What is an anti hero? We’ve all heard that characters like Walter White and Thomas Shelby are anti heroes, but we don’t hear why. Perhaps the better question to ask is: what makes an anti hero an anti hero? We’re going to explore that question by looking at examples from literature, film, and television. But before we jump into our anti hero definition, let’s review the history of the term.
Anti Hero Meaning is Rooted in the Classics
Anti hero examples in literature
The history of ‘the anti hero’ can be traced all the way back to the 2nd millennium B.C. with the Epic of Gilgamesh. Let’s check out a great video to see how the Sumerian king became a character archetype:
Anti heroes have been used in stories for over four thousand years. Many of the most acclaimed writers from around the world have used them as their protagonists, such as William Shakespeare, Fyodor Dostoevsky, and Franz Kafka. Now that we’ve touched on the term’s roots, let’s define anti hero.
ANTI HERO DEFINITION
What is an anti hero?
An anti hero is a narrative protagonist who is defined by their own self-interest. Anti heroes often feel rejected by society, and veer down a self-destructive path that results in isolation or death. Over the years, anti hero characters have become one of the most popular types of story protagonists -- in television (Don Draper, Tony Soprano) and in film (Michael Corleone, Daniel Plainview).
Anti Hero Characteristics
- Defined by self-interest
- At odds with society
- Actions or morals are noble
Anti Hero Movies and Literature
The rejected outsider
“After another moment's silence she mumbled that I was peculiar, that that was probably why she loved me but that one day I might disgust her for the very same reason.” - Albert Camus, from The Stranger.
For Camus’ protagonist Meursault, there is no heaven, no love, no acceptance. The inability to find commonalities with others, or salvation within themselves, is something that most anti hero characters struggle with. No matter what they do, they’re destined to be rejected by society. This outsider mentality is something that’s come to define anti hero.
Perhaps the best film example of the reject-anti hero is Travis Bickle in Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver. Not only is Taxi Driver one of Martin Scorsese’s best movies, it’s a masterful story of an anti hero at odds with a decaying society.
Let’s take a look at a video essay that explains how writer Paul Schrader used inspiration from Dostoevsky’s Notes from the Underground and Jean-Paul Sartre’s Nausea to create one of the most iconic anti heroes of all time.
Despite his off-putting characteristics, Travis strives to be a hero. He does this in three ways, all of which are noble, but are perverted to the point of criminality:
- To liberate women from oppression
- To rid the world of ‘filth’
- To die a martyr
Travis keeps his worldview under wraps, because he knows deep down that he’ll be rejected for it. Instead, the insatiable conflict brewing within him comes across as peculiar to others; even alluring, albeit for a short time.
Just like in The Stranger, Travis is accepted, then later rejected for his strangeness. When Betsy says that his personality is double-edged, we know that this will eventually lead her to reject him.
What can we learn from the way in which Bickle is rejected? To answer that, we have to follow his actions. Bickle does everything possible to make himself more masculine in an attempt to gain control of everything that eludes him. He wishes that he was more attractive, more powerful, more important -- but he can’t be. There’s nothing he can do to become accepted. He has been, and will always be, God’s lonely man.
We imported the Taxi Driver script into StudioBinder’s screenwriting software to see how Schrader implies Travis’ breaking point. Pay special attention to the scene actions and shot suggestions. This script would serve as the blueprint for one of the all-time best anti hero movies.
Through screenwriting techniques, Schrader slows down the moment for us. Here, Travis accepts the fate he’s destined to. This leads him further and further into the rabbit-hole of isolation, and eventually results in a complete departure from reality.
What’s an Anti Hero with Morals?
Anti hero vs. villain
Society is corrupt. People are wrongfully persecuted and oppressed all the time -- for the color of their skin, their gender, their sexual orientation, their wealth status, their age, etc. We all know this is true, but what happens when a story makes its protagonists strike back against the status quo? Then that protagonist is likely a moralistic anti hero.
Change doesn’t come easy -- and it often requires sensational action. Take Walter White from Breaking Bad for example. Walt starts out as a pretty normal guy. He has a family, a home, a stable job -- but one day, he’s diagnosed with cancer and has little means to procure himself treatment. In Breaking Bad, you could argue that the pursuit of financial power is the major theme of the series.
