Tall, Dark, and Heroic: Paul S. Kemp on How to Write Antiheroes
Like that tall, dark, and handsome someone in the back of the bar, antiheroes command our attention and demand we try to understand them. They're deep, man, and though they have more baggage than a circus, their inner battles are riveting--fierce enough to rival their battles on the outside.
The antihero is the answer to today's complicated world. When good and evil are not so easy to separate, and every protagonist has their share of damning secrets, the golden hero of yesterday--in his innocence and good will--is unrelatable. The modern audience demands moral complexity--heroes who face the same challenges, temptations, and questions we do. Writing antiheroes is as complex and challenging as the antiheroes themselves--and so I knew I was going to need an expert. Someone who has delved into the heart of the antihero and shown, time after time, that they can capture an audience with their antiheroes, and not drive us away with the hero's darker tendencies. Someone like Paul S. Kemp.
Best-known as The New York Times best-selling author and creator of Erevis Cale, who transformed from a cold-hearted killer into an antihero who would die for his friends, Paul S. Kemp has captivated readers with his dark but relatable characters for over a decade. And there's a reason he boasts such a fiercely loyal readership: his characters have a depth and a darkness to them that hooks right into your soul and pulls you under, into a story you'll be hard-pressed to put down.
1. What draws you to antiheroes?
I’m drawn to the anti-hero’s constant flirtation with redemption, the possibility that this horribly flawed person might, in the end, find meaning, and maybe even peace, despite the tribulations of the world and the questionable choices (s)he’s made. I love that. It’s symbolic of the tension between temptation and grace, the world and the afterlife (if you believe in that sort of thing), between surrendering to regret or finding inner peace. In that sense, the anti-hero embodies the kind of struggle and questions we all sometimes lay awake at night and ask ourselves.
2. How do you define antiheroes?
Broadly speaking anti-heroes are nothing more than protagonists who have some characteristics traditionally deemed heroic, and some that stand in opposition to those traditionally deemed heroic. As we might expect, and what’s interesting about the whole exercise, is that the kinds of characteristics that are opposite those of a typical hero change over time, as the norms of readers/culture change. More and more today’s heroes look a lot more like yesterday’s anti-heroes.
3. How do you make antiheroes compelling?
I think same as any character, except that it’s more important than ever to take a deep dive into the psychology, to demonstrate the inner conflict. That’s because the contrary impulses inherent in the anti-hero need to make sense to the reader.
By way of example: Riven from The Erevis Cale Trilogy is presented to the readers initially as a stone cold killer. And at that point he was a villain. He showed no particularly heroic characteristics. But over the course of the books he gradually morphs into something else--an anti-hero. And that transformation is shown (in part) as we see him behave tenderly to dogs, to children, and to women. That behavior makes sense as we come to understand his psychology, his history, and see the contrary impulses that drive him--he’s sensitive to those he perceives as weaker than himself, but when presented with a peer (say, Erevis Cale), he is desperately afraid of looking weak, which he covers up with viciousness. Once we see all of that, he becomes a character who (as discussed above) demonstrates both heroic qualities and their opposite. In short, he goes from villain to anti-hero.
You know, I don’t tend to conceptualize characters with a label, at least not at first. Instead, I develop the character first and the label follows. I think it’s just that my own psychology tends toward the darker aspects of human nature, so I gravitate toward characters who show those aspects. Again, the critical thing, I think, is craft a complicated character who embodies some heroic characteristics, some characteristics in opposition to typically heroic characteristics, then ensure (through the character’s history and psychology) that the contrary impulses will make sense to readers.
5. Are there different kinds of antiheroes?
I suppose there are. Earlier we talked about the anti-hero serving as an embodiment of the tension between temptation and grace, etc. Broadly speaking, we could simply conceptualize the anti-hero as a character who exists in the moral gray area between dark impluses and heroic impulses. But that area has gradations, and, as we discussed above, what kinds of characteristics are heroic are not varies with time, place, and readers. Some anti-heroes lean more strongly toward the dark impulses (or give in to them more readily), and some lean the other way.
6. What separates antiheros from villains and reluctant heroes?
A villain has embraced dark impulses and is driven by them. A hero, reluctant or otherwise, is driven by the better angels of her nature. In the anti-hero, the dark impulses may predominate, but they’re offset by heroic impulses and the anti-hero often holds the darker side of herself at bay.
The anti-hero is a one-man morality play. Whereas the villain and hero rarely face moral crisis (or when they do, it’s an ultimate moment in their progression as characters), the antihero is the moral crisis.
