May 12 – 18: “What are the secrets to creating a popular anti-hero?”

Anti-heroes are popular on television. thriller-roundtable-logo5 This week ITW Members Bill DeSmedt, Alan Field, Patrick Freivald, William Dietrich, Ralph Pezzullo, Gary Kriss, Thomas M. MalafarinaTed Scofield, Lisa Von Biela, and Brandon Hebert will answer the question: “What are the secrets to making a popular anti-hero?”


dualism coverBill DeSmedt lives by his wits and his words, as — a Fortune 50 management consultant, an AI researcher/practitioner, an ontologist/knowledge engineer, and, in his copious spare time, a novelist. Bill draws on this checkered career history in penning his “Archon Sequence” technothrillers: cult-classic Singularity (2004), Dualism (appearing May 13th), and, next up, Triploidy. Bill writes from an aerie overlooking Milford PA, a town whose rich literary and philosophical tradition furnishes an inexhaustible source of inspiration.

Jade Sky by Patrick FreivaldPatrick Freivald is an author, high school teacher (physics, robotics, American Sign Language), and beekeeper. He is the author of TWICE SHY, SPECIAL DEAD, BLOOD LIST (with his twin brother Phil), and JADE SKY, as well as the novella LOVE BITES, a growing legion of short stories, and a graphic novella (with Joe McKinney) for Dark Discoveries magazine. There will be more.

ThreeEmperors HC cWilliam Dietrich is the NY Times bestselling author of the Ethan Gage historical thriller series, featuring an American adventurer in the Napoleonic Wars. He’s written a dozen thrillers, five non-fiction titles, and as a journalist won a Pulitzer for coverage of the Exxon Valdez oil spill. He has sold into 28 languages. Bill lives in Anacortes, WA.

Ash and Bone by Lisa von BielaLisa von Biela worked in Information Technology for 25 years, then left the field to attend the University of Minnesota Law School, graduating magna cum laude in 2009. She now practices law in Seattle, Washington. Lisa’s first short story appeared in The Edge in 2002. Her short works have appeared in various small press venues, including, Twilight Times, Dark Animus, AfterburnSF, and more. She is the author of the techno/medical thriller novels THE GENESIS CODE and THE JANUS LEGACY. Her noir/suspense novella, ASH AND BONE, is being released in May 2014, and her BigPharma thriller, BLOCKBUSTER, is scheduled for release in January 2015.

Eat What You Kill by Ted ScofieldTed Scofield is a novelist, non-fiction author, securities attorney and entrepreneur. St. Martin’s released his debut novel, EAT WHAT YOU KILL, on March 25, 2014. Edward R. Pressman, the famed producer of such films as Wall Street, American Psycho and The Crow franchise, has purchased the movie rights. Originally from Louisville, Kentucky, Ted is a three-time graduate of Vanderbilt University. He and his wife, contemporary artist Christi Scofield, live on the Upper East Side of Manhattan.

The Buddy System by Brandon HebertBrandon Hebert lives in a sleepy Louisiana town with his wife and three high-maintenance dogs. In his spare time, he enjoys being at home, fishing with his dad and dissecting fake Cajun accents in movies. The Buddy System is his third novel. His first, My Own Worst Enemy, was named to Kirkus Reviews’ Best Debut Fiction of 2010 list. His second, Odd Man Out, was hailed as a “combustible atmosphere” and “three-course banquet of felonies.”

Dead Kill - Book 1 - The Ridge Of Death by Thomas M. MalafarinaThomas M. Malafarina has published five horror novels, five collections of horror short stories and a book of single panel cartoons; all through Sunbury Press. Thomas’s works have appeared in dozens of short story anthologies and e-magazines. Thomas is known for the twists and surprises in his stories as well as his descriptive often-gory passages. He has been given him the reputation of being one who paints with words.

