Your protagonist can be the vilest person imaginable so long as empathy exists. But there’s a big difference between Hero and Anti-Hero, as well Anti-Hero and Villain.
Here we’ll focus on the latter two because Anti-Heroes walk that fine line between Hero and Villain as the complicated conglomeration of both, neither black nor white but shades of gray.
The Anti-Hero can lie, cheat, steal, and be unpleasant to everyone they interact with, same as the Villain, but we root for the Anti-Hero while condemning the Villain.
Two simple words containing a whole planet’s worth of gravity: potential redemption.
As well the lovable quality of the stubborn Anti-Hero is telling them then cannot or shouldn’t do something feeds their tenacious drive for doing it all the more if only out of spite.
Anti-Heroes are flawed same as us. Their moral complexities mirror our own. And just like us they learn and grow while moving upon their tortured path of life. Their mistakes make us think of our mistakes, and the reason why we root for their redemption is the reflection of ourselves rooting for our own.
The contrast between Anti-Hero and Villain is simple. We embrace and relate to the Anti-Hero, while we despise and detach from the Villain. Both are driven by selfish motivations, but our emotional response differs between them because the Anti-Hero possesses two distinct traits the Villain lacks:
1. a glimmer of humanity
2. a noticeable vulnerability
These two distinct traits allow us to truly connect with the Anti-Hero so that we forgive them when they are unethical and admire them when they are noble. This allows them to be angry, cowardly, and greedy, but also cheerful, brave, and empathetic.
Unlike the clean-cut, golden-haired virtuous Hero of mainstream culture, as well the unshaven, mustache-twirling sinister Villain, the Anti-Hero is not only more realistic but far more likely to resonate with the reader despite often being abrasive, rude, and miserable grumps. They resemble ourselves, and not only remind us of the ambiguous morality of existence but also the possibility of redemptive change.
With Anti-Heroes, we may not have walked the same tortured story in their shoes through first-hand experience (murder, addiction, physical abuse and/or psychological torment, etc …), but we can relate to the adversity that comes with it.
Considering the incredible magnitude of their individual story’s plight, the Anti-Hero reaches a crossroad moment in life where one side offers the possibility of hope and redemption, the other side the outright guarantee of despair and forfeiture.
Much like the Villain, the central component of the Anti-Hero is that they possess the singular desire to accomplish their goal to which the end justifies all means. Yet this desire stems from their scars of vulnerability they carry round as their defensive antisocial shield.
Most often the Anti-Hero displays rare acts of selflessness to the benefit of vulnerable others while at the detriment to themselves, declaring they care nothing for the vulnerable other yet showing they actually do, proving this conflict of paradoxical truth harbored within them through their sacrificial Glimmer of Humanity.
As example, they may spend most of their story arguing with and saying outright that they hate a specific ally they’re forced to work with, but when this ally becomes trapped inside a burning building the Anti-Hero rushes to the rescue without care or consequence to him/herself and drags the hated ally outside to safety — then punches them in the face after saving their life after no others dared risk their own life in such a brave manner.
Also the Anti-Hero displays rare acts of kindness to animals or nature over the people they have disassociated themselves from through antisocial defense, perhaps burning an entire forest down while fighting the Villain yet risking their life during their harrowing escape from the raging inferno to rescue a baby bunny (reminding them of their childhood pet) or a rare flower (reminding them of a dead loved one lost during childhood) from the encroaching flames while their stunned allies look on in surprised though also admiring wonder at this fleeting reveal of the Anti-Hero’s usually guarded interior tenderness hidden beneath their rough protective exterior.
An Anti-Hero’s actions throughout the course of their life are so drastic and single-minded that they only ever lead to salvation or destruction. Their final decision is always dictated by what they’ve learned and how they’ve changed throughout the course of their story same as any good protagonist, but its conclusion hides nestled in mystery until the climatic reveal because the Anti-Hero is a living paradox of extremes, whereas presented with a same dire situation one can accurately predict the conventional Hero’s or Villain’s response.