7. How do you build a story around an antihero?
In terms of story structure, you build the story the same way you build any story. The difference when I’m writing a story centered on an anti-hero is the moral dimension. Since the anti-hero represents a kind of self-contained moral dilemma, it’s important that the villain be clearly set forth as worse than the anti-hero. It’s also sometimes useful to show the "weaknesses" (or at least the limits) of a principled "good" character. The anti-hero is to serve as the fulcrum in the moral play.
8. What themes are antiheroes most suited to?
Given their moral standing, the anti-hero works really well in revenge stories, stories that feature a moral coming of age, and stories with themes of sacrifice and redemption.
9. Are there different challenges to writing antiheroes from writing other kinds of heroes?
Balancing the moral light and dark is absolutely critical. You have toe the line without stepping so far over that you lose the reader such that they begin to conceptualize the character as villainous. In one of the initial drafts of one of my novels, the anti-hero protagonist tortured a prisoner to extract information. My editor persuaded me that the scene would lose the reader, and he was right, so I rewrote it. Sometimes you can get away with a big step over the moral line (Jack Bauer in 24 did it all the time, for example, but the stakes were always made so high that most viewers accepted his methods as understandable, given the circumstances).
10. How did you develop Erevis Cale?
Well, he originated in a proposal for what would become The Sembia Series, published by Wizards of the Coast. Wizards had character "slots" they wanted filled. These were open-ended, one -sentence descriptions of various persons who would feature in the series. One of those descriptions caught my eye. He was described only as "A butler who gets things done for his master."
From that, I developed Erevis Cale, a onetime thief and assassin on the run from his former guild, now in service as a spy to his new guild, but horribly conflicted over his role as a spy because he loves and respects those on whom he is spying.
As for where all the particulars of Cale’s characters came--it’s hard for me to say exactly. As I mentioned, I tend toward characters on the darker end of human nature, so I naturally gravitated toward this idea of a butler with a very dark past. I drew on the fictional characters I love--Elric, Conan (to a lesser degree), Wil Munny from the film Unforgiven, and Eastwood’s portrayal of The Man With No Name, from the Sergio Leone westerns. In a way, I think Cale is as a character who’d fit as well into westerns as he does into sword and sorcery. I suppose that’s unsurprising, since the tropes of westerns and sword and sorcery fiction overlap considerably.
11. Your villains (like Darth Malgus) often bear a strong resemblance to antiheroes. How can a writer use their understanding of antiheroes to write more compelling villains?
Good question. I’m not sure I’ve got a good answer.
As always, whether with heroes, anti-heroes, or villains, the trick is to create complicated characters with clear motivations. As I mentioned above, the villain is driven by his dark impulses (though he probably justifies them to himself as necessary or desirable for some reason). But even the vilest villains should have at least some admirable characteristics. The difference from the anti-hero is in how those admirable traits express themselves.
With the anti-hero, the dark and light are in rough balance and intermingle in a constant internal conflict. In the villain, the dark overwhelms the light, and the light (for lack of a better way to put it), co-exists with the dark at the dark’s sufferance. They don’t intermingle. The light, the admirable characteristic, exists off to the side in the villain’s psychology, and if the light comes into direct conflict with the dark, the dark always snuffs it. We see that with Malgus.
12. Who is your favorite antihero?
Elric of Melnibone, because he’s tragic and I love that.
13. Antiheroes are a fairly new innovation--why do you think they emerged, and what do you think makes them so popular now?
You think? I think they’ve been around a long time (maybe Satan from Paradise Lost? MacBeth?) and this is definitely a question beyond the limited scope of my expertise. I guess I’d say that post-modernism ushered in (or reflected) a changed moral universe wherein objective standards of morality were questioned and, in some ways, replaced by subjective standards. That, in turn, has given much more play to ends justifying means moral thinking, which is the sandbox of the kinds of characters we think of as archetypical anti-heroes today: The Dark Knight, The Punisher, and the like.
14. Any advice for writers looking to write strong antiheroes?
I’m hesitant to give much in the way of writing advice, because I think each writer’s (and aspiring writer’s) journey to publication is so different. How about if I offer really broad, rah-rah stuff? Here it is: Trust yourself, write fearlessly, and (above all) have fun with it.
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Paul S. Kemp writes sword and sorcery and space opera. He has been known to feature an anti-hero or two in his fiction. You can find him online at paulskemp.com, on Twitter (@paulskemp), and on Facebook. Check out Paul S. Kemp's latest book, Riptide (coming out October 25).