Reluctant Heroes And Anti-Heroes

Most stories are largely about the hero. The story may be told from his point of view. The story may start in the hero’s ordinary world and end with how the hero fared. 

So let’s talk about your hero. What is his or her full name? Does he have a nickname? Is he a rugged John Wayne? Is she an ultra-fem Wonder Woman like Diana Prince? Are they Everyman heroes, like Marty McFly or Bridget Jones? 

One of Writer’s Digests best suggestions from its own bloggers is to build a character biography. Fill the bio with birthplace, birthdate, parents’ names, backgrounds, education, essentially everything you know about yourself. Most of those biographical details shouldn’t wind up in the book, that would be too boring, that unspoken background informs the writer and the character. Actor Kevin Bacon said in the interview included on the disc Death Sentence that does this with character he plays. Details, unknown to anyone but him, help him become the character we see the screen.

One detail: in what way is your hero reluctant?

Now, how would I know that your hero is reluctant? Because most heroes are. 

Why are most heroes reluctant? 

In “The Reluctant Protagonist: How to Make It Work in Your Story,” posted June 28, 2020 by ServiceScape, EditrixJD wrote: “A good story has complex elements.”

One of those complexities is a reluctant hero. He or she sees what needs to be done, but initially declines to do it. Spider-Man doesn’t want to fight the Green Goblin, but Goblin has captured Aunt May. Marty McFly doesn’t want to go Back to the Future, but Biff Tannen has stolen Doc Brown’s DeLorean and altered history with the time machine.


What must your hero do? 

Now list the reasons why your hero is reluctant to do what he or she must.

How does that add conflict with other characters?

How does the hero’s reluctance add conflicts to the plot?

How must the writer push the hero to act?

The reluctance of the hero or hero team adds conflict to the story. “The characters themselves can demonstrate conflicting emotions about the roles they face within the situations that arise in your story,” EditrixJD wrote.

EditrixJD said reluctant protagonists fall into two categories:

* A non-hero who must face a situation, even though he or she has no exceptional abilities. Like apotheosis, the non-hero must rise to heroism.

* A hero who doesn’t want to use his power to benefit others.

The reluctant hero finds motivation from whatever prevents him or her from accomplishing the task, EditrixJD wrote. “Your character’s hesitance can illustrate a sense of avoidance and generate a complex, relatable emotional palate.”

The writer must push the hero. “Motivate your protagonist with revenge,” EditrixJD suggested. “Take something away that meant a great deal to her, such as a job, a loved one, a treasured item, or the safety of the community, and her sense of restitution can move her … to resolve the conflict.”

If whomever took the treasure was a former friend, then betrayal lights a fire under the hero. Injustice may necessitate the heroic act and overcome the hero’s doubt or fear.

While still a boy, Bruce Wayne witnessed his parents’ murder. As a rich man, Bruce lived a life of indulgence. However, his anger was fueled when he found the thug who killed his parents. Then, as Batman, he went after other criminals, whom he lumped in with those who orphaned him as a child.

Dirty Harry had a heightened sense of duty. The media, his captain, or changing times advocated going light on criminals. However, Dirty Harry’s conscience drove him. He shot criminals with his .44 Magnum – the most powerful handgun on Earth – not because it was his job, but because to Harry, it was the right thing to do. 

Moana’s father didn’t want to her venture away from home, and her personal feelings of failure also led her to resist the call. Those were built in conflicts, but she elected to save her island from destruction.

In Chocolat, a single mother and her young daughter moved to a French village and opened a chocolate shop during Lent. Rich, sensuous desserts scandalized the town’s antiquated ways. Townspeople opposed Vianne, and she considered leaving. However, she helped her friend Josephine escape an abusive relationship, and she realized how much the villagers needed her.

The writer must enable heroes to solve the conflicts alone, EditrixJD wrote. The hero must have the option to call for backup when the situation gets tough, but too much outside help diffuses the conflict and deflates the tension. If Johnny Depp’s character assists too much, and saves the day, Roux is the hero. Roux will dilute the glory from Vianne and become the hero of the story.

Although he has no right, Luke Skywalker offered riches if Han Solo helps to rescue Princess Leia from the Death Star:

LUKE: The reward would be…

HAN: What?

