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Analyzing the Anti-Hero

Updated: Sep 8, 2022

I fell in love with anti heroes early and hard. To me, heroes were a bit boring. I mean, they were necessary for the story, but the complete selflessness, the drive to do whatever was right? Yawn. There was no real challenge there. You just KNEW that the hero would not be tempted by the villain, would pass the test, would get the girl. But the Anti Hero? The I-don't-care, look-out-for-number-one, fallible, complex character? Oh, swoon. My drug of choice? Han Solo. (I was a BIG fan of the Star Wars expanded universe when I was growing up.) And I'm not the only one who loves this flawed, layered character.

The earliest known use of a character as anti-hero is all the way back in Homer's Iliad. Thersites was an extremely ugly character that only pops up a handful of times, mainly for some kind of comedic comparison to the Greek Eric's heroic characters. But he is known best for a scene in which he openly mocks Achilles, claiming to be the only one brave enough to say what everyone else is thinking. (Spoiler alert: this does not end well for Thersites…) This seems a bit out of character for the more modern anti hero and indeed the character underwent a massive transformation starting in 1714.

Then Lord Byron began to use flawed heroes in his work, leading to a wave of Byronic Heroes like Don Juan, which heavily influenced the Romantic and Gothic fiction movements. Now we associate the Bronte sisters and Alexandre Dumas with some of the more prevalent anti heroes. Heathcliff... Rochester... Edmund Dantes… But even here, the anti-hero is more aligned with a flaw or tragic hero.

Dostroyevsky's work, Notes from Underground used the anti-hero as a form of social criticism and began to use the character as a foil to the hero. This was a movement that literary critic Northrop Frye calls an alignment of the fictional "center of gravity".

But what does this all mean? What makes an anti-hero such an incredible character? In more modern literature, the anti-hero serves to blur the moral lines between the protagonist and antagonist. Anti-heroes are defined by an air of self-servitude.

Heroes are meant to be good, selfless, moral creatures who reject evil and rise above more human, flawed characteristics. Anti-heroes are morally ambiguous. They look out for themselves, and usually only get involved in an altercation if they are paid to be involved or if something/someone they care for is directly threatened. They do not trust easily because they have been betrayed before. They are the epitome of a lone wolf character.

The anti-hero can be further split into two subsections: the Outcast and the Underdog. The Outcast feels rejected by a society or group, or has broken from the majority because of a real or imagined slight. They wander at the fringes, operating in the shadows with no true home. They are extremely pessimistic, especially as it pertains to trusting anyone other than themselves.

The Underdog is similar to the Outcast in that they have been rejected by either a specific group or society in general; however, while the odds are stacked against them, they work to persevere anyway. They work against the group in order to rejoin them. They work against the expectations poised against them because they believe happiness lies within the group. They have a less ambiguous moral code, but true to the anti-hero archetype, it is mainly self-serving.

These characters are highly useful in any narrative. As they act as a foil for the hero, they can complicate relationships--both romantic and friendly--and help spur action or reveal hidden motivations. And as you use these characters in your own work, know that those you create have a place on the shelf by some of the great anti-heroes of the literary world: Prince Hamlet, Othello, Scarlett O'Hara, Huckleberry Finn, and many more.

Happy writing!


About the author: E.E. Suchowolec lives in Michigan with her husband and three small children. In those rare moments where she is not writing, she can be found taking pictures of her family, going on adventures around the state, knitting, or reading with a hot cup of coffee in hand. She has recently embarked on a quest to read some of the greatest literature known to man.


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