#Writing Challenge! Create a Western anti-hero

by Deirdre and  Western Romance editor Megan Long
We all have an image of the classic Western romance hero. That law-abiding, straight-shooting, white-hat-wearing rancher or sheriff who sweeps the heroine off her feet, saves the family ranch and rides with her into the sunset. But what would happen if he weren’t quite so admirable? What if the hero were actually (gasp!) kind of a villain? What would happen if he were the one threatening the ranch or sabotaging the rodeo?

So here’s your writing challenge for the week. Create the character sketch of a Western anti-hero! In a few sentences (no more than one short paragraph) tell us who he is and what motivates this nefarious scheme – and how he’ll be redeemed.

Tip: Think about your anti-hero’s motivations, and give him a code. As Harlequin Superromance author Vicki Essex explains, “Codes push characters into moral gray areas, giving them depth while also making them sympathetic.”

Post your Western anti-hero character description in the comments below any time between now and this Sunday night, January 29, 2017, and we’ll  check back with you on Monday with some of the Harlequin Western Romance editors!

37 replies on “#Writing Challenge! Create a Western anti-hero”

Tom Warren cowboy drifter, after the death of his wife and unborn son. Tom goes on a crusade of revenge. After avenging his family by killing their murderers, Tom is a wanted man and a man without a place. He promises himself after the death of his family that wherever there is someone in trouble, he would bring his gun and carryout the only justice that would make spineless crooks think twice about troubling decent folk. Tom Warren was a blacksmith who lived with his wife and soon to be born son in a small town called Little Creak. The people in the town worked together, they formed the town after they had fallen on hard times. The town had one Sheriff who was a retired barber, a saloon, a church which also served as a school for the children, a ranch and two small farms. He redeems himself after taking in a boy whose father he killed and caring for him, with the love of a good woman this vigilante cowboy might mend his ways.

Hi, Latoya,
Johanna Raisanen (editor on Western Romance) here. Your story is so dark, and I love a tortured hero! You definitely have a central character who is firmly in the anti-hero camp. I wonder about how he meets the “good woman” who helps mend his ways. What does she think about his past? He took the law into his own hands and killed men. Obviously this would have to be a historical novel when it really was the wild West, otherwise he’d end up in jail. And it’s difficult to justify murder, even if the men he kills are very bad men. Bravo on the tackling this challenge!

• Quiet and reserved, but not shy, the cynical Luke relies on his gruff, acerbic demeanor to shut the world out.
• He never felt as though he fit in with the residents of his tiny hometown of Whitlock, Montana, and as a result, rebelled against them. Most of the town rules—like “No Dancing in the Fountain”—are in place because of Luke.
• He’s an avid reader and very intelligent, but he missed too many days to graduate high school. He ended up dropping out and moving away, but he never stopped reading and learning.
• Returned to Whitlock, Montana, to help his aging mother take care of her bakery, which has been in her family for generations.
• Luke is surprisingly adept at running a bakery. He has the business sense and the baking skills. Yet the tension between he and the town and its people remains, even after all these years.
• Despite Luke’s annoyance and frustration with the quirky Whitlock, he remains undyingly loyal to the town. He donates coffee and cupcakes for the local Christmas pageant every year, though he maintains it’s under duress.
• When single mom Rae moves into town to open her interpretive dance/meditative yoga studio, yielding a cold reception from the Whitlock Chamber of Commerce, Luke comes to her defense.

Hi, Em,
I love a man who reads! 🙂 I would definitely want to understand why Luke feels he doesn’t fit in with the folks in town. Does his family come from the “wrong side of the tracks”? That’s one possible answer. Also, I’m not sure a central character who runs a bakery is really an anti-hero. He seems to be a quiet, reserved guy who likes to bake and looks after his mom–very admirable traits! I saw a movie a while back called The Baker (starring Damien Lewis) set in Wales, I think. He’s a hit man who retires to a small village to run a bakery, but the townsfolk discover his previous occupation and suddenly start ordering “cakes” for their neighbors, friends, etc. But really they’re ordering hits! LOL! It was very funny, and Lewis was definitely an anti-hero. 🙂
One final note: if he has always felt out of place in Whitlock and an outsider, why is he so loyal to the place?
Thanks for taking our challenge!

ONE Paragraph. Got it!
Born to wear black, Matt Blackstone realizes the only thing that will redeem his empty soul is to find and settle with the bastard who killed his wife and unborn child. That was ten years ago and he hadn’t caught the man’s trail until now. Hired as sheriff in Snowflake, Montana, the small town welcomes Matt, unaware his nemesis is their own mayor. Can Matt forgive the changed man for one night of drunken carelessness, or will Matt take matters into his own hands under the name of the law?

