What’s the Deal with Anti-Heroes?

I don’t know about you, but I think the world has fallen in love with the idea of anti-heroes. We’ve seen many of them take over the big screen in recent years. Deadpool, Venom, the Driver from Drive, Flynn Ryder from Tangled, Tyrion Lannister, etc. have captured our hearts with their humor and underlying goodness.

And why do we like them? They can be rude, mean, and offensive. Thankfully, Screencraft may have the answer for us:

The answer can be relatively simple — audiences love them because they often dare to say what we all would like to say and do what we all would like to do in any given situation. They are void of the rules and regulations that society has created over the years, whether it’s based on law and order or sociological expectations.

But when it comes to crafting our characters, we tend to stick to the black and white (or good and evil characters). It’s what we’ve grown up with, and it sells. There hasn’t been much focus on the characters that fall somewhere in between (you know, until recently).

Thankfully, we can change that by creating anti-heroes, the characters that exist between good and evil. Let’s get into the nitty-gritty of an anti-hero and how to make your readers fall in love with them.

What are Anti-Heroes?

A joke about Anti-Heroes

First off let’s start with our definition:

Anti-Hero: is a central character who lacks conventional heroic attributes and sometimes displays the qualities of a villain, such as conceitedness, immorality, rebellion, and dishonesty. They are also known as modern heroes.

Anti-heroes are a type of protagonist, but they differ from the role models we associate with traditional heroes. These characters have their own moral codes and sense of justice that are developed due to other character flaws and their own cloudy moral compass.

And it’s these flaws and morally-ambiguous codes that make them realistic, complex, and likable. We know that their actions are ultimately noble, but these characters don’t always act for the right reasons. For example, they might save someone because it furthers their interests, not because they actually care about helping others.

What’s the Difference?

Anti-heroes are different in multiple ways from their purely good and purely evil counterparts, which is what makes them interesting. They like to take qualities from both camps and mash them into a unique whole, as you can see in the Venn diagram below.

Venn diagram showing the differences between heroes, anti-heroes, and villains

But if you want a more direct comparison between a hero and an anti-hero this chart has your back:

Chart highlighting the differences between heroes and anti-heroes

Anti-heroes, as we can see, are foils for the traditional hero. They have some of the qualities that a hero can have, but they don’t always do good deeds for the right reasons, and there’s a chance that they won’t grow at the end of a film, novel, or short story.

The Characteristics of an Anti-Hero

An anti-hero is not merely a rebel who cannot follow the rules. He acts as he does, along with his self-concept, which is essential to the story. Another trick to creating a complicated anti-hero is to shape his less-than-moral traits and acts into a statement about humanity. Consider the following points when constructing your anti-hero:

  • Are not role models (but we want to act like them sometimes).
  • Their appearance and character are not always glamorous or attractive.
  • Can be motivated by self-interest and self-preservation, but, there is usually a line anti-heroes won’t cross, which sets them apart from villains
  • Often have motives that are complicated and range from revenge to honor
  • When forced to choose between right and wrong, will sometimes choose wrong because it’s easier
  • They profit from being the good and bad guy
  • Can sometimes be coerced to help underdogs, children or weaker characters, and sometimes even do so voluntarily
  • Anti-heroes sometimes embody unattractive traits and behaviors, such as sexist and racist attitudes, and violent reactions when wronged
  • Can show little or no remorse for bad behaviors
  • Are usually a mess of contradictions.

While anti-heroes are necessarily complex, beware of making them too angst-ridden or wacky to be understood or sympathetic. Unlike most villains, anti-heroes can be redeemed or transformed by the end of the story – they can become heroic. The most important thing to remember is that anti-heroes are the antithesis of the ultra-competent hero.

The Different Types of Anti-Heroes

According to Heroism Wiki, anti-hero once referred to a single specific kind of character archetype. Over time, the term has evolved to cover several different types, which all have one key aspect in common: they serve as contrasts to the knights in shining armor.

There are five types of anti-heroes that you can taunt your hero-loving readers with:

Classical Anti-heroes

Think of the perfect hero. This person is strong, brave, intelligent, beautiful, and an excellent fighter. If you take that image and invert it, you’ll get the classical anti-hero.

The character arc for this anti-hero is to conquer their fears and flaws to defeat the bad guy. They won’t ever be a full-fledged hero or completely change, but they make an effort to do so.

Bilbo Baggins from J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit is an excellent example of a classical anti-hero. He doesn’t fit our preconceived notions of what a traditional hero would look like. He’s small, a little spoiled, and not very sure of himself.

He grows and changes throughout the tale, but he never grows into his newfound knowledge and skills. Bilbo goes right back to being who he was at the start of the novel.

