The term antihero (or anti-hero) gets thrown around fairly often nowadays, sometimes incorrectly. The concept of an anti-hero is not technically new, but it certainly is prevalent in modern story-telling. The term itself was coined in the 18th Century, but examples of such a type of character are there in Greek drama, Roman satire and Renaissance literature. So what is an anti-hero, exactly? Simply put, an anti-hero is a main character of a story that does not have the typical qualities that are expected of a hero. This does not mean all antiheroes are bad people, just that they do not fit the traditional description of a hero.
Hero vs. Antihero
To understand how to identify an antihero, you must first understand what makes a hero. Heroism isn’t just a term used in literature, nor does it belong to it. Heroism is a human trait, and thus can be understood without the context of storytelling. Here’s an article from verywellmind.com that outlines the psychological definition of heroism, as suggested in a study published in 2015 in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.
In the study, the researchers claim these are 12 traits that heroes possess:
- Moral integrity
To put it simply, any main character that can be described with having all or most of these traits probably are a good example of being a hero. If there is a main character of a story that cannot be easily described with having all or most of these traits, then there’s a good chance they are an antihero.
What many people don’t realize is that antiheroes don’t have to have the opposites of all of these traits to be considered an antihero. The traits simply have to not be easily attributable to them.
You can absolutely have an antihero in a story that is not a negative person, or even a morally ambiguous person. An antihero can even be an oblivious person, someone driving the story but not realizing they are doing what they are doing. However, most modern examples of antiheroes are characters who most people would consider at least “kind of a bad person”.
Examples of Antiheroes in Popular Media
The main character of AMC series Breaking Bad, a former chemistry teacher who, after being diagnosed with terminal lung cancer, decides to start cooking chemically pure meth to make enough money for his family to inherit after he is gone. At first glance, this seems like somewhat of a heroic trait, but throughout the entire series he makes choice after choice that do not demonstrate heroic qualities well. He finally admits near the end of the story that he did all of it, not for his family, but for himself, for his pride.
Every Character in Suicide Squad
The film Suicide Squad (2016) takes the concept of antihero and multiplies it by six. The concept for the film is simple – six bad people are now going to do something good with their lives, whether they want to or not. Because they drive the story forward as the main characters, and they certainly do not fit traditional role of hero in this story, they are most certainly antiheroes.
Sure, he’s a loving brother, husband and father. Sure, he works for the Miami Police Department trying to help investigate crime scenes. It’s what he does in his private time that makes him an anti-hero. Even though he only targets murderers, he’s still a serial killer. Even if he has a misguided sense of morality that drives him, he’s still not a good fit as a traditional hero.
The Mandalorian – Or Not?
We are led to believe the titular character of Disney+ show The Mandalorian is an antihero in the same vein as the old Western cowboys of questionable morality. However, everything changes for Mando when he meets a small child who needs someone to save him. During the first season, we quickly realize we are not dealing with a good example of an antihero due to his willingness to sacrifice himself for others, especially the child he rescued.