Once upon a time, audiences could watch a theatrical performance and know exactly who they were supposed to be rooting for. The hero was dashing, stalwart, and noble. The villain was dastardly, scheming, and easily identified by his rakish black hat. Good triumphed over evil and everyone went home knowing their place in the world.
Of course, real life isn’t quite what it is on the stage, and contemporary writers know that messy humanity is more interesting than seeing things in black and white. That’s why today’s literature is populated by fascinating blended characters like anti-heroes and anti-villains—because no one is truly who they seem.
We’ll take you through everything you need to know about anti-heroes, villains, and anti-villains in all their compelling shades of grey.
What’s the difference between anti-hero vs. villain?
Villains are the “bad guys” of a story, while anti-heroes are more complex characters that aren’t necessarily evil, but that don’t display the heroic qualities a reader expects from classic heroes. Anti-heroes and villains are both archetypal characters that don’t fit the traditional hero mold: anti-heroes may do some unethical things, but they’re never completely evil, while villains are always unsympathetic and irredeemable.
Villains tend to be fairly one-dimensional characters who do things that are unequivocally bad. Anti-heroes, by contrast, are more relatable and human. They try to do the right thing as best they can, but go about it in damaging or unconventional ways.
For example, the Harry Potter series features a range of villains and anti-heroes. Lord Voldermort is a villain, while Harry Potter, Severus Snape, and the Weasley Twins are all different types of anti-heroes. The series also has its share of anti-villains, like Draco Malfoy.
We’ll look more at all these types of characters further below.
What is an anti-hero?
An anti-hero is a protagonist who, for a range of reasons, lacks the qualities of a traditional hero. They might be physically unimpressive, morally ambiguous, or opportunistic. These characters reflect a more human approach to heroism; they do their best, make mistakes, and learn things along the way.
Anti-heroes are some of the most popular characters in literature because they don’t represent an unattainable ideal; instead, they show the potential for heroism that exists in all of us.
Types of anti-heroes
All anti-heroes are protagonists that deviate from the more archetypal hero image in some way. However, there are a few different approaches writers take to creating anti-heroes in their work.
A classical anti-hero is an “everyman” archetypal character who takes on a heroic role in a story. These characters don’t fit the conventional heroic attributes audiences typically came to expect: handsome, charismatic, noble, brave, uncompromised. Instead, classical anti-heroes might be nerdy teenagers (a tradition which arguably began with King Arthur and has become a fan favorite across time), impoverished farmers, headstrong young women, or other familiar figures of everyday life.
Today, readers’ expectations of what a hero can look like have become much broader. Because of this, these types of protagonists aren’t usually considered anti-heroes in the same way. However, in the days of heroes like Beowulf, Achilles, and later Captain America, giving everyday people a heroic role was considered a brave and strong choice.
Peter Parker is an example of this type of anti-hero.
Tricksters are some of the most beloved characters in myth and folklore. These heroes usually have good intentions; however, their primary focus is on achieving their own goals, rather than helping others. Very often these characters are at some sort of physical disadvantage, which means they need to rely on wits and cleverness to come out on top.
A trickster character will often change sides part way through a narrative (sometimes more than once) to serve their own self-interest. Despite their moral ambiguity, they generally emerge on the side of good. Sometimes, they might turn into more traditional heroes along their journey.
Loki from Norse mythology, and from the myriad books and films born out of this myth, is an example of this type of anti-hero.
The reluctant anti-hero is someone who is drawn into fighting the good fight against their will. This might be a former hero who has given up trying to make a difference in a fundamentally broken world, or someone who has avoided taking the heroic path because they have too much to lose. These types of anti-heroes prefer to stay out of harm’s way, only emerging from their self-imposed shell when something deeply personal is at risk.
Readers and film viewers love reluctant anti-heroes, because their archetypal journey is as predictable as it is satisfying. The reader knows that by the end, the reluctant anti-hero will have put their selfishness aside and found the courage to stand up for something greater than themselves.
Haymitch Abernathy from the Hunger Games series is an example of this type of anti-hero.
The pragmatic anti-hero is in some ways the opposite of the reluctant anti-hero; they see the big picture and not much else. They make choices in pursuit of the greater good, even if those choices have negative repercussions on a more intimate scale.
These anti-heroes are often in positions of authority: for instance, teachers, rulers, or religious leaders. They might think they know better than those around them and are more qualified to make difficult choices. These character types might overlap with the mentor archetype.
Albus Dumbledore from the Harry Potter series is an example of this type of anti-hero.
The unscrupulous anti-hero is a morally corrupt protagonist who makes toxic and damaging choices in order to achieve their goal. They tend to be very single-minded to the point of obsession and lose sight of whatever ethical boundaries they may have once had.