Bilbo eyeing up Smaug in The Hobbit (image: Warner Bros. Pictures)

The “Disney” Anti-hero

The Disney anti-hero (or the reluctant hero) is good at the core but has a nice cynicism layer covering their admirable qualities. They tend to be sarcastic, realists, and favor logic over honor. Thankfully, these anti-heroes usually don’t like doing anything morally-ambiguous.

The reluctant hero doesn’t feel the need to join the good fight until it’s necessary. It only becomes mandatory for them to participate if they are given a reason to join, like protecting someone they kind of care about from harm, or find a worthy cause. In essence, they only join in when they have a stake in the outcome.

There are a lot of reluctant heroes out there. The most well-known is probably Hans Solo from Star Wars. He only agrees to help Luke and Princess Leia because Luke is going to pay him handsomely. Fortunately, he has a change of heart and helps Luke destroy the Death Star at the last minute.

Another example would be Professor Severus Snape in Harry Potter. He does not like Harry because of who his father was. But throughout the series, Snape starts to like Harry because he reminds Snape of Lily. And it’s his love for Lily and a need for revenge against Voldemort, which makes Snape have a change of heart.

Pragmatic Anti-heroes

Pragmatic anti-heroes are the ones that start to wade into the moral grey area. In a nutshell, this anti-hero is a slightly darker version of the Disney anti-hero.

They’re both self-centered and reluctant to accept the hero role. However, the pragmatic anti-hero is more likely to step into the fray if they see any wrongdoings. They are also more willing to do some dubious things to achieve their goals.

Tyrion Lannister from George R. R. Martin’s Game of Thrones is an excellent example of this anti-hero type. He’s not a bad person and possesses many good qualities, but he’s been treated harshly by society for being a dwarf. He can be extremely self-centered and can act violently when the need arises.

In the HBO show’s final season, Tyrion doesn’t like what his sister has done to the Kingdom and want her to fall. He sees Daenerys as a way to bring about her fall, but when Daenerys starts to go a little crazy, he has no qualms about arranging her exile to ensure the safety of the innocent people of King’s Landing.

Unscrupulous Anti-heroes

This is as dark as you get while still being “good.” This protagonist’s intentions and motives are honorable, but things are getting murky on the morality scale.

This unscrupulous anti-hero is extremely cynical, and their drive to do good is often skewed by past traumas and a thirst for vengeance. They generally take down a despicable villain who “had it coming.” Instead of bringing this person to justice peacefully, this anti-hero can become vicious and enjoy their “necessary” acts of violence.

Jack Sparrow from Pirates of the Caribbean is an interesting anti-hero to look at. He wants revenge against his former shipmates for taking The Black Pearl away from him. And he’s going to get it back no matter the cost.

He’s not a bad character, he can be capable of doing good deeds, but why should he? He only helps Will and Elizabeth out because they’re going to help him get what he wants inadvertently. And if they’re collateral damage, then so be it.

The “Hero” in Name Only

These guys fight on the side of good, but for no good reason. Either their intentions are entirely selfish, and they just happen to be pointing their guns at the bad guys, or their motivations are only slightly less ugly than the villains.

Sometimes they want to shoot somebody because they have nothing better to do. You root for them, but you don’t agree with anything they do. The villains they are fighting are generally worse than the anti-hero.

The best example of this type of anti-hero is Deadpool. He kills, doesn’t have many morals, and is out for revenge. Deadpool is screwed over by the doctor who ruthlessly brought his mutant DNA to the forefront, and disfigures him for life, making him lose the woman he loves. He’s out for the doctor’s blood and will kill anyone who stands in his way.

The only reason that we like Deadpool is because the story is told from his perspective, and he’s funny. But even his humor is questionable.

How to Write Dark and Brooding Anti-Heroes

Anti-heroes resemble ordinary people whose thinking and values contradict the norm, making it crucial to rouse your reader’s compassion. Without that compassion, your reader won’t relate to your twisted character because they don’t have a deep understanding of what makes your anti-hero tick.

The trick to this is to present the darker side of human nature in a way that readers can understand and get behind. Remember that anti-heroes are “real” people that your readers should be able to relate to.

Here are some tips to help you create an anti-hero that readers will love:

Backstory is vital.

You need to make your anti-hero believable, so you need to give them a realistic backstory. This backstory will help your readers figure out why your anti-hero is bad or angry. It explains how your anti-hero became the person they are today.

More importantly, it helps your readers sympathize with him. For example, a woman that hunts and kills child molesters because she was molested is a bit easier to understand.

Focus on the flaws but add a redeemable quality.

Unlike heroes, anti-heroes have many faults and flaws. They don’t want to save the day, and they sure as hell aren’t perfect. So give them several flaws. More than what you would give your average hero. But not so many flaws, that they become a true villain or unrealistically fallible.

And you must balance those faults with something that will endear your readers to the anti-hero’s cause. Your readers need to connect with your character; they want to care about what happens to your anti-hero, so give them a reason to do so.

