To understand why readers love anti-heroes, we first need to define what they are. An anti-hero is a flawed, complicated character who thrives in shades of gray. They play the hero of the story, but rarely, if ever, follow conventional expectations of heroism.
Anti-heroes aren’t new. One of the first to emerge was the deeply flawed Huckleberry Finn. Marvel’s Wolverine and Hulk also are deeply flawed anti-heroes. Then came vigilante anti-heroes like Dexter Morgan, who lives by a code. Even though he’s a serial killer, he only murders other killers who’ve escaped justice.
Modern media has grown tired of idealized heroes. Pop culture fell in love with characters who have less-than-heroic traits since they are more relatable. We can’t see ourselves in a hero who stands on a pedestal of perfection. Beloved characters like Jack Sparrow constantly challenge the line between good and bad. Which makes him more relatable than, say, Superman.
Thus, our adoration of the anti-hero is rooted in self-identification with their characteristics and backstories. When characters reflect versions of ourselves, we connect on a deeper level. Our love for these characters stem from empathy. Empathizing with a character immerses us in the fictional world.
Anti-heroes are cool and complex characters that millions of readers adore. Their morality, or lack thereof, makes readers gravitate toward them. It is in our human nature to empathize with people, and what makes anti-heroes so easy to understand is because they are relatable, and typically well-rounded, dynamic characters.
When characters are richly detailed psychologically, we connect to them. If a character is complex enough, it challenges readers’ capacity for understanding others’ beliefs and desires—known as theory of mind—and that challenge can be a pleasant one for fans who like to think deeply about the books they read. Characters who aren’t so black and white, but morally gray, fuel our fascination. Also, perhaps a small part of us wish we could do what they do. Plus, they’re fun characters with snarky, witty dialogue.
Anti-heroes act on impulses we all have but cannot act on, which allows readers to explore what that might feel like. We all have “shadow sides” that contain forbidden impulses, and we need to confront and understand those shadow sides to be our healthiest, most complete selves. Carrying out socially unacceptable things in real life would bring negative consequences and damage our self-concepts but reading safely from the sidelines as our beloved anti-heroes “walk the walk” is immensely satisfying.
Dark characters do what they want, unconstrained by social norms. These complex and nuanced characters fascinate and provide a safe way to get in touch with our own forbidden impulses. In short, we love anti-heroes because they reflect the duality of man. Both good and bad traits combine to create a relatable, more human character.
Three Types of Anti-Hero
- Self-Interested Anti-Hero
- Unwilling Anti-Hero
- Vigilante Anti-Hero
These anti-heroes tend to have a biting wit, sharp tongue, and a complete disregard for polite society. Their biggest concern is protecting their own interests, even at the expense of others. Fortunately, they aren’t actively trying to harm anyone, and they all have a moral line they won’t cross. If getting what they want would betray their values, they’ll find another way.
Most stories featuring this type of anti-hero focuses on convincing them to fight for the world around them, rather than just themselves.
These characters are forced to engage with their story’s conflict by the Inciting Incident or First Plot Point, much like the typical hero. However, what makes them an anti-hero is that they spend most of their journey trying to turn back the clock to get out of their new obligations and return to their old life.
By the time they’ve completed the quest, they’ll embrace their new situation and learn to fight for what’s right—even if they continue to complain about it.
The vigilant anti-hero is by far my favorite to write.
Some, like Jack Reacher, align with the classic “lone wolf. Others have families and deep personal connections. The vigilante anti-hero rejects authority, doesn’t trust society’s version of justice, and has their own nonconventional sense of morality. When they see evil in their world, they set out to correct it, even if it involves violence, deception, and murder.
As you can imagine, this requires a careful balancing act.
This style of heroism is exciting, but it’s also easy for these anti-heroes to cross the line in villain territory. Because of that, the vigilante anti-hero requires a rock-solid moral compass that is intrinsically good, even if their methods are more complex.
Though some anti-heroes toe the line between good and evil, they’re ultimately more hero than villain.
Have you crafted an anti-hero? What type did you choose? Tell us about them!
If you’d like to see anti-heroes in action, you can find some examples in my latest release.
Amidst a rising tide of poachers, three unlikely eco-warriors take a stand to save endangered Eastern Gray Wolves—even if it means the slow slaughter of their captors.
Sue Coletta is an award-winning crime writer. Feedspot and Expertido.org named her Murder Blog as “Best 100 Crime Blogs on the Net” (2018-2021). She also blogs at the popular Kill Zone, writes two psychological thriller series (Tirgearr Publishing), and true crime/narrative nonfiction (Rowman & Littlefield Group, Inc.).
