An anti-hero is a type of character who is characterized by contrasting traits. This person has some or all of the character traits of a hero but these are juxtaposed with those of a villain. This person is far from the conventional hero of a novel, play, poem, or film. They are complex with good and bad qualities. This literary device became popular in the 1700s, but it had been used long before then.
Anti-heroes are generally dark characters and may not appeal to all audience members. They might have secrets, terrible impulses, or distasteful habits that would normally force them into the villain quality. For instance, the classic vampire who kills but has no choice in the matter. A character’s suffering may disqualify some of their less savoury needs or habits.
They are further elevated by their attempts to be good or do good. A vampiric character might fight against their impulse to drink blood or do what they can in their everyday life to fight other evils and improve themselves.
Examples of Anti-Heros
Anti-Hero in Television and Film
In television in film examples include Dexter Morgan from the show Dexter and Red from The Blacklist both of whom operate similarly. The former is a serial killer who only kills other murders. His good deeds are weighed against his bad and he becomes both hero and villain of his own story. Red, from The Blacklist, is similar. He runs a criminal network but uses his connections to help the FBI catch other, much darker and more deadly, villains. His deep well of emotion and care for those he grows close to make him an endearing anti-hero.
Walter White from Breaking Bad is one of the best examples of an anti-hero. He goes on a journey throughout the television series, flipping back and forth between hero and villain. His negative character traits and actions only came into being while trying to support his family. In a last-ditch effort to make more money, he decides to start cooking meth. This decision leads to a cascading pattern of tragedies and victories and ends with him acquiring a vast fortune, committing cold-blooded and necessary murders, and losing his original intentions entirely.
Anti-Hero in Novels
In novels, a reader can look to Albert Camus’s The Stranger and Franz Kafka’s The Metamorphosis for example. These should be considered alongside Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë. Her dark, brooding characterization of her anti-hero Heathcliff is one of the most popular and interesting anti-heroes in literature. Emotional distraught, unable to process his past or his desires, Heathcliff goes from a miscreant to lover, to cruel overseer while the story of the moors plays out around him.
On the outside, he is an unlikeable, hard man, but, because a reader has access to his history and his relationship with the other central character Cathy, he gains a reader’s empathy. Readers are should understand where he’s coming from and while they may not agree with what actions he takes, one should understand why he takes them.
Anti-Hero in Poetry
Some of the best examples of anti-heroes in poetry come from the works of Homer. His stories, passed down orally for decades, and then put into writing for modern readers, contain hundreds of characters. Some are described in passing, others like Odysseus and Achilles are fully fleshed out. The latter is a prime example of an anti-hero. He is no doubt heroic in deed, when one considers his loyalty and love for a select few. But, he is also a villain.
He is often unlikable, stubborn power and blood-hungry, plus, he desires fame and immortality above all else. There are several redeeming moments within the epic that show Achilles’ true good-hearted nature, such as his relationship to his cousin Patroclus.
Satan, in Paradise Lost, is one more example from a narrative poem that crosses the line between hero and villain. The differences between the angels in heaven and the demons in hell are not as clear cut as one might want. Satan too, of course, was once an angel. So too were all those who were cast down to hell with him. The reason for his explosion, questioning God’s all-knowing nature, leads to a cascade of misdeeds that cast him as the greatest villain of all time. But, through Milton’s writing, he is remade into a character readers are able to feel sympathy for.