What makes a good anti-hero?

07/04/2019 Literature, Reading, Writing 14

What makes a good anti-hero?

antihero noun

A protagonist or notable figure who is conspicuously lacking in heroic qualities.’

Merriam-Webster Dictionary

A while ago I wrote a post about the rise of the anti-hero, and about how morally grey characters are becoming more and more prevalent in modern media. But what exactly makes a good anti-hero?

Because let’s face it: getting anti-heroes right is hard. By nature, they’re supposed to be deeply flawed individuals who often do pretty messed up things, so what exactly makes an anti-hero a type of hero, rather than a straight-up villain? And what makes us root for them, and even like them, despite their flaws and the terrible things they often do?

Here’s a few of my thoughts on what makes a good anti-hero:

They do good things for questionable reasons.

Often one of the defining features of a good anti-hero story is that they set out on a heroic quest for some less than heroic reasons. Whereas your classic ‘good guy’ hero might set out on their heroic quest because it’s the right thing to do, an anti-hero is more likely doing it for his own, probably suspect motivations.

Take Shrek for example (not exactly the darkest or edgiest of anti-heroes, but oh well!): he is far from a classic hero character, what with being an ogre, being incredibly grumpy and just wanting everyone to leave him the hell alone. In the course of the first film (and the best in my opinion!) he ends up on the most classic of fairytale quests: he must rescue a Princess from the lair of a dragon.

Is he doing this from the goodness of his heart because he wants to save the Princess? Nope, he’s doing it so he can finally get the swarm of fairytale creatures removed from his swamp, even though it’ll mean the Princess will have to marry the rather objectionable Lord Farquad.

A lot of anti-heroes are only looking out for themselves, particularly at the outset of the story, and maybe they’ll go on to get something more than they expected out of the quest (as Shrek does), or maybe they won’t. But they almost never set out to do anything from the goodness of their heart!

They must have some kind of code.

One of the things that makes a good anti-hero and stops him or her from being a villain is that they should have their own code. Whilst their moral compass may not be the same as ours, they should have some kind of line that they’re not willing to cross.

A great example of this is the Punisher/Frank Castle (I’m talking about the version from the Netflix show here, as I haven’t read any of the comics!). He is undoubtedly a murderer and an incredibly violent character, but he has a rule of only killing bad guys and criminals, and whilst this doesn’t exactly make him a good guy, it does show that he has his own moral code.

Similarly characters like Light Yagami from Death Note starts out by only killing criminals (although he does spiral a bit when trying to cover his tracks later in the series…), and Dexter Morgan from the TV show ‘Dexter’ only kills murderers.

Are these good characters? No, definitely not. But they have their own set of rules, which I think makes them more complex as characters. It raises the questions of how they came to be the way they are, and why they are willing to do bad things, but only to a certain extent.

They must have some serious flaws.

Heroes generally need to have flaws if they’re going to come across as believable characters, but for me, a good anti-hero needs to take this up to a whole new level. For me, an anti-hero can be downright unlikeable and still be effective, a good example of this being Jezel Van Luther from Joe Abercrombie’s First Law trilogy.

From the outset, Jezel is an arrogant, pompous and cowardly character, with an over-inflated ego. In short, he’s a total arsehole, and whilst that makes him incredibly unlikable, it also makes his story more interesting. He’s forced into going on a heroic quest and it’s fascinating to see a character so completely out of their depths and feeling sorry for themselves, rather than a hero who is thriving. In fact, despite Jezel being so unlikable, I think we can relate more to someone who is struggling to do something heroic, than someone who does it effortlessly.

Other examples of this include Rachel from The Girl On The Train, who is a trainwreck of a person from the outset, and not overly sympathetic in the way that she continually makes her own situation worse. And then there’s Snape from the Harry Potter books whose behaviour throughout the series is pretty reprehensible, even if it turns out he’s actually been looking out for Harry all along.

This lack of heroic qualities and major flaws makes for a good anti-hero and a great story because it offers the chance for a redemption arc. Any well-written character should change throughout the story because of the things that happen to them, and with anti-heroes those changes often involve them overcoming their flaws to a certain extent. So Jezel Van Luther finally finds some courage and realises what an idiot he’s been, Rachel tries to pull it together so she can get to the bottom of Megan’s murder and manages to solve the case, and Snape successfully keeps Lily Potter’s son alive, even when it means his own death.

They may still not be the kind of people you’d want to invite round for a cuppa by the end of the story, but they’ve gone through a significant change, and faced their own flaws. They have gone on a very human journey, and we can relate.

They should have a compelling backstory.

Just as villains aren’t born villains, anti-heroes don’t leap from the womb as morally grey, flawed beings. So why are they the way they are? Their traits have to be the result of something that has happened to them in the past, which is why a convincing back story is a must for a good anti-hero.

An example of an anti-hero with a past that perfectly explains why they are the way they are is Kaz Brekker from Six of Crows. He’s introduced as a somewhat cold character who doesn’t let anyone get too close and has created a fearsome reputation for himself as ‘Dirtyhands.’ Throughout the course of two books, we slowly learn about his past and why he is so distrustful of people and it perfectly explains why he is the way he is, and why he has completely reinvented himself (I won’t spoil it, if you haven’t read it!)

