Cracking the Code of the Antihero

How to write a strong antihero, and why it works.


“There are two of you, can’t you see? One that kills… and one that loves.”

– Roxanne to Benjamin Willard, “Apocalypse Now”

From Apocalypse Now | United Artists, 1979

From Apocalypse Now | United Artists, 1979

“We Want to Make People Question Who They’re Pulling For.”

When we lived in the same city, my filmmaking friends and I met every other week to “break down” movies and television pilots. We shared dinner, cracked open a couple of beers, and screened that evening’s subject of study, noting its strengths and weaknesses for discussion.

Although we never broke it down, House of Cards cast a long shadow over those meetings. We understood why we resonated with heroes with an honorable moral compass, like Aragorn and Jefferson Smith. But we struggled to explain why we felt so invested in House of Cards’ lead, Frank Underwood. Why root for someone who ruthlessly manipulates his way to the top of the political ladder?

Of course, House of Cards is not alone in its exploration of dark protagonists. Recently, HBO has given us the moral ambivalence of Game of Thrones and the profound pessimism of True Detective’s Rust Cohle. AMC smashed ratings records with Breaking Bad, about a chemistry teacher turned meth lord. “We want to make Walt White a truly bad guy,” the show’s creator told USA Today. “We want to make people question who they’re pulling for, and why.”

Examples of dark protagonists abound, both in television and, today as well as historically, in movies: Michael Corleone, Travis Bickle, Daniel Plainview… the list goes on. For some reason, many are drawn to questionable – even reprehensible – characters who defy the traditional conception of “hero” and instead run the gamut of “antihero”, defined by Webster as “a main character in a book, play, movie, etc., who does not have the usual good qualities that are expected in a hero”; from Han Solo, a selfish smuggler with a heart of gold, to the sociopathic criminal Alex DeLarge.

Breaking Bad | AMC, 2012

Breaking Bad | AMC, 2012

Cracking the Code

What compels us to accompany such characters on their sometimes disturbing journeys? Why do we watch them and the films they drive? If we can crack the code of the antihero, we’ll discover patterns we can apply to the writing of our own dark descents. What follows is not so much an answer as an investigation of “the dark protagonist”, presented to get storytellers thinking about a popular narrative trend.

I. Charisma

Among other things, my friends’ and my break down screenings revealed the power of charisma. At a very basic level, we want to watch watchable people, whether it’s Viggo Mortensen swinging his sword, James Stewart defying the senate, or Kevin Spacey schooling the White House.

What contributes to charisma? Richard Keen, Monica L. McCoy, and Elizabeth Powell summarize numerous studies in their work “Rooting for the Bad Guy: Psychological Perspectives”:

[B]eautiful persons have been given higher ratings on measures of social desirability, intelligence, success, happiness, persuasiveness, and potency, than their less attractive counterparts… [P]hysical attractiveness, along with strength and humor, was one of the best predictors of which characters were liked.

Flagrantly, “good qualities” do not make the cut. Instead, research points to physical attractiveness, strength, and humor as the pillars of sympathy.

So we have Frank Underwood, played by a not unattractive man, whipping Washington into (his) order – which, as Brown University’s The Herald points out, stands in stark contrast to the immobility and inefficiency of Congress today, constituting “a fictional relief from real-life Washington”. Moreover, Frank is a southern gentleman, the son of a peach farmer, charming and down-to-earth when he wants to be. It would seem that Frank owns the holy trinity of charisma.

II. Time

Not every antihero scores so highly on this matrix, suggesting charisma is not enough to woo us to the dark side. One of the missing ingredients is, quite simply, time. Reflect on your friends: no doubt you know their opinions, mannerisms, preferences, abilities, insecurities, quirks. The more time you spend with someone, the more you understand them; time is a currency, and the more you invest in someone, the greater the stake you buy.

The psychological phenomenon at work here is known as “the mere-exposure effect”, aptly summarized by Keen & Co.: “the more often you are exposed to a stimulus, the more you like it… This is true for everything from what letters we prefer to our perceptions of other people.”

