All stories have a protagonist. They're the good guy, or girl, doing their best to overcome obstacles and save the day. But sometimes there's a story with an anti-hero as its main character – someone who isn't necessarily bad but does things that aren't always so great. In this article, we'll explore what makes them different from your average protagonist and provide some examples of anti-heroes in popular stories.
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What is an anti-hero?
The textbook definition of an anti-hero in a story is a lead character who lacks qualities of traditional heroes, such as courage and morality. To make up for this they might be exceptionally skilled in a certain area or have an interesting flaw that makes them more complex character.
But an anti-hero is still fundamentally good at heart and not a bad guy. They're just willing to do whatever it takes to save their loved ones instead of playing by the rules all the time. So while you shouldn't root for your hero to suffer because he's doing bad things, you also shouldn't be against them because their heart is always in the right place.
The difference between an anti-hero and an anti-villain
An anti-villain is the polar opposite of an anti-hero: a character with heroic qualities, who turns out to be the villain. Their intended goals are usually good, but their methods range from bad to ugly.
Anti-heroes are still good people, but their approach to achieving what they want might be different than what society deems "acceptable". On the other hand, an anti-villain is evil and does whatever it takes to get ahead no matter who gets hurt in the process.
Common traits of an anti-hero
1. They tend to make selfish decisions and don't care about the consequences.
An anti-hero will often do what's best for their own self-interest even if it means putting other people in danger. They're not necessarily evil, but they definitely don't have the same sense of honor and duty as a traditional hero does.
For example, in the Harry Potter series, Draco Malfoy is a Slytherin student and son of a Death Eater. He's not a good guy by any means, but he's also not pure evil. Throughout the books he makes selfish decisions that often put himself and his family first. But in the end, he makes decisions to go against the main antagonist and helps the protagonists.
2. They may be fighting for what they believe is a noble cause, but their methods are often questionable.
An anti-hero's belief in something is what motivates them and sometimes they can be morally grey. They're fighting for the greater good, just not necessarily playing by all of the rules that a hero would follow. In this way, they can be more relatable to readers because their actions are understandable even if you wouldn't do them yourself in real life.
But because their methods are often questionable, this can also lead to a lot of inner conflict and turmoil for the anti-hero. They're doing what they think is right, but it's hard to be proud of their questionable deeds when they were selfish or done at someone else's expense.
3. They rebel against authority figures and society
One of the defining characteristics of anti-heroes is their unwillingness to play by the rules and live up to expectations put on them. They don't want someone else telling them what they can or cannot do, even if it's for their own good. So while a traditional hero may be loyal and follow orders from those in charge, an anti-hero will often go against these commands when given the opportunity.
An example of this can be seen in the book The Catcher in the Rye. Holden Caulfield is a teenager who doesn't want to conform to society's expectations and live a life that he's not happy with. So instead, he runs away from home and does whatever he pleases.
4. They're self-destructive or anti-social
Anti-heroes are often people who have a lot of internal conflict. And because they don't always have the best coping mechanisms, this can lead to them being self-destructive or anti-social.
For example, in the graphic novel V for Vendetta, the main character V is a vigilante who wants to take down the government that's been corrupted. But in order to do this, he has to become a lone terrorist hiding behind a mask and killing innocent people. He has no friends or people he can trust.
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5. They have a cynical outlook on the world around them
Anti-heroes often see the world in a very dark way. They don't trust authority figures or people who are more fortunate than them, and they can be pretty cynical about life.
For example, Batman is one of the most famous anti-heroes because he's extremely wealthy but also has to spend his nights fighting crime as a vigilante. Because of the death of his parents, Batman has a cynical view of Gotham city and the criminals in it which can cause him to be aggressive and combative to reach his goals.
6. They have a troubled past that haunts them
One of the reasons anti-heroes act differently than heroes is because they've probably experienced some pretty traumatic events in their lives. This can include losing someone close to them or getting betrayed by people who were supposed to be trustworthy.
These situations shape how they see themselves and others, which influences how much faith they have that good things will happen to them. It also contributes greatly to why their worldview can often become so dark and cynical over time.
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Character arcs of anti-heroes
Anti-heroes tend not to have the same kind of character arc as their classic hero counterparts. This is because their motivation for doing good usually doesn't come from wanting to be a hero themselves, but rather from other reasons such as seeking revenge or trying to make up for their past mistakes.
They develop into becoming better people through the story usually by letting go of their anger or cynicism and coming to terms with what they've done. But this doesn't necessarily mean that the anti-hero becomes a traditional hero at all either, as sometimes their selfless actions can be motivated by selfish reasons such as wanting people's approval or just being bored of doing nothing.
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Bonus: The key to getting your audience behind your anti-hero
What can really make an anti-hero compelling and can get the audience to root for your anti-hero is to give them instances where they are trying to be a better person. As long as your anti-hero isn't enjoying being bad, they'll root for your character.
Brian Cranston, the actor who portrayed Walter White in Breaking Bad, tells in an interview what really draws him to playing an anti-hero character:
The most famous anti-heroes are often found in comic books and graphic novels, but they can be found anywhere! Here are some examples:
Dexter is an interesting anti-hero because on the outside he seems like a regular guy. But unbeknownst to most people, Dexter is actually a serial killer who only kills bad people. He has an ethical code that he lives by, which means that the average person is safe from his wrath. But because of his double life and all the killing he does, Dexter often struggles with mental health issues.
As mentioned earlier in this article, Batman is the quintessential anti-hero of all of superherodom. He's wealthy, intelligent and skilled in many martial arts - but instead of using these talents for good like traditional superheroes, he uses them to fight crime at night. He has a cynical outlook on the world and often feels like he's carrying the weight of the world on his shoulders.
Michael Corleone (The Godfather)
Michael Corleone is another great example of an anti-hero because his motivations for doing what he does are never quite clear. He goes from being a naive kid who just wants to help his family, to becoming one of the most ruthless mobsters in history. And along the way, Michael kills a lot of people - but often because he feels like he has no other choice.
Walter White (Breaking Bad)
Much like Dexter, Walter White is a well-written anti-hero because he's not purely good or bad. At the beginning of Breaking Bad, Walter is just an average guy who gets cancer and needs to provide for his family. So he starts cooking meth in order to make money quickly. But as the series progresses, it becomes clear that Walter is actually a very dark and dangerous person. He's capable of doing terrible things in the name of protecting his loved ones.
Anti-heroes can be some of the most fascinating characters in all of story. They often have motivations and personalities that are very different than what we're used to seeing in protagonists like being morally ambiguous. They don't always want to do good, but they usually end up doing it anyway - for better or worse. So if you're looking for a character that's a little different than the norm, then an anti-hero is definitely worth exploring.