So let's say the story is about a ''anti-hero'' who uses harsh methods to kill/expose corrupt politicians and banksters. Now let's say that I'd want to write a romantic subplot happening between him and another person.

Is there a good way to make such a subplot fit when the main story doesn't revolve around love? Or should I just keep the parts apart, except for the fact that the hero both kills the bad guys and loves the girl?

  • You inspired this week's writing exercise.
    – Matt Ellen
    Commented Mar 15, 2016 at 18:05
  • Well that's nice to hear. @Matt Ellen
    – DarkYagami
    Commented Mar 15, 2016 at 18:59
  • I have clarified the question and nominate it for reopening in its current form. Maybe Standback would agree with me, at least if the OP does.
    – Tom Au
    Commented Mar 16, 2016 at 16:46
  • 2
    @Standback Yes it is exactly that what's bothering me. It even describes it better.
    – DarkYagami
    Commented Mar 16, 2016 at 18:33
  • 1
    @TomAu: Thanks for the revision, it's great :) Just as you say, I wanted confirmation from OP before redefining the question. Reopened now.
    – Standback
    Commented Mar 16, 2016 at 18:44

4 Answers 4


(Anti)Heroes are romantic by nature. They perform heroically, passionately, in order to attain an ideal. I think the issue you might be facing here is not one of writing, per se, but of psychology.

You're probably judging your character. You presume that because he uses 'harsh' methods, that must be his sole definition. He can't like cake and pie? Coffee and tea? Because you use the term anti-hero, we can further presume that maybe you're only offering clarification for sake of brevity in your question, or it could also point to an underlying belief system you hold, that killing people for any reason is bad. Therefore, MC is an anti-hero.

If that's the case, I think the first thing you need to do is not worry about your subplot, but learn to love your MC. You have to forgive him as an author, and at least in the abstract, embrace his ideals. You aren't going to be able to convince the reader of his conviction and his passion if you're constantly apologizing for him.

He does what he does, because it is the right thing to do. (In his mind.) He is a murderer of murderers, sine qua non, and it is a role he is willing to accept in order to make the world a better place... for those he loves.

The opposite of love is not hate, it is apathy Do pardon my Rand, but this is true. If you love something, if it matters to you, and it turns into something you find distasteful, that it is the inception of hate, but its core is still love. If something doesn't matter to you, you don't give a shit either way. Shoelaces for example. I doubt you have a heated, passionate feeling towards shoelaces either way. But the naturalistic right to life, on the other hand, likely sparks you strongly, and you have very specific ideas about how that should be addressed.

The point here is that your MC might be angry, spiteful, vindictive, hateful, that does not mean he is evil. While you and I may disagree with his motives, he would argue them to his death, and would have very specific ideas about why what he is doing is right. In his mind, even if he recognizes his actions as questionable, he still finds them justifiable, and therefore good.

So if he's hateful, that's because he loves that which he hates. Hm?

Once you have come to terms with the MC's psychology/philosophy, likely you will see that there is not only a lack of contradiction in a love story mixed into your primary arc, it actually ADDS to the primary arc. Your reader needs to be able to relate to your MC in order to be invested in him. If he's just a single-minded assassin lacking in humanity, you're going to have difficulty pulling that off.

By making him more complex, by adding the fuel of a romance, you have a million opportunities to draw contrasts and metaphors between his actions and his values.

How do you handle seemingly contradictory subplots? The same as any other subplot. You lace it into the story. You use it to teach the reader about the world and its characters. Your use it to build empathy for your characters; to draw the reader into your story through the common ground of morality and sexuality, and then leverage it to whatever aims you desire. To humanize the MC. To deliver him. To destroy him.

I think your subplot, as it is, could be even more powerful than your primary arc. (Perhaps not more important, or maybe that too.) I think maybe you're judging your character, and your subplot. Maybe it's not a subplot at all, but the foundation. You just need to tweak your perspective, and you may realize that it's not the plots that are contradictory...


What you need to do is define the relationship between the subplot and the primary plot. In other words, you need to know what role the romance subplot is playing in your story.

Almost any relationship will do (and you can use more than one), but knowing what you're aiming for will help you write the right thing, and put the focus on the right places.

