Fiction and Fantasy

My Experiment: Making a Modern Antihero, Part 2



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This post will include some scenes containing blood and violence.

Reader discretion advised.

My antihero Cassius was a brutal and probably insane man–somebody nobody would want to be or be around.

“Quellus ‘The Bone-Breaker’ Karth” is how he introduces himself to the party, using an over-the-top fake name with an equally ridiculous backstory to match. Why? Just because he loves messing with people by mixing lies with truth, so they’d never know what’s real and what’s not.

One thing that’s true is that he’s not a nice guy. Before the roleplay’s very first mission has ended, Cassius manages to carelessly insult every party member, threaten the life of a hapless passerby, and intimidate the planetary governor. When a man he’s interrogating is sniped while hanging from his grip, Cassius doesn’t even flinch.

Cassius coolly drops what few remains from the formerly-living body he’d had in his hand and then wipes the blood off his chin. He then flicks off his helmet, a sour look on his face as he rubs his finger in his ear.

He’s temporarily deafened, but hardly shaken by the murder that just happened right in front of him. This sort of graphic violence is not only par for the course for him; he gets a sick sort of pleasure out of it.

“All right, laddos. I hate to waste time, so I’ll forego the ‘Surrender in the name of the Imperium’ bit and just tell you to say your prayers, ’cause you’re interfering with an official investigation. Looking forward to popping you fulla holes!”

Cassius falls into a maniacal fit of laughter.

Initially, I was thinking Cassius had always had violent tendencies that were only exacerbated by his pursuit of power. But a friend of mine had other ideas.

What started as a harmless joke–“Cassius turns out to be Elias’s father”–became fact for the two of us players. It seemed too perfect an opportunity to pass up: so much of their stories perfectly aligned.

Cassius had left behind his family years ago when he’d been carted off to prison. Elias had never known his father. They just so happened to be the perfect ages to be father and son (especially unusual since he happened to be my very first fifty-something roleplay character). Even the game itself seemed to want Cassius and Elias to be related: the Dark Heresy rules dictate that each character roll on a table for a randomly-selected useless item; some pointless trinket that’s supposed to be of some personal worth to that character. Elias happened to get an empty book of matches. Cassius just so happened to be a smoker.

So we decided. Our characters were totally father and son–whether the Game Master agreed or not. But I had no idea how this would transform Cassius as we played.

Of course I knew that interacting with his own son was going to soften him a bit. He wasn’t going to be constantly berating the only person left that he loved. But because of Elias and my friend’s input, Cassius began to transform from a violent monster into a human being.

The first turning point is when Elias begins to open up to Cassius about his past.

Cassius just laughs as he slaps his palm against the roof structure of the truck. He slams the door shut with a firm tug. “By the God-Emperor, boy, I’d have avoided a galaxy’s worth of trouble if I’d been as world-weary n’ suspicion-fed as you. What’d your parents do, run cult-rings in between moonin’ local enforcers?”

“…My lineage has nothing to do with it.”

Elias Valkner whispers to Cassius, “Between you and I, my previous occupation would have to be the source for my strong sense of intuition.

“…I can only assume that if it were an ability stemming from my parents, it would certainly have come from my mother.

“Considering a strong sense of intuition like that might’ve kept my father out of prison.”

Those simple words transform this mission for Cassius. This is no longer a mission that got Cassius out of prison. There could be so much more going on here, Cassius finally realizes. Could this possibly be the son he hasn’t seen for nearly a decade? Whether it’s true or not, in Cassius’s mind, it changes everything.

Elias’s presence opens Cassius up. It unlocks a long-forgotten ability to care for a world outside himself, which is something he hasn’t experienced for many, many years. Suddenly, life isn’t just about him any more. The entire center of his universe has been shifted. That’s why later, when Elias confides in him and confesses that he’s little more than a monster in the eyes of the government, Cassius doesn’t just laugh and brush him off.

“Regardless of our actions, we Psykers are monsters at birth…”

Elias Valkner tries his best to hide his face from sight.

“I really appreciate that you’re willing to help me, despite this fact.

“Best that monsters keep travel in packs, I suppose.

“Keeps us safer, yeah?”

Elias Valkner tries his hardest to hide the fact that he’s tearing up slightly.

Cassius doesn’t look at the boy, but his smile is gone. He stares at the opposite wall of the alley in silence for a while.

“Zed-eight-nine-three-two-zed-seven-four-four. Cassius Faustus Naevius,” he begins in a gravely, low voice. “Former Adeptus Arbites. Tried, convicted, and sentenced to serve twelve life sentences on Ferroxian.”

