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 is: what are the anti hero characteristics define them? We’re going to explore that question by looking at some anti hero examples from literature, film, and television. But before we jump into our anti hero definition, let’s review the history of the term.
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Anti Hero Characters
First, let's define anti hero
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 lacks the qualities of a conventional hero. They may lack the strong morals, courage, or selflessness that we associate with heroes. 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:
- At odds with society
- Motivated by self-interest
- Actions or morals are noble
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:
“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.
Anti Hero Movies
Anti hero examples in film
Perhaps the best film example of the Reject anti hero is Travis Bickle in
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 screenwriter 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 anti hero 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:
- Liberate women from oppression
- Rid the world of ‘filth’
- Die a martyr
Travis keeps his worldview under wraps, because he knows deep down that he’ll be rejected for it. Instead, the insatiable inner conflict brewing within him comes across as peculiar to others or 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.
For more on the inner workings of Taxi Driver, check out our video on how Scorsese directed the classic and read our breakdown of the "You talkin' to me?" scene:
Remember: without Paul Schrader’s expert anti hero work in the screenplay, none of this would have been possible — we wouldn’t even have one of the most iconic scenes of all time.
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 treatment for himself. In Breaking Bad, you could argue that the pursuit of financial power is the major dramatic 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 between the two is 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.
Anti hero vs villain
Anti Hero vs. Anti Villain
We’ve established the differences in anti hero vs villain, now let’s look at what distinguishes an anti hero from an anti villain. We know– there’s a lot of terminology being thrown around, but bear with us.
First, let’s define an anti villain. Somewhat counterintuitively, an anti villain is still a villain; it’s their motives which set them apart. Whereas a villain is usually wicked through and through, an anti villain’s motives are actually virtuous.
Take Killmonger from Black Panther, for example. His anti colonialist critiques are on point. So what makes him the villain?
Two reasons: his means of achieving his goal are less moral, and more importantly, his goals directly contradict with the protagonist.
So an anti villain, then, is nearly the polar opposite of an antihero. An antihero’s motives may not be great — as with their moral compass — but we’re still rooting for them.
Types of Anti Heroes
The corrupt protagonist
Not all anti protagonists have ‘good’ characteristics. Some operate purely out of self-interest; they neglect their duty to others and feel no remorse. If the Reject is obsessed with acceptance and the Moralistic is obsessed with beating the system, then the Corrupt Protagonist is obsessed with wealth, fame, power — pursuits the other two types may or may not be interested in.
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 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 vs villain
How to write an anti hero
Now that we’ve gone through the characteristics of anti heroes and looked at some examples, let’s synthesize this information into some actionable steps. How can you write the next great anti hero?
The key lies in an important distinction: approval vs. understanding. The audience should almost always understand why an anti hero is acting the way they are. If they don’t, they may disengage from the story.
Approval, meanwhile, can vary. An audience often doesn’t approve of an anti hero’s actions – that’s why they’re an anti hero. There’s a range of approval. Think again of Breaking Bad. While we don’t totally approve of Walt’s actions in the first season, we condone them way more than we do in the final season.
There are a few techniques for establishing understanding while operating on a sliding scale of approval.
Backstory, backstory, backstory
Having a backstory is arguably the most effective way to build understanding for your character.
Say your antihero is a thief. How can you get the audience to support them? Show their childhood, where they had to steal to feed their siblings because their parents weren’t around. Now we can understand why they behave the way they behave.
Kingsman: The Secret Service has a great backstory for its antihero. Eggsy comes from a terrible home life, which results in his penchant for petty crime.
We don’t need a backstory to understand a character’s motives (though it can help). If the audience has a good grasp on a character’s motives, they’ll understand why the character is behaving the way they are.
In Wolf of Wall Street, we understand that Jordan is driven by insatiable greed. Sure, this doesn’t make us approve of his actions, but it helps us understand them.
Another option: just tell your audience why the character is doing what they’re doing. Paul Schrader does this all the time – in Bringing Out the Dead, First Reformed, Light Sleeper, Taxi Driver… you get the point.
We see it in Fight Club as well. The Narrator narrates (go figure), signaling to the audience that he’s disillusioned and looking for change.
If you don’t want your audience to have absolutely no approval of your anti-hero’s actions, you can give your character internal conflict. Maybe they don’t want to keep doing the bad things they’re doing. This is a classic trope in heist movies, where a character goes along for “one last score.”
This is a big one, and also the hardest to achieve. Some of the most iconic anti heroes have an ineffable magnetism to them. Think about Don Draper, Tony Soprano, or Tommy Shelby. There’s something about them that we can’t look away from.
A lot of this is in the acting – James Gandolfini, Jon Hamm, and Cillian Murphy are incredibly talented. But some of this can come from writing, too. Make your character complex, layered and unpredictable. Give your lead something to work with, and the infamy will follow.
A great anti hero is just a great character, after all.
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 hero examples from literature, film, and television, so I think it’s fair to answer the question: what is an anti hero? An anti protagonist is a character 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 protagonists 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.
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.