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Filmmaking Tips: How to Develop an Anti-Hero in Your Next Project

Jourdan Aldredge

Here are seven tips for making your film’s protagonist a dark and morally questionable anti-hero to add depth to your story.

Image from There Will Be Blood (via Paramount Pictures)

While anti-heroes are nothing new in comics, literature, and film, there has been a recent uptick in their appearance in television and films developing anti-hero-driven narratives. If you take a minute to reflect, you can probably find several examples among your favorite characters. From Don Draper (Mad Men) and Walter White (Breaking Bad) on television to Daniel Plainview (There Will Be Blood) and Charlize Theron’s Lorraine Broughton (Atomic Blonde), anti-heroes currently hold a very favorable spot in audiences’ hearts.

The question is, as a filmmaker, how do you take advantage of this anti-hero craze and lend morally ambiguous depth to your leading character? Here are seven tips for creating a brooding anti-hero.


Put Them Behind Bars

Filmmaking Tips: How to Develop an Anti-Hero in Your Next Project — Anti-Hero
Image via The Criterion Collection.

For those who remember your French New Wave films from film school (or those who enjoyed them on your own), Francois Truffaut’s 400 Blows was an influential classic in the realm of troubled protagonists. No shot stands out more than the young Antoine behind bars — locked away, dangerous, and alone.

These shots have also appeared in many homages throughout the years and are still a fixture for developing troubled and dangerous youth.


Make Them Fight

Filmmaking Tips: How to Develop an Anti-Hero in Your Next Project — Anti-Hero
Image via Focus Features.

What characterizes internal struggle better than physical pain? Anti-heroes in television and film have a penchant for taking a few beatings throughout their journey.

If you want to give an anti-hero their due glory, try to find ways to make them fight through their story. Here are some great resources for working with makeup, prosthetics, and fight scenes.


Put Them in the Shadows

Filmmaking Tips: How to Develop an Anti-Hero in Your Next Project — Anti-Hero
Image via Warner Bros.

Lighting is another key factor in developing your anti-hero. Depending on your film’s style, using harsh lights and heavy shadows can be a great way to shroud your protagonist’s face in mystery and moral ambiguity. Here are some good tutorials on how to create harsh shadow effects with your lighting and in post.


Unreliable Narration

Filmmaking Tips: How to Develop an Anti-Hero in Your Next Project — Unreliable Narrator
Image via 20th Century Fox.

Another common trick to lure audiences into the world of your anti-hero is unreliable narration. A few famous examples include Kevin Spacey’s role in The Usual Suspects or Christopher Nolan’s dual protagonists in The Prestige, offering narration that proves, by the film’s conclusion, to be much less than suspect.


Make Them Subtly Likable

Filmmaking Tips: How to Develop an Anti-Hero in Your Next Project — Anti-Hero
Image via AMC.

While anti-heroes are unlikable and troubled, it’s important to give them at least one aspect of morality or goodness that the audience can latch onto. Whether it’s an affection for animals (as in the recent film Good Time) or a faded photograph they periodically check, try and find one redeeming quality to give your character.


Gritty Color Palettes

Filmmaking Tips: How to Develop an Anti-Hero in Your Next Project — Color Palette
Image via AMC.

As any editor or colorist can tell you, color grading can be a great tool for adding depth to your characters and films — especially when developing anti-heroes. If you’re shooting neutral or S-Log footage, you should have options to grade your footage to create looks that can give your film and characters extra grit, grime, and emotion.

Here are some great resources (and even some free LUTs) to try out on your project.


Develop Questionable Morals

Filmmaking Tips: How to Develop an Anti-Hero in Your Next Project — Anti-Hero
Image via Paramount Pictures.

It’s important to remember that these tricks are meant to reveal your anti-hero’s moral compass as questionable and muddy. The more bankrupt and convoluted your anti-hero’s morals, the more fascinating audiences will find him or her. If your story gives good cues, asks enough questions, and has the right look, your anti-hero can help your film compete in the morally-dubious filmmaking market.

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