For example, Dexter is an excellent example of this. Yes, he’s a serial killer that dismembers his victims, but he’s also portrayed as a loving father and brother, making his serial killing tendencies easier to swallow.

Inner conflict goes a long way.

Your anti-hero didn’t want to save the day and is now doing just that. There will be instances of self-doubt and inner conflict as the story unfolds, which is good. It helps create suspense because no one is sure how your anti-hero will deal with a crisis or event. It helps keep things interesting.

Let’s go back to Dexter. He faces inner conflict regularly because he thrives on killing people. However, he worries about the repercussions of being caught and the pain it would cause his family. This draws readers in because they want to know what happens to Dexter and what he will do next.

Give your anti-heroes a buddy.

Anti-heroes don’t live in complete isolation. They’re going to befriend others, and that’s a good thing. These friends and companions act as your anti-hero’s moral compass when he gets a bad idea. They also allow you to show off your anti-hero’s softer side, making them more likable.

The TV show, The Sopranos, effectively used secondary characters to balance out their anti-hero. The writers gave Tony Soprano a therapist that he was vulnerable with, giving the audience a reason to like the mobster.

Create an even worse antagonist.

Anti-heroes aren’t nice people, but they aren’t the worst of humanity either. That means you must create someone even worse than your anti-hero in the character development process. This villain is so evil that they make your anti-hero look like a kitten.

And please don’t confuse your anti-hero with your antagonist. They’re two separate beings. I know your anti-hero does terrible things, but everything they do is ultimately for some higher good, and they can justify their actions. Unlike an antagonist, an anti-hero ultimately believes they are acting for a noble cause.

Take the spat between Davy Jones and Jack Sparrow, for instance. Jack, being who he is, never intended to hold up his end of his bargain with Davy Jones. Davy Jones wants Jack Sparrow no matter what, and due to his lack of heart, he is willing to kill anyone who stands in his way. On top of this, Davy Jones has control of the Kraken, making him a formidable foe on the sea.

Even anti-heroes need motivation.

No one does anything without reason. Even characters with no morals need a reason to accept the challenges that await them later on in your book.

For example, Wolverine was coerced into helping the X-men save mutants and humans alike. He wasn’t given much of a choice and was thrust into leadership roles he did not want. And deep down, we know he’s a good guy and wouldn’t let anyone get hurt.

It’s the same with Deadpool. He wasn’t going to hurt anyone unless it benefited him somehow (i.e., kill for money). However, after being tortured and disfigured by Francis, he wants to enact revenge and have Francis fix his face.

Developing and writing anti-heroes isn’t just about creating a cranky character who goes against the grain. You have to decide what type of anti-hero you want to portray and how to draw readers to this character and their story.

Put “simply” an anti-hero is incredibly conflicted and complicated. And it can be challenging to create the perfect anti-hero. It’s a balancing act that you must tread successfully. You’ll either have a dull, goody-two-shoes on your hand or an inaccessible, vile villain if you fail.

But if you do it right, you’ll have a character that readers will love to loathe. And that’s what we want to aim for.

Who is your favorite anti-hero, and why?

Stay safe, everyone.

Until next time.



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Danielle Adams

Danielle Adams

Danielle Adams is a writer and editor for a local marketing agency. She has formerly worked as a writer for the Investing News Network and as an editor for Whetstone, a bi-annually published literary magazine. Aside from writing, Danielle has an unabiding love for all marine life and the outdoors. She loves taking long hikes with her husband and cooking delicious meals in the kitchen.


9 Responses

  1. I agree that the appeal of antiheroes has to do with, we want to be like them sometimes.
    Also, in the standard hero character package, we mostly know what we’re getting; we have an idea of what they’re going to do at any given moment.
    With the a-h, however, we don’t know what they’re going to do. Anticipation over what might happen gets us interested.

    1. And I think a lot of the reason why I love anti-heroes is that I like not knowing what’s going to happen at any given moment. I do love a good hero, but there’s something to be said for a bit of “spontaneity” too. 🙂

      1. A roguish character thrust into the role of protagonist doesn’t have to follow the same set of rules as a “Dudley Do-right” has to follow. In that regard, the character is more empowered. We like to see our characters empowered.
        A great example is the main outlaw character in the novel “Catlow” by Louis L’Amour.

      2. Exactly! Breaking, or bending, the rules is a lot more fun that towing the line. And even our “real heroes” bend a few of the rules in order to save the day.

        I haven’t read the book, but it sounds interesting!

      3. Original Diehard:
        “You are za police? Zen you cannot hurt me. Zere are rules.”
        “Yeah. That’s what my captain keeps telling me.”

        That book is a good old-west buddy story, told from opposite sides of the law.

      4. Lol. Love that scene! 🙂

        I may have to check it out or pass it along to the fiancé. He likes those kinds of books.

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