Fiction and Fantasy

What is an Antihero?



Extra History was once a game development/writing-centric YouTube channel known as Extra Credits. My understanding of the change, while limited, is that the primary content creators and writers left the channel some time ago. While the content of their more recent videos has come under fire from some circles, their old Extra Credits videos still contain some great information. Also, I added applicable photos, corrected minor grammatical errors, and updated formatting to current blog standards.

Well, time for me to rip up my English degree once more.

Extra Credits 2015

I’ve gotta admit it: I wasn’t even aware there was a difference in definitions of an “antihero” until I researched for this blog post.

I thought all antiheroes were dark and deeply-flawed characters, “people you didn’t want to be,” as Extra Credits put it. But apparently the definition of antiheroes changes over time.1 That makes sense… if you realize what the core definition of an antihero is.

I discovered today that, quite simply, an antihero is a hero that doesn’t have typical heroic traits.2 This means that the definition of antihero changes depending on whatever the current archetypal hero looks like.

In classical history (think wayyyy back, like to the ancient Greeks), a typical hero was “a dashing, confident, stoic, intelligent, highly capable fighter and commander with few, if any, flaws and even fewer real weaknesses.”3 (Anybody else thinking of Odysseus at this point? Oh good. Not just me.) By contrast, “the antihero [was] plagued by self-doubt” or any number of other weaknesses.4

The antihero had flaws. The classical hero did not.

I’m ashamed that even after all those years of literature classes, I didn’t know better. (I probably forgot, because I’m sure they went over something like that…)

This all goes back to my discussion two weeks ago about protagonist morality and character flaws (or lack thereof). Morally-good characters like Captain America and Superman are remnants of a time that hearkened back to the classical period definition of a hero: someone morally good, a role-model, someone the audience could (and should) look up to.5 The fact that we have some people defending characters like this makes me wonder if in the near future we’ll be seeing a reemergence of morally-good heroes to rebel against the current antihero model–but that’s another topic for another day.

Obviously, the antihero has changed dramatically since the classical time period. In fact, the definition of the antihero has changed so much so soon (TV Tropes even claims the modern antihero has been called the ’90’s Anti-Hero)6 that you can’t find its current definition in places like the Encyclopædia Britannica or other high-brow sources.7 You need to go somewhere more modern, more “hip,” more “in-touch” (I think “hip” was out of style even when I was growing up in the 90’s…)–places like TV Tropes or Extra Credits. Extra Credits defines the modern antihero like I did: someone riddled with angst, angry, brooding, dangerous to be around, and probably self-destructive.8

Well, I gotta admit I’ve spent far more time writing “classical” antiheroes than modern ones. I like my characters with flaws, but they’ve more or less retained squeaky-clean records. They were the wide-eyed, innocent dreamers who would stand up for what was right simply because it was right.

But that has started to get a little stale for me to write. Not to mention, I worried that readers would find it hard to relate to characters that are still kind of… perfect. I worried my heroes’ flaws weren’t strong enough or their struggles not dark or “real” or relatable enough.

I’ve since started dipping my toes into some harsher issues to grow myself as a writer. After all, it’s my job to depict reality–even through fiction, even by exploring reality’s darker moments. I couldn’t really do that well if I can only create two-dimensional protagonists and evil-for-evil’s-sake villains.

I started a few years ago by toying with some moral dilemmas. The Titans Together roleplay was a great playroom for that. How did I edge my paragon good characters into the morally gray? Well, what would happen if a character fell in love with a long-time friend… who he knew was happy in a serious relationship? Or what would happen if a paragon good character–who had been taught by the Justice League not to kill–decided to take up a gun because she believed they were no longer fighting crime, but rather waging war in self-defense?

It sounds kind of sadistic, but… I did have a lot more fun with those scenarios than when I kept my protagonists squeaky-clean. More importantly, I felt that my stories really were better because of it. Go figure–I was improving as a writer just by letting my characters be a little more, well… human.

So, recently, I decided to take it a step further. I really wanted to challenge myself, so I was determined to make an “Extra Credits-type” antihero: a character nobody would want to be. I wanted to see if I could write a character who had done terrible things for the wrong reasons and see if anybody (including me) could stand him as a hero. In short, I wanted to take the antihero to its extreme.

That’s how Cassius was born.

…But more on him here. 😉

Notes and References:

  1. James Portnow and Daniel Floyd, “The Antihero – Can Games Create Antiheroes?”, YouTube video, 6:05, November 25, 2015.
  2. LiteraryDevices Editors, “Anti-Hero,” Literary Devices, 2013, accessed November 4, 2014.
  3. Classical Anti-Hero,” TV Tropes, May 16, 2016, accessed August 11, 2016.
  4. Ibid.
  5. Portnow and Floyd, YouTube video.
  6. “Classical Anti-Hero,” TV Tropes.
  7. Editors of Encyclopædia Britannica, “Antihero,” Encyclopædia Britannica, accessed August 11, 2016.
  8. Portnow and Floyd, YouTube video.
  9. For Him, to Him


  1. I remember this talk about anti-heroes. It was certainly interesting finding out what I thought was an anti-hero from what one really is.

  2. Do you think the current concept of a "typical" Anti-Hero has changed from the deep, gritty, and brooding Anti-Hero we knew even a few years ago?

  3. Maybe slightly. There are some comedic anti-heroes like Deadpool for example, but the environment for anti-heroes can thrive more. Just look at HBO and AMC's roster for shows for over a decade now.

  4. Ahh, the comedic anti-hero is a really good point. I don't watch TV though, so I don't really know which shows you're referring to ^^'

  5. Thanks. I was referring to shows like The Sopranos, Game of Thrones, The Walking Dead, Boardwalk Empire, and other shows of that ilk.

  6. Ah, certainly! Showing off the darker side of humanity through their protagonists for sure.

  7. Of course. The darker side of humanity unfortunately sells more and gets critical praise. I'm certainly not against darker stories since I've given a few of them 10/10s on Iridium Eye, but I think parts of it are overkill.

  8. I would definitely agree. To me, it all goes back to the purpose. Why are you focusing on the darker side of humanity? As I said in How NOT to Kill Off Characters, nobody wants to see dark story elements just so you can promote a hopeless worldview!

  9. Yup. It also comes back to our previous conversation where I believe that some people disguise pessimism/darkness as realism while others conversely use denial disguised as optimism. Both extremes are harmful ways of thinking.

  10. Very good point! Life is all about healthy balance.

  11. Of course. I'm glad you noticed that.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Browse posts by TYPE…:

…or browse posts by TOPIC: