4 Ways to Make Your Antihero Deliciously Irresistible

Antiheroes . . . those conflicted souls who pawned their moral compass to buy their next bottle of vodka. There’s nothing heroic about them and for the most part they only care about themselves.

So why do we love them so much?

Antiheroes are far from perfect, a trait which makes them very real and very human. We can all relate to antiheroes because our lives are also littered with uncertainty and imperfection.

As a writer, developing your antihero can be a complex process because the usual conventions no longer stick.  Antiheroes resemble very ordinary people whose thinking and values contradict the norm. They can be selfish and lack compassion, and they’re willing to take the law into their own hands.

Rousing emotion and compassion from your readers in spite of these flaws requires a deep understanding of what makes your antihero tick. You need to explore the darker elements of the human psyche and present them in a way that is appealing to readers.

Although I could easily write a whole book on the topic, here are four ways to get you started.

1. Give your antihero a reason to be bad

You need to make your antihero believable and to do this, you need to give him a realistic backstory. Why is your antihero so bad or angry? Was his sister raped and murdered in front of him? Did her mother torture her and use her as a drug mule? If you had to meet your antihero in the street, what would you consider a good enough reason to justify his behavior?

A good backstory is vital, as it explains how your antihero came to be. More importantly, it helps your readers sympathize with him. For example, a woman that tortures and kills rapists is a little hard to swallow. But a woman that does this because she was kidnapped and raped repeatedly by an organized ring of rapists is easier to sympathize with.

2. Your antihero doesn’t want to be good

Your antihero’s character should be gently balanced throughout your story. On the one hand, your antihero is a bad, selfish person who will do things your readers don’t like or agree with. On the other hand, your readers will come to sympathize with your antihero. Although they won’t like what he gets up to, they will understand his motives. Your responsibility is to maintain this delicate relationship by sustaining the believability of your character.

To do this, you need to remember your antihero does not want to save the day or be seen as the good Samaritan. When your antihero commits an act perceived to be right or just, make sure you explore why this has happened. If you don’t do this, it will seem as though your antihero is acting out of character or has suddenly become the good guy, which is completely unrealistic.

In The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Stieg Larsson thoroughly explores Lisbeth Salander’s role as avenger and protector of those too weak and vulnerable to protect themselves. Although Lisbeth’s underlying cause is good, her violent and unpredictable approach to things is a reminder that she is not necessarily a good person.

3. Give us enough to sympathize with

Your antihero may be a serial killer who keeps a display cabinet of human eyes, but he does have a few likable qualities, right? By giving your antihero a few redeeming qualities, you are helping readers sympathize with his cause. Your readers need to connect with your character; they want to care about what happens to your antihero so give them a reason to do so.

A great example of how this is done is Jeff Lindsay’s portrayal of Dexter Morgan in Darkly Dreaming Dexter (the basis for the TV series Dexter). Dexter is a serial killer who dismembers his victims. Yet despite his need to slash his victims into equal portions, Dexter is also portrayed as a loving father and dedicated brother, which suddenly makes his serial-killing self a whole lot nicer.

4. Inner conflict goes a long way

Your antihero’s inner conflict and self-doubt makes your character much more realistic. Your antihero never set out to save the day, so it is almost expected that he is going to be unsure of how to handle things along the way. We can relate to characters dealing with inner conflict because we deal with inner conflict on a regular basis.

More importantly, inner conflict creates suspense because no one is really sure how your antihero is going to deal with a crisis or event. Will he make the right choice? For that matter, what is the right choice? These questions keep things interesting and exciting. Dexter Morgan is regularly faced with inner conflict because, on the one hand, he thrives on killing people, but on the other hand, he worries about the repercussions of being caught and the pain it would cause his family. Readers cozy up to Dexter as he works through his doubts and fears but we are still left wondering what he’ll do next.

Tell me your opinion: Who is your favorite antihero?

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About Bronwyn Hemus

Bronwyn is the co-founder and Head of Editorial Services at Standoutbooks. Standoutbooks. offers personalized editing and marketing services for authors. Their editorial solutions vary from manuscript critiques to in-depth content edits and their marketing solutions include designing author websites, managing social media campaigns, and writing press releases.