The only difference between this kind of character and a villain or anti-villain is that the story is being told from their perspective. While this narrative in particular has chosen to explore the journey this character undergoes, they could easily be the villain of someone else’s story.
The best unscrupulous anti-hero characters exist in a world where the cards are stacked against them. Even though they’re far from perfect, the reader should see that the hero is doing their best to survive seemingly impossible odds.
The Punisher is an example of this type of anti-hero.
Examples of anti-heroes in popular media
To see how these character archetypes look in practice, here are some popular examples from literature and film.
Victor Vale in Vicious, by V.E. Schwab
Vicious is an urban fantasy novel that deliberately plays with the conventions of traditional heroes and villains. The central character, Victor, is a superpowered killer who’s been jailed for the accidental murder of his best friend’s girlfriend—a murder which became the catalyst for triggering his superpowers in the first place.
For a while, Victor embraces the traditional villain role that has been pushed upon him. Over the course of the story, however, he develops a stronger moral compass and makes sacrifices to help his new friends, making him an anti-hero.
Bilbo Baggins in The Hobbit, by J.R.R. Tolkien
Bilbo Baggins isn’t what we would typically think of as an anti-hero today, but he perfectly fits the classical anti-hero mould of an everyman character pushed into a heroic role. He is a creature of home comforts who doesn’t stick his neck out for anyone, preferring instead to drink tea while puttering about his house.
Bilbo undergoes a dramatic heroic arc as he transcends his circumstances and becomes a force for good. However, his humble and unexpected beginnings make him a perfect example of a classic anti-hero.
Jack Sparrow in Pirates of the Caribbean
Jack Sparrow in the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise has become one of the most popular trickster figures in early-21st-century film. Although he is a positive figure overall, he oscillates between being a good guy and a bad guy as needed to achieve his goals.
Throughout the film, Jack Sparrow exhibits immoral, unethical, and certainly roguish tendencies not normally associated with heroic figures. However, he also displays loyalty and even self-sacrifice by the end of his journey, making him one of the good guys.
What is a villain?
A villain is a stock character who intentionally commits criminal or immoral acts for their own personal gain. Unlike anti-heroes, true villains lack psychological complexity and are often used as character foils to the hero. When an audience sees a villain on a page or a screen, they always know that they’re the bad guy of the story.
These characters make for engaging yet one-dimensional storytelling. For this reason they’ve historically been best suited to oral storytelling, such as stories told around a campfire or epic poems read out as evening entertainment.
Today’s audiences want to see more humanity and shades of gray. This is why, if you’re including a true villain in your story, it’s often useful to also throw some more sympathetic or relatable baddies into the mix.
Is your antagonist a villain or an anti-hero?
If your work in progress follows a classic framework, you’ll probably have at least one major antagonist. So how do you know if they’re an anti-hero or a true villain?
As we saw above, anti-heroes are complex and nuanced characters who have enough going on under the surface to be understandable, and even sympathetic, to their audience. Villains, by contrast, are bad guys who do unquestionably bad things. They’re held at a distance from the reader because their actions are so reprehensible and alien to our way of being.
That doesn’t mean that villains can’t be effective in a good story. They often do their best work when they’re used to illustrate the spectrum of humanity; villains represent the farthest that we can possibly fall, and what is left behind when all our morality and compassion for others is lost.
If your character tries to do the right thing in the wrong way, or the wrong thing for the right reasons, they’re probably an anti-hero or an anti-villain (which we’ll look at in detail further below). If your character does bad things against other people for their own personal gain, they’re probably a villain.
Examples of villains in popular media
Here are some examples of memorable villains in literature and film.
The wicked witch of the west from The Wizard of Oz
The wicked witch of the west is one of the most iconic villains in cinematic history, though she originated in L. Frank Baum’s novel of the same name. Later, she was given a sympathetic backstory in Gregory Maguire’s Wicked (and the following stage adaptation), but in her earlier iteration she was as villainous as they come.
In the original novel, the wicked witch is searching for a pair of silver shoes that will increase her power, letting her rule over all of Oz. She uses her magical powers to enslave the people of her land. The film version, by contrast, gave her a slightly more empathetic journey as she sought vengeance for the death of her sister (as well as her trademark green skin, which would become synonymous with the character from that point forward).
Dolores Umbridge from the Harry Potter series
The Harry Potter series has a wide range of characters all across the spectrum of good and evil. Many of them have their fans and their detractors, but none are quite so universally hated as Dolores Umbridge.
Umbridge is a great example of a cold, calculating villain who’s also entirely realistic. This is a difficult balance to walk, since we often think of true villains as creatures of fantasy, rather than real life. However, she’s an effective character because she reflects the sort of people who abuse positions of authority and hide cruelty behind order in the real world. This is a useful approach to keep in mind when developing villains of your own.
