The fallen protagonist: when good turns bad

Anti-heroThere’s a dark trend occurring in storytelling. It’s the unspoken underbelly of the hero world and it’s scaring the squeaky clean good guys. They thought their picture perfect looks and infallible reputations guaranteed them stardom, but to their shock, they’re discovering an entirely different sort of character is attracting attention.

Audiences far and wide are responding to the less than perfect protagonist, the anti-hero. From the guy who has a past he’d rather forget, to the vigilante, or even the downright criminal, readers and audiences want to hear their stories. But why? What is it about these anti-protagonists that captures our hearts and minds and leaves the traditional good guy cowering in the corner?

Why we love a flawed protagonist:

  • They’re not perfect: perhaps it’s just simple human nature. None of us are perfect and quite frankly, squeaky clean can become very boring, very quickly. Give us an anti-hero with some genuinely bad character traits and we can relate. We want to see how well (or how poorly) they deal with his or her faults, because that makes for fascinating reading.
  • Unashamed fascination: come on, admit it, it’s interesting to see how the anti-hero thinks and how they justify their less than perfect actions. So they just killed a guy? These protagonists will somehow turn things around on you so you’re not questioning their need to pull the trigger, but understanding why it was justified.
  • A different perspective: I recently watched the movie, ‘Lawless.’ It follows the (true) story of three brothers running an illegal moonshine racket during prohibition. They do some dangerous and damn right bloody things (this movie is not for the faint hearted by the way). But it’s the way the good guys are portrayed that’s interesting. We see the law hunting them down and we’re rooting for the moonshiners, the ones breaking the law. Why? Because the law are far from perfect themselves and in the case of the character played by Guy Pearce, downright evil. Hang on? Good is evil and evil is good? You betcha. These stories capture audiences because it’s a fresh perspective on the classic good v evil scenario, and they get us thinking.

The many faces of an anti-hero

Anti-heroes come in all shapes and sizes. They might be genuinely good guys with some difficult character flaws. They might be reformed bad guys. Or perhaps they’re the unassuming hero – less than perfect who find themselves in a situation where they have the power to do some good things.

At the other extreme, your protagonist can be the vigilante or the criminal and we see the world through their eyes.

How to make us care for the less than perfect protagonist

Whoever they are, whatever they’ve done or about to do, what should our anti-heroes have in common to leave a lasting impression in our hearts and minds?

First of all, you need to demonstrate they’re not all bad. Sure, they might have just murdered that guy, but your character could be a loving husband and father. Audiences love these sorts of contrasts and inconsistencies. Look at Lisbeth Salander in the Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. She’s both a victim and a vigilante, a hacker that exists under the radar of the law, and eventually resorts to violence herself…and she’s fascinating!

Maybe your anti-hero has the power to do some greater good. Or we might even watch as they overcome some of their less than desirable character traits.

Get serious about your anti-hero. Or if that’s too much, try satire…

Anti-heroes help us to explore the darker sides of human nature and it can be serious subject matter. It can provide the author with the opportunity to focus the light on difficult social issues, from violence against women, government power to the failing of our law enforcement systems.

If you’re thinking this is admirable subject matter but all a bit too weighty for your tastes, don’t despair: anti-heroes can have a sense of humour too. Will Smith’s portrayal of the out of favour super hero in his 2008 movie, Hancock, is a great example of this. Even Cartman from South Park is an anti-hero of sorts. Admittedly, the anti-hero sense of humour is usually a little warped or laced with a dryer attitude, but it can be funny if done right. Robert Downey Jnr’s recent portrayal of Sherlock Holmes demonstrates this exceedingly well.

Here’s a list of some of my favourite anti-heroes:

  • John Constantine (Keanu Reeves) in Constantine
  • Jason Bourne (Matt Damon) in the Bourne series
  • Lisbeth Salander in the Dragon Tattoo series
  • John Hancock in Hancock
  • The Bondurant brothers in Lawless
  • Tyler Durdan in Fight Club
  • Sherlock Holmes movies (Robert Downey Jnr)

Who are your favourite anti-heroes? Do you enjoy writing about less than perfect protagonists?

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