A growing trend in literature, on screen, and on stage has moved to produce more flawed human protagonists. Gone are the days of perfect role models - paragons of virtue who are brave, capable, and who always do the right thing. Instead of these inspirational heroes, many works feature a complementary archetype: the anti hero.
An anti hero, by definition, is a central character who lacks conventional heroic attributes. Some even display qualities that are almost more in line with villains. Traits like conceitedness, immorality, rebellion, and dishonesty signal that the author does not intend the audience to admire the protagonist.
Prime examples of anti heroes can be seen in popular television shows like The Sopranos, Breaking Bad, or Mad Men. Tony Soprano, for example, is a murderous mob boss you can’t help but watch. His character’s inner conflicts make him relatable and sympathetic, even though he should be detested for his life of organized crime.
In literature, Jay Gatsby, from F. Scott Fitzgerald’s eponymous novel, is a young man who grew up in poverty. Although readers see him as influential, mysterious, and wealthy, it is revealed that he achieved this prestige through illegal means: organized crime, distributing alcohol during prohibition, and trading in stolen goods. Gatsby isn’t an admirable person, but his struggle to reclaim the past is compelling and deeply human.
Holden Caulfield, the main character and narrator of The Catcher in the Rye by J. D. Salinger, is another anti hero. He is a perpetual liar. He openly admits to being a coward and being weak. He fails to act so frequently that we begin to feel pity for him. Despite his flaws, he has redeeming qualities, like dignity and a desire to protect his family, Jane, and children everywhere. He has compassion and sees people for who they are and not what they are.
Articles on Anti Heroes
To learn more about other hero types, take a look at our article on "Types of Heroes".
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