anti hero characters

Anti-Hero Characters: Writing the Unheroic Protagonist

Want to learn more about how to write an anti-hero? Consider taking our private class with Gloria Kempton.

The anti-hero (or antihero) archetype is a popular feature of modern books and movies, and for good reason. Anti-hero characters are often lonely or isolated individuals, who experience ethical dilemmas typical of modern day society. As both a relatable trope and a poignant space for social commentary, anti-heroes and anti-heroines have become some of the most beloved protagonists from works of recent decades.

The anti-hero inverts traits typical of heroic figures—hence the “anti.” While a conventional hero exhibits bravery, charisma, strength, and a strong sense of justice, the anti-hero will more closely resemble everyday human beings. They might struggle with ethical dilemmas, have selfish intentions, act indecisively, or even reject their hero’s journey altogether.

That said, anti-hero characters are crafted with specific intent. So, what is the anti-hero? This article uncovers the psychologies of these characters. We’ll look at different anti-hero examples across the literary canon, ending with advice on how to write an anti-hero yourself.

From Don Quixote to Walter White, let’s examine the anti-hero archetype.

Anti-hero Definition: What is the Anti-hero?

The succinct anti-hero definition is any protagonist who doesn’t exhibit heroic traits. The hero is one of the oldest character archetypes in the history of literature, displaying courage, virtue, wisdom, and other admirable traits necessary in the face of evil. The anti-hero rejects these traits, but must still confront the challenges presented in the story, complicating the narrative.

Anti-hero Definition: A protagonist who rejects the traits of conventional heroes, but must still confront the challenges presented in the story.

Let’s compare and contrast two archetypal characters. Achilles is certainly the hero of Homer’s Iliad, and his role in the Trojan War exhibits a strong sense of justice and an uncanny bravery. He leads the Greeks to victory against the Trojans by killing their leader, Hector, and he honors the men who died in his army with elaborate funerals.

Is Achilles perfect? Certainly not. He is often described as wrathful or vindictive, and his myth gives us the phrase “Achilles’ Heel”—a fatal flaw that defines an otherwise perfect hero, often leading to that hero’s downfall. Nonetheless, Achilles is a character designed to be celebrated, and his courage and virtue are admired by many.

The unnamed narrator in Dostoevsky’s Notes from Underground, on the other hand, exemplifies none of humanity’s virtues. This character is vengeful, lonely, and filled with self-hatred. Despite working as a civil servant for decades, he has no regard for others, and instead operates under the philosophy of “rational egoism”—the idea that our own self-interest is the most rational lens through which to make decisions.

The Underground Man, as critics often dub this narrator, seems in conflict with all of society. Much of the novella is constructed through musings and memories. The narrator spends much of his time berating others for their own self-interest, yet he himself embodies rational egoism. He is spiteful, vengeful, frequently criticizes others, and he acknowledges that he himself is lazy, uninspired, and hypocritical.

What is the purpose of such an unlikeable anti-hero? Dostoevsky’s characters often embody certain philosophical dilemmas that the author sought to explore, taking those philosophies to their logical extremes and putting them in conversation with different ideas. Dostoevsky himself rejected rational egoism, worrying about a society constructed through self-interest. Nonetheless, his anti-hero rejects society altogether, which doesn’t result in a fulfilling life, but a life lived in reaction to other people’s faults.

The point: an anti-hero might reflect the worst impulses of society and human behavior. But, the reader also learns a surprising amount about themselves and others through reflecting on the behaviors of protagonists that reject conventional morality.

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Anti-hero Vs. Villain

At face value, it is easy to conflate the anti-hero with the villain of a story. However, the two occupy different roles in literature.

A villain is better understood as an antagonist. They are the main force of opposition in a story, preventing the protagonist from achieving their goals and desires. An antagonist isn’t always evil and villainous, but a villain always stands in the way of the protagonist.

An anti-hero, by contrast, might have villainous traits. They might even be perceived as a villain by the people around them. But, they are always the protagonist of the story and the main focus of the narrative lens. Even if their goals are less-than-admirable, they cannot be the villain, simply because the story is centered around their conflicts.

Anti-hero Vs Villain: An anti-hero is a protagonist with questionable morals. A villain is an evil antagonist designed to complicate the protagonist’s story.

Common Traits of the Anti-hero Archetype

Part of the difficulty in defining an anti-hero is that we must situate this character in the context of their setting. An anti-hero might have traits that were detested 100 years ago, but in the modern day are admired.

For example, a reader in Victorian England would have found disgust in a character who’s cynical, sarcastic, and countercultural. This character would have made a perfect anti-hero in 1850’s London. But, we can imagine this character being much more heroic in 1970’s New York. Context is key in determining whether or not a character is sufficiently anti-heroic.

