Why do we love anti-heroes?

05/03/2017 Discussions, Reading 30

Why do we love anti-heroes?

These days we love anti-heroes in all of their shades-of-grey glory, with everything from books, to tv shows and even movies showing a tendency towards darker and more dubious heroes and heroines. Anti-heroes may have been around for a long time – you only have to look at Shakespeare’s Macbeth and the Byronic heroes of the Brontë sisters to see their early incarnations – but it’s only been recently that their popularity has began to eclipse that of the classic, squeaky-clean hero.

But why is that? What exactly is it that we love so much about anti-heroes? Why are we so fascinated by the Tyrion Lannisters, the Rachel Watsons (The Girl On The Train), and the Hamlets? What do we love so much about Deadpool and Sherlock Holmes and Rhysand (A Court of Thorns and Roses)? Their actions are often morally questionable, and in many cases reprehensible, and they’re exactly the kind of people you wouldn’t want to know or meet in real life…so why do we love them so much in books and on screen?

Well here are a few of my thoughts on why we love anti-heroes:

  • They’re flawed, just like us (although hopefully our flaws don’t involve being murderers, or dangerous criminals etc!).

The dictionary definition of an anti-hero is ‘a protagonist or notable figure who is conspicuously lacking in heroic qualities.’ So according to that definition, I myself would actually be an anti-hero if my life was a book, seen as I can vouch for the fact I’m ‘conspicuously lacking in heroic qualities.’ I’m certainly not brave, or strong, or proficient in any kind of combat, and if there’s two pieces of cake available, let’s just say I’m not being selfless – I’m picking the bigger piece! And whilst I think I’m a fairly moral person, I’ll still have a little chuckle if I see someone fall over in a comical manner (once I’ve established they’re OK, obviously!).

So whilst I’m not exactly Walter White, I am a flawed human being, and that’s what anti-heroes are at their most basic level. We may not be able to relate to a lot of the terrible things anti-heroes do, but we can definitely relate to being imperfect!

  • They’re complex.

One thing I want in a character – whether they’re an alien from a far off planet or your average student – is to believe that they could be real, and therefore they have to seem like a complex, fully-realised person, rather than a cardboard cut-out. And whilst it is possible to have a complex hero who isn’t an anti-hero, anti-heroes often provide some of the most fascinating examples of complex characters, as they are a mix of both good and bad, which can lead to a lot of internal conflict.

  • We’re curious about their backstory, and how they came to be as they are. 

I don’t know about you, but I’m pretty fascinated by psychology, and anti-heroes can provide some pretty interesting backstories and psyches to investigate! We’re all partially the product of our backgrounds and families and experiences, and so when I’m first introduced to an anti-hero, I often find myself wondering how they came to be the way they are. What was their family like, and how were they brought up? What happened to them to make them as they are, and what drives them?

The answers are almost always fascinating, and I love that ‘a-ha!’ moment you get when it all clicks together. Severus Snape from Harry Potter and Kaz Brekker from Six of Crows are great examples of this: in both cases there’s a moment where you suddenly discover a huge piece of their backstory, and get a great insight into why they behave as they do.

  • They make us think more about things like morality and ethics.

Anti-heroes are by nature ambiguous, and that can give us plenty to think about and debate. For example, whilst I haven’t watched the TV show ‘Dexter’ (too gruesome for me!), the central premise of the series definitely brings up an interesting question of morality. Dexter Morgan is a serial killer, which is terrible, but he only kills bad people…so does that make him any better than the people he murders? Or is he just as bad as them?

Anti-heroes can certainly get us thinking in a way that straight-up heroes don’t. Classic heroes just ‘do the right thing’ because it’s the right thing to do, and there’s no thinking, or internal conflict involved, whilst anti-heroes throw up a lot of interesting questions and conundrums to consider. And being made to think is always a good thing, surely?

  • We can live vicariously through them. 

Maybe in our daydreams we’re all unstoppable badasses (armed with a number of well-timed quips for when we’re about to defeat our enemy) or the mastermind of an impossible heist, but in truth, we’re mostly just going to work and doing the laundry. And to be honest, I think most people would much prefer the quiet life to being a criminal mastermind!