  1. Sydney Carton bar none. I’m also fond of Sherlock Holmes and my own Roddy.

  2. That’s a great article. I love to narrate stories whose protagonists are anti-heros. I like them because they are often unpredictable and let the readers keep guessing “what now?” 🙂

  3. Great tips. I tend to gravitate towards hero types, but have realized how much I appreciate and am fascinated by anti-heros. I haven’t, as yet, written one, but would like to in the future. I love how complex and compelling they are.

  4. Interesting. I did Like Dexter (the show) but I have to admit it was a little disturbing to root for the serial killer and hope he DOESN’T get caught.

  5. Thanks so much for sharing with us today, Bronwyn!

  6. i have hit a writers block that feels like its 10 miles long i hit a place in the story were all she is doing is asleep on a horses back because it would take a day or two for the character to get to were there going and i did not want her to get there in such a short time i thought the readers would find it boring but now i don’t know what to write help

  7. Thanks so much for your comments everyone. Anti-heroes present great opportunities for character development. They are wonderfully unpredictable and can really keep your readers guessing.

  8. i have not commented much but your welcome anyway i just wish i could make sense of my thoughts or what i should do next but its hard to find someone willing to talk to me about writing and books

  9. This is a wonderful post on ways to create some very difficult characters. Thanks Katie for sharing Bronwyn’s article.
    Literature is filled with great antiheroes. It’s good for us to learn to use them.

  10. Thanks so much for your kind comment Rich. I am so pleased that you found my article useful.

  11. Favorite antihero? Oh man. That’s tough. Sherlock Holmes, Sines (from “The War Horn” by J. Tobias Buller), Alastair (from Wayne Thomas Batson’s “Sword in the Stars”), Han Solo, Orias Tarn (K.M. Weiland’s “Dreamlander”), Arthur Dent, and Murtagh (Paolini’s “Eragon”.

    Least favorite is definitely Boromir.

  12. My favorite anti-hero would have to be the enchantress from the Emerald Atlas. Very well written character with a distinct voice and method, and has a sweet way of tricking people into doing what she wants them to do. But we also feel sorry for her when we realize she is under someone else’ command.

  13. This comment has been removed by the author.

  14. Uhtred of Bebbanburg

  15. Anonymous says

    Some of you think Sherlock Holmes is an anti-hero? LOL.

  16. Scarlett O’Hara from Gone with the Wind and Jay Gatsby from The Great Gatsby have earned their spot in my list of classic anti-heroes. Both are entirely selfish and both have a wonderful knack for exploiting a situation for personal gain. And yet despite their devious tendencies, one can’t help but like them.

  17. i have a question how would you introduce a new fantasy race into your fantasy book without confusing the reader about what the race is or were it came from

  18. @Kelly: This is always the trick in fantasy (or any story in which you’re introducing unusual elements). If your narrating character is unfamiliar with the race, that gives you the opportunity to do more explaining up front. Otherwise, you have to walk the tightrope of slowly sowing in details as you go. You don’t want to end up info dumping; much better to *show* readers how this race ticks. I recommend going over some of your favorite fantasy books and studying how this sort of thing is handled by the authors.

  19. Good writeup, but:

    Antihero/backstory – While it can be useful for the author to have this information in mind, it doesn’t all need to be on the page.

    Consider, in movies, Han Solo – we never know much about him (haven’t read the tie-ins, going only off the original SW movies), but we love him anyway.

    Part of that is charisma – Harrison Ford just played him so *cool* how could you not want to be him as a kid watching the movie. Part may have been his arc – but even before he had that arc, we loved him for being who he was. He could have stranded Luke and Ben on a rock somewhere and we’d have still thought he was cool – an absolute bastard, but a *cool* absolute bastard.

    None of which had anything to do with his backstory, at any rate.

  20. thank you for helping me K.M. it means a lot sometimes its good to talk to someone about my book and get advice cause i have re wrote this story 15 times and have never got any further than chapter 3 been writing it sense 2008 every time i write it i run into another problem and have no one to talk it over with my current problem is with detail sometimes when i am reading other books or poems that have wrote about the same thing i am writing about i like the way they put some of there detail and often i wish i could just use there detail but i don’t and i sit for hours trying to think of how to detail that certain part of my book but i cant think .

  21. @Kelly: Glad to help!

  22. when it comes to writing detail is it wrong to want to use the detail that others have used in there writings and poems? how do i go about writing detail for example i am writing a pirate novel i am trying to figure how to write the detail to the big sea storm without using someone Else’s detail but every time i write it out it looks the same as theirs please help me. i am also having trouble figuring out were to start the book at i have made this spectacular back ground of before the main character was born about how she came to be conceived and who her parents are so that the reader would understand more about her but i am not sure if i should start the story that far back or not what do you think ?

