What is an Anti Hero and How Do You Write a Great One?
An antihero might be all the rage in screenwriting, but getting them on the page is no easy task.
With the Joker becoming the highest-grossing R-rated movie ever and characters like Deadpool, Jesse Pinkman, and Harley Quinn generating buzz on the big and small screen, the age of the antihero is upon us.
Hollywood and television once wanted only conventional protagonists to lead their stories, but the golden age of television and the advent of streamers made new and exciting stories viable in the marketplace. This trend changed the way we think about the heroes in our stories and made the creation and marketing of something niche or unexpected all the more plausible.
While antiheroes have been around since the dawn of storytelling, it does feel like we're hitting their peak now. But what is an antihero, and what kinds of traits make them into the leader of an unconventional story? Let's breakdown the tropes, ideas, and script techniques you can use to solidify an antihero in your screenplays.
An antihero is a central character in a story, movie, or television show that lacks conventional heroic attributes you'd find in a traditional hero. They are often defined by the traits they share with an antagonist. They use, at times, unsavory methods to get the job of a traditional hero done.
Their character arcs can soften them or harder them depending on the narrative at hand. Either way, when writing one of these people you need to make them feel like a real person. We need to identify with them and their cause, even if it goes against our value system.
Make them interesting and relatable.
The two kinds of antihero:
- One with altruistic goals and unconventional techniques
- A villain we follow as the protagonist
These antiheroes have drastically different character motivations within any story. But both qualify because they subvert the usual tropes we're fed when it comes to these kinds of tales. Neither is easier or harder to write than the other, but both have individual merits when it comes to storytelling.
There are male and female antiheroes. Gender does not matter, all that matters is that you build a believable person who carries the story.
Let's look at some of their characteristics you can use when developing these characters.
Antiheroes can be liars, vulgar, violent, angry, incredulous, and sarcastic.
What about other antihero traits?
An antihero is not your typical protagonist because their personality traits are much more complicated. For example, while a hero may show courage i nthe face of danger, antiheroes might run away. Like Han Solo does at the end of the first Star Wars movie. Though, he does come back.
This goes for opposites amongst physical traits too.
Antiheroes don't have to be sexy or traditionally hot.
They can be awkward, ugly, weird, or anything that defies convention.
I mean, Deadpool is covered in burns.
Rocket is...a raccoon with PTSD.
Let's look at a few names of popular antiheroes!
Popular Antiheroes in Film and TV list:
Here's a list of popular antiheroes in movies and television. Who else belongs here?
- Travis Bickle
- Randal Graves
- Chev Chelios
- Dexter Morgan
- Jackie Peyton
- Ray Donovan
- Jack Sparrow
- William Munny
- Don Draper
- Tony Soprano
- Walter White
- Nancy Botwin
- Omar Little
- Patrick Batement
- Tony Montana
- Snake Plissken
- Elizabeth Jennings
- Teresa Mendoza
What's the difference between Antihero v. Villian?
The best way to think of it is that a villian a side character in a story and usually doesn't arc. They're the antagonist of the story, not the person we follow.
An antihero carries the story and, while they don't have to arc, their hopes and desires carry the narrative. They're the protagonist or main character. They can be deeply flawed or villainous, but it's their story.
The villain can only be the opposing force in a screenplay.
Does the make sense?
Why do we like an antihero?
For a lot of these stories, it's not that we like a character, it's that we're interested in their journey. One powerful emotion that can help is empathy. Empathy allows us to not have to see the world from an antiheroes view, but still understand their journey.
It can be as cheap as a "save the cat" moment or as deep as the assertion of an outsider's journey who you want to be an insider.
But that empathy is why makes your antihero entertaining.
No matter what character archetype you choose, you can always create someone who is the antithesis of their normal expectations. But these kinds of heroes are not just the opposite of their archetype, they have to be complete people with wants and desires.
So what would an antihero look like based on each of the archetypes? Check out this refresher on the archetypes and let's talk after the infographic!
These archetypes are built off the tropes of average heroes - so what would the tropes of the antihero be based on these typical protagonists?
Instead of the powerful warrior, you would have the warlord or someone like Scarface or Henry Hill, a gangster running an empire.
The tropes of the child don't always lend themselves to protagonists, but think Kevin McCallister in Home Alone. Kev uses his innocence as an advantage and his weakness helps him get inventive and outsmart the Wet Bandits.
