What is an anti-hero? In the simplest terms, an anti-hero is the protagonist of a story but they go about their business in a more aggressive manner. The anti-hero is neither cookie-cutter vanilla nor dark side black. Instead, they are colored with shades of gray (not the book, the metaphor!) I think a lot of people miss the mark when they're talking about anti-heroes. I've seen full-on villains lumped into many lists ranking the best anti-heroes.
Let's be clear...an anti-hero is NOT a villain.
An anti-hero is more than just the lead of the story. There are many movies and novels told from the villains perspective, especially today, but you can't call a murderer like Patrick Bateman in American Psycho an anti-hero...he's not killing because of some messed up sense of justice, he just enjoys it. At least Dexter starts off killing bad guys before going off the rails. Walter White just barely makes the list of examples because, although he begins his journey building a meth empire to support his family, he winds up enjoying the criminality of it more.
What sets the anti-hero apart from a villain is that they are still committing acts in the name of righting wrongs. Their methods are often extreme but that's what makes them so popular. One of the best examples of this is The Punisher. After his family is viciously killed by the mob, this former soldier goes on a roaring rampage of punishment intent on clearing out as many criminals as possible. The difference between The Punisher and more straight-forward "good guys" was explained perfectly in season 2 of the TV series Daredevil. In Daredevil's mind, The Punisher is "insane" because he's dealing out death to criminals. For The Punisher, the guilty must be punished.
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I like writing anti-heroes because I never enjoyed the bland, vanilla good-guys who did everything by the books because no one is like that in real life. Of course characters like Captain America and Superman have their place in the zeitgeist of pop-culture, but I always preferred Batman because he had an edge to him.
That's the same reason why "Stone Cold" Steve Austin became so popular during the "Attitude Era" in the WWF. Austin was a "babyface" or "good guy" at the time but he handled his business with aggression and questionable tactics. He held an edge that was more appealing than the heroes who came before telling kids to take their vitamins. Instead, Austin drank beer, threw up the middle finger, and used colorful language which led to him being one of the most beloved pro wrestlers of all time.
Most of the characters I write are anti-heroes because I give them traits that are more believable to the reader. It's the same reason I write villains with highly-developed backstories. If a villain doesn't have a good reason for committing the terrible acts he's perpetrating throughout the story, it feels hollow. And if a protagonist is picture perfect without any flaws, that's hollow too. It's the reason why Brenda was a more interesting character on Beverly Hills 90210 than her brother Brandon was. Brenda had an edge to her while Brandon was too damn perfect.
I prefer my characters darker and driven by purpose so that no matter what gets in their way they continue to pursue their goals at any cost. Anti-heroes have an edge, but that doesn't make them villains. It just means they get the job done with a little more aggression than your average good guy. Just take a look at The Terminal List and you'll see what audiences/readers are craving. It's not about the violence, it's about making a statement to the antagonist in a way that cuts through the red tape and gets their attention.
Other examples of anti-heroes:
Riley North (Peppermint)
Tyler Durden (Fight Club)
Severus Snape (Harry Potter)
John Rambo (First Blood)
Who is on your list and why?
"Original Cyn" Cynthia Vespia writes fantasy novels for deviant minds including urban fantasy vigilantes and heroic adventure fantasy. Cyn received a "Best Series" nomination for her fantasy trilogy Demon Hunter. Her novel Karma ranked #1 on Amazon in three distinct categories. She has been published in anthologies such as Skelos Press and Dark Eclipse.