Unless you’re me and firmly Team Bad Guy, most writers want to create awesome heroes. Anti-heroes are even cooler – think Snake Plisskin, John Constantine, or Jack Sparrow. All brilliant, and all hard to replicate. So how do you create an anti-hero?
To celebrate the release of her new guide, 13 Steps To Evil, I’ve asked the excellent Sacha Black to come and give us all a lesson.
Take it away, Sacha!
3 tips to create an anti-hero
***Spoiler Alert*** If you haven’t watched Beetlejuice, there is a description of the plot.
Harry Potter quickly became oxygen for teenage readers all over the world. But mastering a billion-dollar industry level of character appeal is more than a little difficult. It’s the holy grail of writing. Everyone wants to create that timeless character.
Beetlejuice is arguably one of those characters. If you haven’t seen the award-winning 80s classic, you’re missing out. Get your butt to the local Blockbusters (showing my age), Netflix or whatever and watch it… because I hear a sequel is on its way.
What are anti-heroes?
In 13 Steps To Evil, I explain that anti-heroes are the cherry on your finger-licking villain pie. They’re two parts hero to one part villain. Anti-heroes usually have a moral, ethical or ‘rule-bound’ line they can’t cross and it’s that line that keeps them firmly in the ‘good’ category. However, that doesn’t mean an anti-hero behaves like a hero. In fact, their behaviour is typically suspect, and they tend to make abysmal decisions.
But that means that anti-heroes reflect humanity more closely than say, a superhero who represents a utopian ideal that we lowly word monkeys will never reach. And it’s this representation of ‘ourselves’ that makes an anti-hero so appealing to society. That appeal is, in part, responsible for the timeless classic syndrome. Humans are eternally flawed which is why anti-heroes stay ‘current.’
Which is precisely why you should create an anti-hero at least once.
TIP – The most important factor in creating an anti-hero is his character arc, or more importantly, his lack of character arc. Unlike heroes, they don’t change. They just make better decisions.
TIP – Anti-heroes either:
- Do the wrong thing for the right reason
- Do the right thing for the wrong reason (this is Beetlejuice)
Beetlejuice – The Plot
Adam and Barbara Maitland have a car crash. They return home only to find out they died in the car crash and are stuck in their house for 125 years. But then their house is sold and a new family move in. Adam and Barbara want to rid their house of this new family, but their afterlife case worker tells them it’s up to them to scare them away. Their attempts fail, compounded by the fact the daughter of this new family can see them and becomes their friend.
Against their case worker’s advice, they contact Betelgeuse (pronounced Beetlejuice) who is an exorcist of humans and can rid the house of the family. But the family accidentally start an exorcism of their own and Adam and Barbara start decaying. Beetlejuice won’t help unless the daughter promises to marry him, which would give him access to the mortal world. She agrees to save Adam and Barbara, who then disappear and come to save the daughter in the nick of time using a giant sandworm that devours Beetlejuice and sends him to the afterlife waiting room.
Beetlejuice – The Character
Beetlejuice is the height of selfishness and regularly engages in vulgar behaviours. He also has a bad attitude and filthy appearance. All these things make up his bad side, but he stays in the anti-hero camp because technically, he turns up to ‘help’ the Maitland’s rid their house of humans. In typical anti-hero style, he ends up causing more trouble than not for everyone involved.
Why it works
Beetlejuice hits all the tropes and quirks you need to create an anti-hero.
- He’s a reflection of societies worst sides, with his vulgarity and endless selfishness
- His hero side is aided by a restriction; he can’t say his own name. It stops him doing bad things because he can’t meddle in people’s lives unless they summon him.
- Despite being a comedic character he also delivers a subtle message about society’s obsession with materialism.
- In the end, he stays consistent and true to his character. He does the right thing by saving the Maitlands, but only if he gets what he wants, a mortal marriage – thereby staying true to anti-heroism ‘doing the right thing for the wrong reason’.
- Beetlejuice gets his comeuppance; the attempted mortal-marriage gets him eaten by a giant sandworm and banished to the afterlife waiting room!
What we can learn from Beetlejuice
Tip 1 – Good Side, Bad Side, Consistent Side
An anti-hero has to have a good side because it makes them appealing. Beetlejuice does save Adam and Barbara, but he also stays true to his character. He only does it because he’s going to get something out of it – a marriage to a mortal. Right there, is his good, bad and totally consistent side, rolled into one.
Tip 2 – Restrict or Rule
An anti-hero either needs to have a moral line he won’t cross (like Robin Hood who only robs the rich). Or they need to have some kind of restriction that prevents their ‘bad’ side taking over. In Beetlejuice’s case, he can only meddle if someone summons him.
Tip 3 – Messages and Merriment
Anti-heroes work really well with comedy – for example, the latest famous anti-hero, Marvel’s Deadpool. But likewise, because they are a reflection of us, they can also deliver a serious message through subtext. Beetlejuice plays on materialism, and even entraps the family that moved into the Maitland’s house, inside their own garish modern art sculptures.
If you enjoyed these tips, you can find 13 jam packed steps that help you create an anti-hero or a villain from the ground up.
You can find 13 Steps To Evil in all good books stores, or use the link here.
I’m also giving away a 17-page cheat sheet designed to help you get to grips with your villain fast. If you’re interested in the freebie you can find out more here.
Sacha Black has five obsessions; words, expensive shoes, conspiracy theories, self-improvement, and breaking the rules. She also has the mind of a perpetual sixteen-year- old, only with slightly less drama and slightly more bills.
Sacha writes books about people with magical powers and other books about the art of writing. She lives in Hertfordshire, England, with her wife and genius, giant of a son.
When she’s not writing, she can be found laughing inappropriately loud, blogging, sniffing musty old books, fangirling film and TV soundtracks, or thinking up new ways to break the rules.
Keen to improve your writing?
Grab your list of my top 5 blogs, books, and podcasts for fiction writers below!