Here, you need to think a little more liberally. Someone like Rufio from Hook changes the way you see orphan heroes. Also, looking toward television, I think Eleven on Stranger Things fits this bill but with lots of twists.
We love a damaged creator, so I think this archetype actually leans into the "anti" nature of the term. People like Steve Jobs in Steve Jobs comes to mind, but you could even look at The Nutty Professor for an anithero who doesn't fit the typical archetypes.
This is such an affectionate role for as hero, that it can be hard to imagine the perversion of such a character. Maybe a Nurse Ratched works as side character, but a true antihero here is hard to find. Think about a tough doctor like Dr. Cox on Scrubs. Firm, mean, but with a heart of gold.
A twisted mentor happens all over society and in film and television. Think about someone like The Hound on Game of Thrones and even Deathstroke in Arrow.
Let's just leave this one for your own interpretations. But I think Joker is the antihero of Joker. 'Nuff said.
Someone like the Red Lady on Game of Thrones comes to mind. Also, you don't have to be all about magic. You could be a character like Thanos!
Television and film are filled with powerful people who want to keep and gain control the wrong way. Pour out a glass fro the entire Lannister family, who fit this bill entirely. Outside of GoT, which seems like it contains every antihero, you could even see parts of Heisenberg here. Or even Macbeth.
The rebel tends to survive on the antihero traits and nothing else. I mean, what else could they be rebelling against? Someone like Han Solo or even Roman in Succession has rebel tendencies.
Lover and Seducers
Lovers who are antiheroes can be seducers. And Seducers -- they are usually already antiheroes. So I grouped them together. Truly, I think examples like James Bond work the best here. Someone who straddles good intentions but also sexual awareness. Even Villanelle from Killing Eve belongs here.
Antihero examples in Movies and TV
We went through so many examples in the archetype section, but I wanted to look at a few direct examples and show how the characterization of an antihero contributes to the stories.
Let's check out more of these great characters.
Perhaps one of the most famous antiheroes of all time is Travis Bickle from Taxi Driver.
This is a greatly misunderstood movie about the angst, anger, and violence within one man's heart. and how he sees that within a perverse city around him, and decides to clean it up as a result. But Bickle is not Batman. Or even the Punisher, for that matter.
His arc is one of possible death and ascension into heaven. One where he's surrounded by bodies and likely fantasizes rewards for his carnage.
But still, Bickle's desires align with a hero. He wants to get rid pf phoniness, of corrupt politicians, pimps, child slavery, and immoral sexual exploitation. His methods are murderous and involve the attempted assassination. His methods and arc here also involve harassment of a campaign worker and buying illegal firearms.
These are not heroic acts but go for a heroic cause. Antiheroes are not supposed to be likable, they're supposed to be interesting.
We've been talking about Bickle for over 40 years. So you know his arc is something special.
Antiheroes have been thriving on television. It seemed like the arrival of Tony Soprano paved their way. I know I am exaggerating, but every cable network seems to have antiheroes. Walter White, Don Draper, the whole Shameless family, and even Disney+ is getting in on the action with The Mandalorian.
Still, there's one antihero that took over the past few years.
While her show only lasted two seasons, it spawned an iconic jumpsuit, sexy clergy, and a much deserved Emmy nomination.
I'm talking about Fleabag. Fleabag changed everything we know about antiheroes on television. The character is a sex addict with self-destructive behavior who smokes, drinks, and seduces a man of the cloth al to compensate for the death of her dear friend and loss of her mother.
The show should be dour, but instead, it's vibrant, energetic, and hilarious. It's one of the best dark comedies of all time.
This show isn't really about getting healthy, it's about dealing with the way the world works. It's about embracing the anti-ness within us and working to be better by struggling day to day. This antihero changed our perception because it changed the tone. All the other antiheroes we spoke about earlier had more serious takes, but much like Deadpool did in cinema, this TV show took what you expected from a drama and delivered something far more interesting.
What about antiheroes in comics?
- Ghost Rider
- The Punisher
- Black Widow
- The Winter Soldier
- Harley Quinn
- Amanda Waller
- Jonah Hex
- John Constantine
What's next? Write a protagonist that pops off the page!
Sure, it’s easy to pick out the main character of a story, but the protagonist is so much more than who’s on-screen for most of the story. This character is the embodiment of your story’s theme. The person the audience needs to latch onto, and frequently the reason for the story to happen.
So, how can you write a compelling one?
Click to find out!