Hi, Chrissie,
Thanks for tackling our writing challenge! As I noted in my response to Latoya, I love tortured heroes. I like that you’ve given your guy the hard choice of taking revenge or opting for forgiveness. Does taking the high road mean the character is NOT an anti-hero, then? He’s a good guy, isn’t he? This is a tough exercise. I didn’t see anything about a love interest, either. But I like where you’re headed. 🙂
Oh, and I loved Justified, too.

Never liked Bad Boys or Anti-heroes.
But, what about a guy who passes himself off as his Bad Boy twin brother to find his murderer? The heroine would have no idea until about two-thirds of the way through, of course. But, she might sense it on a subconscious level and get really confused. That could be fun.

Hi, Kimber Li,

That could be a really interesting situation! I like the idea that the hero is maybe masquerading as a bad guy. I’d want to know more about his relationship with his brother and how pretending to be him will help catch a murderer. And when he’s undercover, maybe he starts to recognize in himself some of the traits he didn’t like in his brother. That could create some great character growth!

Thanks, Megan. I assumed the Hero would have to be a true Bad Boy. I’ll try not to assume too much from now on. 🙂

Born and raised in a whorehouse, Zeke’s morals are fluid. Except for one. Never hurt a woman. Alone at age ten after a customer killed his mother, Zeke does what he must to survive. Later life with a notorious gang comes to an end when a woman was shot during a robbery. Zeke expresses his displeasure with his fellow riders from behind a pistol. He hastily departs their company with the stolen money and a bullet in his side. Amy finds him on her property, unconscious. Zeke swears on his worthless life that his ex-comrades won’t find her. Until they do.

Hi, Jocelyn,

Thanks for participating! I like a lot of what you’ve got here – the dark back story and the personal moral code that Zeke lives by. Some of this feels a bit historical, though, rather than contemporary. Is there something more current than a whore house? Could he be motivated by something more specific than the heroine’s gender? Maybe something about her reminds him of the best parts of his mother? I really like the way you’ve set him up to be fighting against his own past and I’d be curious to see what develops.

Thanks Megan. You are correct. As soon as I posted it, I knew I’d jumped into the wrong century. Thanks again for the feedback.

Life had taught Matt that the big guys would always take from anyone who couldn’t stop them. Land from the Indians, farms from people like his parents, anything or anyone that tied you down. So Matt took what he needed from the big guys and that worked as long as he kept to himself and kept moving.
But if he ever got ideas about settling down someplace with someone, well, that was going to take a major adjustment.

Hi, Anne,

This could be an interesting idea! I’m curious to know more about this hero’s background. Are you picturing him as Native American? That could be very interesting. I’d also want to know more about what he’s taken, who the “big guys” are and how long he’s been moving around. It will no doubt take a very special heroine to make him want to stick around – I’d want to know more about her, too!

Liam never feared to commit. But when the love of his life disappeared a day before their wedding, he started avenging anyone and everyone in love. He was the anti-cupid, the love killer, and probably the only sheriff who hated lovers more than criminals.

Hi, Prity,
Your character has a great backstory! What happened to his fiancée? Did someone kidnap her? Did she leave by herself, and if so, why? And I’m not sure what you mean by “avenging anyone and everyone in love.” Is he targeting or attacking those who are in love? If so, that could make him a villain rather than an anti-hero. I also can’t help wondering how a character who lashes out like this could be redeemed? Will he try to find his missing fiancée? Thanks for taking on our challenge!

Anti-Hero contemporary

Brody Burnett knew Christy Mitchell wanted to buy the property between her land and the Rio Grande. That’s why, to keep her from raising the purchase price, he cut her fences, hired away her cowboys and bribed the auctioneer to sell her cattle at a low price. Because he also knew that land was used as a thoroughfare to run drugs, guns and people for all sorts of nefarious purposes, a discovery his DEA agent brother had made before dying while undercover. A situation Brody would correct as soon as he determined and eliminated the leaders. Because if stubborn and inquisitive Christy acquired the property, they would ensure she wouldn’t be around to enjoy it for long.

