Writing Anti-Heroes

What makes a character an asshole?

When you think of asshole characters, do you picture villains? The bad guys can be bastards, that’s for sure, and even when they try to be good they usually have bastardly reasons. There are many assholish qualities people will recognize: rude, selfish, inconsiderate, two-faced, liar, inappropriate, uncaring. But are these qualities that should only be shown by villains?

Some of the most loved characters of historical and modern literature (and other media) have been assholes to some degree. Some of these characters are just assholes on occasion, while others are living it 24/7.

Why would you want your character to be an asshole?

Frankly, nobody can truly sympathize with the lily pure character, because there’s not a reader alive that doesn’t have a bit of a jerk inside. You want to build characters that connect with readers on a subconscious level. In other words, the more a reader can feel like “wow, I’ve been like that,” the better they will sympathize with a character. People are typically flawed, so your characters should be too.

Giving your characters undesirable qualities also makes them richer. They appear more real, more believable. They become unique and memorable, rather than yet another star-shaped sugar cookie to feed the mind of the reader. The more real they become, the more a reader will care about what happens to them, and the more likely their story will be read.

How can a reader love an asshole?

But why would a reader LOVE an asshole? Why would a reader cheer for a character that is so flawed they are more like a villain than a hero? Even when given a group of more heroic characters, many people will point at the asshole as their favorite, the one they have the most investment in.

Maybe this has something to do with seeing the flaws in the character, as said before, as similar to flaws within themselves. Some of these flaws are things the reader doesn’t like about themselves, or doesn’t want to admit to. The reader wants to see this character succeed despite their incredible flaws, because it gives them hope that somehow they can overcome their own.

It could also be a person’s hope that everyone is redeemable. They could cheer for this character to become a good guy, because they desperately want to believe there’s good in each of us. They are willing to forgive, in order to play the long game, where they hope the character will turn out to do the right thing. And, even if the character isn’t redeemed, they will mourn the loss rather than be disgusted at the character.

Or it could be the reader is more amused by the asshole tendencies of the character than by the goody-two-shoes heroes. Asshole heroes usually get to be the ones having all the real fun. The reader can live vicariously through the anti-hero, entertained and safely involved in all kinds of shenanigans.

Tips for creating a lovable asshole.

Make them wrong. Your characters should make mistakes, both in action and in voice. They should muck everything up once in a while, or say something that gets them into trouble, or pick the wrong path. Everybody makes mistakes.

Make them think about themselves. The stereotypical hero is selfless and sacrificing, but we all have a bit of a self-preservation streak inside. Make your characters concerned about their own health and future. Make them ask “what’s in it for me?”

Make them get angry. People don’t always turn the other cheek. Anger is ugly and the anger of heroes shouldn’t be the equivalent of a slap fight in a bouncy castle. Anger can be petty, crude, primal, and biting. Rarely do you see righteous anger that’s not flavored with some kind of condiment. This is also a good time to make them wrong.

Make them use real speech. None of your characters should talk like a poet the entire time. People fumble over their words, they swear, they make inappropriate jokes, and they’re sometimes just at a loss for words. Pay close attention to how people around you talk, and try to make your characters sound like that. If you want a truly asshole character, they shouldn’t sound like a kindergarten teacher. If you don’t know how, ride along on a morning commute and write down the expletives for future reference.

Make them break the law. Maybe not something deserving of the electric chair, but make them do things that are bad. They can have a good reason for doing them, or not. Maybe they steal, maybe they lie, maybe they cheat. Maybe these things are something to be overcome, but more often they’re something to be overlooked.

Make them conflicted. This can be one of the most powerful ways to endear an asshole to the reader. Show the reader the bad that everyone in the character’s world can see, then let the reader know the secret of WHY the character is bad. Show the softness behind the stony exterior and the pain behind the mean spirit. Just… don’t make it cliché. We don’t need anymore murdered parents in literature.

Make them redeemable. There always has to be hope, even if it’s false. Hope is the thing that makes a character an anti-hero instead of a villain. Maybe they aren’t ALL bad. Maybe they will change. Even if you don’t have them change in the end, there should always be hope. Even if that hope is only held by a naïve hero that refuses to give up on the asshole when everyone else has. The reader can grab hold of that hope.

Make good assholes.

So think about your next character, and how you can use asshole behavior to strengthen them. Even if you don’t make them into a complete asshole, you can give them the asshole traits we all carry inside ourselves. Your characters will thank you for it. Possibly with a hint of sarcasm.