How to write an anti-hero: What I learned from John Wick

Saturday, November 21, 2015
I have two confessions to make.

  1. I do not like antiheroes.
  2. I did not want to see this movie. My son requested in on my library card. But this movie I didn’t want to see made me realize that, done well, I can fall for an anti-hero.

When my son told me he’d requested this on my card, I popped over to see what it was about. The first line I read was “I don’t remember seeing this listed in theaters so it must have had a short run. It is unremittingly violent.”

Hmm. Not a great sales pitch, but if my son was going to check it out, I was going to watch it with him. Then we’d have a talk. (He’s 16 so I don’t PG much anymore but he’s not beyond the occasional lecture.)

And the reviewer was right. The bodies stack up. When a group of baddies break into his home to “teach him a lesson,” he kills all twelve of them. But by then I was cheering him on because I’d gotten to know a bit about him and seen his humanity.

That, my writer friends, is the key to writing a successful anti-hero. Before we see him being all surly and, in this case, deadly, we need to care about him. What is it that will tug at our hearts and make us cheer him on?

If you haven’t seen this movie yet but plan to see it, you might want to wait to finish reading this. Translation: Spoiler Alert.

Before we see John Wick off a large number of Russian Mafia-types, we see him at the beach with his wife. We see her collapse in his arms. We see him at her bedside when she dies. We are there for the funeral and when he gets the puppy that she has sent to him so that he still has something to love.

When all of this happens, we have only one clue about who he used to be. One shot shows the tattoos on his back. If you know ink, something about them will make you think “Russian mafia.” That is the only clue you have that he may be something other than a loving husband.

If you want to write an anti-hero, get the reader on his side from the start. Give a clue or two that there is something dark, that way the reader isn't entirely surprised. But if you can win this reader over first, she will be rooting for him even as you reveal who he is.



Margo Dill said...

I am proud of you for watching this with your son. I hate movies like this but your description made me think: Okay, I could probably stand it. (I'm also not a huge Keanu Reeves fan). Anti-heroes are so tough, but when you watch them in a movie, sometimes you can't help but love them because casting directors are very good at getting a dreamy actor to play them. And you are right--so much is in the writing and the script--why is this person acting like this? If we can understand their motivation and sympathize with him/her, then we can't help but love this imperfect hero. It happens all the time in Game of Thrones--another COMPLETELY violent show with great writing and characters and dreamy actors. Great post, Sue.

Angela Mackintosh said...

Hah! Sue, it's so funny you mention this because it's one of my recent favorites that I can watch over and over. There's a song that I LOVE ("Think" by Kaleida)--especially because they use this beautiful melodic song with such a harsh scene--that coincides with Mr. Wick as he enters the nightclub fight scene in revenge; and admittedly, I can reenact the whole "gun fu" scene to the song. LOL! Did you know the movie was influenced by 70s thriller novels and noir like Shibumi? And you're right, they did a great job at creating an anti-hero that we can cheer on. :)

Sue Bradford Edwards said...

I didn't know about the Shibumi but it makes sense. My son is taking a film class and we've been deconstructing the film and having scads of fun with it. Much to my husband's (I didn't like it) dismay. The "choreography" in the night club scene is just WOW.

I wouldn't call Reeves "dreamy," but then I can't see myself using that word at all. That said, he was an excellent choice for this part. And caring about the character saved it for me. Otherwise it might as well have been a Tarintino film -- another director that featured in the films class.


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