The Zodiac Deception by Gary KrissGary Kriss, a former college professor and an award-winning reporter for the New York Times, was born in Brooklyn and raised in a small town in Eastern Tennessee. Kriss and his wife, Pat, live in a northern suburb of New York City. For those who want to know more can follow the progress of the book, and find extras for THE ZODIAC DECEPTION on Gary’s website. They can also find him at @garykrisswrites.

Hunt the Jackal by Don Mann and Ralph PezzulloRalph Pezzullo is a New York Times bestselling author, and award-winning playwright and screenwriter. His books have been published in over twenty languages and include JAWBREAKER (with former CIA operative Gary Berntsen), INSIDE SEAL TEAM SIX (with Don Mann), THE WALK-IN, AT THE FALL OF SOMOZA, PLUNGING INTO HAITI (winner of the 2006 Douglas Dillon Prize for American Diplomacy), EVE MISSING, BLOOD OF MY BLOOD, MOST EVIL, and THE NAVY SEAL SURVIVAL HANDBOOK and the SEAL Team Six thrillers HUNT THE WOLF. HUNT THE SCORPION, HUNT THE FALCON, and the forthcoming HUNT THE JACKAL (also with Don Mann).

Alan Field, new to the ITW, hopes to make a splash with his first urban thriller, The Chemist, that revolves around a weapon of mass destruction and the person who created it. Alan has written short stories starting from age 10, but this is the first work he wishes to publish. While practicing law for twenty years, Alan fathered four children. He is also an accomplished music composer and arranger who resides in New Jersey.


  1. For me, Tony Soprano instantly comes to mind as a great example. A big part of him was a vicious, nasty, awful person. But he loved his family in his own unique way. And he had foibles and weaknesses that counterbalanced his vicious side and made him seem more human, perhaps even vulnerable in some ways.

    It’s been a while since I’ve watched the show, but I remember in one scene how he just viciously kicked the bejeepers out of someone who was helpless on the ground. Yet he had his little panic attacks and anxieties that plagued him, hence his therapist visits. The character was sometimes unconsciously funny. I can’t remember the episode, but I remember one scene where he was describing something as being an “albacore around his neck,” rather than an albatross. Throwing in little touches like that made him more human, multidimensional, despite the one side of him being so brutal and amoral.

  2. I think most people can relate to anti-heroes because they’re not perfect; they tend to be flawed in one way or another just as we are. This flaw might be a negative trait or it might simply be that they are human and do what most everyday people would do in a similar situation.

    I personally have trouble accepting a typical fictional hero; someone who appears larger-than-life while I, the reader am not. How can Joe Sixpack relate to a six-foot-five muscle-bound Hollywood-handsome leading man type who doesn’t hesitate to rush through a storm of terrorist’s machine gun fire to enter a burning building and save his rich supermodel girlfriend?

    At some point in our lives, some of us may have the opportunity to do something heroic no matter how insignificant that event may seem at the time. People can relate to regular everyday individuals who find themselves reluctantly thrust into situations where they end up doing heroic things.

    In my latest book, Dead Kill – Book 1 – The Ridge Of Death, my protagonist, Jackson Ridge, is free-lance journalist and a regular guy who is a real anti-hero. He’s a hard working husband and father living in the year 2053 in a world that is on the way back from the brink of extension following a devastating zombie apocalypse ten years earlier. He has no interest in risking his life or endangering his family’s well being but finds himself in a situation where that’s exactly what happens.

    Most real world heroes are just regular folks, some good, some not so good, who for whatever reason go against their natural self-preservation instinct and rise to the occasion to help someone in need. I find that much easier to relate to that sort of person rather than what we think of as the typical hero.

  3. Perhaps the greatest line about character in all of fiction comes from William Foster (Michael Douglas) in Falling Down: “I’m the bad guy? How did that happen?” The incredulity with which he delivers the line, the sheer disbelief, is all you ever need to know about not just a good anti-hero, but any good character. He honestly didn’t know—and neither do any of the best bad guys.

