Writing Gray Heroes and Anti-Heroes

This week on Hide and Create, Jordan Ellinger, Michael Sullivan, Debbie Viguie, and Joshua Essoe talk about morally ambiguous heroes.

I think we’re seeing a surge in popularity of these types of characters because more than any other type of character, they seem real to us. They’re nuanced. They’ve got all the problems, and hopes, and the desires to be good (or at least the desire to be okay with themselves) that the rest of us have and can relate to. But, just like any other character, you have to understand the gray or anti-hero’s character’s arc to effectively craft them.

I’d like to mention that you don’t have to redeem your gray hero at the end. They don’t necessarily have to see the error of their ways, change their mindsets, or turn into goody-goods. That shouldn’t be confused with saying that they shouldn’t change at all. Character growth in one way or another is important. I’m just saying that most true-to-life characters are complicated and troubled, and fall into messes and uncomfortable life-situations, and that there is rarely, if ever, black and white. Sometimes a character’s morality isn’t easy to pin down.

Be careful with the flaws you chose to give your gray hero, too. There’s a tipping point where too much angst, anger, secrecy, cold-bloodedness, or aloofness will turn readers against the character. It might be fun while you’re writing it but once you step back and see the final product you might be a little horrified.

An anti-hero usually falls into one of a number of different categories — the badass, the loner or outsider, the rebel, the charmer. But they rarely reflect the high values of a society. They are not role models. They’re FAILED heroes. So honesty, integrity, and compassion, even strength, won’t always be displayed by these characters — so sometimes when they’re faced with a choice between right and wrong, they’ll chose wrong. Maybe because it’s better for them, or maybe because it is simply easier. However, there is always a line they won’t cross and that sets them apart from villains.

Wesley: “There is a line, Lilah, black and white, good and evil.”
Lilah: “Funny thing about black and white. You mix it together and you get gray. And it doesn’t matter how much white you try and put back in, you’re never gonna get anything but gray.”

Angel, “Habeas Corpses”

4 thoughts on “Writing Gray Heroes and Anti-Heroes

  1. The Enemy Within was the Original Trek episode where a transporter mishap splits Captain Kirk into “Good Kirk” and “Evil Kirk”.

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