Anti-heroes are making a rise in books and film. No longer does our label of ‘hero’ comfortable fit on some of our favourite characters, nor does it do them the justice of describing their complex characters. This isn’t saying that heroes can’t have complex personalities, but they do have a much more restrictive box than an anti-hero does, due to the fact that there are certain actions that will tarnish the hero’s ‘hero-ness’, but add to the complexity of the anti-hero.
But why are anti-heroes so popular? What draws people to write, read and watch about them? More importantly, what exactly are anti-heroes?
Well, before we can understand what an anti-hero is, we must first understand what makes a hero, so, without further ado, welcome to Anti-Hero Central.
What is a hero?
While hero has become a synonym for ‘protagonist’, the definition of hero that’s used in opposition to anti-heroes is closer to the mythological or folkloric characterisation where they are people with superhuman qualities or divine origins, like those seen in Greek mythology or someone admired for courage, strength, achievements or noble qualities.
Basically, if this has summarised anything, it’s that there are quite a few people in fiction the word ‘hero’ applies to.
Well, what defines a hero?
When I say hero, what comes to mind? Captain America and his buddies over at Marvel? Batman and the DC gang? Frodo and the Fellowship? Percy Jackson and his half-blood friends (well, not all of them, but you get the picture)? The Jedi? All those Chosen Ones?
These days, heroism, at least in the Western World, is thought of as good and righteous people doing good and righteous things, to put it simply. A knight-in-shining-armour, if you will. Brave, noble, chivalrous, merciful, confident, the type to never second-guess themselves in their quest for justice. They’re goodie-two-shoes with hearts of gold, altruistic and idealistic, who’ll save the world even if they’ve previously been shunned by it. If it were to be summed up with one word, role model (okay, two, but the sentiment still applies).
This wasn’t always the way, though.
In Ancient Greece, heroes were often of divine birth (Zeus and Poseidon being the biggest culprits) making them demigods, and therefore extraordinary right from the start. Often, they would perform amazing feats during childhood, foreshadowing the greatness they were destined for, and favoured by the gods, who’d often bestow gifts upon them. However, their downfall came from their own flaws, the most common being hubris (excessive pride), though rage, jealousy and vengefulness also made appearances.
This is basically a long-winded way of saying that, as time moves on and cultures develop, grow and absorb other ideas, the ideals surrounding heroism change with them. Many heroes today are human - or close to - with no divine or royal lineage, no god-given powers, and, with prophecies fading out of popularity, no clear-cut destiny.
Now we’ve explained and defined heroes and heroism, we can finally move onto the topic of this article: anti-heroes.
Anti-heroes, as the name suggests, display anti-heroic qualities, however they do so in a way that they remain morally ambiguous or grey, not villainous. These guys tread the line between heroism and villainy without ever really committing to one or the other. One minute they’ll rob a jewelry store, but the next, they’ll swoop in and save someone who’s being mugged. Throughout the story, unlike the hero who has a clear set of rules – a code, if you will – they won’t step across, anti-heroes morals will deliberately remain hidden, unexpectedly change or at least be somewhat murky.
Anti-heroes tend to do bad deeds in order to reach their goal. They, for example, have no qualms about killing for their goal, but traditional heroes will find a way around this. Think of Grindelwald’s motto ‘For the Greater Good’. Anti-heroes embody that. They’ll do anything in service of the Greater Good, though some of these actions may bring into question morals and ethics.
Crucially, an anti-hero can make mistakes. They can be wrong. Not in the way a hero is wrong, like trusting a new teammate that is revealed later on to be a spy or a mole (you know what I mean), where their mistake highlights their good qualities – in this case being trusting and seeing the good in people. No, anti-heroes can be wrong just to be wrong. They can mistrust a new teammate who’s good all along. They could run into a trap, not because they were tricked, but simply because they miscalculated. See, when a hero’s wrong, there’s always a noble reason for it, something that highlights what a great person they are. An anti-hero has no such protection, and often their mistakes will highlight the opposite, their flaws, like real people. If I miss the bus in the morning, it’s not because I was busy saving people or I decided to cook breakfast for my family, it’s because I woke up late, or I took too long in the shower or something. No heroic save for me.
There are some things that should be avoided with anti-heroes, though. Whilst they’re not paragons of good intentions like heroes, you still want your anti-hero to be likable, or at least have the audience be able to root for them, and, for that, you want to be aware of what un-heroic traits you unload on them. While your anti-hero could be an assassin or thief or conman, steer away from characteristics such as racist, sexist or homophobic as readers won’t like or root for characters who are actively misogynistic. If you have an anti-hero who spouts homophobic jokes, the reader isn’t going to want to feel any connection with them, not to mention that it’s disrespectful to the LGBTQ+ community, and, guys, it’s 2020. Even though they’re not perfect, the anti-hero is still a character that’s supposed to be a sort-of role model to the reader, and if they do something like that, younger audiences especially will get the impression that it’s perfectly acceptable behaviour.
Why should anti-heroes be written?
Anti-heroes reflect the need for more human, relatable characters. We all look up to heroes like Superman and Captain America, but I don’t think there’s really anyone who can relate to either one on a personal level. This is because heroes are supposed to be something to be admired, a picture of greatness. Heroes represent societal ideals, no real people. Batman isn’t written for people to say, ‘I see myself in him’, he’s written for people to think, ‘how cool would it be to have a cave full of tech to fight crime?’. While this isn’t bad, they serve a different purpose to the anti-hero.
While anti-heroes may have special powers, or something to set apart from the rest of the society, they grapple with very real problems and have flaws that don't emphasize their overall greatness. Basically, you don’t get many ‘overly trusting’ anti-heroes. Jessica Jones from the Marvel TV show of the same name possesses super strength – pretty out of the ordinary if you ask me – but she’s a heavy drinker. Sam from the Gone series can fire beams of burning light from his palms, but he struggles when put in the position of leader, eventually buckling under the pressure and resigning from the role. Asha from The Last Namsara is a dragon-slayer and princess, but faces public disgust on a daily basis.
In conclusion, anti-heroes are relatable. They have flaws and problems that normal people face every day, whether that be some form of substance abuse, mental health issues like depression or anxiety, self-doubt or low self-esteem, family problems, etc. things normal people face on a daily basis, and often the story lends page/screen time to explore how these impact the anti-hero’s life.
Books starring anti-heroes
What better way to end almost anything than with books? Here’s a list of books that feature anti-heroes in the driving seat:
Six of Crows Duology (Leigh Bardugo)
The Monstrous Child (Francesca Simons)
Carve the Mark (Veronica Roth)
Gone (Michael Grant)
The Last Namsara (Kristen Ciccarelli)
Zeroes (Scott Westerfield)
Into the Crooked Place (Alexandra Christo)
The Boneless Mercies (April Genevieve Tucholke)
The Gospel of Loki (Joanne M. Harris)
I recommend reading all these, not just for anti-hero material but because they’re all brilliant books.
Follow Raven on Instagram: @raven_nightshade_28