However, since books and movies are largely for entertainment purposes it can be nice to live vicariously through anti-heroes, particularly as they often have a ‘say whatever they want, and do whatever they want’ kind of mentality. Because let’s face it: we all have those days when we just want to scream at our boss to stick their job, and tell our ‘friend’ who keeps subtly putting us down to get lost! Maybe we can’t do those things in real life, but it can be therapeutic to see someone else doing exactly what they want.

And the pitfalls of anti-heroes…

As much as I love anti-heroes, they aren’t without their pitfalls, and I thought I should address that here.

Firstly, the anti-hero itself has spawned a number of archetypes, which are fast becoming as dull and boring as the classic ‘good guy’ hero. The one that irritates me the most is undoubtedly the ‘bad boy love interest’ – you know, that moody, super good looking guy whose horrible to the heroine, but it’s OK, because he’s just a tortured soul who needs saving! Very occasionally it can be done well, but for the most part I’m tired of seeing that particular brand of anti-hero, and a few others as well.

I also read something a while back which touched on whether or not the prevalence of grey morality and anti-heroes, and the general darkness of today’s media was actually good for us or not, as it’s essentially getting us to root for the bad guy. For the most part my opinion differed from that of the writer (I do think most people know the difference between right and wrong, regardless of what media they consume), but it did make me pause to think, and I’d be interested to get other people’s opinion on the matter!

Why do we love anti-heroes?

So what do you love (or hate!) about anti-heroes? Who are some of your favourites? And do you think there’s anything harmful about the prevalence of anti-heroes in modern day books and media?

30 Responses to “Why do we love anti-heroes?”

  1. Becky @ A Fool's Ingenuity

    I think we love the anti-hero because no matter how terrible a character may seem we seem to hope for some kind of redemption for them. It’s part of us wanting to think that no matter how much you do wrong there is still hope for redeeming yourself. It does mean that there are some repetitive storylines going around and there are some seriously concerning character out there and that things like the bad boy in romance is on the rise. Whilst I do love a good anti-hero it does concern me that the bad boy in romance is becoming accepted and when they act like a dick it’s okay because they’re a romantic lead. It’s questionable the kind of behaviour which is being shown as acceptable.

    I cannot say I dislike the rise of the anti-hero, though. I like seeing characters with grey morals and exploring their story. it only works when you have plenty of stories about good guys as well to balance it out.

    • Laura

      I love that about anti-heroes too – they do show how redemption is possible. And I love that about anti-heroes stories, how you get to see their development throughout the book, and often how they come to regret the things they’ve done, and go about trying to set things right, and be redeemed.
      It can definitely lead to a lot of repetitive stories and concerning characters though, and the whole bad boy love interest is the worst one in my opinion. It does in a lot of ways normalise unacceptable behaviour, which is obviously not good.
      On the whole though I do like the rise of the anti-hero, although I think you’re right in saying we need plenty of good guys to balance it out! 🙂

  2. Melissa @ Quill Pen Writer

    I always enjoy reading about anti-heroes! (If they’re not a carbon copy lacking depth and are original, that is.) You’re right, they do bring up lots of interesting questions about morality and ethics, and at times make me think about my own. I think they’re important in that aspect, as they make us think, but I don’t think anti-heroes should dominate entertainment and media completely. I still believe in heroes–not perfect ones–but real flawed people who truly want to do good in the world. I think there’s lots of power in both types of characters!
    Awesome post; I really loved it! 😀 <3

    • Laura

      Yeah, I definitely think anti-heroes are important, and bring up so many questions surrounding morals and ethics. Although I totally agree with you that they shouldn’t wholly dominate the media, and there’s definitely still room for realistic, flawed heroes! 🙂
      I’m glad you liked the post! 🙂

  3. Kirsty @ kirstychronicles

    I think I love anti heroes because they’re not perfect. When a characters gets everything right and never questions themselves I just don’t find it believable. I want to see some doubt, I want to see that not everyone is perfect and it’s okay to mess up. A lot of the time I want to see anti heroes grow as characters as well. I don’t think there’s anything better than an amazing character development! Really great post!!

