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Antihero vs. Villain

I was pleased to see so much discussion around my posts about heroes and the hero spectrum. After quite a bit more thought and research, I put together one more post focusing on the definition of an antihero, how he’s different from a villain, and why writers should know the difference.

Definition of an Antihero

From Dictionary.com:

antihero [an-tee-heer-oh, an-tahy-] noun – a protagonist who lacks the attributes that make a heroic figure, as nobility of mind and spirit, a life or attitude marked by action or purpose, and the like.

From TVTropes.org:

“a rather dark, edgy character who has the opposite of most of the traditional attributes of a hero. He or she may be bewildered, ineffectual, deluded, or merely apathetic. More often an antihero is just an amoral misfit.”

From Wikipedia.org:

“In fiction, an antihero is generally considered to be a protagonist whose character is at least in some regards conspicuously contrary to that of the archetypal hero, and is in some instances its antithesis. Some consider the word’s meaning to be sufficiently broad as to additionally encompass the antagonist who (in contrast to the archetypal villain) elicits considerable sympathy or admiration.”[1]

These definitions leave quite a bit of room for interpretation. The Dictionary.com definition allows for an aimless, relatively harmless character. Could Arthur Dent, the bumbling and confused protagonist of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, be an antihero? He seems to fit that definition.

The TV Tropes definition is the more commonly considered one, I think. And Wikipedia’s version allows for a sympathetic villain antagonist as an antihero.

What’s the difference?

So, how do you tell the difference between an antihero and a villain? Here are a few clues that might be helpful, but they’re entirely subjective.

Motive: An antihero is often driven by impure, but sympathetic, motives. Vengeance is a big one. Who among us hasn’t wanted revenge? We might not agree with it, but we sympathize. A villain is driven by impure, but unsympathetic, motives—power for the sake of power, for example.

Means: An antihero is often the underdog. Even when we don’t agree with the antihero, we find ourselves cheering for underdogs. It’s hard to cheer for a villain who has wealth and power and all he needs to defeat the hero/antihero.

Position on the relative moral scale: Where does the character fall in relation to the other characters in the story? If he’s the most sympathetic guy on stage, I’ll probably call him a hero or an antihero, even if he’s still a horrible person. If there’s someone better who is in opposition to him, I’ll probably call him a villain.

Resultant world balance if he wins: If the character wins, will there be some kind of balance restored to the world? If so, then I’ll probably think of him as an antihero. If the character will cause more havoc and mayhem by winning—if I know that the fictional world will be less balanced—then I’ll probably call him a villain.

Why Does It Matter?

Here’s why I think the definition of heroes, antiheroes, and villains matters in our writing:

– We need to be aware of how to play our protagonists and antagonists against each other. It’s fine to have a villain protagonist who must be defeated by a heroic antagonist. And it’s fine to write and let the story unfold as well (hey, I’m a pantser, after all). But to keep some kind of control over the structure, we need to know who our protagonists are and how our antagonists are trying to stop them.

– We need to know who our audience will sympathize with. If you want the audience to sympathize with your antihero protagonist, you need to give him at least one or two redeeming qualities. He may be an evil sadist, but maybe he’s still brave or likes cats or talks nicely to old ladies. And as I mentioned, motives don’t have to be pure. Survival at any cost, vengeance, and money are motives we sympathize with. That’s why a noble thief is a fun protagonist—maybe he’s a thief, but he draws the line at killing anyone. Have him accidentally kill someone, and you introduce conflict into his life and make us sympathize.

– We need to be aware of how our characters are growing. For me, story always starts with characters, and I try to make my characters change from beginning to end. An antihero might make small, incremental changes to become a slightly better person by the end, or he may descend further toward villainy. Either is fine, but as a writer, I need to know where he’s going and why he’s going there. My audience will sympathize with a character who grows into a better person, but will likely lose sympathy for a character who becomes more of a villain.

– We need to keep our characters consistent. Sometimes, characters who start as antiheroes become inconsistent. If a guy I’ve seen rape, kill, steal, and do all manner of dastardly deeds suddenly starts to redeem himself, I need it to feel consistent. The new actions have to make sense. A personal tragedy, a religious conversion, a threat of some kind—those are things that will make an antihero’s suddenly decent actions feel consistent.

As always, so much of this is subjective and open to interpretation. I know it’s not possible for me to decisively answer all of the questions about heroes, antiheroes, and villains, but I hope I’ve given writers a little food for thought and a few tools for creating compelling characters.

Next week: Words that weaken your writing.

– – –

[1] I found the quote about heroes who need a bath! It’s in the book Characters and Viewpoint by Orson Scott Card: “The true ‘anti-hero’ is rare in fiction. Most seeming anti-heroes are really heroes who need, metaphorically speaking, a bath.” (p. 76)

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15 Comments

  1. Great article! The line between antihero and villain is easily blurred, especially in movies and TV. Thanks for helping to clarify it 😀

  2. Avatar A.J. Zaethe says:

    Brilliant! This will help me with my own anti-hero, which has been really hard for me to work on. I will take this into consideration.

  3. Terrific article again Amy… Lots to consider. Creating in depth characters takes a lot more work than first impressions might suggest. Thanks for the quality of information shared.

  4. Avatar Rainy says:

    This is probably one of the best articles I’ve read about antiheroes. It was well-researched and well-written.

    Writers should thoroughly understand the difference between antiheroes and villains so they can create a more solid, meaningful story. Readers know who they’re cheering for, but writers sometimes seem to forget that.

    Take care!

    //Rainy

  5. Wow, thanks, Rainy! What a nice compliment!

    You’re so right–readers do know who they’re cheering for. I’ve thought a lot about how sometimes we writers forget that we’re writing for readers–not for other writers. It’s not always about being experimental or edgy or grammatically perfect or whatever… It’s about creating a compelling story for the reader. The audiences (writer/reader) don’t always overlap.

    Thanks for the comment!

    Amy

  6. […] along with antiheroes, and if you follow me on Fantasy Faction at all, you may have already seen this article that’s part of my series there on heroes, antiheroes, and villains. To sum up, antiheroes are […]

  7. […] reading Amy Rose’s terrific article on Antihero-vs-Villain we can look deeper into what Fantasy authors might like to consider when crafting our bad […]

  8. Avatar Chad Travis says:

    Whoa this is so weird! I just pulled out one of my Sonic the Hedgehog comics (#133) and read the bottom where it says something about Anti-Heros, and strangely enough when I look up what an Anti-Hero is, you Amy Rose popped up… Strange because Amy Rose is one of the main characters in the comic!

    Brilliant, this article is. Thanks!

  9. […] week, I’ll be sharing a few more thoughts on antiheroes and what makes them different from villains or villain protagonists. I’ve really enjoyed the […]

  10. […] did however just read another blog that lists some great criteria to help you come to a conclusion (VillainVsAntihero). The choice is yours to make and of course not everyone will agree with you. I feel it is ok to […]

  11. Avatar MJ says:

    Very informative article, I did have one question though. You quoted Orson Scott Card on a “true anti-hero” being rare in fiction; what are some (or even one) example of a “true anti-hero” ?
    By these definitions I realize I’ve been reading a lot of heroes needing a bath.

  12. […] I love anti-heroes and therefore, I love this blog post from Fantasy Faction. […]

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