“Uh uh. I know what you’re thinking. ‘Did he fire six shots or only five?’ Well to tell you the truth in all this excitement I kinda lost track myself. But being this is a .44 Magnum, the most powerful handgun in the world and would blow your head clean off, you’ve gotta ask yourself one question: “Do I feel lucky?” Well, do ya, punk?”
– Harry Callahan (DIRTY HARRY, 1971)
The term “anti-hero” was first coined in the 18th century to describe protagonists who were lacking certain qualities that had previously been endemic to the heroes of myth and legend. While this new brand of protagonist may have been hard pressed for bravery or strength, they were always well-intentioned. Over time though, the identity of the anti-hero has morphed. No longer is the character merely lacking in enviable traits but, often, they are seen as “the other.” American anti-heroes as popularized by Westerns and the literary works of men like Jack Kerouac and JD Salinger were typically angry young men defined by their angst and alienation. Take, for example, Holden Caulfield, the protagonist of Salinger’s classic “Catcher in the Rye.” Caulfield is resentful of the adult world he is soon expected to enter; a world he believes is populated by “phonies.” Although Caulfield is clearly bright and intuitive, he is expelled from school due to his poor worth ethic and unwillingness to engage with his fellow classmates.
Over the course of the last 50 some-odd years, the term anti-hero has become all-encompassing. Anti-heroes dominate stage and screen and no two are exactly alike. They are protagonists who operate outside of the law, mavericks who make their own rules. Anti-heroes may be loners with low-self-esteem or punks who rebel against the establishment. Some can be obnoxious and buttoned up while others are unkempt yet charming. But, the thing that unites them all is that they are inherently flawed in some way. Likewise, their value system rarely, if ever, aligns with the world around them. Ultimately, a great anti-hero is someone who the audience is compelled to root for because they challenge the norm.
Krysten Ritter in Jessica Jones
Choose Your Fighter
In order to write a strong anti-hero, you first have to decide what kind of anti-hero that lead will be. We know that he or she must have a flaw and we know that they’ll stand apart from the world around them but that can mean a great many things. As outlined above, there’s no shortage of options but there are five generally accepted categories for anti-heroes.
Heroes of lore and mythology were smart, confident, and resourceful. Thus, the Classical Anti-Hero is essentially the opposite. They can be plagued by self-doubt, consumed by fear or overtaken by laziness. Effectively, they’re not the person you’d expect to save the day or get the girl. The classical antihero’s story is as much about overcoming his or her own weaknesses as it is about conquering their foe. Frodo Baggins of THE LORD OF THE RINGS is a classical anti-hero, as is Bilbo Baggins of THE HOBBIT. Both Frodo and Bilbo are ill-equipped for their respective journeys due to their size, lack of fighting experience and absence of self-confidence. Another popular example is The Dude from The Big Lebowski, who is lazy, drunk and woefully unprepared for to deal with the road ahead of him but forges onward anyway.
The Knight in Sour Armor is a kind hearted anti-hero who has routinely been let down by the world around them and in turn becomes cynical or grumpy. The title character of Netflix’s JESSICA JONES is a solid recent example, but the textbook case is Shrek. His appearance makes him an outsider and the assumptions that others have place on him make it easy for Shrek to be rude or grumpy but deep down he yearns for more. You may also hear this type of anti-hero referred to as a Disney Anti-Hero. Disney Anti-Heroes tend to have a more positive attitude but lack the necessary skills to be a true hero (see Simba in THE LION KING). However, there are examples like Elsa of FROZEN where the Disney Anti-Hero is both icy (pun intended) due to circumstance and develops the skills necessary to become a hero by the close of the film.
Pragmatic anti-heroes are willing to go to extremes to accomplish their goals. They are darker than both the Classical Anti-Hero and the Disney Anti-Hero and there is little guarantee they will grow into a true hero by the end of the story. To write a Pragmatic Anti-Hero, you have to remember that the ends always justify the means. When we think of the phrase anti-hero today, this tends to be the type that comes to mind first because of iconic examples like the aforementioned Dirty Harry or John Wayne. Jack Bauer of 24 is also a Pragmatic Anti-Hero, insomuch as he is willing to torture and kill to get the information needed to save the world.
