“You must want to enough. Enough to take all the rejections, enough to pay the price of disappointment and discouragement while you are learning. Like any other artist you must learn your craft—then you can add all the genius you like.”
—Phyllis A. Whitney

4 Things Dexter Taught Me About Writing Antiheroes

This summer, I’ve been binge-watching my way through the television show DexterFor those of you unfamiliar (don’t worry, no spoilers here): Dexter is a serial killer. He is also the protagonist of the show.

Antihero: What Dexter Taught Me About Writing Antiheroes

Why We Love Antiheroes

I know some who have avoided the show, saying they can’t get behind the idea of empathizing with a serial killer. It kept me away initially too, but I couldn’t resist anymore.

But you know what? I love Dexter. I root for him. I want to see him succeed… even if what he does goes against my morals.

And Dexter is hardly the only antihero who has this effect on TV viewers, from Walter White to Frank Underwood to Hannibal, antiheroes have been some of pop culture’s moved beloved protagonists.

4 Tips to Writing Antiheroes

So how do you create a compelling antihero? Let’s take a look at four qualities of antiheroes.

1. Antiheroes follow their own moral code

Dexter may do bad things, but he only does them to bad people—he’ll only kill those who kill the innocent, and he requires proof before he acts.

A bad person without a moral code is simply a bad person. But if a person follows their own version of a moral code, then at least we know he has certain lines he won’t cross. At least it is something we as readers or viewers can understand.

It may not be a moral code we’d accept in real life, but at least we can accept that a character has his own version of right and wrong.

2. Antiheroes are masters at something

In other words, your hero, like every character, needs strengths. Dexter is really, really good at getting away with murder. And even better, his fascination with blood has made him a top-notch expert in blood splatter for the Miami police.

This kind of mastery is just too fun to watch. Likewise, Frank Underwood may be a self-serving political monster, but he’s so darn good at manipulating the people around him that half the fun is guessing what heinous thing he’ll do next.

Even if your antihero doesn’t use his gifts for good, mastery of a skill can go a long way in making him or her fascinating for readers.

3. Antiheroes have a soft side

Like any character, your antihero has both good and bad in him. Make sure that good side comes out, too.

For Dexter, that goodness comes out in the people he chooses to keep close to him—the foster father who taught him right from wrong, his sister, and his girlfriend. And especially, how great he is with his girlfriend’s kids.

4. When Antiheroes are bad, they’re horrid

How many times has Dexter got away with killing? How many times (even in just one episode) has he lied? His entire normal life is essentially a disguise to hide his true nature. Dexter is really, really bad. He’s a serial killer.

And when the show stares this fact in the fact and reminds viewers of that, it’s thrilling. Don’t avert the reader’s eyes or try to hide your antihero’s darkest moments… draw them in with it.

What Really Makes a Good Antihero

A good antihero serves a dual purpose for fans. It simultaneously lets out our dark side, while also highlighting the gulf between us and the monster, which reaffirms our humanity.

To do this in a way that is empathetic and compelling, an antihero must be both human and monster.

More Antihero Resources:

Who is your favorite antihero? Let me know in the comments.

PRACTICE

Choose an antihero you know well and consider—despite their flaws, how does this character win you over? What traits, abilities or behaviors keep you rooting for him or her? Share your thoughts in the comments!

(And please, no spoilers, Dexter or otherwise!)

About Emily Wenstrom

By day, Emily Wenstrom, is the editor of short story website wordhaus, author social media coach, and freelance content marketing specialist. By early-early morning, she is E. J. Wenstrom, a sci-fi and fantasy author whose first novel Mud will release in March 2016.

  • I have to agree with you about Dexter. He is a great anti-hero! I binge-watched him back in February and loved every minute of his antics. I also have a fascination with serial killers, so Dexter was fascinating for me. I definitely think he is one of the best serial killers TV has come up with. Great tips on writing anti-heroes! I will definitely keep them in mind when I write one.

    • Thanks Lori — I’m only halfway through season two, so I appreciate you avoiding any spoilers here! I’m completely fascinated by this show!

  • I just read A Clockwork Orange, so it seems that this was perfectly timed. I had been wondering thought the entire novel if Alex could be considered an anti-hero. Do we really root for him or is he simply entertaining? Because I found myself to be quite entertained by him. I feel like this helps to clear up the phrase “anti-hero” even if I am still a little unclear about Alex fitting into that category. What would you say?

    • That’s a fantastic example–whether you root for him or not, he’s still an antihero because he is the protagonist of the story. In my book, interesting is the most important thing for a character to be!

