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What Is an Antihero?
An antihero is a central character who lacks the characteristics an audience associates with a conventional hero. Antiheroes are ambiguous protagonists—complex characters who have a dark side. Despite a flawed exterior, a history of bad decisions, and even a questionable moral code, an antihero is ultimately guided by good intentions.
3 Types of Antiheroes
Think about the rough-around-the-edges antihero Han Solo compared to the traditionally heroic Luke Skywalker. Antiheroes go against the grain and are often social outcasts who operate by their own rules. Here are different antihero archetypes found in fiction:
- The pragmatic rebel: The pragmatic antihero is a realist. They might associate with both good guys and bad guys and take whatever action they deem necessary to accomplish their mission. Their morals are, for the most part, good, but they won’t hesitate to do what’s needed to be heroic—even if that means taking out a few bad guys. They won’t intentionally cross a line unless it’s for the greater good, and they may still follow the steps of the hero’s journey.
- The unscrupulous antihero: This is the antihero whose morals fall into a grey zone. They have good intentions but are driven more out of self-interest rather than the greater good. They can be cynical and have a jaded view of the world. Their actions are often dictated by past traumas and inner conflict, revealed through their backstory. They don’t think twice about how they achieve their goal and who they need to push out of their way, and they sometimes even enjoy the dark side. Annaliese Keating, the antihero played by Viola Davis at the heart of the show How to Get Away With Murder, is cutthroat and morally compromised, but her motives begin to make sense as the audience gets a deeper look into her inner life.
- A hero by any means necessary: The titular antihero protagonist of the television series Dexter (as well as the novel it’s based on, Darkly Dreaming Dexter by Jeff Lindsay), borders on being a villain. Antiheroes like Dexter Morgan justify their behavior because it results in something that benefits society, even though their actions are questionable—and sometimes even psychotic. For example, Dexter might have good intentions as a vigilante serial killer of other killers, but his deeds are those normally associated with an antagonist.
2 Examples of Antiheroes
Antihero characters can be some of the most interesting characters to read and the most fun to write. Here are two well-known examples of antiheroes from TV shows and literature:
- Walter White: Walter White is the main character of the TV series Breaking Bad. As a man dying of cancer, White begins to make and sell methamphetamine to save money to support his family after his death. As the series progresses, Walter White’s character arc is dramatic as he moves through the ranks of antihero archetypes, crossing every moral line and almost assuming the role of villain. Told from any other point of view, Walter White would be the antagonist of this series but instead he is an antihero.
- Severus Snape: In her Harry Potter books, J.K. Rowling created an antihero who is the polar opposite of Harry Potter—a classic hero in every sense of the word. At every turn, it appears that Severus Snape is another one of Harry Potter’s enemies. But despite his dark moods, unlikeable personality, and sometimes downright mean actions, Rowling explains his true backstory and reveals his role in protecting Harry Potter.
4 Tips for Writing an Antihero
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Despite their flaws, antiheroes are realistic characters that readers can relate to. Here are four tips for creating a great antihero for your story:
- Create a main character who is complex. Think of how you would write a traditional hero. Create your antihero by giving them the opposite attributes. If a hero is an idealist, your antihero is a cynic. Make them mysterious so their character is revealed bit by bit. A great antihero has flaws just like a real person. But despite an antihero’s weaknesses, their good side is illuminated as the story progresses. These contrasting qualities make an antihero more complex and interesting.
- Give your antihero internal conflict. Every great antihero has an internal struggle driving their actions. Before you begin writing, sit down and flesh out the character. What event is the source of their internal struggle that informs their behavior in the story? Severus Snape’s love for Harry’s mother persists long after her death and impacts his treatment of Harry. You eventually need to explain the antihero’s behavior by revealing their inner conflict. As you write, slowly reveal your antihero’s backstory to let readers know what makes them tick.
- Don’t confuse your antihero with the antagonist. For the antiheroes with misguided morals, the ends justify the means. They can explain away the bad things they do if the result is ultimately good and they emerge a hero. When writing an antihero, you can bring them to the edge of evil, but they’re never as evil as the true villain of your story. Unlike an antagonist, an antihero ultimately believes they are acting for a noble cause. Some characters, like the DC Comics character Harley Quinn, alternate between being an antihero and an antagonist, depending on the context.
- Use supporting characters. In the TV show The Sopranos, antihero Tony Soprano had his therapist, who showed Tony’s vulnerability and made the audience have a soft spot for a guy who ordered a hit as easily as he ate a bowl of pasta. Create a side character who can illuminate your antihero’s redeeming qualities. The best antiheroes are the ones readers can’t believe they’re rooting for.
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