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!
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?