Most of us love a good, heroic character, but how many of us root for the antihero? It’s easy to fall in love with protagonists who have great character attributes going for them.
Whether they are brave in the midst of danger, loving to those who are against them, or innocently thrown into evil circumstances, heroes are easy to love.
But what about the lead characters who aren’t as lovable? These are the antiheroes of literature, the ones we don’t always talk about. In this article, I discuss what an antihero is, the differences between the antihero and hero, and six factors that may make you want to include one as your next protagonist.
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What Is An Antihero: Defined
An antihero is a protagonist who does not embody the traits of the typical hero. They often come across as anything but brave, heroic, or loving. Somehow, they “get the deed done” but their journey looks quite a bit different than the stereotypical hero.
A second definition is simply that an antihero possesses some of the characteristics and personality traits of a villain, but ultimately gives in to the goals and desires of a hero. In this way, the antihero often seems more relatable than the hero.
The character termed “antihero” has existed since the time of the Greek dramatists and can be found in the literary works of all nations. But can it be found in your writing? And should it?
Differences Between The Antihero And Hero
One of the major differences between an antihero and hero is not the impact they have, but the reason they make the decisions they make. The antihero often has a conflicting moral compass. Consider the character of Gollum in The Lord of the Rings.
Gollum is a prime example of the conflict between emerging as a hero (Sméagol) or staying in line with the villain (Gollum). The journey of an antihero often portrays the darker side of a hero’s journey.
Similarly, there are differences between an antihero and a tragic hero. An antihero typically lacks conventional heroic qualities and may act in morally ambiguous ways, while a tragic hero is someone who possesses noble traits but experiences a downfall due to a tragic flaw or external circumstances.
Now let’s discuss how writing an antihero into your story can portray different facets of your theme.
#1 – A New Point Of View
A hero heroic due to their point-of-view. For instance, imagine swapping the evil stepmother out for the protagonist in the classic fairytale, Cinderella. From the stepmother’s point of view, she is trying hard to care for her family in dire circumstances.
She’s just trying to take care of her two daughters…right? Her desire is good (care for her children) but her execution casts her as the villain of the story. Writing your protagonist as an antihero allows you to portray an often dismissed point-of-view.
#2 – Provides Space For A Different Type Of Villain
Consider Walter White in the TV show, Breaking Bad. If Walter wasn’t the antihero/protagonist of the show, he’d likely be cast as a villain. After all, his good desire has unfortunate repercussions.
In creating Walter White as the antihero, this leaves space for a different type of villain to emerge. Who is Walter truly fighting against? Or maybe I should say, what is he truly fighting against?
It’s not simply money that pushes him into joining the local methamphetamine drug trade—it’s his desire to care for his family due to his diagnosis. This twist allows lung cancer to take the role of villain.
#3 – Takes A Fresh Look At Selfishness
There’s a part of each of us that lurks in the shadow between selfishness and generosity. Are we truly generous, or are we acting generous as a cover for our own selfishness?
Johnny Depp’s character, Captain Jack Sparrow, allows viewers to take a look at their own self tendencies as they laugh their way through his. Sometimes comedic characters are the best way to teach a much-needed lesson.
#4 – Covers The Gray In Right And Wrong
Hanna by Seth Lochhead inspired not just a feature film but a dramatic series as well. Trained to be an assassin, the character for whom the book is named is the protagonist, fighting to bridge the gap between right and wrong.
She has been treated with extreme injustice and watched horrors take place, all at the hands of the enemy. But, as a trained assassin, is it right to use her training to hurt those who have hurt her?
Writing an antihero will often push you to think deeper than you thought and uncover truths about humanity you may not have expected.
#5 – Takes A Deeper Look At Actions
Spoiler warning: Many of you have seen the Top Gun: Maverick but if not, now is the time to skip to number six!
Let’s imagine for a moment that Maverick starred Rooster, not Maverick. Now look at Mav’s actions from the now-hero, Rooster’s, point-of-view: The villain, Maverick, pulled his papers and took years off his career. Rooster is right to be angry with him.
Instead, with Maverick as the protagonist, we see his heart behind what he did: He wanted to obey the wishes of his diseased flying partner’s wife. Antihero protagonists allow you to assess the why behind the action.
#6 – Resonate With Past Hurt
Don’t worry, Potterheads, I’ve got you. Enter, Severus Snape. You know the story, and his in particular is a standout example of how to craft a very human, developed, antihero.
Whether we have experienced deep hurt ourselves or know those who have, we can all resonate with hurt to some degree. The antihero allows us to connect with that past hurt and watch it’s impact on the events of the story.
Snape is an iconic character, but it’s not his actions in book one that make us fall in love with him. This is the art of the antihero.
What They Contribute To Story
The anti-hero can contribute depths of layers to modern day storytelling. Not only do they add humanity to your characters but they also make the role of the hero that much more relatable.
We've briefly discussed the six various aspects that the anti-hero can bring to your story but what do they specifically contribute to yours?
- A new point of view
- A different type of villain
- A fresh look at character flaws
- Calls out the gray
- Answers the why behind the action
- Provides clarity to past hurt
When deciding whether to use an antihero as your protagonist, consider the above list. Do you want to bring a unique point of view to your story? Could your story benefit from highlighting a specific circumstance as a villain rather than an actual character?
Are there specific flaws you would like to highlight? What negative actions do you need to provide the story behind? Is your hero making decisions out of past hurt?
Casting an antihero as your protagonist can take your story to new depths. While it's not simple to dig heroes out of seemingly impossible situations, adding in the complexity of the morally gray contributes another difficult dynamic.
But sometimes the most difficult dynamics have the most to contribute. If the theme of your story is such that an antihero could bring home your plot, don't hesitate to put in the extra work. The many facets of an antihero will strengthen your characterization abilities!