A few weeks ago I posted about the Hero archetype. This week I thought I’d discuss another archetype, one related to the Hero, and that is the Anti-Hero. An Anti-Hero is a protagonist who has the opposite of most of the traditional attributes of a hero but isn’t a villain. This is a person who isn’t normally called upon to act, who would rather not be put into a heroic position (this is different from the reluctant hero), or who doesn’t act in what we would consider a traditionally heroic fashion. They are unconventional, a rebel, possibly amoral, usually a loner type, and who don’t consider themselves heroic.
Literature is littered with Anti-Heroes particularly over the last decades. Is this an effort but authors to strive for more realism? Is it because readers identify with these characters more? Take a look at characters such as Dexter Morgan , Holden Caufield in The Catcher in the Rye , Scarlett O’Hara in Gone with the Wind , and Severus Snape from the Harry Potter series. Dexter Morgan is an interesting character because it could be argued he is a villain since he himself is a serial killer yet he kills other murders thus saving society from one less villain in addition to satisfying an uncontrollable urge. In the case of Holden Caufield, the Anti-Hero becomes a symbol, like teenage rebellion, due to their nonconformity. Scarlett O’Hara starts off rich but becomes very poor leading her to make a serious of desperate choices in an effort to rise above it all. Throughout most of the Harry Potter series, Snape is portrayed as evil since he hates Harry old boy wizard hero. It’s not until the last book that Snape is redeemed and the reader finds out he has been protecting Harry all this time because of his friendship with Harry’s mother. All of these characters are outsiders, morally grey yet commit heroic acts.
In movies and TV we see the Anti-Hero archetype in John McClane in the Die Hard series, Shrek from the Shrek movies, Spike from Buffy the Vampire Slayer , and Veronica Mars . Once again we see a group of people who live on the fringes of society. None of them play by the rules, are their own person, have a small group of friends, if any, yet all commit heroic deeds. Sometimes their motivations are selfish, but in the end their actions do save people and they become heroes.
Just as with the Hero archetype, or any other archetype, there are several subsets within the Anti-Hero:
Cynical Anti-Hero – Think of Captain Mal Reynolds from Firefly. He or she is jaded having struggled to get through life and doesn’t believe good can triumph over evil.
Tragic Anti-Hero – Think of Esther Greenwood from The Bell Jar . He or she faces an enormous amount of struggle throughout life and their story usually ends in tragedy.
The Unscrupulous Anti-Hero – A good example of this is Captain Jack Sparrow from The Pirates of the Caribbean movies. He or she sees life in shades of grey and his or her actions reflect that. They are very amoral but aren’t truly bad or evil but they get damn close to it.
The Hero in Name Only Anti-Hero – An excellent example of this is Sherlock Holmes . Never in a million years would this character see himself or herself as a hero. They are selfish even though they direct their abilities toward capturing the bad guys. One gets the sense that at any time, some even could trigger them to switch to the dark side.
The appeal of the Anti-Hero to many readers and writers is that they are more real, more approachable then a Hero. With a typical Hero, we know he or she will prevail. Yes, he or she may pay a huge cost but he will always win. With an Anti-Hero, he or she may or may not win and may not even survive. Their journey is more intriguing with a story arc possessing more drama and uncertainty. This archetype, I think, presents a better opportunity to question social issues, gender roles, and economics amongst other themes. I think it also allows for a more complex character. That’s not to say a Hero can’t be complex, many are, it’s just there’s more transparency and are inherently good.