Antiheroes and villain protagonists obviously aren’t the same thing, but I think they can be somewhat similar to write in spirit, so I’m writing about them both here. With both you get to have your protagonist do things that a standard hero wouldn’t, and get away with it, because if readers know a protagonist isn’t supposed to be nice, or even good, they’ll generally be more forgiving of any questionable things they do. So antiheroes and villain protagonists are fun to write and, when well done, fun to read about.
So, first off, the difference, which is really right there in the words. An antihero is still a hero, no matter how unsavoury their methods or motives may be. Even if they cross the line and do something unforgivable, overall they are working towards something good. They may lose sight of it at some point, if they get caught up obsessing over revenge or something, but they start off at least with admirable aims.
A villain protagonist is a villain who happens to be the main character. They are doing something wrong, and even if the reader is kind of rooting for them, they are still painted as being clearly in the wrong. They may get redeemed at some point, they may end up teaming up with the heroes to defeat a worse villain, or even trying to stop their own plan. But they are still bad guys themselves.
There’s not really overlap between the two groups, except in terms of morality. Some antiheroes are worse people than some villains. And there is fluidity. Some antiheroes end up so bad that they can easily slip over into villain territory, and a villain who joins the good guys is probably not going to become a paragon of morality. There could even be a temporary switch. As I mentioned, a villain may team up with the good guys to defeat a worse threat, and if they really do put aside their own schemes for a significant period of time to do so, I’d say they count as a hero for a while. Going the other way is dodgier; an antihero who temporarily plunges into villainy may have to have some sort of redemption before readers will accept them back as a hero.
How much readers will tolerate from a protagonist depends largely on how they are initially presented. So I guess the first ‘rule’ is that you need to write an antihero or a villain protagonist on purpose. I mean, a writer should always know what they’re writing, but sometimes it’s possible to blag through an explanation after, even though it’s obviously better not to have to. But since the protagonist is pretty central to the whole thing, the writer needs to be aware how they’re coming across. An unlikeable hero is not automatically an antihero and a ‘hero’ who’s clearly in the wrong isn’t a villain protagonist unless the story presents them as being in the wrong. They’re just badly written.
So, antiheroes. How dark is it OK to go with one? After all, an antihero is still a hero, you have to have some balance.
First of all, the tone of the overall story has an effect on how dark the characters can be and still be sympathetic. If I’m reading a very bleak story where everything is very desperate and most people are morally questionable, then I find my mind sort of adjusts so I’m judging the heroes by the standards of their world, and can accept them doing things that would put them firmly in ‘unforgivable’ territory in a lighter story. I think personally I’d generally rather not have heroes doing awful things, but the story they’re in definitely affects how offputting I find it.
How bad the villains are matters too. The heroes shouldn’t start looking worse than the villains, unless that’s the point and the story acknowledges it. But even if a character is ultimately trying to achieve something good, there can come a point where their actions and attitude make them look worse than the characters who are trying to achieve something bad.
That’s not to say heroes can get away with anything just as long as the villains are worse. Even if the villains are the most ridiculously evil characters you can create, that doesn’t mean readers will forgive the heroes anything below that. You could end up with your readers just wanting everyone to die, which I think most writers probably don’t want.
And of course there’s the backstory to why your hero is the way they are. A traumatic backstory or a sympathetic motivation doesn’t automatically excuse everything, but it can make a bad attitude and actions more understandable. If you’ve got an antihero who’s the way they are just because they are, and they have no real excuse for being that way, then they probably won’t get away with so much in the readers’ minds. Maybe if you were writing a dark comedy or something, but I can’t really think of any other contexts in which having a hero who is just randomly a terrible person would be acceptable. So, the more reason they have for being an antihero, the darker you can generally make them.
Some redeeming traits should also be identifiable. I feel like I’m stating the obvious, but I’ve sometimes really had to squint to see them in characters. Readers shouldn’t have to put in too much effort to be able to recognise a hero as being a hero. There should be something there. However, redeeming traits don’t excuse bad traits, they just balance them. If the writing treats a character as though a few good aspects of them completely make up for the less good stuff, then that can turn off readers.
Moving on to villain protagonists.
The first thing I think you need to decide about a villain protagonist is if they’re going to win or not, and if the readers should want them to win. Because I can think of two ways to do one. One is to write a character who you want readers to love and root for, even though they’re in the wrong. The other is to write someone readers can love to hate, who is entertaining to follow, but ultimately the pay off is seeing them fall. Which one it is determines just how villainous you can make them, because generally people won’t root for a truly evil character, except maybe in a few specific genres. And even if readers are only meant to find them entertaining, and not want them to win, it’s still possible to take things too far, but you can go a bit further.
So you also need to decide how bad you want them to be. If the readers are meant to root for them then they can’t be too bad. A thief or a con artist or something on that level of villainy can be OK, but I think you’re pushing it if you go much further than that. As with antiheroes, the world they are in has a bearing on this.
And of course, even if they’re not really doing anything that bad, they have to be pretty charismatic and likeable to get the readers onside regardless. They are still the bad guys after all.
Also ask yourself, is the character going to redeem themselves at any point? If they are then it should be a believable transition, the reader should be able to forgive them, and other characters’ reactions should be realistic. How bad the protagonist was to begin with will have a bearing on all of these.
Another question is who are you going to pit your villain protagonist against? I mentioned before that a villain protagonist may sometimes team up with the good guys to defeat a worse villain, but if that’s their only antagonist then that can defeat the purpose of the whole thing. I think they’d have to have some ulterior motive of their own to still really count as a villain; maybe they’re helping the heroes stop someone who wants to kill a load of people, while secretly plotting to steal a lot of money.
The other temptation is to make the ‘heroes’ of the story extreme antiheroes, or just generally unlikeable, in order to make the protagonist seem better in comparison. And pitching a villain protagonist against an antihero does actually sound like a lot of fun, now I think about it.
But I don’t think you ever want a protagonist who people are rooting for by default, because everybody else is worse. It’s the same thing I mentioned with antiheroes, readers could just end up not liking anyone. I recall once reading a villain protagonist story where they were only up against worse villains and unlikeable people, and the moment some minor character appeared who seemed mostly decent I latched onto them and wanted them to just bring down everyone else. And I don’t think I was meant to have that reaction.
So I think a well written villain protagonist should be able to stand against a proper, likeable hero, someone who could be the main protagonist themselves, and still have readers on their side. If everyone else needs to be horrible to make readers root for the villain, then that kind of defeats the purpose; I feel the point is to make readers root for someone they shouldn’t really be rooting for, just because they’re so compelling and entertaining.
Overall, I’d say that while both antiheroes and villain protagonists can be very fun and can make for some great characters, there are a lot of potential pitfalls. So it’s something to be careful about, and this has just been some of my opinions on it.
I’m not sure how many posts I’ll get up next month. I’m not doing NaNoWriMo this year, but in the sense that I’ve given myself a different writing challenge; I’ll be focusing on doing a full redraft of a finished story, because I think that will be more constructive for me than writing a new one. I will try to get at least three blog posts done, but I’ll make no promises.
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