In recent history, antiheroes have exploded onto popular media. They’re some of the most interesting characters in films, TV series, novels, and comic books. But did you know that antiheroes aren’t a modern invention? They’ve cropped up in some of our most beloved and memorable literary works.
Let’s explore what an antihero is in storytelling, how they’re different from other literary characters, and how you can create engaging, lovable antiheroes of your own. We’ll look at examples of antiheroes in popular fiction, too.
What is an antihero character?
An antihero—sometimes spelled “anti-hero” or “anti hero”—is a central character in a narrative work who lacks the attributes of a more traditional hero archetype.
The term antihero doesn’t mean a character that’s the opposite of a hero—that would be a villain—it means they have both good and bad qualities that subvert the reader’s expectations of what a traditional hero should be.
Antiheroes are some of the most complex characters in literature. As a main character, they’re imperfect in very relatable, human ways.
There are different types of antiheroes, depending on where their moral compass lies and what they do to obtain their goals. We’ll look at these types in more detail with some examples below.
What’s the difference between a hero and an antihero?
If an antihero is a type of hero, what’s the difference between the two? Is an antihero even a real hero at all? It can be confusing at first, so let’s look at the two a bit closer.
Traditional heroes are usually the protagonists of a story and exhibit all the traits we want to look up to: brains, brawn, leadership, nobility, charisma, great hair days. They show us the best of what we have the potential to be. Captain America, from the comic books and films of the same name, is an example of a classic hero archetype.
An antihero is a lot more like who we are right now, complete with pragmatism, good intentions, occasionally crippling self-doubt, a desire to do more or less the right thing where possible, and not-so-hot hair days.
Some antiheroes will fall closer to the hero end of the spectrum, those who try to do good with certain limitations, while others will feel more like villains who make bad decisions for understandable reasons.
Severus Snape from the Harry Potter series is an example of an antihero who makes both heroic and villainous choices.
What’s the difference between an antihero and a villain?
Since they exist on a sliding scale, antiheroes and villains can often seem quite similar. The difference exists within the audience’s ability to sympathise with the character’s choices.
The wicked witch from Hansel and Gretel, for example, is a villain. Why? Because we can all agree that eating small runaways is objectively bad. Even if you tell exactly the same story with the witch as the main character, they’ll be a villain protagonist rather than an antihero. Within the framework of our society, there’s nothing that justifies this action.
Voldemort from the Harry Potter series inches a little bit further down the spectrum, because he truly believes that what he’s doing is for the greater good, but he’s still a villain. Why? Because genocide is bad—always. In spite of his views, there’s no suffering great enough to justify the catastrophic choices he makes in pursuit of his goal.
In these examples, the reader won’t be able to sympathise with the actions of the character.
Antiheroes are morally ambiguous characters who may commit questionable deeds with good intentions, or do immoral things for reasons that the reader can relate to. Sometimes their actions are influenced by past traumas or a skewed perception of the world. We understand these choices, because we see our own values and fears reflected within them.
It’s important to note that neither of these are fixed points within a narrative. An antihero can begin with honorable intentions and then descend into villainy through their experiences within the story, or a villain can discover a new way of looking at the world and their own humanity to become more of an antihero.
These complex character arcs of redemption and degradation are always a favorite in literature.
3 types of antihero archetypes in literature
Antiheroes are some of our favorite morally-grey characters, and some of the most true-to-life you’ll find on page or screen. However, they fall into a wide range of “good guys” and “bad guys”, each with their own rules, heroic qualities, and moral ambiguity.
Let’s take a look at three types of anti-hero characters that have found their way into our hearts.
Did you know that when a certain webslinger first embarked into the world (Amazing Fantasy #15, 1962), it was predicted he would be a complete and utter flop?
He was a teenager, for starters (teenagers could only be sidekicks), his symbol was a spider (gross), and his peers at school constantly made fun of him (it may have been the haircut). He was the 98-pound weakling getting sand kicked in his face. “Stan,” said Marvel Comics, “you’ve just gotta let this one go.”
Stan did not let this one go, and sixty years later, Spiderman has become a cultural institution.
A classical antihero character might be someone who does good deeds and tries their best, but they don’t fit the image of what people think of when they imagine a hero. They might be scrawny, socially awkward, or have a temper. In short, they’re just like us, and that’s what makes us want to root for them every step of the way.
Bilbo Baggins and Arthur Dent are other examples of this type of antihero.
Every culture in the world has trickster archetypes somewhere in their mythology. Some examples include the iconic Loki from Norse myth, the spider god Anansi from West African myth, and Coyote from American indigenous mythology.
Tricksters are some of our favorite literary characters, because they’re sneaky and clever and always come out on top. You might also see this called the “pragmatic antihero.”
With these characters, we often feel they could switch sides at any moment—and sometimes they do, or pretend to, in order to achieve their goals.
The trickster antihero often has a cynical and morally ambiguous view of the world. They usually have a clear idea of right and wrong, but their ethical compass won’t always be the guiding force of their journey. Instead, they’ll search for the path that offers the most personal gain with, ideally, the least amount of collateral damage.
Readers love watching these reluctant heroes grow to care for those around them and overcome their inherent self interest over the course of the story. Puck from A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Jack Sparrow are examples of this type of antihero.
These types of antiheroes teeter dangerously close to becoming villains, exhibiting many of the same personal failings as those they fight. A favorite of noir fiction, these are often characterized by the fact that although the protagonist is deeply flawed, everyone around them is exponentially worse.