    There are exceptions, the most popular of whom is Hannibal Lecter, though Dexter Morgan might give him a run for his money. But for my money I’ll take Tony Soprano or Magneto or The Blacklist’s Red Reddington, every time. They all know they do bad things, but they’re not bad guys, see, because they have an end goal that makes those bad things worth doing. They accept the stain on their soul to protect their family or free mutants from oppression or whatever it is that justifies their evil.

    A gripping, compelling anti-hero is one where, when the reader puts themselves in those shoes, they wonder if they’d make the same choices.

  4. There seems to be something of a blurring of categories going on here, between antihero and villain properly so called, I mean. I for one would vote to retain the distinction, although the way our current consensual narrative is running, that may be fast becoming a distinction without a difference.

    That said, it’s certainly the case that villains can be inherently more compelling, more — for want of a better word — fascinating than heroes. But don’t take my word for it: ask Billie Shakespeare, who got away with making an out-and-out villain like Richard III the central character of an entire five-act play, for chrissakes! (And don’t even get me started on MacBeth!)

    But that, to my mind, is exactly what explains the rise of the antihero — it’s not that antiheroes may be more relatable (indeed they may not be), but that they’re more complex. Traditional heroes are all surface, in the sense that what we see on the outside bespeaks their inner selves as well. We always know that, when push comes to shove, they’re going to save the day, do the right thing — ho-hum. And what that means is, there’s no room for growth in them, no possibility of character development — what you see at the outset is what you’re going to get straight through to the end.

    Antiheroes aren’t like that. They’ve got issues to work through, internal impediments to overcome, before they can do the right thing (if, indeed they do). And when they do, we stand up and cheer — as much in surprise as in gratification.

    My own antihero in Singularity and now Dualism, Jonathan Knox, has personal demons to battle, coupled with an almost pathological sense of distance and detachment from the travails of those around him. Of these interior challenges, it’s the second one that’s hardest for him to master, since his whole life as a management consultant tends to reinforce his tendency toward objectivity and, hence, non-involvement. It’s an open question through to (nearly) the end whether he can bring himself to care enough to “do the right thing.”

  5. At this point our “consensual narrative” has embraced relativism to the degree that heroes and antiheroes are blurring beyond distinction. I’m become so jaded that I can’t root for a guy is altruistic at his core. And I love it when authors show that “good” from one person’s POV is job “bad” from another person’s POV. When I was a kid, and maybe this is just a kid’s POV, I identified with the hero who would not compromise. Now as an adult, and maybe this is just part of growing up, people who stick to their principles and never compromise scare me. What ever they are they are not heroes or anti-heroes. They are the true villains.

  6. The blurring on my part was intentional; all compelling villains are anti-heroes (or just plain heroes) in their own minds. Even when they know they’re bad people and even feel bad about being bad people–like Jack Bauer, for example–they always have good reasons for it.

    [An aside on 24: Bauer is a great example of a true anti-hero; he’s a vicious, murderous bastard who will torture kittens to get the job done, but the job is always something that needs doing. You could remake any given season of 24 with Jack Bauer as the bad guy, with a focus on the people trying to stop him, and it would work.]

    In BLOOD LIST, Paul Renner is a contract killer without compassion who toys with the FBI because it’s fun. There’s nothing good or nice about him at first blush, so it was critical to give the reader a reason to believe that there’s something there worth redeeming. In his case, Paul is trying to save his father’s life, and while the man is a monster, his goal is something the reader can empathize with.

    In JADE SKY, the drug kingpin Dawkins has a higher goal in mind, with his multibillion-dollar Jade empire as a means toward that goal.

    I think redemption is a critical distinction between an anti-hero and a villain. Even if the anti-hero is not ultimately redeemed, you need to hold out hope that (s)he is redeemable, that it could and might happen. If there’s no hope of redemption, I think you’ve got yourself a villain, not an anti-hero.

  7. Unfortunately for the other panelists and the readers of these excellent Roundtables, I’ll be expanding on my views later on, but I did want to quickly jump in. I agree with Bill about the blurring of categories between villain and anti-hero, although I understand and appreciate Patrick’s point, even if I’m not certain about the mental self-image of the villain. Obviously, the context is everything.