An anti-hero’s backstory doesn’t necessarily have to be super tragic or anything… It just has to explain how they came to be the person that they are.

What makes a good anti-hero?

Other examples of good anti-heroes:

Macbeth and Hamlet from Shakespeare, Jay Gatsby from The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald, Heathcliff from Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte, Mr Rochester from Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte, Lada Dracul from the Conquerer’s Saga, Tyrion Lannister and countless other characters from A Song of Ice and Fire/the ‘Game of Thrones’ TV series, Locke Lamora from The Gentleman Bastards series by Scott Lynch, Glokta and Logen from The First Law Trilogy by Joe Abercrombie, Victor from Vicious by V.E. Schwab, Lisbeth Salander from the Millenium series by Stieg Larson, Ragnar Lothbrok from ‘Vikings’, Walter White from ‘Breaking Bad’, Loki from the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

So what do you think makes a good anti-hero? Do you like anti-heroes, or do you prefer classic heroes? Who are some of your favourite anti-heroes?

14 Responses to “What makes a good anti-hero?”

  1. Aj @ Read All The Things!

    I love anti-heroes! They’re more interesting than the regular kind of hero because you can’t fully trust them. I definitely think an anti-hero needs selfish motives. They’re only doing good things so they can get what they want.

    • Laura

      I totally agree that anti-heroes are more interesting and you can’t trust them. They’re just so much more complex!

  2. Catherine@we'll meet it when it does

    I like your point about them doing good things for questionable reasons – but I’d say the opposite applies as well, doing bad things for understandable reasons? Like Tyrion in Game of Thrones 🙂 I think Scarlet in Gone with the Wind is my favourite anti-heroine – she does some horrible things but you understand why she makes all the choices she does.

    • Laura

      That’s a great point! Some anti-heroes definitely do bad things for understandable reasons. Tyrion is a great example of that! 🙂

  3. Becky @ A Fool's Ingenuity

    I think everyone can appreciate a good anti hero as long as they are written well. They are not be confused with good people because often they are not even if they do sometimes do good things. I like to see what they’re motivation is because if they have no motivation to do good things I don’t tend to believe the story as I can’t get why they are doing something. You know?

    • Laura

      I feel exactly the same! I need to know a character’s motivation to find them believable, and that especially applies to anti-heroes. If they’re doing something good, there has to be a reason!

  4. Malka @ Paper Procrastinators

    I adore anti-heroes! I think it’s because in order to do them well you really need to understand their motivations, which requires them to be a multi-faceted character. For a hero they can just be noble and not be developed further. The two top anti-heroes that immediately popped into my mind were of course Victor from Vicious, and also Nimona.

    • Laura

      That’s true, you really do need to understand an anti-hero’s motivation, so they definitely do require a lot more development than a regular hero.
      Victor is an amazing anti-hero! 🙂

  5. Zoie @ Whisked Away By Words

    I love this post! I agree that Kaz Brekker is one of the best YA examples for an anti-hero — so many of the things he does are questionable in terms of morals, but then you look at his motivations and… well, then you don’t know what to think. He performs a heist for the greater good of the Grishaverse, but only for a monetary reward at the end. He ends up tearing an eyeball out… but because of Inej and love. Anti-heros have ended up being some of my favorite characters throughout the years 🙂 Great post, Laura!

    • Laura

      Kaz is definitely an amazing anti-hero, and I love how complex he is, and how you never know what he’ll do next! A lot of my favourite characters are definitely anti-heroes too! 🙂

  6. Wendy @ Falconer's Library

    What a great topic to dig into!

    Schwab and Bardugo both write terrific anti-heroes. I like a good redemption arc when possible; if the anti-hero doesn’t really learn or change, then they’re less hero and more villain. There’s also a difference between a villain who is good to just one person (which humanizes them and makes you have some sympathy for them) and a flawed hero. Kaz does a lot for Inej, but he also loved his brother and loves the other Crows far more than he’d let on, even to himself.

    • Laura

      Schwab and Bardugo really do write incredible anti-heroes!
      And I really like a good redemption arc too. I think you probably can have an anti-hero who doesn’t become a better person throughout the story, but it definitely makes them a lot more likeable and human if they do change and grow, and I think it’s a wonderful thing to watch as a reader as they become less villainous and more heroic. I especially like seeing their relationships with other characters grow as they learn to trust them, which I think Kaz and Inej is a great example of.
      And I totally agree with what you say about the difference between villains and anti-heroes/flawed heroes 🙂

  7. Nicole @ Feed Your Fiction Addiction

    I like an anti-hero as long as they’re just not miserably unlikable. I think you put your finger on a few qualities that definitely make an anti-hero work. Like Wendy said, I prefer when there’s a redemption arc, but sometimes the anti-hero turns into the villain, and it’s interesting to see how they progress. I’m thinking of Fairest by Marissa Meyer, for instance. You’re almost sympathetic for a good portion of the story–until she goes off the deep end.

    • Laura

      That’s a good point! I think a lot of the best anti-heroes have quite a good sense of humour, even if they’re quite dark as a character. Miserably unlikeable anti-heroes aren’t good!
      And I like a redemption arc too, but it can be really fascinating to see an anti-hero progress to a full-on villain.

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