I’ll use the ‘bare bones basics’ of my Master Plot Formula as example:
Old World Stasis: (protagonist living their ordinary life until it’s disrupted by the Inciting Incident that presents them their main story goal; the miserable antisocial Anti-Hero perceives the Inciting Incident as a Major Problem though it’s really a Big Opportunity for them to begin their potential redemption)
New World Flux: (protagonist debating then acting on what to do about the Inciting Incident disrupter of their ordinary life; the Anti-Hero rejects, ignores, debates then decides to do something about the permanent disrupter of the Inciting Incident)
Things Come Together: (protagonist striving to achieve their main story goal, earning more successes than failures while gaining and learning from new allies of the new world; the Anti-Hero rejects then reluctantly accepts help from new allies in the new world though views them more hindrance than help)
False Victory: (protagonist achieving a big success toward resolving their main story goal though not the actual goal itself, while gaining the full attentions of the antagonist; same here, as well the Anti-Hero admits to him/herself they are actually beginning to care about the others involved and hates admitting it)
Things Fall Apart: (protagonist’s continuing plans and team of allies fall apart through more failures than successes while internal dissensions surmount and antagonist external enemies close in; the Anti-Hero regresses behind their defensive antisocial shield, removing from their potential redemption)
False Defeat: (protagonist at their lowest point thus far, a.k.a. the Villain’s False Victory, while tools are stolen or broken and allies are captured or killed; the Anti-Hero further retreats behind their defensive antisocial shield . . . though now they recognize its heavy burden because they actually care about others)
False Solution: (protagonist’s final try against the antagonist while all subplots outside of protagonist are resolved; the Anti-Hero reaches an ultimatum fork in the road of either forfeiture or redemption)
True Resolution: (protagonist vs. antagonist showdown; *)
*NOTE that the True Resolution is where Hero, Anti-Hero, and Villain plots differ the most. Typically the Hero survives while earning their triumphant victory over the Villain, whereas the Anti-Hero dies while or shortly after defeating the Villain, completing their redemption while their ultimate sacrifice ensures a better future for those they’ve grown to care about.
Most often the antisocial Anti-Hero’s moral epiphany of story is learning to care about another person then committing some great personal sacrifice for the betterment of that person at story’s end while at story’s contrasting beginning they wouldn’t have spat on them if they were on fire.
A perfect example is the movie ‘Logan’ starring Hugh Jackman. The grumpy ex-X-Man and notorious Wolverine is a bundle of irritable misery throughout most of the movie. His diseased body is failing him through the waning of his healing factor, almost all of his friends are dead, he hates his life . . . and yet he spends his days taking care of the feeble-minded Charles Xavier instead of putting his only remaining friend out of both their miseries. This hard-hitting combo of Logan’s Glimmer of Humanity and Noticeable Vulnerability tugs at our feels while excusing all of his contemptible behavior.
Then Logan discovers a little girl needs his help. He wants nothing to do with her, of course, because the Anti-Hero’s initial natural response is selfish rejection, but outside circumstances as well his discovery of her being his female genetic clone and thus essentially his daughter instigates him into action. And there between them blossoms a relationship he wanted no part of though cannot deny while providing Logan his potential redemption, the hopeful closure to his otherwise miserable life we the audience crave most for him.
Ultimately Logan sacrifices his life to ensure a bunch of innocent mutant children into safer living across the Canadian border, because sacrifice defines the Anti-Hero, and often at the cost of their own life. This selfless sacrifice earns the Anti-Hero their redemption despite being a reluctant curmudgeon throughout most of their story. And we admire them for it because their sacrifice cuts us deep and makes us care.
But too late.
Because they died for the cause they spurned then eventually took up.
And that makes us grieve all the more.
Because, sadly, the dead hero is the remembered hero.