Can the anti-hero really work as a romantic hero?
It's a question I've been asking myself recently, as I work on a WIP in which my hero doesn't fit the typical romantic hero mold. He keeps getting sucked into the role of protector against his will, fighting the notions of responsibility, commitment and honor. And yet, I think Maddox works as a romantic hero in my book. At least, I hope he does.
But it's a tricky balancing act, I have to admit. And I've learned a little bit about writing a successful anti-hero hero in the process.
1) You have to give your anti-hero a strong and troubled backstory that explains why he thinks the way he does. On the television show LOST, Sawyer is definitely an anti-hero. His history explains his pain--his father killed his mother after a con man seduced his mother and stole the family's money. Sawyer himself witnessed his mother's murder, and he's spent a lifetime looking for the con man who destroyed his family. Only the irony is, in hunting the monster, he became a monster himself. He became a con man himself, even taking on the con man's name, Sawyer, though his real name is James Ford.
2) You have to give your anti-hero the right romantic foil. There's a temptation to pair an anti-hero with an innocent little good girl. Dark to her light and all that. But there must be a lot more depth to the good girl heroine than meets the eye. She needs to be able to surprise the anti-hero, to inspire him with her own strength, her own edge, her own pain. She must be his equal, if not his mirror image. That's one reason I like the Steve and Kayla relationship on the soap Days of Our Lives. On the surface, Kayla seemed like a sweet Pollyanna, perfect and spotless. But Kayla was a little danger monkey on the inside. She thrived on the excitement and unpredictability of loving an anti-hero like Steve. Other men couldn't hold her interest or inspire her passion or devotion. Your heroine has to have her own edgy streak.
3) Your anti-hero must have a path to redemption that is both complex and believable. Batman will never be Superman. There's always going to be that darkness in him, that pain that will never really go away, even with the love of a good woman. But your anti-hero can find redemption, can find peace and find a way to cope with the darkness inside him. You just have to find that path that is unique to your character, and then give him an implied future that reconciles that edginess with the satisfaction of lifelong love with the woman of his dreams.
The anti-hero is an exciting but difficult character to write well, especially in a romance. But it can be done if you put all the necessary elements in place.