“Not a wasted word. This has been a main point to my literary thinking all my life.”
—Hunter S. Thompson

5 Types of Anti-Heroes

So we’ve established that there is a difference between the hero and the anti-hero. The hero is the Disney Hercules, and the anti-hero is the Hercules of actual Greek mythology (who was actually called Heracles, because Hercules is the Roman name, but whatever).

But did you also know that there are different levels of anti-heroes? I mean, there is a difference between Batman and Frodo, and yes, Frodo is technically an anti-hero.

TVTropes does a great breakdown of the different types of anti-heroes, and we’re summing those up for you here.

anti-hero

Photo by Keoni Cabral

The Classical Anti-Hero

Traditionally, a classical hero is a character who always wins their battles, with sharp intellect, unshakable self-confidence, and excellent judgment.

So it stands to logic that the classical anti-hero, which is the original anti-hero, is terrible in a fight, is not the brightest crayon in the box, riddled with self-doubt, and makes decisions based on self-preservation instead of bravery. The classical anti-hero’s story arc follows the conquering of his own fears and coming to terms with himself to fight whatever threat faces him.

Frodo falls into this category, since he’s a decent guy, but there’s a lot of baggage that comes with carrying that ring through three books.

The “Disney” Anti-Hero

This is what most people tend to think of today when they think of an anti-hero. At his core, the Disney Anti-Hero is still fundamentally good, but doesn’t have the relentless optimism of a classical hero.

They tend to be sarcastic and more realistic, and tend to put logic before honor, but they won’t outright perform acts that are morally ambiguous. Like the Classical Anti-Hero, odds are pretty good that this type of anti-hero will develop into a classical hero by story’s end.

Haymitch Abernathy from the Hunger Games trilogy and Severus Snape of Harry Potter fame are two good examples of this type of anti-hero.

The Pragmatic Anti-Hero

The Pragmatic Anti-Hero is basically exactly what it sounds like. Generally no worse than neutral in morality, the Pragmatic Anti-Hero takes a big-picture view of his role, and if something or someone needs to be sacrificed for the greater good, so be it.

They won’t kill indiscriminately though: anyone who dies at the hand of the Pragmatic Anti-Hero either had it coming, or had to be killed in order to achieve the higher goal. These anti-heroes are equally as likely to defect from classical heroism by the end of the story as they are to convert.

Harry Potter himself, by the end of the series, fulfills this role, as he is constantly breaking rules, and uses two unforgivable curses and robs a bank by series’ end in order to off Voldemort once and for all.

The Unscrupulous Hero

This is as dark as you can get with your anti-hero while still being technically good.

The Unscrupulous Hero lives in a world that has a morality that is made up of varying shades of grey, with their grey being slightly lighter than that of the villains. Often they live in a really crappy setting, which accounts for their distrust of humanity and penchant towards violence. They’re big on revenge, and when they take their revenge, count on it being something to see. There might be some collateral damage in their actions, but that doesn’t faze them.

Jack Sparrow of the Pirates of the Caribbean film series and the Blues Brothers of the titular film are examples of this type of anti-hero: their intentions are good, and they are fighting on the moral high side, but they don’t really care how much damage they cause or who they double-cross on their way to achieving their goals.

The “Hero” in Name Only

These anti-heroes fight on the side of good, but they have no good motivation. Either their intentions are completely selfish, and they only happen to be pointing their weapons at the token bad guys, or their motivations are only slightly less terrible than the villains’. Sometimes they’re just bored and need someone to point a gun at.

You’ll still root for them, but you won’t agree with a lot of the ways they do things.

Sherlock Holmes in the BBC’s re-imagining of the character is an example, since he explicitly describes himself as a high-functioning sociopath, and makes it clear that he only takes on cases that he finds mentally stimulating. Dexter of the TV series of the same name walks the line between this and a villain protagonist.

Which is your favorite anti-hero type?

PRACTICE

Pick one of these types of anti-heroes and write for fifteen minutes, introducing your reader to the character. Give a sense of your anti-hero’s motivation. Post your practice in the comments and leave notes for your fellow writers.

About Liz Bureman

Liz Bureman has a more-than-healthy interest in proper grammatical structure, accurate spelling, and the underappreciated semicolon. When she's not diagramming sentences and reading blogs about how terribly written the Twilight series is, she edits for the Write Practice, causes trouble in Denver, and plays guitar very slowly and poorly. You can follow her on Twitter (@epbure), where she tweets more about music of the mid-90s than writing.