He glances at Elias. “I haven’t had a pack to run with in some time…”

Elias is in sore need of protection, being not only a Psyker (a sort of magician looked down on by society), but one that has hidden from the government’s required Psyker training; he’s not only a fugitive, he’s also a criminal and viewed as a threat to society. Cassius begins to go out of his way to provide that protection. He keeps Elias’s secret. He shields Elias from one of their own party members (who would quickly kill Elias if she found out who she was). He’s willing to subvert their commanding officer’s own men if it means keeping Elias safe.

Elias also reminds Cassius that he wasn’t always the man he is today. In a move that totally took me by surprise, my friend proceeded to paint a picture of who Cassius was long before his fall–before violence took over his life–before power allured him away–back when he was a hero. Back when he sought power not only for himself, but also for the other everyday people who their society took for granted.

“He did what he had to do, but he was a man of the people as much as he was a man of the Imperium.

“I heard all about this man, a true hero. Risking life and limb to protect those who needed it from those who intended to do them wrong.

“I couldn’t believe it. But the more places I visited, the more I heard…

“[O]ne family had your picture in their home… They said this was a man who protected their daughter from some seedy men on her way home one evening. They were adamant that he didn’t deserve his sentence.”

Despite all this, Cassius hasn’t mutated into a totally different character. He may have been considered a hero at one point, but he is and always has been a flawed and broken human being. Currently, he is still a brutal man, and he isn’t about to change overnight. He hasn’t hung up his harsh tongue, and he still bickers sullenly with Elias when the occasion arises. And even though there were mixed reasons for why he betrayed the Imperium, Cassius acknowledges that they were the wrong reasons.

Elias tries to point out that one of the reasons Cassius received such a harsh prison sentence was because Cassius had tried to hide Elias from the Imperium. Cassius hadn’t wanted his son to suffer the often deadly Imperial Psyker training program, so he’d sent his wife and son away before he’d finally been caught for his corruption and arrested. But Cassius isn’t going to let himself off the hook.

[T]his whole place is nowhere a kid should grow up. Without his father. His bum father who was so obsessed with power he threw aside his wife and son… and then just let revenge burn him up to the core. Because he’d given up, was tired of trying, was sick of… playing their games under their thumb. Thought he’d take the pain to them for once. Lost himself, lost his soul in those pits…

“I wondered… what’d happened to you… I guess I was tryin’ not to think about the pain. Maybe that was part of why the revenge, all the planning and plotting, felt so good. Anything to stop worrying about what’d happen to you both. I told myself you were safe. It was okay. You’d stay hunkered down and no one would know you were tied to one of the most wanted [men] in that sector. You’d be fine.

“Just my way of avoiding the grave I’d dug.”

His motives weren’t pure, as much as Elias wants to paint them to be. But Cassius has changed. Even this admission, this raw moment with Elias is enough to prove it.

I had designed Cassius to be a pathological liar–to mess with people, keep them from ever knowing what was true about him. He went by any number of fake names and constantly told obviously exaggerated stories of his exploits. But now he’d been forced to bare his soul, this man that I thought would never be truly frank with anyone.

And maybe it’s these possibilities for redemption that draw so many people to antiheroes. Maybe this is the reason why so many readers love reading them, and why so many writers love writing them. Because even though they’ve fallen prey to their inner beasts… antiheroes also have the capacity to crawl back to a place where they’re human again.

Sometimes it just takes one other person to nudge them in the right direction.

All Elias dialogue courtesy of Sir Fortune. Used with permission.

Warhammer 40K, Dark Heresy, and all related terms are the property of Games Workshop Limited. If you’re at all interested in their roleplaying games or tabletop board games, I highly recommend giving their website a looksie.

For Him, to Him


  1. Cassius is certainly a hardcore antihero. That was one character I never would've expected you to create when I first read this article back then.

  2. He still kind of surprises me even now. 😉 You can stretch the antihero moniker pretty far. But at what point do they become the villain, I wonder…?

  3. I bet. There are certainly anti-hero types I've been working on that I want to scare the readers and I (you know some of them though). That is true and there are some anti-heroes that go too far for me. Protagonist Centered Morality can certainly play into them crossing over into the villain side. When I create my anti-heroes, I make sure that they have at least one clearly defined heroic quality or aspiration so they don't turn evil even when they are jerks, unstable, and/or downright terrifying.

  4. That's a great thing to keep in mind while writing antiheroes. I'll have to remember to do that too!

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