In a feature film, the audience is exposed to the stimulus of the protagonist(s) for a couple of hours. In a television series, the audience is exposed to the stimulus of the protagonist(s) for dozens of hours. The act of spending time rallies our support. It also provides a context for us to understand why the protagonist does as he does. So we have Star Wars’ Han Solo, a selfish smuggler whose greed is contextualized by the debt he owes Jabba the Hutt. We have A Clockwork Orange’s Alex DeLarge, whose crimes are contextualized by a battery of clinical crimes arguably as devastating as his own.

III. Cinematic Techniques

As filmmakers, we maximize the mere-exposure effect with our cinematic techniques: a Closeup shot invites us into a character’s inner world; a point-of-view shot forces us to identify with the character whose perspective we’re seeing; a breaking-the-fourth-wall address, per Frank Underwood, makes us feel like confidantes and even co-conspirators. The components of the craft manipulate our emotions to the director’s intended effect. A good filmmaker keeps us under her spell, capitalizing on this natural psychological phenomenon.

IV. Sympathetic ≠ Likable

Perhaps you’re thinking, “Okay, this makes sense… almost. I understand Alex DeLarge, but I don’t like the guy. Keen & Co. said the holy trinity of charisma leads us to like people, right? And the mere-exposure effect influences how much we like the stimulus to which we’re exposed. What gives?” Jennine Lanouette of Screentakes speaks to this in her excellent video, “Sympathetic Doesn’t Have to Mean Likable.” Take a few minutes to give it a watch:

According to Lanouette, we don’t have to “like” an antihero so much as we have to “sympathize” with him. “Show your main character at a power disadvantage, even for a fleeting moment,” she advises, “And the audience will be on board”:

It’s fundamental to our human nature that we can’t resist the underdog…Once you show your character at a power disadvantage, you then can have him or her go off and do all kinds of maladapted things, and your audience will stay engaged.

In other words, show your character in a position of vulnerability. In keeping with our analysis of House of Cards, even Underwood experiences such a moment, when he learns that the President-Elect and Chief of Staff have rescinded their promise to nominate him as Secretary of State. At a “power disadvantage”, Underwood commits to his path of revenge.

V. The Code

So, to play by the book in our construction of an antihero (and at risk of oversimplifying), we create a charismatic character – for starters, a physically attractive man or woman with strength and humor – whom we put at a power disadvantage, forcing them into a position of vulnerability. We spend time with our underdog as they actively work their way out of their conundrum, forcing us to understand and perhaps appreciate their perspective, all while employing the manipulative techniques of filmmaking to cement the natural bond between character and audience.

…But Why Does the Code Work?

This is a part of the picture, but it’s incomplete. The above code can work… but why? Certainly it can’t explain every antihero who’s taken to the silver screen!

I. The Zeitgeist

I once heard a professor posit that “the purpose of art is to explain a culture to itself”.

Consider World War I: it shattered Europe. Four major imperial powers ceased to exist, economies suffered, and the terror of trench warfare and twentieth century technology haunted soldiers and civilians alike. Artists struggled to describe the shape of the new world. For instance, writers were more cynical, reflecting unprecedented disillusionment and doubt of the beliefs and institutions of the past. Their questioning, forged in the fires of The Great War, birthed literary modernism, an answer to life’s incoherent “heap of broken images”. Introspection, self-awareness, and an exploration of the dark side of human nature characterized many creative works.

World War I did not hit the United States as hard as Europe. The film industry, for one, went on to grow during the Great Depression, offering an escape from the drudgery of day-to-day life. America’s economy boomed after World War II, buoying Hollywood’s Golden Age into the early 1960s. Arguably, it was not until Vietnam that America began to wrestle with the darkness Europe’s modernists already accepted. The war opened a rift in society, calling into question America’s morality, priorities, and role in the world.