  • Great stuff, Emily. I’m personally a big fan of the antihero. More than likely because I’m a child of the 90’s, and comic books; both of which is saturated with the character trope. But, I still adore them, especially when done right. In fact, I’m currently writing female character who’s antihero, and having a blast doing so.

    • Same here, product of the 90s. Not sure what this says about me, but antiheroes are generally my favorite protagonists–so much more fun when there’s room to be bad! Good luck with your antihero-in-progress! Any tips to share on creating one?

      • Just make find out what type of character disgusts you, then back it up a bit. I’m kidding, sort of. I believe it’s all relative to the subject, among other narrative factors. An antihero in the classroom is different than one in the war room.

  • Excellent post. I’ve never watched Dexter, but the premise sounds interesting.

    I think my favorite anti-hero at the moment is Rick Grimes on The Walking Dead. Rick starts out as a good guy, but after so much time of trying to survive in a world overcome with animated corpses and watching those he loves die, his approach to life has evolved in six seasons. He’s not the trusting, generally nice character that we met in season one. I love the show because I think it’s realistic. That kind of a situation would challenge the moral strength of any person.

    I also really enjoyed the first season of Better Call Saul, the spin-off of Breaking Bad. Jimmy, the main character, is very similar to Rick in TWD in that he’s actually a pretty good guy whose circumstances slowly turn him into something more hardened.

    • Rick Grimes is an especially interesting choice, since he starts out as such a classic hero, good choice!

  • Lora C.

    Good article. I used to binge watch Dexter too. And I loved Breaking Bad also. Another antihero I loved is Gemma Teller on Sons of Anarchy. I think it’s magic when a writer can create a character that can be a truly awful person, yet a person we care for, understand and want to protect. That’s what I strive for.
    (And by the way, it’s Frank Underwood, not Underhill.)

  • scott brierton

    ..I think its Frank Underwood, not Frank Underhill.

    • Bah! You’re right, thanks.

      • scott brierton

        Great post though Emily, thank you!

    • Frank Underhill, relative to the Baggins’ of Hobbiton, Machiavellian of The Shire.

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  • liliangardner@gmail.com

    Thanks Emily,
    I love your article about anti-heroes. I don’t know anything about Dexter but by what I gather from members’ posts, I’m sure I’d root for him. He seems to be a ‘nasty- sweetie’.
    In the cartoons of Tom and Jerry, I’m always rooting for Tom, hoping that someday he’ll get his own back on that presumptious mouse. But Tom is not an anti hero, is he? And is Robin Hood an anti hero?

    • Your comment really made me think a lot about the relationship between Tom and Jerry! I think though that it’s hard to think of Tom as an anti-hero, since Jerry always seems to be the star of the show. It seems more like a classic protagonist/antagonist relationship. I think Robin Hood could be seen as an anti-hero. He’s helping the poor (hero), but by doing something bad (stealing) though only from the rich (moral code).

  • Willow

    My first love of an anti-hero was the Punisher, from Marvel Comics (and later movies). If I remember the story line correctly, Frank Castle was a good guy, veteran/war hero, whose wife/children were killed in a mob hit. He turns into the Punisher to deal with the bad guys who are not being appropriately dealt with by the judicial system. He is not above killing. Like Dexter, he has his own moral code, which makes it easier to justify the whacking of the bad guys. Love it!!!

  • The best written anti-hero I’ve seen or read is Walter White from Breaking Bad. The great thing about him is that you get to see his metamorphosis from an innocuous high school science teacher to the meth kingpin he becomes. I couldn’t help but keep rooting for him in the end, no matter what heinous or unforgivable act he committed. I think applying the “moral code” aspect to him is problematic though. He starts out with a goal to fulfill, but it falls by the wayside once he gets drawn into the meth underworld. Similarly, Frank Underwood doesn’t have a moral code so much as he has a personal agenda, and he doesn’t care who gets in his way. He may prefer subterfuge and mind games, but he’s proven he’s willing to get his hands dirty.

  • Christine

    I’ve been called analytical. Maybe this is why this article has churned in my mind for a couple of days before I was able to comment. This has taken me a lot longer than 15 minutes, too. 🙂 And you may all totally disagree.

    I realize this “antihero” concept is not new. My mind goes back to the 50’s and the TV show, “Josh Randall, Bounty Hunter.” Like Dexter, Josh Randall captured or terminated criminals that the Law had no time or personnel to pursue. (How many of the outlaws he actually killed I don’t remember, but there always were shoot-up scenes.)

    However, the Law had already judged these people: they were escapees from justice — WANTED: Dead or Alive — and Josh was simply carrying out the capture/verdict. he wasn’t living by his own rules.