Hi, Jocelyn,
What an exciting, high stakes concept! I love the fact that the hero’s got strong motivation. He’s doing awful things for a good reason. My one question would be: why can’t Brody tell Christy about the problems with the property? If she knew the truth, would she still want it? What if he did tell her and she’s just stubborn enough to still want the land? Thanks so much for tackling this challenge. : )

At 6’2″, Jason McGrew is imposing enough without the haunting sadness in his eyes and the small snarl on his lips. Six months ago, after his ex-wife sold his beloved stallion, Beauregard, Jason began to follow his trail through Montana as the horse was sold again and again. Finally locating the current owner, Jenna Taylor, at the Rocking T Guest Ranch in Wolf Creek, he vows to do anything to get Beauregard back, return to Wyoming, and start his solitary farm life. But when the head of the local Economic Improvement Committee insists a five-star spa hotel would do more for the area than Jenna’s guest ranch, and sets about trying to convince her to sell through threats and intimidation, Jason reluctantly agrees to stay and help her fight to keep it.

Hi, Amy,
I love the idea of a grieving hero who helps the heroine fight threats and intimidation to keep her ranch. My only question at this point is: What are the romantic stakes? What do the hero and heroine each risk losing in loving each other? Right now, it seems like the stakes are low because Jason and Jenna have everything to gain in being together and nothing to lose. Jason would get his horse back and Jenna gets a protector.
In a contemporary romance series like Western Romance, we’re looking for high-stakes romance, where the hero and heroine both have to choose: love or their pre-romance goal (whatever they wanted most in life before they met each other). Having something to lose (not just to gain) can heighten the emotion and build romantic tension.
Thanks so much for tackling our challenge!

After University Zeev had taken a job in a multinational company where he had started working day in and out as researcher developing new ways for better cultivation, and now owned half of it. His only goal was to destroy the ranch, his father’s ranch, the only thing important to his father. The man responsible for his mother’s miseries, even her death.Even in his late thirties, Zeev is tall,
ruggedly attractive, dark brown eyes outlined with thick eyelashes and wavy dark hair long and drooping below the eyes… dangerous to any woman’s peace of mind. Who could resist him? Why would any woman want to? One look was all it would take to melt into an ignominious puddle. He abhors relations. His belief that relations work on give and take equation makes him a loner. He is cruel, shrewd even unfair when it comes to his interests. All he wants is to win, no matter how much the other will lose.

Wow, despite Zeev’s good looks, he might need more than a love of his mom to redeem him in the eyes of a heroine! I wonder if you can find some reason he shuns relationships that might make him sympathetic? What dark things in Zeev’s past might have given him such a strong need for control – and, more importantly, a vulnerability that makes him lovable and worth saving?

Jake Connolly never killed a woman, or a child. Not to say it couldn’t happen. Just that he’d never seen the need to hurt innocents. A few women hadn’t met that criteria, but someone else had taken care of their sorry souls. He’d never taken anything that wasn’t rightfully his. What he had, he earned, either by the sweat of his brow, or his skill with rope and gun. He only had one friend he trusted. Sally was the best horse a man could want. He’d had her for half his life, since he turned fifteen and was run off the family ranch when his daddy died. He’d taken only what filled a saddlebag, his daddy’s gun, and Sally. When old Sally went, the last link with that life would be gone. First, he and Sally have one last chore. To take back the ranch from the Selwyn Cattle Company, whatever it takes.

There’s a good sense here of the hero having a code (What he had, he earned”), although it could be even stronger – I got the impression that he could possibly kill a woman or child in the right circumstances. That would be tough to make redeemable for a reader! And being done wrong in the past is always a good hook – we all want to see justice done. Is there a heroine in our story? I would love to see how Jake’s determination to get his family ranch back, along with his distrust of anyone (was there a woman in his past who betrayed him?) might clash with a strong heroine with opposing goals. Thanks!

His mother ran out on them when he was 9. The Selwyn Cattle Company was run by a woman who ordered her 16 yr old son to beat up the hero when he refused to leave. The heroine is the younger Selwyn sister.

Having lost his job as a fish and game warden due to a wildfire, Travis Weatherly joins a group of cattle rustlers and horse thieves to save the ranch left to him by the uncle who raised him.
When one of the horses he helped steal and kept for himself becomes ill, he calls on new-to-town vet Nora Pennington, realizing too late her family was one he stole from, her father dying from a heart attack after some of his cattle were taken.
Travis has been so focused on himself and proving to his uncle he could be a rancher that he didn’t give a second thought to those wealthy families he was helping to steal from. Seeing firsthand what he’s done, he vows to take down the organization he selfishly used to save himself.

There are a few things that make this anti-hero premise work: a worthy goal for the hero (helping his uncle save the ranch), immoral acts that aren’t downright evil (stealing from the rich) guilt over what he’s done, and an openness to love. Nice job!

