Do you love bad guys? Do you find yourself more interested in the villains in Bond movies, than James himself? Do you root for vampires and werewolves and twisted up serial killers? Do you love it even more when they’re the main character?
I love a good baddy. Ask my friends. I’m freaky that way. I’ll take a great anti-hero over a courageous, selfless, do-gooder any day.
Technically, the definition of an anti-hero is “a central character in a story, movie or drama who lacks conventional heroic attributes.” Like, instead of saving someone, they might kill them. Or instead of telling the truth, they might lie. Here are some classic anti-heroes in fiction and film…
Travis Bickle (TAXI DRIVER)
Lisbeth Salander (GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO)
Norman Bates (PSYCHO)
Holden Caulfield (CATCHER IN THE RYE)
Tom Ripley (THE TALENTED MR. RIPLEY)
Michael Corleone (THE GODFATHER)
Edward Rochester (JANE EYRE)
Patrick Bateman (AMERICAN PSYCHO)
The list goes on, but you get the gist. These are people we might not necessarily “like,” and yet they hold the center of the story. Last week I watched Dan Gilroy’s NIGHTCRAWLER, a film starring Jake Gyllenhaal as Leo Bloom, a world class villain. This guy is evil. He does crazy, wrong, awful things, and yet he’s the protagonist of the movie. I was riveted by him.
Bloom, a one-time copper wire thief who discovers the lucrative business of shooting local news crime footage, breaks two prime main character “rules.” He doesn’t change, and he isn’t sympathetic. But Leo also has similar traits to a traditional main character. He has a strong goal that he pursues relentlessly, he crosses the line to achieve this goal, there are huge stakes for him, and he has a secret.
Let’s see how Gilroy embraces and twists the traits of a traditional main character in creating his anti-hero.
The key thing to remember about anti-heroes is that no matter how many bad things they do, we have to understand why they are doing them. If you give them a human, universal reason, we’ll keep reading (or watching.) Leo is a liar and a murderer. Yet he’s also determined to achieve The American Dream. Because most of us embrace a version of this fantasy, we can relate and keep following him.
NIGHTCRAWLER is a creepy, blackly funny, horrific commentary on the media. It also has one of the best anti-heroes I’ve seen in a long time. The reason Leo Bloom is such an inspired creation is that he is not the opposite of a traditional main character, but its Frankenstein mashup sibling. Gilroy manipulates and twists protagonist conventions in interesting ways to hold our attention and give us a story that satisfies.
Take action! If you’re creating an anti-hero, what does he/she want? How can his/her reason for wanting this goal be human? Who will transform in the story? What are the stakes for your anti hero? Could he/she have a secret? How can you create sympathy for someone in the narrative?
There’s nothing I love more than a good bad guy.
Watch NIGHTCRAWLER and experience the true driven madness of a hero who is anything but heroic.
Go to the dark side!
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