    • Laura

      Yeah, it’s exactly the same for me. I just don’t find it believable when characters never do anything wrong, or doubt what they’re doing in any way, because that’s just human nature. And I love the character development of anti-heroes too, especially as I think they have more scope than average characters to grow as people 🙂

  4. Lory @ Emerald City Book Review

    This was a good topic to think about. For me I think the most important role of anti-heroes is to add complexity to a narrative, and make us think about morality in more nuanced and less cut-and-dried (and boring) ways. The main pitfall, as you say, is that the anti-hero can itself become a boring, static stereotype.

    Interesting point that they might encourage us to “root for the bad guy.” I think it depends how it’s done. If the author is truly advocating for evil through this character, I think (and hope) I would notice and it would turn me off. Other people might be drawn to the character for that very reason, but then I believe they would tend to evil in other ways too. Is it the book’s fault? How does the culture we consume shape us, and how does it reflect what we already bear within? This is a question I may need to explore more at some point. Thanks for bringing it up!

    • Laura

      I totally agree that it depends on how the author handles it as to whether or not a book could be seen to encourage people to root for the bad guy. I think a lot of the time with anti-heroes it’s the development that means they veer away from encouraging unacceptable behaviour, as there’s often a redemption narrative running throughout where the character comes to realise the error of their ways, or maybe reveals that they’re not so bad deep down, and I love that!
      Anti-heroes definitely bring up so many questions, not only about morality and ethics, but about the way we consume media and how it effects us, which is pretty interesting to consider 🙂

  5. Katie @ Foxy Readers

    I am one of those people who love anti-heroes. Because I get so bored in general when people are either decidedly good or decidedly bad. To be honest, I prefer all characters to be represented as flawed because that’s just reality – most people aren’t entirely one or the other.

    But I think I can understand how people would see this as teaching others to root for the bad guy. While educated and intellectual people recognize that they don’t learn their morals from social media, some people actually do. And so I guess it might raise a question of ethics for our society, but at the same time I don’t want these characters to go away! Haha

    • Laura

      I’m exactly the same – I find characters who are all good or all bad boring, mostly because they are totally unrealistic.
      And I agree most people don’t just see things on social media or on a movie and copy it – they know what’s wrong and what’s not – but I guess there’s always the danger of the odd few people who do. It does raise interesting questions anyway, and I think these are the sorts of things it’s important to discuss.
      Thanks for commenting! 🙂

  6. Cait @ Paper Fury

    Honestly, my love for anti-heroes is mostly because they’re actually written complexly! And they’ve been through hard times and have interesting backstories. Half the time, for me anyway? I feel like the hero is just on this unattainable moral high ground being all self-righteous when the world is so RARELY black and white. I also reeeally like anti-heroes because they usually do bad to do something good. And afjdksal I don’t know, that just makes sense to me in a world as crazy and often messed up as ours. And I guess it’s exciting.?

    • Laura

      Yeah, I definitely love the complexity of anti-heroes too! Regular heroes can definitely come across kind of preachy, whereas anti-heroes are often more relatable 🙂
      And I totally agree with what you say about anti-heroes doing bad to do good – that definitely makes more sense in the context of today’s world 🙂

  7. Greg

    I agree about it’s a vicarious thing. We can’t all slay dragons or infiltrate goblin caves but it’s fun to read about, and sometimes the anti- hero is fun to follow (I mean sometimes Han solo is more fun than Luke Skywalker lol). And yes they are often complex, making them the way they are, and that’s just fun to read. 🙂 Internal conflict is good.

    I do think it can go too far, at least for me personally, I draw the line at serial killers or some of that stuff. If they’re pretty much just evil I have no desire to read about that, or revel in the evil, or whatever. I still like a happe ending or at least a bittersweet one, but not just bad.

    • Laura

      Yeah, I definitely think anti-heroes can be a lot of fun to read about! 🙂
      But I totally agree with you – there is such a thing as going too far with an anti-hero!

  8. Kristen @ Metaphors and Moonlight

    My first thought was that I like anti-heroes because they’re flawed whereas oftentimes other characters are too perfect, which just isn’t realistic. But yes, I think you nailed it with all the other stuff too, especially the complexity. I’m also not into the bad boy love interest though because they’re usually just jerks, and no amount of tragic backstory makes it ok to treat people badly.

    • Laura

      Yeah, I think flaws and complexity are definitely some of the best things about anti-heroes 🙂
      And that’s so true – having a tragic backstory doesn’t mean you get to go around treating people badly, just because you’ve had a bad time.

