The Antihero. From classic Greek drama all the way up to Walter White the antihero is a time honored literary trope. And one that is often misunderstood. Today we are going to help you understand who is or isn’t an antihero, and talk about some of our favorites. Of course our favorites tend to be from more contemporary sources, but there is nothing wrong with that.
Breaking Bad’s Walter White is a recent example, as is Dexter, Tony Soprano, and Severus Snape. What separates them from other notable heroic characters is that they exhibit characteristics or behaviors that are downright evil. They’re not the white knight in shining armor; they’re more apt to knock that guy off his horse and look awesome while doing it.
A common misconception is that if the good guy is the hero, the bad guy is the antihero, but that isn’t true. That is a protagonist and antagonist. An antihero is a protagonist, but in a way that might be unconventional or hard to see. He may do bad things but for good reasons, or he may find that his motives are changing and he is becoming more of a standard hero. Merriam-Webster: a protagonist or notable figure who is conspicuously lacking in heroic qualities. One way to judge if a character is an antihero or an antagonist is simply if you find yourself rooting for the character. If you are he is more likely to be an antihero.
And antiheroes don’t have to be villainous seeming types. They might be unheroic in other ways, by being cowardly, or apathetic, or unsocial. They may be undercover and therefore are hiding their heroic side. Just like heroes come in manner flavors, so do antiheroes.
As this website points out , the flawed grittiness of the character makes him more relatable than the special snowflake who is perfect at everything. Someone who is more honest with himself can be seen as more admirable, which can explain the popularity of characters like Han Solo and Gregory House. This sort of character goes beyond literature, TV, and movies, as wrestling personas like Stone Cold Steve Austin and CM Punk have become so popular that they have transcended the realm of professional wrestling.
Han Solo is an interesting study. When we first encounter him in Star Wars he is certainly an antihero, one in the “loveable rogue” category. He is an admitted smuggler, he calmly shoots the bounty hunter that accosts him, he has no qualms about blasting Imperial Stormtroopers, and he not only demands compensation for his help, he takes it and runs. Not much about any of that is very heroic. But starting with his triumphant return to help Luke Skywalker save the day at the end of the first film, we see him transform over the course of the next two movies into a bona fide hero. He keeps his snarky edge throughout and it is only when we step back and examine the whole arc of his character that we realize how much he changes.
In some cases characters become antiheroes by not wanting to be heroes. In the comic genius Discworld books, by Sir Terry Pratchett, the wizard Rincewind several times saves the day through his completely accidental heroics. He is an inveterate coward, and his fleeing often causes a chain of events that proves beneficial. Then there is Lisbeth Salander from the Millenium series. She certainly does not aspire to be a hero. She is very antisocial and would prefer to be left alone. But when the villains get on her wrong side she rises to the occasion. And then she uses their money to go back into the shadows and out of the spotlight.
Being an antihero can be a choice. In The Catcher in the Rye Holden Caulfield acts like he wants to be the rebellious bad boy, but when presented with opportunities to cross the line he decides not to, and by saying “no” he does the heroic thing. From a wildly different source we have Squall, the main protagonist in the Final Fantasy VIII video game. He spends most of the first part of the game trying hard not to assume the mantle of hero, falling back on his catchphrase of “…whatever”. He shares some of Holden’s affected apathy traits. But when the time to be a hero truly arrives, you discover he is a just a teen worried about more loss in his life, albeit a teen with a gunblade and military training, and he transcends to true hero status.
Fantasy literature seems particularly fertile for antiheroes. Two of my favorites are Elric of Melnibone (by Michael Moorcock) and Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever (by Stephen R. Donaldson). They are both archetypal antiheroes, but are not at all alike. Elric is the last Emperor of a cruel race, a sorcerer who makes pacts with dark lords and is dependent on a demon sword. He causes the downfall of his Empire, earns the monikers Kinslayer and Womanslayer, and ultimately destroys the world. Despite all of that he acts heroically and performs truly heroic deeds. He is a hero in spite of everything else. When you mesh all the good with all the bad you end up with an antihero.
Thomas Covenant, on the other hand, is just a regular man, a writer from New England, who suddenly finds himself in another world where magic is real. The people of this world view him as a new incarnation of a great hero, and expect him to be one. But Covenant suffers from leprosy. Even when the Land cures him, he cannot accept this new reality, and comes to be known as the Unbeliever. A horrific crime he commits when newly healed only adds to his anguishing disbelief, and it takes several trips to this Land before he can make the switch from accidental hero to intentional one. Meanwhile the reader spends several books raging at the main character to actually do something.
TV Tropes has a nice write up of antiheroes, pointing out that they are all over the spectrum as far as alignment goes. Entertainment Weekly goes as far as having a “Likeability Chart” for current TV characters:
The most famous example of an antihero might be Batman. He’s also the most human, lacking any superpowers or strengths (although he does have money and therefore an endless array of weapons and gadgets).
Batman has more in common with his enemies than other superheroes, as Batman himself is obsessive and hides behind an alter-ego, which serves as a grittier persona of a man hellbent on serving justice. In fact, this greatest foe, The Joker, often preys on this similarity and tries to push Batman into killing The Joker rather than just throw him into jail or Arkham Asylum. The good in Batman prevails, but it’s a constant struggle with him, and it’s fascinating to watch in all of the manifestations of this tragic hero.
We leave you with some of our favorite quotes from our favorite antiheroes. Feel free to let us know who we left out.
“Am I a bad guy? Absolutely! I don’t wear a white hat!” – CM Punk
“I take orders from just one person: me.” – Han Solo
“Criminals, by nature, are a cowardly and superstitious lot. To instill fear into their hearts, I became a bat. A monster in the night.” – Batman
“Once again, you astonish me with your gifts Potter. Gifts mere mortals could only dream of possessing. How grand it must be, to be the chosen one.” – Severus Snape
“It’s what we do.” – Daryl Dixon
“What happened to Gary Cooper? The strong, silent type. That was an American. He wasn’t in touch with his feelings. He just did what he had to do. See, what they didn’t know was once they got Gary Cooper in touch with his feelings that they wouldn’t be able to shut him up!” – Tony Soprano
“I am the one who knocks.” – Walter White
“Yes, but you see, you can run away from that, too. That’s the beauty of the system. Dead is only for once, but running away is forever.” – Rincewind
“The world I come from doesn’t allow anyone to live except on its own terms. Those terms– those terms contradict yours.” – Thomas Covenant
“I mean how do you know what you’re going to do till you do it? The answer is, you don’t.” – Holden Caulfield
“Keep in mind that I’m crazy, won’t you?” – Lisbeth Salander
“I don’t want to carry someone else’s burden.” – Squall Leonhart
Find a list of the titles mentioned in this blog here:
(Edited 11/20/14 to fix/replace broken links and to correct typos.)