When building a plot around a protagonist, a writer’s goal is to have the audience root for them. That’s pretty simple to achieve when the hero is considered a good person. The character development becomes complicated when the lead of a movie or show is an antihero. The antihero is usually driven by their negative traits more than their positive traits, thus making it harder for the audience to feel good about cheering them on. That’s why it’s important to follow these key steps to building an effective antihero plot that garners audience support.
- The Greater Good
Maybe your antihero is all about reaching a particular outcome by whatever means necessary. Through such an ideal, your protagonist will do terrible things, thus creating the conflict of the story. But, if you make the end goal something that the character believes is for the greater good (even if it’s not actually), then whatever hurtful things the antihero has to do is worth the moral sacrifice. The audience will understand where the character is coming from, feel empathy for them, and eventually root for the character. A good example of this is in House of Cards. The main character, Frank Underwood, and his wife, Claire Underwood, commit terrible crimes in order to obtain a certain goal. Claire, wants to keep her nonprofit alive and Frank wants to become president. Is there selfishness in their goals? Absolutely, but they also make the audience believe that life would be much better for large groups of people if they achieved their goals. So the audience forgives them for the crimes they commit and route for them to win.
- Strategic Alignments
It’s important to build the story around the characters who are committing the crimes, rather than focus on those who feel the repercussions of them. Let the audience know the antihero and their backstory first. Give them a chance to connect with the antihero before revealing their darker side. That doesn’t necessarily mean you have to make them a positive hero at first. You can build their negative attributes into the story from the beginning, but balance them out with an understanding of the person as a whole. If there is a particular character that will feel the brunt of the antihero’s treachery, keep that character at arm’s length with the audience for the first bit of the show or movie. This is done extremely well in Masters of Sex. Since the focus stays mostly on the antihero, Bill Masters, and his assistant, Virginia, there is little sympathy for his wife. By the end of the first season, the audience roots for Bill to get together with Virginia, even though it would mean he’d be cheating on his wife.
- Another Side
Just because your protagonist has a broken moral compass doesn’t mean every part of their personality should be negative. In fact, most immoral people in real life retain the most charm. Think of CEO’s of big businesses. You read about how they took a million dollar bonus while they laid off a third of their staff, but when you go to confront them, they have a likable personality that makes you think differently about your initial character judgement. Nobody gets to the top without being able to schmooze. So give your antihero that cool air about them; whether it be based on cunning intelligence, charisma, or good looks, there needs to be something about them that draws someone in. If it weren’t for Don Draper having so much confidence and stunning style, there’s no way Mad Men would be as successful as it was. But because he had that other side to him, the audience remained intrigued for eight seasons.
By building a storyline around an antihero, you’re taking a risk that the audience won’t latch on to the protagonist’s journey. You have to be meticulous about the way plot lines maneuver around the character’s negative traits. If you incorporate a sense of the greater good, strategic alignment, and a different side to your character, you will effectively retain your audience’s investment in your character and thus have a show or movie with longevity.