  23. Regarding detail: Your main concern here is plagiarism. Are you borrowing a unique and specific phrasing? If so, you could be stepping another author’s toes. But if you’re just borrowing a detail (e.g., “the sea tasted like brine”), then that isn’t something that’s copyrightable.

    Regarding where to begin your story: Lush backstories can sometimes tempt us away from our *real* stories. Try to identify the event that officially begins your main character’s journey. That will probably be your best spot to open. Prologues that detail events before a character’s life are rarely worth the likely possibility of boring readers or distancing them from your true story.

  24. thank you again K.M. it was hard to tell the difference between what is copyrightable and what is plagiarism and what i could use so i went to that site you recommended the bookshelf muse and wrote down a bunch of description for storms and pirate ships and people i am hoping to use some of the descriptions i wrote down to invent my own detail so that i don’t step on anyone’s toes or steal there detail. and regarding were my story should begin your right i should only begin that far back if it is important to the main characters journey if it is not then i can always let the past unravel bit my bit throughout the main characters journey might make it more fun for the readers to let them figure it out.

  25. The Bookshelf Muse is a fantastic site. I’m glad you discovered it. You might also find their book The Emotion Thesaurus helpful.

  26. Definitely Jim Moriarty from BBC’s Sherlock. He has such a twisted mind. But the way he goes about things in such a silly manner makes me like him even though I really shouldn’t.

  27. Anonymous says

    Anne Rice’s Lestat.

  28. My favorite antihero is Peter from Divergent… He really has a good story set with him

  29. I’m one of those people that always likes the bad guy, so this was a tough decision, but I’ve got to go with The Walking Dead’s Philip Blake, or the governor.

  30. Thank you. I am working on a protagonist who has made their mind up to well, not be so good. And people say you should make your protagonist a good person. So I am kind of in a bind. Hopefully this will help sort things out.

  31. I prefer anti-heroes like Spawn or Blade, though their actions might save the world, they’re really more about themselves and their own personal goals. Spawn just wants to be left alone. Blade just wants revenge. I particularly like the idea of an Anti-hero with awesome powers that aside from maybe a few attachments here and there really just wants to be left alone but can never seem to escape those who would seek to destroy him and/or his “family”.

  32. Trevor Phillips from GTA5 is probably my favorite. For a character so completely amoral, I’ve got an incredible soft spot for his self-doubting, self-degrading addicted walking personality disorder.

  33. I have some characters that have not top dark and others where they need dark stories to push the story forwards. Some of the not so dark are the ones that involve kids since the majority of the characters are early 20s. One of the kids has stage five cancer. That is the least dark back story. Two of the darkest are from a woman that joined the army and a man that was a police officer. The entire story takes place in the afterlife so all the characters are dead or were never alive.
    The woman that joined the army was a victim of child abuse and because of her parents frequent drinking, she was often in poverty along with her little sister. Her uncle raised her and her sister until she was about 14. Then in a drunken rage, her father gets mad that his brother spends more time with his daughters than he does, so the father kills the uncle, in front of the character. When she turns 18, she joins the army and sends the majority of the money to her little sister so she can eat better than she’s able to. Then the woman dies in a standoff against ISIS.
    The male with the darkest back story in the book was a New Jersey police officer and he frequently took down some pretty high ranking gang members. He becomes paranoid that they’re coming for him (because they are) and begins to sleep with a knife in hand. He tells his pregnant wife not to sleep next to him because he doesn’t want to hurt her but she continues to do so, even if he sleeps away from the house. He wakes one day to something sticky on his hands. He turns on the lamp and discovers blood everywhere, and a dead wife and unborn daughter. He becomes overcome with greif and kills himself with the same knife that took their lives.

  34. Dory Sief from Search Party. Here character has inspired me to write a book with a female anti-hero protagonist. Such a great character.


  1. […] Und hier, naja, Antihelden braucht man doch immer: 4 Ways to Make Your Antihero Deliciously Irresistible […]

  2. […] are planning to add the buzz of an antihero to your book, why not have a look at my article, “4 ways to make your antihero deliciously irresistible“, published on KM Weiland’s Wordplay […]

  3. […] 4 Ways to Make Your Antihero Deliciously Irresistible […]

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