Writing a Lovable Antihero

by Katie Gowrie

Everyone loves a bad boy. Or maybe I should say—everyone loves a good bad boy. The guy that lives dangerously but knows how to reign it in at the right time.

Avid Harlequin readers know we’ve never said no to antiheroes, but if you’ve read the guidelines for our steamiest new series, Harlequin Dare, you know we’re now saying yes! If you’re writing one (or thinking about it), you know they come in all shapes and sizes (and don’t worry, there’s space for them in several lines).

“Bad boys”—that dangerous, leather-wearing, Harley-riding clan—aren’t always antiheroes (think brooding Jacob Black or Han Solo), and antiheroes aren’t always “bad boys” (Dexter Morgan certainly isn’t).

Hero archetypes have changed so much over the years, it’s tough to categorize them. In classic literature, while a hero was confident and skilled, an antihero (being the opposite) was often inept and self-doubting. Like Don Quixote, the lovable but absurd hidalgo determined to revive chivalry. But that doesn’t readily come to mind when we picture antiheroes today.

These guys fall into many subcategories. They could be gritty comic book vigilantes (Daredevil or Batman), domineering or obsessive alphas (Heathcliffe or Mr. Rochester), or straight-up felons with a moral compass (Dominic Toretto or Captain Jack Sparrow).

As readers demand complex characters and writers continue to colour outside the lines, we see characters in romance that are well-rounded and unique. Antiheroes are flawed—that’s true in any fiction. In a romance, what do they all have in common? They find redemption in their love for the heroine.

Here are our top tips for writing an edgy antihero that readers can fall in love with:

1. Take Superromance author Vicki Essex’s advice and give your antihero a code. Maybe your guy is involved in some shady dealings, but he makes a pact to never do things that would harm children. Phew, we know he draws the line somewhere.

2. As always, create balance. He doesn’t have to show remorse for his questionable behavior but consider making him aware of his actions. And make sure we get to see his softer side when he’s with the heroine.

3. Your antihero can still perform heroic acts. He may resort to acting outside of what’s legal or moral to get to that end, but his intentions are good so we accept him, especially within the context of his world. What’s more, his flaws make him heroic—they allow readers to connect with him.

4. Backstories give a window into his perspective and help justify his actions. Take Heathcliff’s mysterious childhood and tough teen years, which shaped him as an adult. What tipped the scales for your hero, taking him from who he was to who he is?

5. Inner conflict: in what ways does he struggle to make the right choice? Will the right choice for him differ from another person’s? We can sympathize with the conclusion he comes to if we understand how he came to it. (And it’s fun to build tension in the meantime!)

As you write your antihero, get creative, have fun, and remember that provocative characters have a place in romance. It’s your hero’s growing relationship with the heroine that will showcase another side of him. Turns out, he’s still human at the end of the day. And as he falls, readers will, too!




14 replies on “Writing a Lovable Antihero”

I’d just add put an extra effort into believability. Most readers have lived long enough to know that great nookie alone will not transform a selfish jerk into a faithful mate. 😉

Ah, but how many women in real life fall for that very thing? If the romancer is good enough temptation is hard to resist, even if we know the outcome could be fatal to our hearts.

Sure, the fantasy sells. But, we have the power, as storytellers, to help our Readers have faith that they, too, can really live Happily Ever After. True love is impossible without the faith that it is, in fact, possible.
Why not make everybody happy, and not just our bank accounts? Maybe we can help someone’s mother choose the One for a Lifetime, instead of just the one she hopes will pay child support on time? While her Bad Boy runs off with the next chick.
Let’s the standard high for our storytelling. Let’s make a difference, if we can.

I married a bad boy and over the years he mellowed. It was a great love affair that lasted until he passed at home with me, my mother and daughter with him and a host of neighbors and squad workers at the door. He had lung cancer and we only knew it for 4 weeks when he passed. I loved my wild child hubby, who had the nick name of tom-cat because he liked to fight. In the end, he was where he needed to be, both in his heart, his soul and his life. It was like a giant roller-coaster/bull ride combo and I wouldn’t have missed a minute of it. The drama, the passion, it was a thrill that will last me the rest of my days.
Love this topic. Tom was so good with children and cats, yet at a union party once, I watched as he chased someone with a three pound sledge hammer. Thank-goodness the other man was in much better shape and out ran him.
He loved me and his children fiercely and would take down anyone that messed with his family. He was barred from entering several establishments because of his love of fighting.
This article brought back a lot of happy memories. I am glad I can write a character like him.
I was truly blessed to loved him and be loved by him.

Awww…so sweet! My brother was a rugged do as he pleased kind of guy, and women adored him, kids adored him. He loved his women well, took the greatest car of his kids and loved nature and animals of all kinds. He passed young of cancer also, but the last thing he told me was he’d done just about everything he wanted to do in his life. I think if you can say that then you’ll die happy and leave a good feeling behind as well. Just as your hubby did. Sweet. Love it. :).

Wow Mary Jane, what a lovely story. I’m sorry to read of your loss, but happy you have so many wonderful memories of your time together.
Recalling stories and laughing over remembrances are the best ways to our loved ones in our hearts.

I’m sorry to read you’ve both lost loved ones, Mary Jane and Chrissie, but I’m glad you have so many happy memories to remember them by.

Sounds like you got what it takes to write a believable, loveable ‘Bad Boy!’ You go. Awesome. 🙂

I like your choices of Han Solo, Capt’n Jack, and Rhett Butler as anti-heroes. Not everyone wants a nice guy to settle down with, and what’s better than matching a bad boy with a woman who’s strong enough to hold her own with him, yet compassionate enough to appreciate his diamond-in-the-rough qualities. Everyone brings good and bad qualities to the table, some are out there in the open for all to see and some are hidden, but we all have them. Creating a hero with a like-me-against-your-better-judgment attitude has great potential for external and internal conflicts – both for himself and for the heroine. Respect is the key.

Thanks Katie, for another great article.

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