a series of children's toys??? It was bloody and violent as HELL! >:P

However...these are extreme examples of the idea. Your characters don't have to go quite that far. But the concept is still identical to the one that I mentioned above. Considering that most of my stories are gay teen romance, some of my characters may become anti-heroes themselves. Even the protagonist can be corrupted, depending on the current circumstances. It doesn't have to be a cigar smoking ruffian with an eye patch and a shotgun. The idea is that your anti-hero makes morally questionable decisions in order to achieve a certain goal. Often at someone else's expense. Maybe for desperate reasons, maybe for selfish reasons, maybe it's just a difficult choice between two miserable outcomes. Whatever it may be, when you present all of the facts, rewards, and consequences, to your audience...you force them to ask themselves what they would do if they were in that situation. They may agree with your protagonist, and they may not...but there is a great deal of power and emotion in providing them a three dimensional understanding of both sides. They should feel slightly conflicted as well. It's engaging, and it creates a deeper investment in your character's plight as they try to figure it out for themselves.

I've found that there are two ways to effectively maintain an anti-hero, who's walking that hero/villain tightrope throughout your story, and not turn your fanbase against them at some point. Don't expect people to understand the motivations and harsh methods of an anti-hero simply because they're one of the main characters. Hehehe, no...that's not in the rule book either. If you go too dark and basically just make him/her a serial killer who enjoys hurting and murdering people 'just because'...then you've gone full villain. It's hard to redeem them in the eyes of your readers if you do that. The key is to 'walk the line'...not have a bad guy in your protagonist's corner.

Two ways to do this when dealing with anti-heroes? Blur the kill...and justify the kill. Let's start with the first one...

When you're watching a movie or reading a book or whatever about your main character cutting his way through 100 soldiers in order to get to the main villain and put an end to his evil plot...that's exactly where you want your readers' focus to cling to. If you think about James Bond, or John Wick, Rambo, etc...they are the heroes that the audience is supposed to root for the entire time. And it's awesome! However, when you really stop and think about it...your 'hero' just brutally murdered a whole LOT of people to get there! LOL! In most action movies, the hero often kills double or triple the amount of people as the villain does! That guy that James Bond just shot in the face? He might just be trying to earn a paycheck to feed his family. Might have been a good guy. Might have been a real hoot at parties. Hehehe! Who knows? But, again, you don't really want to demonize your anti-hero if you can help it. The methods may be harsh and unforgiving...but do your best to keep his enemy fodder as faceless and non-distinct as you can. This is something that is used all the time in movies, whether you notice it or not. Yes...they are shooting real guns, with real bullets, and there are real explosions going on. You don't want your readers thinking, "Oh no! Not TED!!!" Or whatever. Hahaha! That would make your protagonist look like a complete monster. And unless you're writing horror...nobody is rooting for the monster to win. So you might want to minimize the importance of the lives taken while your anti-hero mows them down ten at a time.

I know that sounds pretty morbid...but it helps.

The second part is all about justification. Is there really a justification for killing one hundred people in a rage? Ummmm...no, not really. But, as I said in my earlier article, "Kill The Dog", a lot of people recognize pain and suffering through a sliding scale of justified and unjustified. And not just in books, movies, and television...but in real life, many times. Sad, but true. Having someone rob a local store and shooting an innocent cashier at the register is seen as a tragedy. Having that same person caught and given the death penalty in order to be held accountable for what he's done? That's something that your average person would cheer for. ::Shrugs:: Because...humanity's rules.

In this case, giving your anti-hero a tragic or horrific backstory can be a powerful instrument in justifying whatever actions he or she may choose to take in order to set things right again. This is particularly evident in stories of revenge. "You murdered my whole family...and I'm going to make you pay for it!" The Crow, The Punisher, Fists of Fury, Unforgiven...stories like that are perfect for anti-hero action. The idea that these people too everything from me...and the deserve to die for it. By filling in that backstory and having your protagonist go after them with nothing but hatred in his heart will justify almost any action that they take to get the job done. (As long as no innocent people get hurt. So...pretend they all eft town on that day or something.)