From Bonnie and Clyde | Warner Bros. - Seven Arts, 1967

From Bonnie and Clyde | Warner Bros. – Seven Arts, 1967

Ultimately, a confluence of philosophical and economic realities gave birth to New Hollywood, beginning in 1967 with Bonnie and Clyde, described by The New York Times as containing “one of the bloodiest death scenes in cinematic history”. According to NPR, director Arthur Penn recalls that the scene “was influenced by media reports and images of the Vietnam War, which were broadcast daily during the filming of the movie.” Says Penn, “It was a time where it seemed to me that if we were going to depict violence, then we would be obliged to depict it accurately; the kind of terrible, frightening volume that one sees when one genuinely is confronted by violence.”

Simply put, America’s existential crisis opened the floodgates to films that reflect it: “art explaining a culture to itself”.

“In our primitive days,” literary theorist and critic Northrop Frye observes, “Our literary heroes were nearly gods” – Heracles, Theseus, Samson. As civilization advanced, they came down the mountain “and became more human… more flawed.” Even our superheroes are more grounded today as the pendulum swings from Superman to Batman, “The Dark Knight”, whose nemeses “reflect and distort facets of himself”.

II. “The Shadow”

Facets of himself with which we, as fellow humans, identify. In 1934, psychologist Carl Jung theorized that mankind is united by a sort of collective unconscious:

In addition to our immediate consciousness, which is of a thoroughly personal nature,… there exists a second psychic system of a collective, universal, and impersonal nature which is identical in all individuals.

The building blocks of this “second psychic system” are “definite forms… which seem to be present always and everywhere”, called “archetypes”. In 1949, Joseph Campbell used Jung’s conception of archetypes to identify the structure underpinning the world’s religions and myths. His The Hero With a Thousand Faces demonstrates how all stories follow the same pattern of “the monomyth”, or, “The Hero’s Journey”. One archetype in this journey is “The Shadow”, which Campbell describes as representing “our darkest desires, our untapped resources, or even rejected qualities.”

Post-World Wars, Post-Vietnam, now Post-Modernism, it is the existence of “The Shadow” with which many of our dark protagonists engage, reflecting our individual and societal awareness.

For me, one of the most profound grapplings with shadow is Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now, adapted from Joseph Conrad’s novella, Heart of Darkness. The film follows US Army Captain and Special Operations veteran Benjamin Willard on a mission to assassinate Special Forces Colonel Walter Kurtz, who has “gone rogue” deep in the jungles of Cambodia during the Vietnam War. Willard joins a Navy PBR and heads up the Nung River, away from civilization.

Incidentally, the patrol boat is named “Erebus”, after a primordial deity in Greek mythology representing the personification of darkness. The first recorded instance of the term is “place of darkness between earth and Hades”, and in Hesiod’s Theogony, Erebus is the offspring of Chaos.

A fitting name for Willard’s transport, considering its journey into hell on earth. The closer Willard gets to Kurtz’s barbarity and madness, the more reasonable it seems; the more Willard, alone and distanced from society’s mores, sees himself. “There are two of you, can’t you see?”, Roxanne, living on a French rubber plantation near the Cambodian border, tells him, recalling her words to her deceased husband. “One that kills… and one that loves.” Her husband’s response, which Roxanne also recalls: “I don’t know whether I am an animal, or a god”. In bed, here on the frontier of human settlement, she is able to share with Willard a truth his heart already knows: “You are both”.

From Apocalypse Now | United Artists, 1979

From Apocalypse Now | United Artists, 1979

Collectively, we’ve grown to accept that the world is a complex place. Perhaps our dark protagonists, our antiheroes, are one way in which we process this reality. “It seems to me that it’s the work of poets and artists to know what the world-image of today is,” Campbell writes, “and to render it as the old seers did theirs… I think what we lack, really, isn’t science but poetry that reveals what the heart is ready to recognize.”

What do you think? How do characters like Frank Underwood and Benjamin Willard work from a craft standpoint? From a cultural standpoint? Why can they be so effective and so popular? Feel free to share in the comments below. If nothing else, I hope these ramblings have served to inspire the storyteller in you, as you put pen to page to write your own movies and television pilots.

 Michael Koehler, with

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