    For me, the most fascinating thing about anti-heroes is that they’re a stage for the moral battle between conventional right and wrong to be played out. Notice I said “conventional,” because I believe that effective anti-heroes enable us to mimic intellectually and emotionally what they–challenge the norms. They test the societal bounds that most live within, the agreed-upon (or imposed) societal rules that most accept.

    Of course it can argued that villains do so as well. However, when they cross the line, they rarely bring us (the reader, the film-goer . . .) with them. They don’t cause us to ponder how well we’ve drawn those lines; rather they make us want to thicken them.

    This promises to be a tremendously stimulating and thought-provoking discussion, especially given the caliber of the participants (with the exception of one). I’m eagerly awaiting its unfolding!

  8. There’s quite a spectrum between hero (Odysseus, John Wayne) to anti-hero (from a humanly flawed hero like Lancelot to Hannibal Lecter, who does after all teach Claire and help leader her to the killer, to the out and out villain such as a serial killer, Hitler, or Sauron in Lord of the Rings. Satan is arguably an anti-hero just because he’s often intriguing when on stage and his revolt against God and heaven seems, well, so human in its jealous motive. He’s always kind of seductive. Dexter is an an anti-hero because he murders murderers. Achilles might qualify because he lets his pouts and rages get the better of him.

    My own recurring character Ethan Gage, an American adventurer in the Napoleonic wars, is probably not an anti-hero in the obvious sense because he has a good heart. But he is flawed and self-deprecating, freely admitting to vanity, greed, lust, and toadying at various times. This makes him different than a James Bond or Jack Reacher or Frodo, but of course he’s a choir boy compared to some of the tormented alcoholics of detective fiction.

    I think what makes a good anti-hero is a character in which we delve into the id and sin. His motives cannot be as pure as a Dudley Dooright. He has to screw up occasionally, sometimes against his best intentions. He can be a rogue or a bitch. But in the end his actions are heroic. What makes this work is if he or she is human, meaning they wrestle with temptation, vices, and weakness. An anti-hero offers the reader a path to salvation – if the character is this flawed and yet this effective, an imperfect reader can identify and hope to achieve something good as well.

  9. If I may be so rude as to get involved…

    I think there’s definitely a good argument that the ‘anti-hero’ is a pretty redundant term, at least in comics and certain genres of books. These days even the old fashioned heroes such as Superman engage in actions that people may see as slightly villainous, and villains themselves are being re-examined or portrayed as slightly sympathetic.

    So when both of these encroach upon the morally grey domains anti-heroes once occupies, is the term even relevant anymore?

  10. Hey, Reece, thanks for joining the discussion!

    I think it’s still a relevant term because “Boy Scout” heroes persist, some in very (in some cases astoundingly) popular fiction…and so do villainous villains.

    On the hero side, from Captain America to Lucas Davenport, there are a lot of heroes you can count on to make the right decision. They may have flaws and may falter along the way to one degree or another (or not, in the former’s case), but they are undoubtedly goodie-goodie good guys.

    As for bad guys that aren’t redeemable, you can take your pick from a wide variety of sociopathic serial killers to half the cast of Game of Thrones to any given perpetrator in any given Law and Order: SVU episode to, unfortunately, countless examples in real life.

  11. The advantage to writing fiction, as opposed to plays and screenplays, which I also write, is that it’s relatively easy to get in your protagonist’s head. All of us have doubts, guilt, and voice’s in our heads that get in our way. We’re all flawed. Often we understand what the right thing to do is, but feel compelled to go in another direction. Why?

    In my opinion, the “why” is the key to creating realistic, interesting anti-heroes. People want to understand their hero’s motivations. Once they appreciate what the hero is struggling with and why, they’ll go on the journey.

  12. I agree Ralph. Motive is everything, and whether it’s a hero, an anti-hero, or an outright villain, motive has to be realistic and credible.

    I’d like to add the distinction that anti-heroes are often comfortable going in that wrong direction, comfortable with the immoral or amoral choice, because of that “why.” They’ve chosen a darker path and feel justified–even if sometimes conflicted–in doing the horrible things that they do in the name of their personal “why.”