I've written some pretty dark, gothic romance, stories where I've had to use a combination of both tactics to keep from making monsters out of my main characters. Because, even if they feel bad about some of the things that they've done after the deeds have already been done, I don't want my readers to turn on them. In "Gone From Daylight"...they are vampires. They prey on the living and drink them dry when they do. In "Savage Moon", my main character, Wesley, has done some pretty awful and even murderous things himself. But by using the techniques above, I attempt to balance out their evil deeds enough to keep their humanity in focus so that readers don't begin to dismiss them or write them off as being evil because of the things they've done. I definitely address these issues when they happen, and write about the emotional weight that their actions carry whether they regret doing it or not. But I don't dwell on it for too long, and then I switch the focus towards something that reminds the audience why they were cheering for my protagonist to begin with. Like I said, it takes a little finesse...but it can be done. And it can slide right by the average analytical mind, as long as you have something for them to come 'home' to in the end.

Anyway, I'm sure this article sounds like it's all over the place, but it really isn't. Heroes are the good guys. Anti-heroes are the good guys...even if they have to hurt you to believe it so. Hehehe!

I hope this helps out with your writing in the future. Again, it doesn't have to be comic books, fantasy, or sci fi. Go back up and watch the two teacher vids again anytime that you need a reminder of that.

Best of luck, you guys! And coming up next? The reverse equation! The "Non-Villainous Villain", and how they make for a really amazing story if used right! Seezya then! :)


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Great article! I didn't find it 'all over the place', just the opposite. 

I love the concept of morally questionable anything. 

While reading through this this I couldn't help thinking about Professor Snape in the Harry Potter books. Probably one of the best morally questionable characters ever. (In part due to some great writing, and a greater part fantastic acting).

The Marvel Universe has perfected the morally questionable character. Your examples were spot on. 

I also enjoy books/shows/movies centered around serial killers. I'm so happy they brought back Dexter. The original series got cheated out of a decent ending. 

Thanks for sharing Comicality!

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Great article @Comicality!  I can definitely see myself using some of your suggestions in future work :)

For those that saw the reference, the "Kill the Dog" article:


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Every person is a shade of gray. They are the sum of good and bad traits. If they are so pure, the halo gives them away as being an angel.

I'll put it bluntly: If your protagonist has no flaws, they're simply not human or as interesting.

There's no excuse for inflicting another Mary/Marty Sue on your poor readers. This is becoming one of the most hated tropes in literature. The perfect protagonist is simply NOT relatable.

You remember Luke Skywalker.  Anyone can relate to his self-doubt and struggle to learn how to use the force.

Do you even remember the Mary Sue who was the awful protagonist of the latest Dizzy Star Wartz trilogy? I watched the first one and blew off the last two. They suck, and the reason is BAD WRITING. The characterization of Mary Sue Skywalker is a study in WHAT NOT TO DO AS A WRITER.

I guarantee you that your readers are flawed human beings, and want to barf at your perfect protagonist with a perfect life, perfect backstory, perfect functional family, perfect teeth and pecs and wardrobe.

Uhhh, but you say, aren't your protagonists Tim Shepherd and Phillip Wright perfect? NOT HARDLY! They are both damaged persons doing their best. Read closer. Yes, they're hot. Yes, one is filthy rich and the other is well-off. The rest? They have family difficulties. One has violent tendencies and the other is a budding sex addict.

This doesn't make them odious. It makes them spicy. How they grow through and conquer their personal demons are what makes the character and the story memorable.

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Even the movie "Bad Teacher", although not a story about super-humans, has an anti-hero in the form of Cameron Diaz. Education is definitely NOT the ultimate goal for this teacher; she just plans to embezzle enough money to get her breasts enhanced, so she can marry a rich guy and never have to work again.  :P

Sesshomaru, from the anime series "InuYasha"....although not exactly buddies with the "Big Bad", Naraku, he has no problem exploiting weapons or weaknesses presented by Naraku if it means he can get an edge over his little brother.

Deadpool is probably my favorite anti-hero. "I never said this before, but Don't Swallow!" Gets me every time!  :rofl:

Anti-heroes add spice! The story becomes more interesting! Do the ends really justify the means? For these guys, uh, DUH! OF COURSE it does! :P

Edited by Page Scrawler
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