Nonetheless, a few key traits unite the majority of anti-hero characters. These include:

  • A defiance of standard morals, ethics, and philosophies.
  • A lack of remorse for actions that would normally be deemed “bad.”
  • Pessimism, cynicism, nihilism, or some other negative/unpopular worldview.
  • An internal struggle: they must often choose between their morals and those of society.
  • Obvious flaws.
  • Behaviors that require some form of explanation, as they don’t adhere to conventional modes of being.

It’s important to note: anti-heroes are not necessarily “bad people.” They might even have a strong sense of justice, goodness, and love for humanity. But, because they disagree with the world at large, and because they are often lonely in their own unique views, they are forced to make difficult decisions, or even to do bad things for the greater good. We’ll see what this might look like through different anti-hero examples in literature.

Anti-Heroes Vs. Anti-Heroines

Female anti-heroes, or anti-heroines, are unfortunately few in literature. If anything, they show up more frequently in TV and film than they do in books. In practice, are they any different than their male counterparts?

In short: no. An anti-heroine will also defy standard morals, make questionable decisions, and espouse an unpopular worldview. The only difference is that an anti-heroine is the inversion of a heroine, and female heroes tend to be written differently than male heroes. While heroic traits like bravery, justice, and honor are conventionally “masculine,” the literary heroine tends to embody wisdom, self-possession, intelligence, and the courage of being true to one’s self.

That said, it’s 2022. Gendered distinctions between male and female heroes make little sense. Female heroes can be brave and just, male heroes can be wise and self-possessed, and their anti-heroic counterparts can invert traits across the spectrum of gender expression.

The point: while literature has historically assigned heroic traits differently between male and female protagonists, these distinctions are quickly going out of date. Anti-heroes and Anti-heroines are united in their disdain for conventional morality and society-at-large. This disdain is often a reaction to gender roles, though it doesn’t have to be.

Examples of the literary anti-heroine include: Emma Bovary from Gustav Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, Sula Peace from Toni Morrison’s Sula, and Scarlett O’Hara in Gone With the Wind by Margaret Mitchell.

Anti-hero Examples

The following anti-hero examples all come from published works of literature.

1. Meursault in The Stranger by Albert Camus

You can find the full text of The Stranger here. 

Plot summary: Meursault, a Frenchman living in Algeria, learns of the death of his mother. Later, he kills an Arab man who has been in conflict with Meursault’s neighbor. Meursault is arrested and sentenced to death.

Character traits: Meursault is aloof, independently minded, and indifferent to others. He is honest to the point of abrasion, and he is relatively unaffected by the world. Meursault considers most people either interesting, annoying, or simply unimportant.

Embodied philosophy: Meursault embraces nihilism, and embraces it even more as the date of his execution approaches. He believes there is no inherent meaning or morality to the universe, and that it is pointless to participate in the attitudes, behaviors, and morals constructed by society.

Analysis:

If the plot summary seems terse, that’s because it is. The Stranger is a bafflingly unadorned text, but each character and image represents much more than meets the eye.

To use Camus’ own words, Meursault is a character who “refuses to play the game.” In other words, he refuses to subscribe to society’s mores. The problems that this causes often surprises Meursault. For example, his neighbors expressed much disappointment when Meursault put his ailing mother in a nursing home, and at the funeral, some express silent disapproval that he drinks his coffee with milk. (It is custom to drink coffee black at a funeral.) These points don’t particularly affect Meursault, but they don’t engender positive feelings towards him, either, which cements his death sentence later in the novel.

Thus, Meursault is “The Stranger” because he’s thoroughly estranged from the conventions of social morality. He isn’t a psychopath, necessarily, but he lacks interest in the affairs of most people. His only salvation is his wholehearted embrace of nihilism. Meursault finds comfort in the inherent meaninglessness of life, thinking that the indifference of the universe is actually a form of benevolence. He even wonders that he might not be lonely at his execution, so long as he’s observed by a crowd—even a crowd that hates him.

Meursault is not an anti-hero that engenders positive feelings. But his reactions to the world certainly push the reader to question society’s conventions. Why do little things, like black coffee at a funeral, represent whether a person is good or bad? No, we shouldn’t question morality to the point of sealing our own death sentence, but if the universe is as careless as Meursault believes, how can we create and embody our own morality?

The Stranger yields more questions than answers, and none other than Meursault, the perfect anti-hero, can raise such complicated questions.

2. Catherine Earnshaw in Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë

You can find the full text of Wuthering Heights here. 

