In a world of villains, most people choose to be pro-hero, so why would anyone be anti-hero? It turns out that antihero doesn’t mean what you think. While some people see an antihero as the opposite of the classic hero, you might be more inclined to think of one as a rapscallion of a protagonist. So what makes an antihero?
With some exceptions, all narrative works have at least one protagonist, or a leading character who you typically follow through the course of the story. In stories that follow a typical hero’s journey, that protagonist goes on a precarious adventure, vanquishes evil, and returns home having been changed in some way.
An antihero is a type of protagonist who doesn’t go through that hero’s journey and lacks the traditional qualities you would associate with a hero, like courage, idealism, and an endless well of helpfulness.
Some antiheroes may even have questionable morals or downright villainous qualities, but audiences love them anyway. The key here is that antiheroes typically have good intentions, but their methods may be unconventional (in a bad way).
Antihero comes from a combination of the Greek prefix anti- and the word hero. Hero, which derives from Latin, initially referred to "a person with superhuman strength or physical courage" before expanding to mean “the main character in a story.”
Anti- is a prefix meaning “against, instead, or the opposite of.” This also means that antihero initially did refer to a villain or enemy type of character. At some point, that definition shifted to its current meaning of an unconventional hero in narratives.
You’ll see a few different spellings, most commonly antihero and anti-hero. Both of these are perfectly acceptable and interchangeable. Some people use anti hero, but this two-word form is not considered correct and should be avoided.
Some people also use anti-heroine or antiheroine to refer to female antiheroes. However, antihero is generally understood to be gender neutral.
An antihero can help to show true human nature — real people are flawed and sometimes have trouble making moral decisions. People frequently make bad decisions that hurt them or the people around them. Antiheroes also help illustrate areas of confusing or complex ethics in society.
Think of the famous Sirius Black quote from the Harry Potter series where he says, “We’ve all got both light and dark inside us. What matters is the part we choose to act on.” This sums up the antihero, a character who has both good and bad qualities but often chooses to act badly to support the good.
Antiheroes often do good things, but they don’t achieve good in the same way a hero does. An antihero’s backstory is typically revealed slowly to show that they do have a good side.
Typical antihero character traits include:
- Morally complex
- Imperfect but well-intentioned
- Pessimistic (or “realistic”)
- Stubborn to change
Antiheroes are hard to define because there are different types who fall on a sort of sliding scale. An antihero can fit into different types and even sometimes be the antagonist throughout a single work of fiction.
- the practical rebel - follows a classic hero’s journey, but will cross moral lines for the greater good
- the immoral - driven by self-interest with a cynical worldview, but intentions are still good in some way
- the heroic villain - borders on being a villain, but their bad behavior benefits society
It’s easy to get tripped up on antihero, villain, and antagonist because there are a lot of overlapping ideas about good and evil. However, it’s not always that simple.
|Protagonist (main character)||The classic bad guy||The opponent (or opposing force) of the protagonist|
|Questionable or bad choices that are well-intentioned and for the greater good||Only bad intentions||Usually (but not always) the villain of the story|
|Still has a moral code or line they won’t cross||No true moral code or boundaries||Can be a morally good character; may not be a person at all|
The antihero has been alive and well since people first told stories. You can find examples of antiheroes in children’s books, adult books, and even from works of fiction that are hundreds of years old.
The Millenium series by Stieg Larsson features Lisbeth Salander as an antiheroine, or female antihero. Driven by rage and revenge for attacks on her or the people she loves, she uses violent means to expose evil people.
From folklore to Howard Pyle’s The Merry Adventures of Robin Hood, readers meet the classic antihero Robin Hood. He steals from the rich to give to the poor, so he’s helping those who are oppressed while breaking the law at the same time.
Throughout the Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling, Snape is portrayed as a moody, mean guy who is still in cahoots with the villain Lord Voldemort. As his backstory and secret actions are revealed, readers see that he has actually been protecting the hero Harry even though his methods aren’t ideal.
The titular character in The Great Gatsby, Jay Gatsby, is a rich, playful socialite who also happens to maintain a longstanding crush on Daisy Buchanan. Jay is generally a good person, albeit one who makes bad decisions, has codependency issues, and maybe contributes to a character’s death.
The narrator of The Catcher in the Rye, Holden Caulfield, is deeply cynical and jaded. He is rebellious and holds immense disdain for, well, everything. However, Holden is also a teen who is sensitive to the world and clearly experiencing grief from his brother’s death. He is protective of his family, especially his little sister Phoebe, and still has an outward sense of good (even if he doesn’t particularly like himself).
Of course, with the growth of storytelling in TV and movies, screenwriters have built more complex characters. These days, it’s hard to find characters who aren’t antiheroes or who don’t have antihero tendencies.
On the hit show Orange is the New Black, Alex is mostly selfish and totally manipulative. She definitely makes bad decisions, but sometimes she chooses to do the right thing.
Is Batman an antihero? While Batman has been presented in many mediums from comic books to movies, he is usually portrayed in a similar way. Billionaire playboy Bruce Wayne by day, vigilante hero by night, Batman protects the city of Gotham through frequently violent means that typically reject even the most basic laws and constitutional rights. But hey, he’s still protecting the city, right?
Granted, it’s hard to figure out solutions when you’re fighting a large, anthropomorphic crocodile, and some depictions of Batman focus more on his deductive abilities as a detective, less on his ability to beat people to a pulp.
For most of the Star Wars franchise, Han Solo is depicted as an almost-hero. He enters the story as a scoundrel and a smuggler who is only looking out for himself (and maybe his Wookie co-captain). He isn’t quite as optimistic and conventional as a hero, and he’s more willing to run away and fight another day than to run headlong into battle. Still, he does end up letting go of his more selfish tendencies in the name of defeating the Empire.
Appearing in comics and movies, Deadpool is probably the most extreme example of an antihero, often by his own admission. Despite the fact that he’s helped to save the world on numerous occasions, the Merc with a Mouth downright avoids the “hero” label and the cliches of the typical hero’s journey, and he’s generally unliked by most everyone around him.
Okay, Taylor Swift herself isn’t entirely an antihero, but the lead single off of her tenth album Midnights is titled “Anti-Hero.” The narrator of the song reflects on a sense of self-loathing as people seem to continue supporting her despite her bad choices, “covert narcissism,” and frequent mistakes. It’s an interesting look at a potential antihero who is perhaps self-aware of her status as one.
Taylor Swift is maybe using some wordplay here, too. If she’s thinking of anti- in its traditional sense of “against or opposing,” anti-hero could refer to the narrator being against heroes, not wanting to be considered a hero, or otherwise not needing a hero to save her.