Anti-Hero: Definition, Examples, and How to Create One

learn how to write an anti-hero in your stories

In the vast storytelling landscape, characters come in various shades of morality and complexity. Among them, the anti-hero is a compelling archetype that challenges traditional notions of heroism and virtue.

In this blog post, we’ll explore what defines an anti-hero, common anti-hero characteristics, analyze examples, and discuss how to effectively write anti-heroes in your stories.

What is an Anti-Hero?

At its core, an anti-hero is a protagonist who lacks conventional heroic qualities such as altruism, bravery, and moral righteousness. Unlike traditional heroes who embody ideals of virtue and selflessness, anti-heroes exhibit traits such as moral ambiguity, cynicism, and flawed personalities. They may engage in morally questionable actions or possess characteristics that challenge societal norms.

Despite their flaws, anti-heroes often find themselves in situations where they must confront their own demons and make choices that blur the lines between right and wrong.

Anti-Hero Characteristics

Anti-heroes are characterized by their complexity and multidimensionality. They possess a blend of both positive and negative traits, making them morally ambiguous and psychologically intriguing. Some common characteristics of anti-heroes include:

  • Flaws: Unlike traditional heroes portrayed as morally flawless, with a clear compass on what’s right and wrong, anti-heroes are defined by their imperfections. These flaws can range from arrogance and selfishness to cynicism and moral ambiguity.
  • Compelling Backstories: Anti-heroes often have troubled pasts or traumatic experiences that shape their worldview and motivations. These backstories add depth to their character and provide context for their behavior or actions.
  • Moral Ambiguity: One of the defining features of anti-heroes is their ambiguous morality. They may engage in morally questionable behavior or pursue goals that conflict with societal norms, yet they often possess a sense justice that influences their actions.
  • Redemption Arcs: Despite their flaws, anti-heroes may undergo redemption arcs where they strive to overcome their past mistakes and seek redemption for their actions. This journey of self-discovery and growth adds depth to their character and resonates with audiences. At times, anti-heros are rewarded for this as a story ends.

Related: Learn more about character development strategies here.

Anti-Hero vs. Anti-Villain

While anti-heroes and anti-villains may share some similarities, they are fundamentally different character archetypes. As previously discussed, anti-heroes are protagonists who lack traditional heroic qualities but ultimately strive to do what they perceive as right, even if their methods are unconventional or morally questionable. In contrast, anti-villains are antagonists who may possess noble intentions or sympathetic motives but ultimately oppose the protagonist and act as obstacles to their goals.

The critical distinction between anti-heroes and anti-villains lies in their roles within the narrative. Anti-heroes are the central focus of the story, and their actions drive the plot forward, whereas anti-villains serve as foils to the protagonist and often exist to challenge their beliefs and motivations.

5 Examples of Anti-Heroes in Stories

Anti-heroes have become prominent figures in literature and media, captivating audiences with their complex personas and unconventional actions. Here are five notable examples:

1. Walter White from “Breaking Bad”

Initially a mild-mannered high school chemistry teacher, Walter White transforms into a ruthless drug lord to secure his family’s financial future after a terminal cancer diagnosis. His descent into darkness blurs the lines between heroism and villainy, making him a compelling anti-hero.

2. Dexter Morgan from “Dexter”

Dexter, a blood spatter analyst for the Miami Metro Police Department, leads a double life as a vigilante serial killer targeting other murderers. Despite his gruesome actions, Dexter adheres to a strict moral code, killing only those who deserve it, showcasing the complexity of his character as an anti-hero.

Our Editor’s Take

I binged Dexter during my undergraduate years. The show is morally complicated. One moment, you can see the darkness in Dexter’s eyes, while you’re rooting for him to hunt down the bad guy in the next. It isn’t until the later seasons that you get a peek into his earliest years and understand his anti-hero “origin story.” – R. R. Noall

3. Severus Snape from the Harry Potter series

Snape’s character is shrouded in ambiguity, initially portrayed as antagonistic towards Harry Potter and his friends. However, his true allegiance and motivations are revealed later in the series, showcasing his depth and complexity as an anti-hero who ultimately sacrifices himself for the greater good.

4. Rorschach from “Watchmen”

Rorschach is a masked vigilante known for his uncompromising pursuit of justice in a morally ambiguous world. His rigid black-and-white worldview and willingness to use extreme violence make him a controversial figure, challenging traditional notions of heroism.

5. Lisbeth Salander from “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo”

Lisbeth is a troubled and enigmatic hacker who takes justice into her own hands, often resorting to violence against those who wrong her or others. Despite her abrasive demeanor, her traumatic past and fierce determination to seek retribution against abusers make her a compelling anti-heroine.

How to Write an Anti-Hero

Creating a compelling anti-hero requires careful consideration of various elements to ensure depth and relatability:

  1. Establishing depth through backstory and motivations: Develop a rich backstory that explores the anti-hero’s past traumas, motivations, and inner conflicts, providing insight into their actions and worldview.
  2. Balancing sympathetic traits with morally questionable actions: Give the anti-hero redeeming qualities or noble intentions that make them relatable to readers, even as they engage in ethically dubious or controversial behavior.
  3. Crafting compelling character arcs and development: Map out a character arc that allows the anti-hero to evolve and grow throughout the story, facing challenges that force them to confront their flaws and make difficult choices.
  4. Techniques for creating reader empathy and engagement: Use narrative elements such as internal monologue, flashbacks, and intimate POV to immerse readers in the anti-hero’s psyche, fostering compassion and emotional connection despite their flaws. Additionally, they present their actions within a moral gray area, encouraging readers to question conventional notions of heroism and villainy.

Anti-Hero FAQs

What makes an anti-hero likable?

Anti-heroes are often relatable due to their flaws and struggles, which make them more human and empathetic. Additionally, their willingness to challenge authority or societal norms can appeal to audiences seeking characters who embody rebellion or individualism.

Is Deadpool an anti-hero?

Yes, Deadpool is a classic example of an anti-hero. While he possesses heroic qualities and fights against villains, his methods are often unorthodox, and he exhibits morally ambiguous behavior, making him a complex and unconventional protagonist.

Is Batman an anti-hero?

While Batman shares some characteristics with anti-heroes, such as a willingness to operate outside the law and a dark, brooding persona, he ultimately upholds a strong moral code and fights for justice, making him more aligned with the traditional hero archetype. However, interpretations may vary depending on the storyline and depiction.


In summary, anti-heroes challenge conventional notions of heroism, offering complex and morally ambiguous characters that captivate audiences. We witness the intricacies of flawed individuals navigating moral gray areas – trying to create these characters in your own writing should be a fun exercise as your grow as a writer. Embracing anti-heroes in storytelling opens doors to exploring the human condition in all its complexities, leaving a lasting impact on audiences.

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