I absolutely love antiheroes, and it’s a trope I consistently use in every novel I write. There’s just something about bad guys double crossing other bad guys and joining the heroes that I adore. This can also go hand-in-hand with the enemies-to-lovers ship, another one that I adore.
In my series, the male vampire pictured started off as working with a big tyrant, only to eventually backstab him and work with the protagonists. This happened in Red Viper, and he showed his true colors in the sequel, Huntsmaster City, in terms of how he’d changed for the better.
I also did this in my magical college book with Jasper Arachnida. And in my recent manuscript that I have yet to publish, come to think of it. Point is, I do this a lot, and wanted to give my perspective on utilizing this trope! There are ways for it to work, and ways that it will fall really flat. Keep in mind, however, this is coming from the perspective of just one person! There are multiple perspectives and ideas surrounding this trope.
(5) Motive for Swapping
You should consider why your villain is swapping to team ‘hero’. Some popular topics are love, morals finally getting in the way, power, and clear victory. The last two make your antihero less sympathetic, unless their motives shift when they finally interact with the protagonists. Love or morality will be the highest tier for ‘forgiveness’ by the reader (depending on the crimes while they were a villain, anyway, but I go into that below).
If they swap for power or know that the heroes are clearly winning (so are cowardly), they have to build more trust before becoming a true antihero. An arc like this could be an excellent one to tell! Say they swap sides for selfish reasons at first, but slowly it dwindles away to genuine reasons when they are exposed to the protagonists. I did a mixture of both for Robert Smoke – he was promised power (though deep down knew they were lying), felt his morals were wrong, and had a huge crush on Darcia Deville (the lady pictured with him above).
What combination will you use, if any? Think about whether you want to take your reader on a longer or shorter journey with them.
(4) Treatment of Protagonist Before & after Swapping
I think treatment prior to swapping is somewhat important, but keep in mind people on the opposite sides of the battlefield are going to fight. That said, an excess of abuse isn’t right, and there would definitely be a certain threshold and tolerance depending on the reader for whether the villain is redeemed properly as an antihero (which again varies based on opinion). However, if the villain you’re trying to redeem continues to act like an asshole excessively after ‘swapping’, they will definitely be suspect.
This is different from just having a bad attitude. Constantly yelling and berating the protagonists, then working with them only because they have to makes for a cowardly, selfish villain. There would be cracks in their arc immediately unless that slowly abates, but the longer they continue that behavior, the longer it will be to truly ‘redeem’ them.
I typically have them harbor some anger and begrudgingly go along with the heroes, or act cocky (in Jasper’s case), but never make them truly abusive to the protagonists.
(3) Guilt Arc
Pretty much all of my redeemed antiheroes have a guilt arc. The difference between an antihero who’s been a protagonist from the beginning vs. the redeemed villain antihero is that the villain would have committed several morally wrong acts to most people. In Smoke’s case, he was the cause of a lot of collateral city damage on innocent people while working with a tyrant. We learn in The Dancing Crow that not all of this was necessarily willing, but that doesn’t mean he wasn’t compliant. He was also incredibly greedy.
In the sequel, he gives into his guilt and needs help being brought back up by his lover, Darcia. Regret and pain is a good thing to instill on these characters, because if they regret doing what was wrong, that means they’re learning from their mistakes. They’re growing as characters from villains to redeemed antiheroes.
It’s up to the writer how long they want this arc to be, and how long they want the redeemed antihero to dwell on this. Typically, they’ll need reassurance from the heroes they’re now working with, or they will spiral into deep psychological issues. “Who am I? Do I deserve happiness?” might be questions that come up.
It shouldn’t be drawn out too much, however. Everything with moderation. If the redeemed antihero needs to take a beating a few times (like mine), so be it. Sometimes tough love is a thing, especially PRIOR to their redemption. Sprinkle in selfless acts courtesy of the antihero, and boom, you’re golden.
(2) Difference Between Selfless Death vs. Team HERO!
I’ve seen a lot of stories where a villain will become redeemed and then selflessly sacrifice themselves for the heroes. There’s a time and place for that, but there’s a huge difference between a dead redeemed villain and a living redeemed antihero (duh). If you want your character to grow, you can’t do the heroic sacrifice thing and toss them to the wolves. Redemption by death can be effective, though some might think it a little cheap depending on the prior crimes.
In my opinion, a redeemed antihero can have a much richer arc if they’re kept alive, go through a lot of suffering along with the heroes, regret their actions, and contribute a TON to the heroes ‘goals’. The more they work with the hero to reverse what pain they’ve caused, the better. Being selfless is excellent and a great thing for your redeemed antihero, but try not to kill them too fast.
In fact, I personally am not a fan of killing them at all, but again that’s my preference. It’s more potent to see their story blossom than wither away.
(1) DO THE CRIMES FIT THE REDEMPTION?!
This has to be the most important part of the article. It might also be the most heavily opinionated and controversial. As a warning, however, there will be really mature topics discussed in this part, some of which some folks might not be able to handle. We’re talking about villainous deeds, after all.
The crimes need to be redeemable, and the threshold for that will vary per reader. Intentions are also very important. It’s hard to justify the killing of many people, or being an accomplice of it, but truly regretting it could be valid if your character never tried torture on the innocent. What was their motive? In my redeemed villain’s case, it was greed and power. Not to directly cause pain on nonconsenting parties for pleasure.
My threshold is definitely motive-based, and certain crimes are not redeemable. Rape is a big one–to me, it is impossible to redeem someone who does that, and I would rather see them splattered all over the street. In fact, my heroes would butcher them for good measure. Animal torture would be another one, as well as hate crimes depending on race or orientation. I don’t address that in my books (not my place) but other authors might, and there’s very thin lines to walk when it comes to that especially.
People can grow from their mistakes, but there’s some mistakes that simply can’t be forgiven. If you redeem a villain who has committed acts that people find atrocious, you’re not sending a good message. Therefore, be careful! And again–this varies depending on the reader, BUT there’s definitely a line for most everyone.
Hopefully this article was informative on my thoughts on redeeming the villain and turning them into an antihero! Again, the difference between them and an antihero that’s a ‘good protagonist’ from the beginning is where they’re starting. An antihero might kill or torture evil-doers for the benefit of the innocent (thus being a hero but not in the eyes of some people) but never do that to innocent people, whereas the villain-turned-antihero started off bad and shifted to good for a variety of reasons.
Happy writing and reading!
Want to read about a cool villain-turned-antihero in a magical college setting? Check out my book here!