But we empathize with Walt, at least at first. The system is messed up, so he rejects it by cooking meth in the pursuit of financial power, essentially abandoning his ties to the moral structure of society. This video reminds us of how Walter White changed from a high-school chemistry teacher to one of the most famous anti heroes of all-time.
Just like the reject-anti hero, the moralistic anti hero is destined for isolation. Their pursuit of acceptance, power, and control consume them to the point of doom. The major difference is in how they became anti heroes.
It’s easier for us to empathize with a character who is the victim of corruption or oppression. One could argue that Travis Bickle was a victim of war, and that his PTSD is what incited his descent. But I’d say that rejection is what caused him to spiral. With Walt, it was a lack of control and power, exposed by his cancer diagnosis. This system pushed him into abandoning his morals.
Remember, Walt starts the series as a man disgusted by violence, power, and wealth. But it’s the system that corrupts his morals and makes him into a villain.
Types of Anti Heroes
The corrupt protagonist
Not all anti heroes have ‘good’ characteristics. Some operate purely out of self-interest; they neglect their duty to others and feel no remorse. If the reject-anti hero is obsessed with acceptance and the moralistic anti hero is obsessed with ‘beating the system’, then the corrupt protagonist is obsessed with wealth, fame, power -- all the things the other two types strive for or against.
Thomas Shelby from Peaky Blinders, which is one of the best shows on Netflix, is a great example of a corrupt protagonist. It’s true that he was traumatized by being in World War I, and it’s true that he lives in a corrupt system, but his actions are motivated first and foremost by self-interest. In this next video, Cillian Murphy explores how the character he plays becomes the way that he is.
For Thomas Shelby, the only thing that matters is whether or not he wins. Sure, he protects his family (sometimes), but it’s more out of necessity than generosity. Later in the series, nearly everything becomes dispensable to him.
To better understand Shelby’s view of the world, let’s take a look at the crucial ending scene from the first episode’s script. Here, Shelby spares Danny Whizz Bang’s life. Why? Well, it’s complicated -- that’s partly why Peaky Blinders is such a great show. But it’s rooted in the combination of faux-heroism and self-interest. Let’s take a look, then we’ll break it down in further detail:
Earlier in the script, we learn that Danny killed an Italian mafia member. In response, Tommy agrees to kill Danny to avoid further escalation.
However, he doesn’t actually kill Danny -- it was all an elaborate set-up. What does this make you think of Tommy? Like maybe he’s not such a bad-guy? That’s exactly what he wants you to think. Tommy Shelby has no interest in being a hero -- he doesn’t have noble ideals like Travis Bickle, nor does he have the grounded starting point that Walter White did. In the end, Shelby and White prove to be the same, but the difference is that White ended where Shelby began.
Anti Hero Meaning
Making a case for the anti hero
What does anti hero mean to you? We’ve looked at a variety of anti heroes from literature, film, and television, so I think it’s fair to answer the question: what is an anti hero? An anti hero is a story protagonist who operates against social conventions. Oftentimes, their actions are illegal, their morals are corrupt, and their fate is predestined.
With that anti hero definition articulated, let me ask you this: why do we like anti heroes? Well for starters, it asks us to reflect within ourselves. Are our morals genuine? Do we feel lonely? Are we destined for a certain fate? These are the questions that anti heroes make us ask of ourselves. By better understanding how anti heroes are used, we’re more prepared to write characters and conflicts of any type, whether it be from the perspective of the protagonist or the antagonist.
List of Anti Heroes
If you’re looking for more anti hero examples, here’s a list of some of the best anti heroes of all time.
- Arthur Fleck (Joker)
- Dexter Morgan
- Don Quixote
- Jack Bauer
- John Wick
- Saul Goodman
Writing the hero’s journey
More often than not, anti heroes are destined to fail, and become destitute in the lowest pits of loneliness. Conversely, the hero is usually destined to succeed, even if it costs them their life. In this next article, we break down the hero’s journey in clearly outlined steps. By understanding how the hero’s journey works, you’ll be better prepared than ever to write your own story protagonist.