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 and active member of Mystery Writers of America, Sisters in Crime, and International Thriller Writers. Feedspot and Expertido.org named her Murder Blog “Best 100 Crime Blogs on the Net.” She also blogs at the Kill Zone (Writer’s Digest “101 Best Websites for Writers”). Her backlist includes psychological thrillers, the Mayhem Series (books 1-3), Grafton County Series, and true crime/narrative nonfiction. Now, she exclusively writes eco-thrillers, Mayhem Series (books 4-7 and continuing). Sue’s appeared on the Emmy award-winning true crime series, Storm of Suspicion, and three episodes of A Time to Kill on Investigation Discovery. Find out more about our RWC team here and connect with Sue below or at www.suecoletta.com.