All About Antiheroes
Lots of writers believe antiheroes ‘have’ to be protagonists, but this is not the case. Antiheroes are defined in the dictionary as the following …
A central character in a story, film, or drama who lacks conventional heroic attributes, eg. “with the age of the antihero, baddies and goodies became less distinguishable from one another”.
1) Aunt Lydia, The Handmaid’s Tale
Aunt Lydia in The Handmaid’s Tale has to be one of the most vile and relevant female antiheroes in the modern era. Her fervent belief in Gilead in the early series of the TV show is now in doubt, thanks to seeing more of her back story in s3 … Plus Margaret Atwood releasing the long-awaited follow-up book, The Testaments. Is Lydia as ‘bad’ as we think? It’s hard to tell. Now that’s interesting storytelling that spans thirty years and two different mediums. MORE: 6 Things Writers Can Learn From The Handmaid’s Tale
2) Cypher, Fast & Furious 8
Cypher is calm, collected and very, very, very bad. She has a reason and a justification for everything she does. What’s more, she has the resources and the power to use everyone and everything; she believes the world is her own personal chessboard. Ruthless and unbearably logical, Cypher can get anyone to do whatever she wants … Including our intrepid hero Dominic Toretto.
3) Gemma Teller, Sons of Anarchy
The Sons say a biker is ‘nothing without his old lady’ and Gemma Teller sums this adage right up. She is the architect of SAMCRO’s fate, leaving a fearsome body count behind her … the vast majority of them, she doesn’t even have to lift a finger. She is the puppeteer instead, sewing confusion and destruction, leading to John’s, Clay’s and even Jax’s downfall. Drawing heavily on the Shakespearean ‘Lady Macbeth’ trope, Gemma is the antihero of antiheroes.
4) Cookie Lyon, Empire
Cookie spent seventeen years in jail for husband Lucious, now she wants what she’s owed. She loves her boys Andre, Jamal and Hakeem, but the reality is she will screw them over to get what she wants. Switching sides at a whim, getting back Lucious (whatever that means) is her number one priority.
5) Amy Dunne, Gone Girl
Is Amy Dunne a hero for spurned women, or the biggest bitch EVAH? Well that depends if you think her husband Nick deserves all he gets. Me, I can’t decide, even though I have read the book twice and seen the movie multiple times. What I think depends on the day! Dunne is iconic because her character taps expertly into the frustrations so many women feel about marriage, gender, society and how the world sees us. MORE: How NOT to Write Female Characters
6) Jac, Top Boy
Though she’s a supporting character, Jac in Top Boy really caught my eye (nearly all the characters in Top Boy s3 are antiheroes, so nyah). Jac is pragmatic and organised. She’s had to fight to get taken seriously in a man’s world. As a young, out lesbian, she refuses to be seen as ‘different’ to the other guys. She sees The Road as work, nothing more, nothing less … This means she feels little guilt about sending the young kids across county lines. That said, she is fiercely protective of her girlfriend and wants to keep her away from the world of drugs.
7) Morticia Addams, The Addams Family & Addams Family Values
Morticia was one of my idols growing up. Nothing fazes her, plus she is fiercely capable, able to do whatever she wants. She’s supportive of her children no matter what, even when they want to do stuff that grosses her out (like go to summer camp). Unlike so many mother characters, she is not frumpy or sexless. She and Gomez have a hot marriage, where he clearly adores her. What’s not to like? Plus that amazing dress … OMG!
8) Lexa, The 100
A fearsome leader and warrior, Lexa’s beliefs are rock solid. What’s more, she is always fair. Even though she and Clarke have stuff going on, when Lexa is faced with a terrible choice against The Mountain Men in series 2, she does what’s best for her people The Grounders, not the Sky people. It’s Lexa’s only choice as leader, even if it hurts her personally.
9) Catwoman, Batman Returns
Selina Kyle is mild-mannered and timid, but finds her inner strength when cats bring her back from the brink of death. Whilst this incarnation of Catwoman is somewhat dated twenty seven years on, her legacy is obvious, especially in the action genre.
10) Villanelle, Killing Eve
Villanelle is capable, ruthless and flamboyant. There’s nothing she can’t handle. Child-like and petulant as well, Villanelle made a splash because she is the epitome of modern antiheroes … A bad gal so bad, we kinda want her to literally kill Eve!
What Writers Can Learn
- Key qualities. Notice how many of the female characters here use manipulation and logic to get what they want. Even when they use violence as well, their intellect and ability to adapt are key. Many of them are ruthless and have unshakable motivations and/or beliefs too. I think these are all key qualities in antiheroes, regardless of gender.
- The ‘Gone Girl Effect’. Amy Dunne might not have been the first female antihero/antagonist, but she made a huuuuuuuuge cultural impact. Thanks to her, the industry is taking complex female leads in a variety of role functions seriously at last.
- Whiter than white. Female characters – of any kind – are still white approx 95% of the time. Where are the women of colour, generally? When there are BAME female leads, they nearly always black. More Asian (East and South) representation is needed. More on race in screenplays.
- Negative characters? Some writers worry about representing female characters (especially women of colour) ‘negatively’. These writers will point to Twitter as ‘evidence’ that such characters are ‘bad’. But there’s nothing inherently malicious about writing antagonists. All stories need them, plus the fact audiences actually LOVE and relate to complex characters like antiheroes back this up. Male characters can become icons, regardless of role function or motivation in the story. True equality in representation is not solely about ‘positive role models’, plus it’s worth remembering that even archetypal heroes can get things wrong in stories.
- LGBT. We’re seeing more gay representation in female characterisation as standard. However, it’s still rare to see trans women (especially in genre) and bisexual women generally. When we do see lesbians, they usually present as femme, rather than butch. Some writers worry about stereotypes here, but butch presentation exists in reality. Also, given there is a total LACK of butch representation in media, this does not apply.
- Disability. As with pretty much all diversity representation in stories, there’s a complete lack of female disabled characters. Furiosa is not enough on her own!
- Motivations. Complex and relatable motivations for both female antagonists and antiheroes are a MUST for modern audiences. The notion of the bad guy or gal with a nonsensical plan is OVER. MORE: 23 Powerful Examples of Character Motivation
Love Enigmatic Female Leads Too?
Then check out my latest novel, Never Have I Ever … My protagonist, Samantha, is hiding something from her past. But what is it?
20 Years Ago
Four teenagers discover a new game.They add their own rules, going from sharing secrets to sharing firsts. Then it all goes spiralling out of control …
… A woman gets a note through her door which chills her blood: ‘Never have I ever been punished for what I have done.’ She thought this was over. But it looks like it’s her turn to play. Because no matter how far it goes, you have to obey the rules of the game … And the game is never really over. BUY THE BOOK HERE.
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