Some simple examples:

  • The romance is a complication. The romance is important to your anti-hero, but it keeps getting in the way of Important Things (and/or, Important Things keep getting in the way of the romance). Think of Peter Parker and Mary Jane - Spider-Man isn't a romance story, but the romance and the primary action arc keep interfering with one another.
  • The romance is a counterpoint. In the primary plot your anti-hero is doing awful things to awful people; in the romance plot, we can see other sides of his personality. We can see what he wants for his future, his society, his world. We can see how he interacts with regular people, how he deals with regular, everyday problems. (If he's enough of an anti-hero, the answer may be: Not Well. An extreme example is Watchmen's Rorschach, who's insane and paranoid.)
  • The romance is a haven. The primary plot is tense and full of action; the romance is where your protagonist (and your story!) goes to relax, to wind down a little.
  • The romance is part of the plot. The romance is intrinsically linked with the primary plot; the progression of one affects the other. Imagine a detective dating the crime boss's daughter - there's going to be constant back-and-forth between the romance and the investigation.
  • The romance is a link to a character with her own subplot. A lot of these position the romance as supporting your protagonist and his story, in one way or another. But that doesn't have to be the case. If the romantic interest has her own dramatic arc, and the romance is mostly used to link the two together, that's awesome too.

These are only a few options. You can think up a dozen more.

All you're trying to avoid is having the subplot be there purely for romance, and feel mostly disconnected from the primary plot. That seems to be your failure mode here - that's the point where readers go "Well, the main story is great, but what's this mushy love story doing mixed in?" (I'm assuming you're not going deliberately for Romance+Suspense, which surely has its fans as well.)

As long as your readers understand why the romance subplot isn't out of place in your book, you're absolutely fine.

How can you tell what the relationship should be? Look at what you've already got planned, and ask yourself, "OK, why is that interesting and important to this story?". Whatever you answer is the germ of the relationship. Work on it until you've got a full answer, until you know exactly what relationship it is you want to focus on.

How do I focus my romance subplot on the particular relationship I've chosen? This can vary wildly, so I can't really answer this except in very broad terms: You know what you're after, so check that your writing is achieving it. Ask yourself how you'll get across your focus to your reader. Ask what will keep the reader from thinking you've chosen some other relationship you didn't intend. Ask beta readers what they thought of the subplot, what their reactions to it where; see if they were looking where you wanted them to look. Adjust accordingly.

All the best! :)


Avoid killing/raping/otherwise injuring the love interest (particularly a female love interest) just to create manpain in your anti-hero.

Avoid making the love interest a plot device with no other background, characterization, or purpose than being a Love Interest.

Avoid making the love interest a helpless pawn who has to be rescued all the time.

  • 2
    TIL about 'manpain'. Until now, I had thought it was some kind of fancy French bread.
    – Kit Z. Fox
    Commented Mar 15, 2016 at 22:08
  • 2
    @KitZ.Fox That would be a croissangst. Commented Mar 16, 2016 at 0:07

This is a double themed story (anti hero versus the bad guys, anti hero vis a vis the girl),

There are two conflicts that have the potential to get in each others' way. The more time/energy that the anti hero spends chasing the bad guys, the less time and attention for the girl, and less likelihood of winning her. And vice-versa.

The story can be analyzed in a 2 by 2 matrix, with four possible outcomes.

          Result 1            Result 2

Theme 1: Anti hero defeats/does not defeat bad guys.

Theme 2: Anti hero gets/does not get girl.

Outcome 1: Happy ending all around. Anti hero defeats bad guys, gets girl. This is the "classical" ending.

Outcome 2: Bittersweet ending. Anti hero defeats bad guys, loses girl in the process. This is the ending I recommend for you. Yes, your protagonist wins, but there is a cost to victory. Still, the protagonist has a clear sense of priorities, and the victory over the bad guys is more important than the loss of the girl.

Outcome 3: Consolation prize. Anti hero loses to bad guys, but gets the girl as a consolation prize. This outcome goes against the thrust of your question and I would not recommend it.

Outcome 4: Anti hero loses both the fight against the bad guys and the girl. This is called tragedy, and is too much for most people to bear (including me).

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