Writing Yourself a Likeable Asshole: The Classic Anti-Hero
So me and the Definitely Not Dave were watching TV last night. Specifically, we were watching Nextflix. And guess which show they had every last episode of?
If you looked at the title, that’s probably all you need to guess what I’m talking about. They had House, people.
House was a great show, especially the first few seasons. The reason is simple: House had House, and you hadn’t gotten tired of him yet. And House is this era’s perfect example of the likeable asshole.
A lot of people struggle with this character type–often referring to him, somewhat gustily, as ‘the antihero’, which is one of those compound phrases (much like ‘reverse racism’) that doesn’t at all mean what it sounds like it should mean. (Doesn’t reverse racism sound like it should mean treating someone with a different skin color very, very nicely? Doesn’t it? Why the hell doesn’t it mean that? Anyway.)
It’s okay, boo boo. I’m here to help you. Because it’s one I’m pretty good at (see: every main character I’ve had ever).
A brief look at The (Anti)Hero’s Journey:
1) Character does Good Thing for Wrong Reasons.
2) As action rises, Character must struggle to come to terms with pain in past, and stop self-destructive actions. Character begins making progress towards redemption.
3) It’s too much: Character does something Really, Really Shitty.
4) Milksop ‘nice guy’ other characters stop supporting Central Character’s behavior.
5) Character does Good Thing for Right Reasons.
6) We All Skip Happily off into Sunset. Rainbows, Glitter, Other Bullshit Happens.
Five points, to help you on your journey:
1) Balance This Asshole.
Not on a high beam or a tightrope. This is very hard to do, especially with make-believe people.
Balance this person’s essential assholeness with a sweetheart or two by his side. House has his team, all of whom tolerate (sometimes barely) his bullshit, and are fairly nice people comparatively. He has the puppylike Wilson. These people are around House to provide contrast, true: they’re also there to show what should be done, by a normal non-assholeish person. You might think your audience knows this instinctively, and in a just universe you’re probably right. However, your audience also needs to know that you know this–that this person’s assholian qualities are a fictional tool, and not just, you know, what you think is par for the course.
Another important thing–these non-assholes, though they can be irritated by your asshole’s antics, needs to fundamentally like him. It gives your audience an excuse to. After all, if these nice people like this emotional cripple, there’s got to be a reason, right? Which leads into:
2) This Asshole Needs to do Good.
House does plenty of good. You know, saving people and stuff. The problem isn’t with what he does–it’s how, and why.
And this is the main paradox of the anti-hero. If this person doesn’t do good, he’s just an ass. If he doesn’t do it for the wrong reasons, he’s just a hero. Of course, since the anti-hero usually redeems himself by the end of the story, he has to be aware of the wrongness and come to terms with it. An example:
–Your hero takes two children of a banished royal line under his wing. He does it for the ransom money, but of course he knows if he turns them in they’ll probably be killed. In the end, he doesn’t turn them in.
Because his conscience gets the better of him, see? Though he might not say it–he might say the current ruling party isn’t offering him enough money, or he feels like it’ll just get him in more trouble when the current ruling party is itself deposed. But by that point, you know this asshole well enough to know it’s just bluster. He’s doing it because he doesn’t want to kill children. And in some way, by the end, he acknowledges this–more on that later.
3) Your Asshole Needs Some Damage.
Which, out of context, just sounds x-rated and weird. But here’s the thing–your asshole needs some kind of excuse to be an asshole. House has his leg, and the painkiller addiction (which we’ll talk about in Four).
But here’s the thing–that excuse isn’t enough, and it shouldn’t be.
House kind of likes the pain. He likes it because it gives him an excuse to be what he is. An asshole like House isn’t necessarily pandering for pity–House wouldn’t tell you his sobby-sob life story if you bought him a beer at a bar–but he expects it to mitigate his actions, to let him skate by without the trouble and toil of becoming a better person. He’s got a cane and a limp and part of the narrative reason he does is so people make instant judgement calls based on them. He’s disabled. You’re taught to make extra allowances for the disabled.
But how many?
So. What happened to your character? Did he lose his wife to the raiders, get cursed by an angry wizard? Was he always teased in school? Whatever it is, make sure the pain is real–but moderate. His wife died fifteen years ago. The angry wizard’s curse was permanent heartburn. Getting teased in school isn’t an excuse for fricking anything anyway. You get it.
4) Some of This Asshole’s Damage is Self-Inflicted.
You might hear something like this come out of the mouth of a supporting character, in the wife-killed-by-raiders thing:
‘Harry was a great guy until the raiders came and decapitated Rena. After that, he sort of went downhill. He did a lot of drinking, lost his house, lost the kids. Now he just sits in the bar, night after night.’
You feel bad for him. Yeah, someone decapitated his wife, and that’s tragic. But the drinking, like House’s painkillers, is on him. And so is all the shit that happened to him because of it. It’s an understandable vice–I mean, raiders decapitate your wife, you’re going to drink for a while–but he’s taken it too far and, at least in the beginning of the story, it doesn’t look like he’s willing to make it better himself.
So, items three and four are related. You need damage–but then you need self-inflicted damage. The anti-hero (asshero? Asshelo? Herass?) needs to carry on the pattern of destruction and damage on his own, without outside help. Because this bastard isn’t sympathetic.
5) Your Asshole Needs to Change.
In every antihero type story, the main focus is the redemption–change–of the main character. Hell, House got like fifty billion seasons out of this one idea alone (and, let’s be honest, by the end of that show we were all so fricking ready for it). But in the end, even House makes a change for the better.
And this is where the hero part comes in. By the end of the story, your main character has to’ve done at least one thing that is truly, incontrovertably, good. And, furthermore, the character has to know why he did this thing, and welcome it, and admit it.
Why? Because character development. Because, if you’ve built your tension right, the audience is yearning for your asshole-hero to acknowledge the good in himself, and you occasionally have to give your audience what they want, or they’ll stop being your audience. (A note here: part of the reason this storyline works so well in House is because the show is, ostensibly, about something else. You can’t write a whole novel based just one one person’s search for redemption. Gimme something else along with it: House finds nifty weird diseases. Maybe there’s a war in your novel, or a trek cross-country, or what have you. But in a character arc like this, just remember: there has to be a plotline, some other action, for your asshole character to happen to.)
There you go: classic anti-hero stuff, with the help of Gregory House. Now go off and diagnose some weird diseases, kids. Go. Have fun. Because you’re all doctors now.
Yeeeees. Sure y’are.