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Anti-Heroes in Literature

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Anti-Heroes in Film and Literature

It was Aristotle who first described the elements of a tragic hero in the classical Greek tragedy plays of Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides 2500 years ago.

Then, Shakespeare created his own type of tragedy plays, with their own distinct tragic heroes - Hamlet, Macbeth, Othello, King Lear. They had similar principles which Aristotle first outlined.

There's a new kind of hero in town - the anti-hero. We're not sure when the anti-hero came about; its definition depends on the relative time period.

Defining the Anti-Hero

The definition of an anti-hero can be subjective. He is usually the protagonist or a key character. Generally, an anti-hero will have the following qualities:


  • it is clear that he has human frailties; he has flaws

  • he is more accessible to readers because he is more "gritty"

  • he is often disillusioned with society, or increasingly becomes so

  • he often seeks for redemption or revenge for his own satisfaction, and sometimes for the greater good of society

  • unlike the classical tragic hero, he doesn't always think about what the right, moral thing to do - he often thinks about what's right for him

  • he is often misunderstood by others in his society

  • he could perhaps be called a noble criminal or a vigilante

  • qualities normally belonging to villains - such as amorality, greed and violent tendencies - are tempered with more human, identifiable and even noble traits

  • their noble motives are pursued by breaking the law; a.k.a. "the ends justify the means"

  • increased moral complexity and rejection of traditional values

Examples of the Anti-Hero

Character: Dexter Morgan
Novel(s): Darkly Dreaming Dexter series by Jeff Lindsay

Dexter is one of my favourite antiheroes. He's a forensic blood splatter analyst for the Miami Police Department, but by night he's a serial killer who murders criminals or other immoral people. These novels have been turned into a TV series.

When he was 3, he watched his mother's murder and since then has been numb to violence. He is driven to kill by an inner voice whom he calls "The Dark Passenger".



Character: Roland Deschain
Novel(s): The Dark Tower series by Stephen King

Roland Deschain of Gilead comes from a long line of gunslingers and belongs to a knightly order. These series of books were inspired by the poem "Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came" by Robert Browning. The character is a resemblance of a character in a Clint Eastwood western.

Roland's mission is to find the Dark Tower, a building which is said to be the starting point of all universes.



Character: Stephen Dedalus
Novel(s): A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man by James Joyce

This novel is a semi-autobiographical account of the author James Joyce. Stephen Dedalus represents Joyce's alter ego. He is also an important character in Joyce's other novel, Ulysses.

Stephen is originally a sensitive, thoughtful boy. As he grows up, he struggles with nationality, religion, morality and his family. He decides to reject all these social bonds and live freely as an artist instead. He transitions from an innocent sheltered boy to an independent individual.


"A man of genius makes no mistakes. His errors are volitional and are the portals of discovery."



Character: Gollum
Novel(s): Lord of the Rings series J. R. R. Tolkien

Whether or not Gollum can be considered an anti-hero is a matter of opinion. He doesn't really have any redeeming or useful qualities. He's a swamp creature who serves as a warning to those who seek the ring.

Gollum is a reminder of what Frodo could end up being. Sometimes he appears as a faithful servant - but ultimately values the ring more than anything else. He is not pure evil like Sauron, though - rather, he is pure weakness. He is the victim of the ring and is destroyed by it.

Character: Jay Gatsby
Novel(s): The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald

Jay Gatsby is a young man who grew up in poverty. He became famously wealthy through illegal means: organized crime, distributing prohibited alcohol and trading in stolen securities.

His re-invention of himself eventually shows that he is a innocent, idealistic young man. His ideals of wealth and of his love, Daisy, are bound to disappoint because they could never live up to his dreams.



Character: Victor Frankenstein
Novel(s): Frankenstein by Mary Shelley

Victor is the scientist who creates the Frankenstein creature out of human corpse bits. As a young man, he loved reading about science and creating life. After playing God and creating his monster, however, he is unable to deal with his arrogant endeavors.



Character: Tyler Durden and the Narrator of the novel
Novel(s): Fight Club by Chuck Palahniuk

This book has been made into a movie. The anonymous narrator is the anti-hero who hates his consumerist life and the state of masculinity in American culture. He creates an underground fighting club. Spoiler Alert: Later we realize that his best friend, Tyler Durden, is a figment of his imagination and Tyler is actually him.



Character: Raoul Duke
Novel(s): Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas by Hunter S. Thompson

Raoul Duke is the protagonist and anti-hero of the novel. He is a unique individual and an eccentric, hedonistic man. He is almost always in a constant altered state of mind - whether it is from marijuana, cocaine or alcohol. This character was an alter ego of Thompson, who used the character to talk about himself.



Character: V
Comic Book: V for Vendetta by Alan Moore and David Lloyd

"V" is an anarchist - a freedom fighter and a vigilante who breaks the rules, believing that the "ends justify the means". He lives in a dystopian future that takes place in Britain. He can be considered both the protagonist and antagonist - readers decide whether or not he is a hero fighting for a cause, or if he is simply insane.



Character: Batman
Comic Book: Batman by Bob Kane and Bill Finger

Batman fights the war on crime using his intellect and technology. His real identity is actually Bruce Wayne, a wealthy philanthropist. These two opposing personalities serve as juxtapositions to each other. He fights crime on his own terms, rather than going about it through the formal legal system.

There you have it! Do you have any more examples of anti-heroes?

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