  9. Michelle @ FaerieFits

    I love me a good anti-hero! (Erm, a bad anti-hero?) I find the morally grey space VERY interesting to play with, and it’s so much less restricting than “the hero is always good” limitations. In the real world, we have to make decisions about what we’re doing every day, and VERY few of us stick to the “white” side of decision-making. We impact others negatively even when we don’t mean to, and the concept of the anti-hero I think makes that space easier for us to explore (and certainly easier to relate to!)

    I do agree with you, though, some tropes have formed that are seriously overused. The bad boy love interest in particular grates on my nerves. I don’t have a problem with the idea of falling for a bad boy (several people would say that’s what I did with my husband), but it is SOOOooo overdone.

    • Laura

      That’s so true! In the real world we do all have to make choices, and we can’t always pick the ‘right’ thing to do (sometimes it’s impossible to know what the right thing to do is!), so i think it’s good to see that grey space represented in fiction. I think it can even help us in the real world making decisions to see in fiction how these things impact others.
      And I definitely think it’s the whole ‘overdone’ aspect of some tropes that grates on my nerves too! 🙂

  10. Shannon @ It Starts at Midnight

    This is such a great post! I think that for me, I love when the character is very complex- and maybe I even sympathize with them to an extent, but know that their actions are wrong. Because thought provoking characters are definitely the best! I also agree about the “bad boy love interest” trope- I strongly dislike that one. I could live without that ever being a thing again. But morally grey characters? DEFINITELY love those!

    • Laura

      Yeah, ‘thought-provoking’ is definitely the main thing I want in characters, and anti-heroes are definitely that. Yay for morally grey characters (unless they’re annoying bad boys!) 🙂

  11. Jen @ Books That Hook

    Hmmm. This is hard for me. I feel like I’m the odd-one-out on this topic. I’m not a big fan of anti-heroes (at least not as main characters).

    I have a hard time relating to characters who step too far over what I consider the line between right and wrong. If I dislike the main character, it’s hard for me to continue with the book. Plus, I want the hero(ine) to try to make good decisions. I’m not saying the character needs to be perfect, but I want him or her to at least try.

    On the other hand, I agree that a goody-two-shoes can be boring. If the character never made mistakes, he/she wouldn’t be human.

    I like tortured souls as main characters only if they are trying to be better. If they continue to be bad on purpose, I can’t connect with them. Walter White, for example, had good intentions but bad actions. I could understand him only to a point, and I wasn’t compelled to watch more of the series (even though I’ve seen it all because my son has made me watch it). As a counter-example, in The Vampire Diaries, Damon started out bad, but tried to become a better person, even though he messed up. I wanted to see if he would succeed, so I kept watching the show (until I just couldn’t take anymore of Elena’s attitude).

    • Laura

      Well it’s always interesting to get another point of view, and whilst I do like anti-heroes, everything you’ve said is totally understandable! 🙂
      And I get what you mean about the ‘tortured souls trying to be better’. I do love those stories where a person knows that some things they’ve done in the past are bad and is trying to do better. Damon is a great example (and you’ve just reminded me I needed to finish watching Vampire Diaries – I haven’t seen it in years!).
      Thanks for commenting! 🙂

  12. Tasya

    This is really interesting! I never notice the rise of anti heroes other than in books, but it seems true in other media too. I agree with all your reasons, complex characters are interesting too read because they feel human. Their experience made them who you are, and no human is truly, purely, 100% good. Love this post!

  13. Nicole @ Feed Your Fiction Addiction

    I mostly love an anti-hero, but I do see a little bit of the dangers of that gray morality. After all, history has shown that it doesn’t take much for the lines between right and wrong to get blurred in real life as well as in fiction! Still, there are quite a few “bad guys” I love!

    • Laura

      That’s true, the lines between right and wrong can be blurry anyway, so there is some danger that showing anti-heroes in fiction can make this line even more blurry. I’d like to think most people know the difference between right and wrong though, but there are always some people who don’t!

  14. Jasmine

    Ahhh thank you so much for writing this, I’m a huge bookworm for my age and I needed this for my GCSE English speaking exam. This helped me so much!!!! <3

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