Jeff Jones is a ranch owner with attitude. No women on his ranch, no women on his staff and as part time mayor, no women on the town council as far as he can make it happen. His daughter is the only exception and no-one has seen his wife for years. Surly and demanding, even the school teacher can’t get him to talk to her about his daughter, and Maddie Darling needs to talk. Jenna Jones needs a women’s advice and its clear she is not getting it on her dads ranch. In fact, if Jeff has his way, Maddie herself could be “let go”.

Hi Kay! Sounds intriguing. I’m curious as to what Jeff’s motivations are for keeping women out of the workplace (sounds like something that happened with his ex-wife has him keeping women at bay?). Motivation is one of the most important elements in a story and one that we editors look for when considering a pitch. Not only is it the key factor driving the character, it can also help us empathize with him or her.

Contemporary Western

Spurned by the woman he loved because he lacked wealth, Garret McGuire ruthlessly acquired a ranching empire and a formidable reputation. When fellow ranchers band together to oust the new sheriff because they want to install one of their own in office, he joins them because he believes sheriff is no job for a woman. He agrees with most of their tactics, but draws the line at setting her house on fire and killing her. When he learns she has courage and integrity, he abandons his friends and helps her fight them and clean up their Missouri Ozarks county.

Hi Maureen! I can see why your hero was determined to create a ranching empire, and while he seems to be bitter towards women, he does seem to have a code: he isn’t willing to physically harm one. Is his being spurned also the reason he doesn’t want to see a female sheriff, or does he have other reasons for this? What is the motivation of the other ranchers in the area—why do they so strongly desire to oust her from office? Their motivation would have to be fairly strong (they’re willing to kill her, after all) but also believable enough for readers to be willing to suspend their disbelief.

Thank you for your feedback, Katie. Garret believes sheriff is too dangerous of a job for women–they should be protected. His main reason, though, is because the sheriff is his ex-love’s sister and she reminds him too much of her. The other ranchers’ motivations for ousting the sheriff is because she’s better at her job than they thought she would be and they’re rustling cattle, mainly Garret’s. Would this be a strong enough motivation for them?

Samuel Ward, rodeo champion bull rider, will go to extreme measures to ensure there’s absolutely no female riders or rodeo clowns in either the bronc busting or bull riding division, ever since his fiancé died at the end of a wild bull’s horns two years ago while performing as a rodeo clown, as he watched helplessly behind the gate. That definitely goes for Naomi Sawyer, the redheaded beauty, rodeo clown that’s determined to become a female bronc busting champ. He does everything to keep her out of the arena and spot light, hiding her barrels, scratching her name from applications, even hiding her saddles until the Bronc busting division is over. But when her life is threatened he will rush to her rescue, all the while trying to keep his sabotaging a secret. But the closer they get to finding the culprit behind the threats on her life, the closer he connects with Naomi and the more he wants to open his heart to her and tell her everything. But will she have him after discovering all he’s done to hold her back from her dream?

Hi Ruby! Interesting ideas here. Your hero’s heartbreak over losing his fiancé creates a desire in him to ban women from rodeo events, and while readers may not agree, they can certainly empathize with him. Is there a reason he focuses his efforts on Naomi in particular? Samuel tries to sabotage Naomi in secret, but perhaps his thinking changes the closer he gets to her. This has the potential for good internal conflict and character growth (which we editors love to see)!

Jack Bigtree burns with the need for revenge. His dark eyes tell the story of not only his Native American heritage but a soul tortured by pain and loss. He aims all his bitterness toward the man who never claimed him as his son…his father, Walter Reynolds, a powerful rancher. Jack and his mother were thrown off the ranch when his mother went to Walter pleading for him to claim his son. Ashamed of her liaison with the rancher, Jack’s mom was unwilling to return to the reservation. Caught between two worlds, life was tough for the two of them. After his mom passed away Jack set to destroy the man he blamed for his difficult life. Armed with his father’s ruthless business sense and a talent to persuade the devil himself, Jack begins to build an empire of his own. Unfortunately, he does it at the expense of the land designated for the very people of his forefathers. The final straw comes when Jack convinces the city council to lease the reservoir to a large conglomerate. He sees only that it will reduce water resources to his father’s ranch. The Native Elders call in an environmental litigator Sarah Cushing to stop the action. Sarah helps Jack to understand he has denied part of his heritage as completely as his father denied him. Once he knows the importance of the land and realizes the gravity of his actions, he now must protect the very land he has placed in jeopardy.

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