  • Emily

    Umm…was there any stories done where the Anti-Hero falls for the heroine of a romance/action novel or any type of entertainment?

    • Ash

      Spike in Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Majorly.

      • Anonymous

        Also Killian Jones in ABC’s Once Upon a Time.

  • Carla

    I don’t known if he counts, because he’s not really a protagonist but a love interest, but I think I have a character who would be a Classical Anti-hero

  • WriterWannabee

    I hope this article is not that old to the point that it won’t be replied anymore but I was wondering if this sort of type of character is an “antihero”:

    – a soldier, who’s beginning to suffer from his traumatic experiences, become the hero of the story as he was forcefully pushed to save the world, which is currently at war, from an unknown dark force.
    – a loner stoic student who spent most of the rest of his school days introspecting until he got caught up in severe bullying in a school he just transferred in and the bullied lonely students inside it.

    I wanted to explore antiheroes and I ended having them one of those Pragmatic Anti-heroes listed above, like, always. Maybe they;re just so similar to my old-self, I don’t know. Any other way for me to put other types of antiheroes in the two settings that I just created?

    Thanks!

  • Nanae Laid

    “Do you honestly believe I care?” She asked the boy with an apathetic tone to her voice as she spoke. “The sole purpose for my involvement was simply for my benefit and boredom to be alleviated. Why should I care about people I don’t know?”
    The boy stared at her in shock. He couldn’t believe the girl was talking like this. This was the same girl who was adamant about SAVING the world. Yet here she sat, regal in her position and detached. “How can you say that Lousaper?! The people we’ve fought for are DEAD and its YOUR FAULT!”
    Lousaper chuckled softly with a hand covering her mouth. To her, this situation was rather ironic. The boy, Mara, clearly misunderstood her position in the war. “As previously stated, I do not KNOW these people and therefore do not care. I was bored with waiting ideal for the war to end.”
    “Imagine,” she continued with a smirk, “there is a great conflict that affects you and you are given three choices. Wait for however many years for something to end. Get involved with the supposed ‘good’ side of the problem. Or get involved with the supposed ‘bad’ side of the problem. Would you not chose the option more beneficial to you and your cause? I know I did.”
    From that point on, Mara sat in silence. A few moments passed before he could even respond to her. But her stance had yet to change, her voice was still apathetic, but her eyes. Oh, her eyes were filled with mirth as she gazed at Mara. Mara on the other hand was shaking from the varied emotions that fell upon him. On one hand, he was happy that he was alive and that he was able to save what few people he did. On the other hand, he was angered and depressed that thousands of people died by his unknowing hand.
    You see, Lousaper, over come with boredom, had aided the Kingdom of Ghaul in seizing the Ports of Cain, which belonged to the Kingdom of Huan. She saw no problem in her actions, even explaining why they were sound. “How can there be war if both sides are not somewhat equal in weight.” She had explained that “had she not done that, the war would have been pointless and their side would lose loyalty.” For in doing so, the inhabitants of the Ports of Cain were slaughtered as an example to the masses and the few hundred saved were so filled with gratitude that they not only swore their loyalty to Huan but even joined the military forces.
    “You are no better that Ghaul’s ruler.” Mara whispered to himself. Lousaper heard this. “No, you are WORSE then him. Far worse and underhanded in your tactics. You have no HONOR.”
    She simply continued to gaze at him blankly before tilting her head to the side in an innocent manner. “What does honor have to do with this? Also, pot, kettle, have you met?”
    He gave her a confused look. “You are no better than me. Tell me Mara, how many civilians have met their fate simply to save a larger number of civilians?”
    “Four hundred.” He answered back, not knowing where she was going.
    “Those four hundred people died simply to prolong the short life of four thousand. Those four thousand later died for the sake of five hundred. Your so called ‘honor’ and ‘moral’ are severely lacking. Hypocrite.”
    His head snapped up at her. “What?”
    “But I saved seven million for the price of four thousand. My logic is sound compared to yours. Those people may not be of your Kingdom, and you claim to want to save people. Yet you would have allowed millions of people to die. If anything, YOU are the one who makes King Ghaul’ Raa look like a saint.” She sat back with a kind smile on her lips.
    “Now, onto more important matters. Where is my pay for my services?”
    “WHAT!?”
    “My pay? The fifty hundred-million dollars I was offered for my assistance? Your Kingdom offered me the most pay for my services.”