|Breaking Bad final season promo|
(Note: No spoilers here beyond what's shown in the the first episode of the series. All other comments will be general and not plot specific!)
Essential Anti-Hero Traits
Somebody To Root For
Save the Cat is about just that--show a character saving a cat, or a good deed, and you begin to win that loyalty.
When Breaking Bad's Walter White is diagnosed with late-stage cancer, he knows his meager high school chemistry teacher's salary won't be enough to cover the medical bills. After running across a former student fleeing a drug bust, Walter schemes to use his chemistry skills to make meth, a short-term plan to build cash and secure his family for the future.
Of course it's terrible and illegal. But Walt's cancer is inoperable--he may only have months to live. Also, he gets zero respect in his teaching job, his wife is pregnant, and his relationship to his teenage son is fractured. Walter isn't making meth to pay cash for a sports car, he's doing it out desperation to provide for his family. There is a reason he's turning to illicit drugs--the clock is ticking on his life, he's rotting away at a job that doesn't appreciate him, his family needs him.
- Characters who "do bad" for noble reasons give viewers and readers a reason to latch on.
A rich backstory doesn't always need to be fully explained--I'm pretty sure we still don't know all the details of Walter's falling out with his research partners. But we see this failure revealed through snippets, and each layer makes Walter's criminal behavior more complex.
- Create a rich backstory and layer it in throughout scenes, dialogue, as your plot progresses. Relate your character's flaws to their past hurts, and tie this in to their overall character arc and journey. (easy enough, right?)
Secrets and Lies
As with writing, a story doesn't go far if every character tells the truth all the time and suffers few flaws. The key here is motivation. Walt is lying to Skyler for a reason. It doesn't make it right, but we side with him because his intentions are noble. It's his actions that are morally questionable.
- Characters intentionally hiding shades of truth, or spinning the truth to their advantage, especially for a good reason, creates compelling tension and leads to conflict, which every story needs.
Make the Conflict Personal
Walter's partnership with Jesse is the other greatest source of personal tension on the show. Jesse still refers to his former teacher as Mr. White, and the mentor/mentee relationship plays throughout the series. Walter tries to instill values and education into Jesse at the same time they plot their drug trade. He might not care as much if Jesse was a random guy he had no history with, but given Walter's feelings of failure, he still sees Jesse as a chance to redeem his own personal failures.
- If the main character's decisions directly affect outcomes of other character's lives, the conflict and stakes intensify.
A few other notable anti-heroes:
Dexter Morgan from Dexter: A serial killer who kills murderers and other serial killers.
Boyd Crowder from Justified: a career criminal with swagger and loyalty to a rather muddled criminal code.
Amy Dunne from the novel Gone Girl: is she a victim or a brilliant mastermind? Or both?
What do you think about anti-heroes? Are they compelling, or do they make you hide beneath blankets because of moral quandary?