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What is an Anti-Hero?

An anti-hero stands at the crossroads of morality, captivating us with flaws and virtues alike. They're the imperfect protagonists who defy classic heroism, often driven by self-interest or haunted by a troubled past. Their complex nature mirrors our own struggles, making them profoundly relatable. But what truly sets an anti-hero apart? Dive deeper to uncover the allure behind these unconventional characters.
R. Kayne
R. Kayne

Throughout history, storytellers, playwrights and writers of all kinds have woven tales of terrible deeds, tragedies, courage, and conquering. In each case, the story has a main character, sometimes called a protagonist. The main character is also often referred to as the hero or heroine of the story, particularly if the character possesses a nature that is idealized or super-human in positive attributes. When the main character is deeply flawed, however, lacking in the attributes that people most often associate with heroism, he or she becomes an anti-hero.

Heroes face danger for the sake of protecting or saving others with little thought to themselves. Action movies often feature a classic hero or heroine who must risk all to beat the odds and achieve an objective that serves others as much or more than it serves the hero. In many cases, the hero volunteers through sense of duty, while at other times, he or she rises to the occasion when put in a situation that calls for action.

The anti-hero, presenting a more complex portrait than the traditional hero, was portrayed regularly in early U.S. westerns.
The anti-hero, presenting a more complex portrait than the traditional hero, was portrayed regularly in early U.S. westerns.

The anti-hero is often a reluctant hero who does not consider himself capable of accomplishing the goal. He might be selfish, addicted, corrupt, sullen, or disaffected. By the end of the journey, he typically transforms into a fuller, happier, or more complete person due to the struggles he endures. In many cases, the anti-hero dies at the end of the story, even while overcoming his faults.

Anti-heroes often struggle with undesirable behaviors.
Anti-heroes often struggle with undesirable behaviors.

Examples of classic heroes are seen all through early Westerns, embodied in actors like the late John Wayne, and include the he-man with manners and a predictable moral code. Keanu Reeves played a more modernized classic hero in Speed, a hotshot cop (Officer Jack Traven) who went after bad guy Dennis Hopper (Howard Payne) unflinchingly.

Anti-heroes are many, from Thelma and Louise, to Lt. Ellen Ripley of Alien, to Rocky Balboa of Rocky. Television also has its share, including the acerbic Dr. Gregory House from House, and the emotionally fractured Meredith of Grey’s Anatomy. Perhaps the best example is Dexter, the likeable blood-spatter expert for the Miami PD who also happens to be a serial killer ... but kills bad guys only. Here we have hero and villain rolled into one package.

The moral complexity of the anti-hero causes the audience to question the limits of its own moral integrity. This character often challenges people's willingness to extend themselves beyond comfortable boundaries to see life from a point of view that is perhaps more similar to their own in many ways than the classic hero who is beyond reproach. By delving into character, people delve into their own insecurities and hopes that, with all of their personal flaws and shortcomings, they too will be able to rise above any challenges and end victoriously.

Frequently Asked Questions

What defines an anti-hero in literature and film?

An anti-hero is a central character in a story who lacks conventional heroic qualities such as idealism, courage, and morality. These characters are often flawed, complex, and may possess dubious virtues. They typically exhibit traits that are antithetical to traditional heroes, such as ambiguity in their moral character, imperfections, and a capacity to perform morally questionable acts. Anti-heroes are designed to reflect the nuances and grey areas of real-life human behavior, making them relatable and compelling to audiences.

Can an anti-hero be the protagonist of a story?

Yes, an anti-hero can be the protagonist of a story. In fact, anti-heroes often take center stage in narratives, allowing the audience to follow their journey and gain insight into their often conflicted nature. The protagonist role is not reserved for characters with only positive traits; it simply refers to the main character around whom the story revolves. Anti-heroes as protagonists help to explore themes of redemption, the complexity of human nature, and the challenging notion of what it means to be a 'hero.'

How does an anti-hero differ from a villain?

An anti-hero differs from a villain in their role and intentions within a story. While both may exhibit negative traits, a villain is typically the antagonist who opposes the hero and has malicious intentions. In contrast, an anti-hero often has some redeeming qualities or motivations that can evoke sympathy or understanding from the audience. They may ultimately work towards a good cause, albeit through questionable means, whereas a villain's actions are primarily aimed at causing harm or chaos.

What are some examples of anti-heroes in popular culture?

Popular culture is replete with anti-heroes who have captured the imagination of audiences. Examples include Walter White from "Breaking Bad," who starts as a sympathetic character but descends into moral ambiguity; Tony Soprano from "The Sopranos," a mob boss with a complex personality; and Deadpool from the Marvel Comics universe, known for his irreverent humor and disregard for traditional heroism. These characters are celebrated for their depth and the fresh perspective they bring to the concept of heroism.

Why are anti-heroes appealing to audiences?

Anti-heroes are appealing to audiences because they offer a more realistic and relatable depiction of humanity than traditional heroes. Their flawed nature and moral complexity mirror the real-world experiences and inner conflicts that many people face. This relatability allows audiences to connect with anti-heroes on a deeper level. Additionally, anti-heroes often undergo significant character development, which can provide compelling and thought-provoking narratives that challenge viewers' perceptions of right and wrong.

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Discussion Comments


Don't forget about the punisher. He's probably the very definition of an anti hero.


Sherlock is a good example.


Let's not forget Batman from The Dark Knight trilogy.

He's not afraid to beat people down for interrogation like he did with The Joker in The Dark Knight.


The God Loki from Norse mythology, and the movie Thor.


Came from Drakengard is an Anti-Hero, I believe.


Shadow the Hedgehog, Venom from Spider Man, even Homer Simpson are all antiheroes.


Deadpool from the Marvel World is also portrayed as an anti-hero.


There are some real basic mistakes in this article and since the hero myth is the foundation for much of human culture you should probably try to understand the real story if you hope to understand life.

To begin with, the hero takes the hit for the sake of others. He doesn't "win". He doesn't get rich and he doesn't end up happy.

I would suggest studying the work of Joseph Campbell. In particular i recommend his ground breaking book "The Hero With A thousand Faces".


bender from futurama is probably the best antihero!


yeah hancock is an anti-hero, totally.


andrew pirrung is a major anti- hero


Are there any more anti heroes?i need some for school and most of them i don't know

please help!


Except Gregory House would never volunteer out of a sense of 'duty'; maybe out of guilt.


Anti-hero has another meaning. It could refer to someone with no redeeming virtue. I always tried to find something good about every patient that I treated. I thought that I could do a better job for them (although I tried to do the very best that I could for everyone) if I could find something about them that I could relate to positively. I can only recall two men from the fifty-one years that I was an active doctor about whom I could not find a single redeeming feature. One of them was faithful even after death-his family would not permit an autopsy. I was hoping to learn something from his case. So I got absolutely no reward for the three months of care I gave him in the hospital except for the knowledge that I had done my duty.

Donald W. Bales, M.D. retired internist


Excellent summary of Anti hero's characteristics and role. I've never seen a better one.

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    • The anti-hero, presenting a more complex portrait than the traditional hero, was portrayed regularly in early U.S. westerns.
      By: outdoorsman
      The anti-hero, presenting a more complex portrait than the traditional hero, was portrayed regularly in early U.S. westerns.
    • Anti-heroes often struggle with undesirable behaviors.
      By: beeboys
      Anti-heroes often struggle with undesirable behaviors.