Sue teaches a virtual course about serial killers for EdAdvance in CT and a condensed version for her fellow Sisters in Crime. She’s appeared on the Emmy award-winning true crime series, Storm of Suspicion. In the fall she’s slated to appear on another true crime show for CineFlix. Learn more about Sue and her books at www.suecoletta.com.
V.M. Sang says
It seems to be human nature to love a bad boy, or girl. How many well brought up girls fall for a bad boy in real life? It’s safer to love a fictional antihero.
Traci Kenworth says
I haven’t written one yet but I’ve enjoyed a few books that have them so you never know! Great post, Sue!
Noelle A. Granger says
Thanks for this very lucid explanation – it goes to show why I LOVE the Jack Sparrow character, along with Jack Reacher. These characters are infinitely more interesting.
CS Boyack says
You’re so right about this. I wrote one into The Playground and people loved him. I recycled him into one of the Hat stories and people still love him. I’m open to the idea of bringing him back someday if the right story comes to me. He’s also more fun to write than many characters are.
Raymond Walker says
When I was a boy, I became enamored with anti-Heroes. The first I remember reading of was “Elric of Melnibone” A shocking construct for a boy of eleven. An Albino who could only survive by killing others and stealing their souls (lol and he was the good guy) he was in (Incestuous) love with his sister. But she did not love him, rather her joy came from torture and strange sex. At one point Elric comments’ “She is here, I can hear screams and sex, perhaps she is only coupling with animals this time”.
Lol- jolly stuff.
Later the same author (Michael Moorcock) would pen “Gloriana” and birth the greatest anti-hero of all time. “Captain Quire” is an amoral pseudo aristocrat. Who eviscerated a would be ship wrecker on a beach in southern England just because he irritated him, and he needed something to sit on that kept his bum warm. It was a wintry night. The story of him falling in love against his best intentions and wishes is wonderful.
I like anti- heroes, perhaps you can tell, Loki, Paris, Demeter, Edwin Drood, Paha Sapa, Hades and so many others.
Lol that will make me sound weird, but I am really perfectly normal…ish.
I have two more characters to add to the AH list. These are some of my favourite characters.
1. Rick Blaine (Humphrey Bogart)in Casablanca, who starts out as a self-interested Anti-Hero when he lets Ugarte be captured by the police, and says, “I stick my neck out for nobody.” He doesn’t help Victor Lazlo, whose Resistance work he admires, by refusing to sell him the Letters of Transit because Ilsa had abandoned him in Paris earlier. But by the end of the movie, he tricks Ilsa into going to America with Lazlo because she’s an important part of her husband’s motivation. He sacrifices his love for Ilsa so that the Resistance can carry on. Then he and the French police chief plan together to join a Free French garrison, becoming a true patriot and hero.
2. Will Gardner (Josh Charles) in The Good Wife. He’s a good lawyer who fights fiercely for his clients and is the partner in Lockhart Gardner who created the pro bono section. He is Alicia Florrick’s main love interest and has an affair with her despite her being married. But he has questionable morals, sometimes stepping on the line between lawful and unlawful. He had a gambling debt and borrowed money that didn’t belong to him, although he returned it. When he’s caught, he’s allowed to take a six-month suspension from the law instead of being disbarred because he had formed the pro bono section of the firm. He shows a damaging video to Peter Florrick, which could ruin Peter’s chances at being elected and lets Peter decide what to do with it. (Despite Peter being Alicia’s husband, and his rival for Alicia’s affection.)
ANGELA ACKERMAN says
I am a HUGE fan of anti-heroes for the very reasons you’ve stated here. Life is not straightforward, and I think all the time we see people taking advantage, using their power and wealth to manipulate and step on the necks of others. Bad things happen to good people, and sometimes the system itself is corrupt, or the law fails to protect, so there’s something appealing about someone who doesn’t follow the rules but does good in some way. And I think that’s the key for me – do they do good? If they don’t, they’re just a villain, but if they do good, I can get behind them when I read. 🙂
Sue Coletta says
My thoughts exactly, Angela. 😀
BECCA PUGLISI says
Thanks for tackling this, Sue. Personally, I’m not a fan of anti-heroes, so I’m not the person to write this post. But I know so many of our readers (and the rest of the world) love them, so I’m very glad you were able to add some insight :).
Sue Coletta says
Thanks, Becca! Anti-heroes are my favorite type of character. 😀