In fiction, sometimes it’s difficult to categorize the various character types, especially when the characters’ morality cannot be easily defined. The antihero is a kind of protagonist—meaning he’s the focus character in the story—who has aspects of the morality we’ve traditionally come to associate with antagonists, which is where the term antihero comes from. An antihero is a protagonist who is as flawed or more flawed than most characters; he is someone who disturbs the reader with his weaknesses yet is sympathetically portrayed, and who magnifies the frailties of humanity.
An antihero is often a badass, a maverick or a screw-up. Picture Paul Newman playing the title character in Cool Hand Luke, Clint Eastwood as Harry Callahan in Dirty Harry or Bruce Willis as John McClane in Die Hard—slightly scruffy and worn, sometimes moral but sometimes not. Perhaps the best-known antihero of our time is Tony Soprano of the television series “The Sopranos.” If the character is a woman, perhaps her slip is showing and her lipstick is smeared, she sleeps with men she doesn’t know well, or she cannot fit into traditional women’s roles.
An antihero can also play the part of an outsider or loner. This kind of antihero often possesses fragile self-esteem, has often failed at love and/or is estranged from people from his past. The reader loves these characters because they are realistic and relatable—just like people in the reader’s life, they’re imperfect and roiling with contradictions.
Antiheroes can be rebels in search of freedom or justice, and they’re usually willing to take the law into their own hands. They often occupy a gray area between good guy and bad guy—John D. MacDonald’s Travis McGee comes to mind, as does Jack Sparrow in the Pirates of the Caribbean films. Robin Hood was an antihero, as was Wolf Larsen in Jack London’s The Sea-Wolf.
Antiheroes can be obnoxious, pitiful or charming, but they are always failed heroes or deeply flawed. Often riddled with paradoxical traits and qualities, they resemble real people more than any other type of fictional characters do, and they are increasingly popular these days in fiction, film and television.
One of the most important qualities to remember is that antiheroes rarely, if ever, reflect society’s higher values—or what we like to think of as our society’s values; their thinking and values are often antithetical to those of the norm. For example, the sort of traits valued by most members of society—such as honesty, strength, integrity and compassion—will not always be exhibited by an antihero in a story. Or, he might have a character arc where he grudgingly adopts some of these traits. Traditional depictions of main players were of good guys with traits that we all wanted to emulate. Antiheroes turn that assumption upside down.
Here is the trick to creating antiheroes: They always possess an underlying pathos. Most characters come with flaws, neuroses and “issues.” But with an antihero, these problems are more noticeable and troublesome, and they sometimes get in the way of forming intimate attachments. There is always something that is screwing up the antihero’s plan, and that something is usually from his past. A story with an antihero in a starring role might depict how a person cannot easily escape from the past, particularly deep losses.