Kiefer Sutherland in 24
An Unscrupulous Hero is an Anti-Hero who has fallen further from grace than the Knight in Sour Armor or Pragmatic Hero; where the former lacks the positive outlook and the latter the moral cleanliness, the Unscrupulous Hero combines and amplifies both. Unscrupulous Heroes tend to have a moral code but they are driven as much by the need for revenge as they are the desire for justice. More often than not, they are defined by a traumatic event from their past that has pushed them towards more extreme methods. Arya Stark of GAME OF THRONES is a terrific example in that the audience still roots for her and can recognize she is good at heart, even as we routinely watch her kill people. Moreover, her shift towards the darkness was driven by watching her own father being beheaded. The Punisher is another Unscrupulous Hero of note.
Whereas most anti-heroes are, at least, partially motivated by a genuine concern for others and/or a desire for justice, the Nominal Hero is not. Their motivations can vary and may include things like self-preservation, reward, and even sheer boredom. A recent example from cinema and comics is Deadpool, who is frequently portrayed as a sociopath who kills for money but still errs closer to the side of good. The Terminator in both T2 and TERMINATOR 3 also functions as a Nominal Hero. He doesn’t particularly care about the well-being of John Conner but it’s his mission to protect John at all costs and, thus, he does… with little regard for lives of others.
Once you’ve decided how dark you plan to go when writing your anti-hero, you need to give them a justifiable reason for their behavior. As discussed above, Unscrupulous Heroes tend to have a traumatic event that defines them. This event will likely come to define your screenplay as well. The best anti-heroes all have such an event. Even the Disney Anti-Hero is likely to have a life altering experience that set them on their path. Elsa loses both of her parents in FROZEN, for example. Providing this sort of context for your anti-hero will make it easier for your audience to sympathize with them, even when they do potentially horrible things. Wolverine is an enduring character both on screen and in comic books because we sympathize with his plight. We recognize that he was bred to be a killer against his will and lives in a world filled with people who fear and hate him. Throughout the events of the original X-MEN films, Wolverine acts in his own self-interest. He is desperate to learn about his past and reluctant to be pulled into the X-Men’s battle with Magneto and the Brotherhood of Evil Mutants. He repeatedly tells Professor X that he isn’t a hero, and we see him kill in flashbacks so we’re inclined to believe him. However, we also know that the Weapon X program altered his life dramatically and set him on this path so we sympathize with him. Your anti-hero doesn’t have to be “good” but they must be compelling and their backstory is paramount to that.
Hugh Jackman in X-Men (2000)
The other important decision you’ll have to make when writing an anti-hero is how much they will change along the way. Over the course of THE LORD OF THE RINGS, Frodo changes quite a bit but not necessarily for the better. He fails to complete his mission and is instead overcome by the ring. If anything, the quest leaves him shell-shocked and more uncertain than when he began. This is one possibility but not the only one. You can opt to have your anti-hero learn, grow and become a true hero in their own right. In DEADPOOL 2, Deadpool makes a concerted effort to save the world and Russell Collins, a young boy who he sees as a kindred spirit but whose very existence threatens the future. This is a 180 from the start of the film when he attempts to kill himself several times and acts out his desire for revenge.
The most important thing to remember when crafting your antihero is that he or she is the antithesis of the ultra-competent hero. You need to choose their warts carefully and then you need to display them for the audience so that we know immediately understand why this character is poorly positioned for the journey you are about to take them on. Then, take us on that journey! Maybe they learn and grow. Maybe they don’t. Let that decision be guided by the type of anti-hero you have and the type of story you are telling. If you do your job well, the audience will accept either endpoint.
Want to test your knowledge on anti-heroes? Try our quick quiz on the subject.