    We don’t have a television, so I can’t say much about this program except in reference to what’s posted here. I stand to be corrected, but my impression from this article is that Dexter is making his own judgments and terminating according to his own moral code, without reference to the Law. Much like the fabled Robin Hood, as someone mentioned. Robin also was acting outside the Law, making his own judgment about who should have and who should have not. (The lawmakers supposedly being corrupt, this was okay, right?)

    Real-life thieves do the same: they justify their crimes by saying, “Corporations are so rich; they can afford to lose the little bit I’m taking.” Or “These big companies should be punished for their greed.” They see their victims as filthy rich executives or officials. “They should hurt a little bit like the rest of us, so I’m just making them feel the pain.” (They rarely admit that their actions are causing pain to the poor as well, in the form of higher prices, insurance premiums, etc.)

    As to creating antiheroes. things get sticky when we realize Adolph Hitler would have fitted himself into this role, too. After all, he was only terminating those he saw as “wicked”, a menace or negative influence in society. He judged people by his own moral code and carried out his judgements.

    In Canada some years back we had Robert (Willie) Picton doing the same thing. His friends and neighbors thought he was a likeable guy, too, but he judged that prostitutes were undesirables and went about terminating them. If Dexter is popular now, maybe someday there’ll be a series showing Robert Picton selecting his victims from the streets of Vancouver, murdering them, and…well…let’s not go there.

    One could add the human interest angle, too. Like the scene where police officers come to Linda, the mother of one of these girls (my dad used to babysit her), asking for a DNA sample. They thought one of the bones dug up on his farm belonged to her daughter. A touching scene, I’m sure. (It seriously affects how I view antiheroes and their moral codes.)

    But police officers would soon warn us that a tv show like this may well spill over into real life and promote similar murders. We writers need to be careful here. When we create someone who’s living by his own rules and make him a hero, we do run the risk of the odd real-life character feeling this is okay. Then where will they stop?

    I have to ask, Do I as a writer have any moral obligation to improve society? Will it better society if I create sociopaths and/or glorify murder? Or is it okay to simply to provide entertainment? And if I’m only entertaining, who all does my MC feed to the lions so the crowd can cheer?

  • Sandra D

    Well some anti heroes I have been exposed to and like:

    Gregory House on House M.D, who saves lives but doesn’t think life means anything and does not mind in the least emotionally hurting others and needs to do this to keep his own pain at bay.

    His pain on his leg, the hole their was symbolic of his pain, and not only that, but his inability to function like a normal person. He can not just walk, but needs a cane to supprt him otherwise he topples, and it is the same emotionally, he depends on others, while also needing to keep everyone completely back so no one and especially not him sees him in any emotionally fragile position.

    Tom Neville from Revolution is not the main character but is a very interesting character, someone who starts out a good guy but turns into ‘what he has to be’ in order to survive. But what is truly heart breaking is what he throughout the series does to his son, as he sees it is best for their family.

    Which to me is about how twisting the family he has, to his own different moral views, and under the weight of this, so this anti hero to me is all about family and bad parenting from the emotionally strained parent, and the effects of that on the child.

    Walter White: is also one I like a lot. I also love the irony of his last name being white, white as in pure, as this was how he was when he started, and also white as in the typical color of methamphetamine. Also named after a real meth dealer. But I really strongly disliked his character at times, and many times was wondering the same question as the people in the show, why? And I guess he was in a prison before the show started emotionally and the show was him breaking out of it, but at the expense of everyone around him.

    So then what happens is this, When I do what makes me happy, and feel alive and how a human should be, in the end I am being completely selfish and hurting everyone around me. Which is terrible.

  • Parsinegar

    Great post on antiheroes, Emily. Pretty likable.

    My favorite antihero is that created by Murakami in 1Q84. Yes, I’m talking about Mr. Ushikawa. He is widely detested by people immediately in his life, even his wife and children. He has always been neglected and spelled away by others who consider him as somebody low-achiever and hard to be loved. What gets me most about him is that he is absolutely a sociopath and always prefers to work alone and at his own pace and according to his codes of conduct. He is unable to work with organizations and always tries keeping vigilant to access his-own-usually dark goals.
    What comes out of this is a successful secret agent capable of tracking the people of interest to pin down their life schedule. Though, what makes him vulnerable is also greatly depicted by Murakami. He is given, like other people and characters, many soft spots that lead him to danger. So even having eagle eyes and keeping undercover do not make him immune to the incidents weaved throughout the novel to give an air of being a fantastic antihero. I just simply love the way he is presented. Dark, physically despicable and extremely capable of pursuing a goal once it is clear that it would bring him relief, peace and maybe money.

  • DLK

    Spatter. Blood SPATTER.

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  • Bayad

    Deadpool. ‘Nuff said.