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In this lesson, we’ll examine one of the most complicated protagonists that appears in literature, film, and television.

The antihero isn’t your typical hero for a variety of reasons.

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Hero vs. Antihero

When you hear the word ‘hero,’ certain images come to mind. You might see Superman swooping in to save Lois Lane or picture Harry Potter sacrificing himself to rescue his friends from the evil Lord Voldemort. You might even visualize Simba from The Lion King or William Wallace from Braveheart.But what if Superman had bad acne that made it harder for him to get the girl? Or Harry Potter suffered from OCD that sometimes distracted him in battle? What if Simba was too filled with self-doubt to take on the villain Scar?Enter the antihero. Antiheroes are fascinating characters who have appeared in literature, in film, and on stage for centuries.

An antihero is a protagonist or other notable figure who is conspicuously lacking in heroic qualities. A protagonist is the lead character in a story, the one we root for, the one we follow. He or she takes us on a journey to resolve whatever conflict has arisen.

The antihero is often compared to, and probably derived from, the tragic hero, which can be traced back to the popular stage dramas of ancient Greece. The tragic hero is an archetypal hero with one major, or fatal, flaw that leads to his downfall, destruction, and usually death. Macbeth and Hamlet, from Shakespeare’s famous tragedies of the same name, are two examples of tragic heroes.While the antihero is also a flawed character, he has evolved beyond the tragic hero. That’s because the antihero’s flaws don’t always lead to his demise. Instead, they can help him achieve victory and even redemption.

Antihero Characteristics

An antihero is not your typical hero because he doesn’t always possess purely good qualities or personality traits. For example, while a hero is courageous in the face of battle, an antihero might be afraid. While a hero is perfectly handsome, an antihero might be too short, too hairy, or too fat. While a hero is self-assured, an antihero might be plagued with insecurities. And while a hero is out for justice and to serve the common good, an antihero might be selfish and rebellious against this same common good.

For these reasons, antiheroes tend to be more interesting and lovable characters. They appeal to the reader because we can relate and connect with them on a more human level.

An Example in Literature

In JD Salinger’s classic book The Catcher in the Rye, Holden Caulfield is a quintessential antihero. A poster-boy for teenage angst, Holden is moody, cynical, and depressed.

He’s hardly a typical protagonist.Upon receiving notice that he’s being expelled from his fourth prep school for failing too many classes, Holden embarks on a solo journey to New York City and camps out in a hotel room for three days. He continues to alienate himself as he struggles through the rocky passage from childhood to adulthood.As readers, we sympathize with him, we struggle alongside him, and we laugh with him. Even though he’s angry and disenchanted with the world around him, we find Holden endearing, entertaining, and often comical. We see the world through his lens, and in the end, we’re rooting for him – the antihero.

An Example in Film

In contrast to Holden, Michael Corleone from The Godfather trilogy appears to be a typical protagonist. He’s handsome and intelligent and proves himself to be fairly brave. But there’s one catch: His family is filled with murderous mobsters.At first, Michael doesn’t want any part of the family business, but as the son of Don Vito Corleone, one of the country’s most notorious gangsters, he soon realizes that he has no choice but to become a gangster himself.

Michael’s flawed because he becomes a part of the very life he was trying to avoid. He must lie, steal, and murder to avenge his family’s name. Therefore, he, too, becomes an antihero.

An Example in Pop Culture

Another classic antihero is found in the popular animated movie series Shrek. The titular character is a vulgar, loud, and scary ogre – not the typical protagonist found in a fairy tale.

In the first film, Shrek is sent by Lord Farquaad to rescue Princess Fiona, who is locked away in a tower, and bring her to marry the vertically-challenged ruler, who longs to be king. Accompanied by the faithful Donkey, who is loud and obnoxious as compared to the stereotypical noble steed, Shrek rescues Fiona from the tower and a fire-breathing dragon and – on the journey to deliver her to Lord Farquaad – realizes that he’s falling in love with her.Instead of a handsome prince, the protagonist in Shrek is a smelly, ugly ogre who struggles with anger management and has a problem with flatulence.

But we still manage to cheer him on and, like Fiona, we fall in love with this antihero.

Lesson Summary

An antihero is the antithesis of what you’d expect in a ‘normal’ hero. He, or she for that matter, might be quirky, rude, homely, or even a murderer.

This character subverts the norm in literature and film and fulfills our need for a protagonist who is more relatable than the perfect hero. After all, if an antihero can save the day, maybe we can, too.

Learning Outcomes

Now that you’ve learned all about antiheroes, you should feel prepared to:

  • Explain the role of an antihero in a story
  • Recall the characteristics of an antihero
  • Identify anti-heroes in literature and film

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