Unscrupulous antiheroes are single-minded and driven towards their objective, taking questionable actions for their own benefit. Their goal might be something like vengeance, knowledge, or protecting the ones they love.
These actions are usually driven by complex traumas and internal conflicts. To make the readers sympathize with this type of protagonist, your antihero’s backstory needs to be sympathetic and well-developed.
Harley Quinn from the Batman comics and Jayne from the TV series Firefly are examples of this antihero type.
Examples of antiheroes from literature
Here are a few more antihero examples that have captured readers’ hearts over the years.
The OG antihero that launched a thousand LARPs, this classic character goes against the grain of society in order to do what’s right. In contemporary portrayals Robin Hood is often shown as a tortured underdog fighting a corrupt and oppressive system; in his earliest incarnation, however, he was a lovable renegade whose life motto was essentially, “here for a good time, not a long time.”
As we’ve seen, comic books are the ideal soil for antiheroes. Batman is dark, antisocial, and a little scary—compared to shinier examples of upstanding citizens like Superman or Captain America, Batman comes off as the moody goth kid in the room. In fact, his character is based on traits more commonly associated with a villain. He’s an inversion of the classic hero archetype, and that’s what makes him so enduring and fascinating.
Who would have thought that a fuzzy green grump from 1957 would become such a beloved literary figure? The Grinch is curmudgeonly, vindictive, and nasty to his dog. He has all the makings of a classic villain, and yet, readers see how he has the capacity to grow. By the end of his story, he’s learned a valuable lesson about humanity and how he can become better in the future.
Haymitch Abernathy from The Hunger Games
Haymitch is a reluctant hero who turns to alcohol to bury his pain. Early in his story, he believes the destructive political system is too powerful for anyone to stand against. As the central protagonist shows him the potential for hope, he gradually allows himself to take a more active role in the conflict and overcomes his weakness and fear.
Edmund Pevensie from The Chronicles of Narnia
Of the four Pevensie children, Edmund is the least heroic; he lies, cheats, and accepts bribes from a charming witch—very much like any real child would. The story sets him up as a villain, and yet, his weaknesses are those that any reader might recognize deep within themselves. Over the course of the story he grows in a realistic and believable way, becoming a true hero alongside his siblings.
How to write a great antihero for your own story
Ready to craft an antihero as the main character of your own work? Since they walk the finest of lines between hero and villain, good guys and bad guys, they need to be expertly drawn in order to engage the reader. Let’s look at some things to keep in mind when writing your antihero protagonist.
1. Make them relatable
The essential thing to keep in mind when crafting an effective antihero protagonist is that they need to feel familiar to the reader—even if we’ve never met them before.
We have a soft spot for antiheroes because they exhibit believably flawed human behavior. We see how they turn our own inherent weaknesses into strengths.
Your antihero can be a basically good person who is also vulnerable, selfish, cowardly, impulsive, avaricious, or any other combination of core traits that make someone a perfectly imperfect part of the human race. Then, show your reader how your protagonist does the right thing in spite of, or even because of, these weaknesses. This shows them that we can, too.
2. Give them a core motivation
Main characters need a strong motivation to drive the plot forward. This is where your antihero’s backstory comes in.
For us to be able to relate to your main character’s unethical or damaging choices, we absolutely need to understand why—what drives them to do the things they do.
Revenge is a common motivator for vigilante antiheroes. So is protecting a loved one. Your antihero may begin their story with good intentions, but their circumstance forces them onto the dark side as their moral compass begins to collapse.
If your protagonist is fighting for something they truly believe in, and that we can imagine ourselves fighting for in our own lives, we’ll believe in it too.
3. Juxtapose them against something worse
Some of the most compelling antiheroes in popular culture exist in a world overrun by cruelty and corruption.
The Punisher is a great example of this. The polar opposite of a traditional hero, he murders people who wrong him and those he loves. In any other story he might be a textbook villain, but because the other characters around him are so eroded and depraved, we cheer him on as the best chance we have.
When writing your antihero, look for ways to make your villain even scarier and their circumstances even more challenging. That way, your readers will understand why your antihero has been forced to go to great lengths and push the limits of their own morality in order to achieve their goal.
4. Allow your antihero to change
Dynamic character development is the key to an engaging antihero. Readers want to see how your morally grey protagonist faces their own internal struggle and becomes something new.
They might be someone who begins with bad intentions and then becomes the reluctant hero of the story, or they might be someone who starts off thinking they’re doing the right thing and then becomes seduced by their own weakness.
For example, consider Draco Malfoy from the Harry Potter series; he begins as a simple schoolyard bully with rich parents and not a lot of emotional depth. But as soon as he gets in over his head and struggles with the conflicting desires of self interest and doing the right thing, we suddenly want to root for him.
We see his potential to be good, and the turmoil he faces because of it, and want nothing more than to be there at the very moment where the scale tips one way or the other.
Just like other characters, your antihero should go through a complex and dynamic arc over the course of their journey. They teeter just at the very precipice of good and evil, and the story’s narrative tension comes from wondering which one will win.
Antiheroes are some of literature’s best-loved characters
Traditional heroes will always belong in storytelling, but dynamic antiheroes occupy a special place in our hearts. They give you an opportunity to craft fascinating stories out of the underbelly of humanity, and show readers that anyone can become a hero in their own way.