Plot summary: Wuthering Heights centers around the unrealized relationship between Catherine Earnshaw and Heathcliff (who can also be considered an anti-hero). Their turbulent relationship never succeeds due to the rampant miscommunication, control, and abuse that occurs in the Earnshaw household. She also ends up marrying Edgar Linton (primarily for his class status), despite her love for Heathcliff. These conditions encourage the love-hate relationship between Catherine and Heathcliff before her unfortunate death.

Character traits: Catherine is torn between her nature and the culture she’s brought up in. Naturally, Catherine is passionate and mischievous. She is strong willed and, at times, rather capricious. Above all, her character is defined by intensity and wildness. She chooses to resist these traits in marrying Edgar, attempting to present herself in a more “fashionable” and aristocratic light, but she cannot deny her nature, especially on her deathbed.

Embodied philosophy: Catherine rejects conventional Victorian femininity.

Analysis:

For her time, Catherine Earnshaw was quite a divisive anti-heroine. She challenged the behaviors and expectations of women in Victorian England, who were expected to act with discretion, modesty, temperance, and obedience. Catherine is none of these things, but the pressures of high society are certainly immense, so her struggle between self and culture is not an easy one.

The novel doesn’t make this uncomplicated, either. Catherine’s death is brought about partially by her own wildness. When she is forbidden to see Heathcliff after her marriage to Edgar, she (partially) feigns insanity and starves herself in her room. She does this even before her family knows she is pregnant. She never quite recovers from this episode, and dies shortly after childbirth.

No, Catherine’s death is not self-inflicted; it’s a result of men trying to control her. In a way, her death sets her free from the constraints of Victorian culture, as she chooses to act on her passion and wildness, rather than succumb to a deeply unhappy life. Nonetheless, her story is unsettling even to the modern reader, and it reminds us to uphold the value of freedom in life, love, and beyond. Catherine isn’t always likable, but her rejection of social norms makes her an admirable anti-heroine.

3. Okonkwo in Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe

You can find the full text of Things Fall Apart here. 

Plot summary: Things Fall Apart is divided in three sections. In the first section, we view the pre-colonial life of an Igbo village through the narrative of Okonkwo, a well respected wrestling champion who values strength, success, and stoicism. Okonkwo’s fortune suddenly reverses when he kills his adopted son, his daughter falls ill, and he accidentally kills the child of the oldest man in the village. The latter half of the novel follows Okonkwo’s reckoning with this exile, and while he’s been away from the village, white men have begun to colonize and proselytize the land that would become modern day Nigeria.

Character traits: Okonkwo embodies masculinity. He is strong, stoic, and heroic. He believes in the value of hard work, discipline, and success. But his masculinity can prove quite toxic. He can be rash, unkind, impatient, controlling, vindictive, pretentious, and uncaring. Okonkwo’s stature and discipline certainly command respect, but his best traits are also his worst ones, and he’s rarely liked.

Embodied philosophy: In addition to embodying conventional masculinity, Okonkwo also embodies the values of tradition and community, particularly in the face of colonization.

Analysis:

Okonkwo is an archetypal anti-hero. He wants to do the right thing, and certainly has a heroic figure, but he also has numerous flaws and blindspots, and his story never resolves his shortcomings.

Specifically, Okonkwo’s rashness, egotism, and desire to control all prove themselves examples of how not to act in a crisis. For example, he had no reason to kill his adopted son, but did so so as not to seem weak. This forces him into a depression, which, of course, he can’t admit to having. He also beats his children repeatedly, which drives one of them to join the white man’s church.

Okonkwo’s rashness and warrior mindset are most on display when he beheads one of the messengers of the District Commissioner, which oversees the colonization of the village. Okonkwo chooses to kill this messenger, believing he can rally the tribe to rise up against the colonizers and preserve the tribe’s traditions. But, no one else steps up to his plate, and he realizes that Umuofia will not show enough resistance. Rather than succumb to change, and rather than be tried in a colonial court, Okonkwo kills himself.

There is, certainly, no easy answer to the questions this novel provokes. What should proper resistance to colonization look like? How should Okonkwo and the tribe have acted? Regardless of what’s “right,” what’s true is that Okonkwo acted courageously and alone in the face of colonization’s evils. While his character might be less-than-likable, it is certainly honorable.

More Books With Antiheroes

Other anti-hero examples from literature include:

  • Holden Caulfield from The Catcher in the Rye by J. D. Salinger
  • Bigger Thomas from Native Son by Richard Wright
  • Huckleberry Finn from The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain
  • Prince Hamlet from Hamlet by William Shakespeare
  • Lisbeth Salander from The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson
  • Alex from A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess
  • Patrick Bateman from American Psycho by Bret Easton Ellis
  • Milkman from Song of Solomon by Toni Morrison
  • Sam Spade from The Maltese Falcon by Dashiell Hammett

Arguably, the following characters can also be considered anti-heroes: Jay Gatsby from The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald, Quentin Compson from The Sound and the Fury by William Faulkner, and Stephen Daedalus from Ulysses by James Joyce.