    Look at Lee Child’s Jack Reacher. He’s definitely a hero (and I think Mr. Child’s sales record speaks for itself when it comes to whether or not he’s compelling)! Is he an anti-hero?

    I’ve read a half-dozen or so Reacher books, and he does some awfully mean things to bad guys. Does he do awfully mean things to good guys (either by action, inaction, or callous disregard)? In my experience, no. Reacher is almost an anti-hero, but for that reason he’s not yet at the level of Red Reddington or Jack Bauer–and doesn’t even approach the Dexter Morgans and Tony Sopranos of anti-hero fame.

  13. When writing my con man protagonist in THE ZODIAC DECEPTION I never really thought about him as a hero or anti-hero or any other archetype. Apropos of last week’s discussion, he was a character who evolved and showed various parts and dimensions of himself as he interacted with others and with situations. Even though I tend to favor Jung, I think we’ve gotten a little bit over-archetyped, thanks to the distillers of Campbell. The Hero’s Journey has been somewhat over-booked and it’s time for some really adventurous souls to venture onto the road not–or less–taken.

  14. I truly think that’s the best way to go about it, Gary. Characters are characters, and if they’re vibrant and interesting and realistic (even if superhuman), their personalities will emerge on the page and make them whatever it is they are, regardless of whatever it is they’re called.

  15. Now, to address the question more directly, what are the secrets to making a POPULAR anti-hero? (As opposed to, say, a lame and boring anti-hero who fades into the dustbin of popular culture history after half a season or one novel….)

    These are my thoughts:
    1. Competence. The anti-hero must be very good at doing whatever it is they do, including the handling of adversity.
    2. Charm. Anti-heroes need to be likable, for one reason or another.
    3. Principle. They need to have a code of honor or conduct that makes sense *to them*. (Major exception: Hannibal Lecter.)

    What do you think? What other features does an anti-hero need in order to become popular?

    1. Patrick lists some fine points in noting some characteristics of a popular anti-hero. While I admit to using anti-hero as a descriptive type term, more often I default to “charismatic character.” While under Max Weber’s concept of charismatic authority–the Gold Standard–this is not a perfect fit, it’s close enough in many respects to be useful, especially when it comes to a lack of respect for/adherence to traditional or institutional rules and being endowed with certain specific abilities relevant to a time or situation that other acknowledge and defer to. He or she leads by individualism, however an individualism that encompasses concern for others, often demonstrated more through actions than by words.

      Or something like that.

  16. Backstory is incredibly important as a way of providing readers with your anti-hero’s motivation and, often, justification, for atrocious behavior.

    In EAT WHAT YOU KILL, I moved some of the key backstory scenes forward so readers would understand his psychology (and psychosis) earlier in the story, and it worked wonders.

  17. I was surprised by how much people liked Paul Renner in BLOOD LIST. He’s a psychotic killer without a shred of empathy, and yet you learn just enough about him to sympathize with his story, if not his actions.

    Of course, it helps that he has a sympathetic goal.

  18. How right you are about backstory, Ted. Unfortunately I think backstory’s gotten a bad rap and, consequently, many writers shy away from it, fearing it will break the flow. However, the flow flaw lies in the assumption of linearity. Art may imitate nature, but it it seems to draw the line when it comes to writing and flow. Non-linear flow exists in nature and there’s no reason it can’t exist effectively in writing. In any event, I relied of flashback a number of times i n THE ZODIAC DECEPTION and felt the novel and its flow was the better for it. Others, of course, may disagree.

    As far as your psychotic killer in BLOOD LIST, which I haven’t read but intend to, I’m not surprised, Patrick. The determining factor here may not be charisma (although it is possible to speak of charismatic occurrences)but another c-word–compelling. Certainly it seems as you created a compelling backstory for Paul Renner, enough so that it trumped character in reader identification. Bravo! Take it and bottle it and kindly send me a case or two!

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