Sauron from the Lord of the Rings series
The central villain of J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings novels exists mostly as a figurehead along the periphery of the story. He is a soldier and necromancer bent on world domination, using a blend of fear mongering and battle tactics to amass followers. Ultimately, he is defeated by a band of friends who valiantly toss his center of power into a volcano.
This villain acts more as a catalyst for the other characters than anything else. He’s the fantastical version of a figure like Hitler—a plot device for moving the heroes forward onto their journey.
Is your antagonist an anti-villain?
Anti-villains are characters that fill an antagonistic role in a story, similar to a villain, but they’re not purely evil. They believe that they’re doing the best they can in the circumstances they’ve been given. They might do evil things because they believe the benevolent end justifies the means, or they might be forced into evil acts out of self-preservation.
These characters are some of the most effective antagonists, because you as the writer give the reader a reason to understand and even sympathize with them—even if they don’t agree with the way the anti-villain goes about achieving their goals.
Types of anti-villains
Here are some of the different types of anti-villains you’ll see in literature, and ways to approach writing your own.
The sympathetic anti-villain is one who has come to their villainy through some sort of challenging circumstance or trauma; for example, one who was irreversibly damaged by a tragedy within their family or community.
These types of anti-villains might have evolved into something that’s pure evil, but the reader can see the lost paths they could have taken if life had been kinder to them. This creates empathy and a feeling of loss when the villain ultimately meets their undoing.
Carrie White from Carrie is an example of this type of anti-villain.
The well-meaning anti-villain is someone who is trying to do the right thing, but becomes too focused on their goal to see how much damage they’re inflicting along the way. Their actions are in service to the greater good, but they lack the ability to distinguish between the means and the end.
These characters have sharp, black-and-white views of the world and can often be found in positions of authority, such as lawmen and politicians. They staunchly believe themselves to be a good person fighting against adversity in questionable or extremist ways.
Nathaniel Barnes from the series Gotham is an example of this type of anti-villain.
The circumstantial or situational anti-villain is a character who has been pushed into their villainy by bad luck, desperation, or simply being in the wrong place at the wrong time. The reader understands that this character isn’t trying to be a villain; they just haven’t been given any other choice.
Unlike a more typical villain, these characters will usually have some redeeming qualities that make them more human in the eyes of the reader. Sometimes they might even come around to the side of good by the end of the story; others, they might fully succumb to the dark side due to forces beyond their control.
Frankenstein’s monster is an example of this type of anti-villain.
Some villains do irredeemable and dastardly things, but they do it with such flair that you can’t help but warm to them. They might be seductive, clever, or a skilled fighter. Even though you don’t agree with their actions, a part of you enjoys seeing them burn the world down.
These anti-villains do bad things, but they do them in such a way that makes you wish you could wear villainy half as well. Sometimes, these anti-villains can shift into other character types further along their journey (especially in ongoing book or television series, where they have the space to win the loyalty of their fans over time).
Dottie Underwood from the series Agent Carter is an example of this type of anti-villain.
Examples of anti-villains in popular media
Now, let’s see how anti-villains look on the page and screen.
Eli Ever in Vicious, by V.E. Schwab
In the same novel mentioned above, the antagonist, Eli Ever, publicly portrays a superhero persona as he protects the world from malevolent forces. In reality, however, he’s closer to a serial killer who targets anyone with superpowers, believing them to be an unholy abomination and a threat to humanity.
Eli is a well-meaning anti-villain who believes he’s on a righteous mission to save the world. However, his worldview lacks nuance and he ends up causing harm indiscriminately.
Glory in Buffy the Vampire Slayer
This iconic TV series has a huge range of anti-heroes and anti-villains. In fact, the protagonist herself could be considered an anti-hero because she was originally intended to be a spin on the frail, blonde, damsel-in-distress trope. Glory, a vengeful goddess, embodies a similar aesthetic as a stylish, confident, Regina George-type supervillain.
Even though this character is irredeemably evil, she has become a fan favorite character due to her charisma and humor. This puts her in the “charming anti-villain” category.
Draco Malfoy in the Harry Potter series
The Harry Potter series has a huge range of morally complex characters. Draco Malfoy begins as a fairly one-dimensional school bully, but develops more nuance as the series progresses. The reader learns to sympathize with him as we come to understand his challenging upbringing, and his efforts to make amends for some of his mistakes.
Anti-hero or villain? It’s a gray area
Even though classic heroes and villains may carry a special place in our hearts, today’s avid reader understands that humanity, with all its best intentions, is messy. The most relatable protagonist will always be a complex character with both heroic qualities and tragic flaws, courage and morality balanced with weakness that we see reflected in ourselves.