What Is an Antihero? (With Examples)

An antihero is an interesting twist on the conventional “good guy” protagonist and is something you may encounter when editing narrative fiction. In this post, we’ll explain the defining traits of this character archetype and how you can help your client to write a great antihero.

What Is an Antihero?

An antihero is a protagonist who subverts what we might usually expect from the hero of a story. While a traditional hero is selfless, morally upstanding, and brave, an antihero tends to lack most (if not all) of these qualities. Instead, the antihero might be:

  • Selfish
  • Morally gray or lacking morals completely
  • Motivated by revenge or other negative emotions
  • Socially othered or ostracized
  • Associated with the “bad guys” in some way

The term was first used in the 18th century specifically to describe Byronic heroes, but it’s since broadened to cover a wider range of characters.

Antihero Types and Examples

Antiheroes are present in many works of literature, from Greek epics to contemporary fiction. But an antihero isn’t a one-size-fits-all archetype. In fact, this type of protagonist appears in many different guises. Some of the more common types of antihero include:

The cynic. An antihero who doesn’t believe that a traditional happy ending is possible, so why bother working for one? Example: Becky Sharp from William Makepeace Thackaray’s Vanity Fair, a low-class Victorian woman who aims to marry for money and social status.

The “ends justify the means” protagonist. An antihero who doesn’t relish the thought of doing something wrong but will do whatever’s necessary for their happy ending. Example: Sue Trinder from Sarah Waters’ Fingersmith, an impoverished orphan who becomes the lynchpin in a scam to inherit a huge fortune.

The moral ping pong ball. An antihero who does what’s right when it suits them – but commits wrongs just as often.  Example: Lord Vetinari from Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series, the corrupt leader of the city of Ankh-Morpork who occasionally operates by the book but often does things that are completely against the law. 

The lovable rogue. An antihero who, despite their many flaws, has such a charming quality to them that you can’t help but forgive them. Example: Tom Sawyer from Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, a young boy causing trouble in 19th-century Missouri. 

The Gothic double. An antihero who, literally or metaphorically, serves as a shadow or foil to their heroic counterpart. Example: Henry Jekyll/Edward Hyde from Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, a scientist who splits himself in two trying to repress his evil urges.

Keeping these different types in mind will help you better understand and edit your client’s antihero.

3 Tips for Editing Antiheroes

Now that we’ve established what an antihero is, we can look at how to go about editing them. Let’s take a look at our three tips for editing antiheroes.

1. Remember, an Antihero Is Not an Antagonist

In many cases, antiheroes display traits similar to those of a villain. So, what’s the difference between the two?

Crucially, while a villain might be motivated by any number of things from revenge to a simple love of chaos, an antihero should be ultimately driven to do what is right; or at least, what they believe to be right. The antihero thus remains the protagonist because, despite their flaws, they ultimately work toward a greater good or happy ending of some description. 

The line between an antihero and an antagonist isn’t always clear cut. But if your client’s main character is toeing that line too closely, you might want to flag this as a potential issue.

2. Make Sure the Antihero’s Flaws are Balanced

While corrupt morals, bad behavior, and a dark backstory are part and parcel of the antihero, these flaws shouldn’t be presented without any redeeming qualities. To connect with the reader, an antihero works best if they possess a trait that’s relatable, admirable, or somehow in contrast with their flaws. Here are some examples of character flaws that are balanced with more positive traits:

  • A character who is a compulsive liar and ignores a cry for help – but ends up saving the day anyway, despite their words
  • A character who doesn’t work well with others but takes in a child in need
  • A character who is motivated by greed but always shares the things they have
  • A character who is angry and violent but won’t stand for injustice against the defenseless

If your client’s antihero appears to have no positive traits whatsoever, you could suggest some ideas that they can work into their writing.

3. Expose the Antihero’s Inner Conflict

One of the things that makes the antihero such a compelling and complex protagonist is the background that made them who they are and the inner conflict they suffer as a result. The reader should be provided with a glimpse into what motivates the antihero and why they act the way they do. This might be provided through:

  • First person narration
  • A flashback or starting a story in medias res
  • Another character’s perspective

It might be the case that your client has developed the antihero’s background in a previous draft or their character notes but has not made it clear enough in the current draft. If the antihero’s conflicts and motivations aren’t brought to the surface in your client’s manuscript, you should address the issue with them.

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