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.


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!)

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.

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