LUKE: Well more wealth that you can imagine.

HAN: I don’t know, I can imagine quite a bit!

LUKE: You’ll get it!

HAN: I better!

LUKE: You will.

Wealth makes Solo seem greedy, but most of us are driven by money, EditrixJD wrote. “In this scenario, be sure to make your character likeable, and her journey toward fortune will be rewarding to your audience too.”

The adventure should incorporate a reward into the plot, which sets the hero team on a treacherous journey to find treasure.

The reward doesn’t have to be for the hero. Maybe it’s a life-saving operation for a friend; maybe it bails someone out of a sticky situation. “Most stories with this driving force end with an additional reward, like friendship, romance, or a sense of belonging,” EditrixJD wrote.


What rewards are offered if your hero acts?

What rewards does the hero really want?

What reward is the hero really passionate about?

Why will the hero decline the rewards?

Some reluctant protagonists are passionate. The Monuments Men wanted to return to Jews, museums and governments the arts, money and possessions that were stolen by Hitler during World War II. 

Moby Dick depicts Ahab, who is obsessed with defeating the white whale that bit off his leg. His vengeance builds into a grand goal that consumes every thought and action.

In The Power of Myth, the late Sarah Lawrence Professor Joseph Campbell describes two policemen who were driving up a Hawaiian mountain road. A man was about to jump. One policemen grabbed him, but was about to be pulled over. The second cop grabbed the first cop and saved them both men. The second cop asked, “Why didn’t let go? You could have been killed.” The first cop answered, “I couldn’t let go. If I had let that young man go, I couldn’t have lived another day.” 

That’s selflessness, and that’s heroic.


List the ways your hero is not selfless.

List the ways your hero is selfless. 

If your hero isn’t selfless, consider whether you want to make him selfless in a few ways.

Pick one from each list and write a one-page scene. The scene should include setting, dialogue, at least three characters, and a beginning, middle and end.

Campbell wrote that a hero gives his or her life to something bigger than himself. That can include an everywoman mother who works three jobs to send her children to college.

If a child is picked on, and his father confronts the bully’s even-larger father, that might be heroic.

“It’s deemed more heroic to make money,” interviewer Bill Moyer said to Campbell, “than it is to raise children.”

“There are two types of deeds, one is physical, in which the hero performs a courageous act in battle or saves a life. The other is the spiritual deed, in which the hero … comes back with a message,” Campbell wrote.

MOYER: So perhaps the hero lurks in each one of us. All heroes are not men?

CAMPBELL: Oh, no… Giving birth is definitely a heroic deed, in that it is the giving over of oneself to the life of another.

CAMPBELL: Motherhood has lost its novelty, you might say. … You have … transformed from a maiden to mother… involving many dangers.

In A Writer’s Guide to Characterization, Victoria Lynn Schmidt spreads female heroes over 112 pages, ranging from Amazon to father’s daughter, from to messiah to maiden, from nurturer to seducer.


Analyze your hero. Determine which archetype is best suited to your hero. Flesh out the hero’s character and write a short scene that happens in Step 1, the hero’s ordinary world.

1 The most important thing in the hero’s life is:

being right, accomplishing goals, pursuing dreams, following impulses, work, power, a good time, or analyzing people

2 The hero’s temperament is:

unpredictable            , composed, hot-blooded, intense and focused, easygoing, workaholic, dominating, or emotional.

What is an anti-hero? Let’s go to the experts.

The dictionary: a character in any story, movie, or drama who lacks conventionally heroic attributes.

Christopher Vogler: a slippery term that can cause a lot of confusion. An anti-hero is not the opposite of a hero, but a specialized kind of hero with whom society sympathizes. The anti-hero may be an outlaw or villain from the point of view of society. Examples: Dirty Harry, Bonnie Parker, Batman, Deadpool, Desperate Housewives, Rocky, Vito Corleone, Macbeth, Joan Crawford, Scarlett O’Hara, loner Dian Fossey in Gorillas in the Mist, and loner Diane Keaton’s character in Looking for Mr. Goodbar

The anti refers to anti-social. We identify with anti-heroes because we’ve all have felt like outsiders at one time or another. An anti-hero is not simply a rebel who cannot follow the rules. The reasons for why he acts as he does, along with his self-concept, are important to the story. 

