Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Writing the Anti-hero

Before I went in for surgery, I promised posts on the importance of poetry and on writing a good anti-hero. Because I’ve posted a lot about poetry recently, I’m going to tackle the anti-hero today. But never fear poetry lovers; I’ll get to the poetry post either Thursday or Friday.

My husband—who is not a writer—says, “The bad guys are always more interesting.” I would agree with him, but add that even more interesting are bad guys who are actually good. Anti-heroes. You know, the characters who on the surface appear bad, but despite themselves, they end up being the hero. For me, this type of character is the hardest to write. Probably because they are the most complex. Which is why I LOVE it when I find a great anti-hero.

As I was recovering from surgery I watched a lot of TV. I mean A LOT of TV. As in all day. Not normal for me, but hey, there’s not much else you can do when you’re on Percocet. Lucky for me, USA ran all day marathons of one of my favorite shows—House, M.D. I love this show. The main character is Gregory House, a brilliant misanthropic doctor who heads a team who diagnose patients with mystery illnesses.

The viewer has ever reason to hate House. Misanthropic doesn’t even come close to describing him. He’s beyond rude to his patients (and friends). He breaks into patient’s houses. Believes that everyone lies. Has yet to have a “normal” relationship with anyone. He is arrogant, abrasive and thinks the rules don’t apply to him. Plus, he’s right all the time. Really, don’t you hate people who are always right?? Due to an incorrectly diagnosed infarction in his leg, House is left in chronic pain that leads to a Vicodin dependency. So, you have a selfish, condescending, drug addict with a very limited view of morality. Doesn’t sound like a hero does it?

And yet...there’s something about House that makes the viewer root for him. People aren’t tuning in just to watch House solve medical mysteries. If that was the case, they could turn to TLC and watch real doctors do the same. No. They are watching because the writers have subtly balanced House’s many negative characteristics with small flashes of humanity that lead us to believe that House, who believes that everyone lies, might indeed be lying to himself.

House believes that he doesn’t need anyone, and yet he’s surrounded by characters who are Good and loyal to him. His love (even if he won’t admit to himself that it’s love) for these friends--Wilson & for Dr. Cuddy--show us that House is capable of feeling. In addition, although he is/was a drug addict, the scenes where we see House dealing with the pain from his leg humanize him.

Although House believes “the rules” don’t apply to him (he steals when it benefits him, etc.) it’s this very willingness to buck the rules that often allows him to save his patients. Especially in the U.S., we admire this sort of rugged individualism.

There are so many reasons to hate House, and yet by adding depth and dimension to his character, the writers have given us someone we love. Someone we root for. He has all of the qualities of a great villain, and yet...he’s the good guy. The one we want to win. On the surface House seems like a one dimensional jerk, but he’s not. The writers have balanced negatives that seem overwhelming with specific qualities that we admire. It is because of House’s complexity that we love him. We know, (even if he doesn’t) that there is more to him than meets the eye.

This is what we must strive to do as writers. We must create multi-dimensional characters. Balancing darkness with small glimmers of light creates fascinating people. Readers return to characters like this over and over again, because the truth is we are all a mix of light and dark. Take some time out and watch House. Then go and add some depth to your characters. Your readers will love you for it!!

P.S. -- there are a lot of parallels between House & Sherlock Holmes, but that's already been covered by other writers. Check it out on the web if you'd like.


  1. I love anti-heros! I have also loved House. Recently I've found myself a little unsatisfied though. I like to see more character evolution. The small hints of his humanity here and there are just not enough. I want to see more, darnit! I think it can be very difficult to strike a balance. When it's done well it's a powerful thing. I do still watch I guess something's keeping me going. :)

  2. I agree with you! It is so hard to strike that balance. I think that's why it can be hit and miss sometimes. However, I'm hoping we'll see more as his relationship with Cuddy evolves.