How to Write an Anti-hero

There is no singular pedagogy on how to write an anti-hero. Nonetheless, these tips will help you think about how to approach your questionable protagonists. Also be sure to read our article on character development, which gives more advice and insight on crafting compelling characters.

How to Write an Anti-hero: Opt For Nuance

Anti-heroes occupy a moral gray space. They don’t conform to conventional morals, and sometimes they do objectively bad things. But, they most often make decisions and have beliefs that are a little more complicated than that.

For example, Hamlet in Shakespeare’s Hamlet believes he should avenge the death of his father, but he also hesitates to contribute to the violence and political intrigue that killed his father in the first place. He doesn’t have bad morals, but his decisions (and indecision) do lead to the deaths of innocent people.

What should Hamlet have done? What should he have believed in? Characters who occupy a nuanced moral space yield much more intriguing questions and dilemmas.

How to Write an Anti-hero: Align Traits and Conflicts

The conflict that an anti-hero faces should be a proper match for that character’s flaws.

For example, Catherine Earnshaw in Wuthering Heights meets her perfect match: society. Where Catherine is unrestrained and wild, Victorian society tells her to keep quiet, poised, and “lady-like.” Now, Catherine’s wildness isn’t a flaw, but it does create problems in her life, and it’s a contributing factor in her death. She wouldn’t be a countercultural character without it, but she’s also doomed, in a way, as the strict patriarchal nature of Victorian society would never allow a woman like her to remain unfettered.

As such, Catherine sits as one of the most formidable anti-heroines in literature. She may not live, but she certainly lives on.

How to Write an Anti-hero: If Not Relatable, Understandable

It depends on the reader, but sometimes, an anti-hero is immediately relatable. Readers might connect to Holden Caulfield’s disdain for society, Meursault’s questioning of mores, or Madame Bovary’s disdain for provincial life.

That said, no character trait is universally relatable. So, the reader must also, in some way, understand the anti-hero. Often, this is what the story itself sets out to do, as it takes an entire book to fully understand a single character.

While you might not relate to The Grinch’s cynicism, you can certainly understand his disdain for harmful social traditions. While you might not relate to Hannibal Lecter’s, um, cannibalism, you might come to appreciate the way his mind works.

How to Write an Anti-hero: Veer Towards Cultural Criticism

The best anti-hero characters reveal something deeper about society and culture. They force us to ask questions. Why do we act the way we do? Why is society structured the way it is? What can I learn from this person who views society differently than I do?

This applies even for characters who belong to different cultural backgrounds. I am not from a pre-Nigerian tribe, and I have little in common with Okonkwo from Things Fall Apart. I’d actually like to think I’m not, in any way, masculine the way he is. But, his story is a lonely one, as he’s the only person willing to stand up for the traditions that colonization sought to conquer. What are the lengths we must go to preserve tradition from the outside world? Can unmarred traditions live in unity side by side? How can we disentangle tradition from harmful gender roles, especially given the traditional masculinity that drives Okonkwo’s heroism?

Such questions are necessary to ask, especially when the characters we read come from backgrounds we don’t belong to. The anti-hero archetype allows us to better understand these backgrounds, while also encouraging questions about the ways we navigate the world.

How to Write an Anti-hero: Ask Questions Through the Character

Because anti-heroes are vehicles for social and cultural criticism, use them to ask questions and inquire deeper into the way we act.

Meursault does this often in The Stranger. Why is it bad to drink black coffee at a funeral? Why should he have cried at the funeral? Why should he not have sent his mother to a nursing home? Why should he not help his neighbor, just because he is rumored to be a pimp? Why should he feel strongly about getting married?

Some of these questions are more provocative than others. And, the text isn’t necessarily trying to dissuade you of the morals you possess. Meursault is a detached character whose apathy borders on antisocial tendencies, and I wouldn’t like to have coffee with him myself.

But, he encourages us to ask these questions. Why do we act and feel the way that we do? These inquiries might strengthen our moralities or lead us to new ones. In any case, these questions create a richer relationship to the text, and also help us craft a more meaningful place in our societies, as we have engaged with those societies at a deeper level. Such is the art and the beauty of the anti-hero.

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Looking for feedback on your anti-hero characters and stories? Take a look at the upcoming fiction classes at Writers.com, where you’ll receive expert feedback on every story and character you write. You might also be interested in this private class with Gloria Kempton that dwells entirely on anti-heroes and anti-heroines.

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