Anti-heroes come in two types: 

1 Conventional heroes, but with a touch of cynicism or wounded quality. 

2 Flawed heroes who never overcome inner demons. They may be charming, they may have admirable qualities, but the flaw wins out in the end and the hero destroyed. Examples of tragedies: The Great Gatsby, Romeo and Juliet, Avengers Endgame, Of Mice and Men, Les Miserables, Julius Caesar.

In Bullies, Bastards & Bitches, Jessica Page Morrell wrote that less-than-charming characters don’t need to be redeemed with an ending in which they see the error of their ways.  After Selena Kyle betrayed Batman, Catwoman did return to help him, but Dirty Harry didn’t admit he was wrong, nor did Michael Corleone. 

“Fiction can, and should, mimic life, with all its messes and discomfort and disquiet,” Morrell wrote. “Fiction should also prove just how complicated and troubled many people are.”

The anti-hero is the kind of hero whose morality we’ve traditionally come to associate with villains, Morrell wrote. To her, an anti-hero is a hero who behaves badly. That’s where the term comes from. An anti-hero is a hero who is as flawed or more flawed than the villain. The anti-hero may disturb the reader with his weaknesses, yet the anti-hero is sympathetically portrayed; the villain is not.

Let’s ask: are Tony Soprano, Anakin Skywalker, Selena Kyle, Tony Montana and Michael Corleone anti-heroes or villains? See, it’s debatable. An anti-hero is often a badass, a maverick or a screw-up. Picture Paul Newman as Cool Hand Luke, or Bruce Willis as John McClane in Die Hard—scruffy and worn, sometimes moral, sometimes not. The protagonist may have to choose between good and evil. Soprano, Skywalker, Kyle, Montana and Corleone chose evil, although Kyle wavered from day to day.

A romantic anti-hero who plays an outsider or loner often has fragile self-esteem, has failed at love, or is estranged from people from his past. Think of Brick in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. Jack Colton is a perfect example in Romancing the Stone. Would Jack save Joan Wilder or take her money? Or both. 

The reader loves these characters because they are realistic and relatable—just like people in the reader’s life, they’re imperfect and roil with contradictions.

Here is the trick to creating anti-heroes: 

Give your anti-hero flaws, neuroses, and issues. These wounds should be noticeable, troublesome, and get in the way of forming intimate attachments. Wounds should be from the anti-hero’s past, and they should screw up the anti-hero’s plan. If the anti-hero is lawless, rebellious or obnoxious, it’s likely he will somehow justify these behaviors with his past. Readers need to know if the anti-hero’s good behavior is accidental, and if the anti-hero is redeemed by the story’s events. 

Another trick to creating a complicated anti-hero is to shape less-than-moral traits and acts into a profound statement about humanity. As you create anti-heroes, consider if they:

* Are good role models. Would we behave as they do? Alan Ladd is a gunfighter, and Brandon deWilde wants to be like Shane. His mother, Jean Arthur, knows violence is wrong and instructs her son to be more like his father, a genuinely good man played by Van Heflin (who was born in Walters, OK). However, Jean Arthur is also attracted to Shane, and he stays away from her for that reason. He knows he’ll corrupt her; that’s both his pathos and his redeeming quality.

*Are good or bad people. 

Randall McMurphy is a bad person who does good in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.

The Incredible Hulk is a bad person; Bruce Banner is a good person.

Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid are good people who are so motivated by self-interest and self-preservation, that they defy the law and shoot the good guys who are chasing them.

Indiana Jones is a good person who profits from being bad.

The Magnificent Seven are bad people who profit from being good. However, they won’t cross a line that they alone define, and that’s what sets them apart from villains. It’s the same for Vito Corleone, less so for Michael Corleone.

Forced to choose between right and wrong, anti-heroes may choose wrong if it’s easier. 


Anti-heroes have good and bad qualities. Make a list. What are the good qualities of your anti-hero? What are the bad qualities? Pick one from each list. Write a scene that exposes both those qualities. Show, don’t tell.