What is an Anti-hero? Simple Guide, Complicated Character

Abi Wurdeman
March 4, 2024

Heroism is complicated. And no one embodies that truth more completely than an anti-hero.

The tension between the greater good and the individual good, between duty and desire, between moral decisions and moral motivation… an anti-hero provides an unblinking examination of all of it.

This is the character we can’t help cheering for, even if we’d never choose them as a role model for our kids. They challenge us to wade through the moral gray areas and question commonly held assumptions about right and wrong. And they practically defined the contemporary Golden Age of Television.

They’re also incredibly complex characters, which means if you want to write one, you’d better be ready for a challenge. A fun challenge, but still.

You’re about to get the rundown on all things anti-hero: how to define them, how to write them, and how they contribute to storytelling as a whole. My hope is that by the time we’re done here, you’ll be ready to create a little literary havoc of your own.

Let’s start with the obvious question:

What is an Anti-Hero?

An irritated person with a goatee looks off to the side.

If you find yourself rooting for a protagonist and wondering what it says about you as a person, that main character is probably an anti-hero.

Like a traditional hero, an anti-hero drives the narrative as they pursue a goal and face obstacles that challenge them to confront their own weaknesses. They usually change as a result of their journey and they might save the day or succumb to a tragic fate.

What makes anti-heroes unique, however, is the total absence of a heroic spirit.

These characters commit morally questionable deeds and are typically motivated by self-interest rather than the good of others. While a traditional hero has a few understandable flaws and occasionally slips up as they grow into a better person, an anti-hero is riddled with vices and doggedly clings to their own self-serving perspective.

Anti-Heroic Qualities

A lazy, annoyed-looking cat lies on a chair.

An anti-hero may exhibit some or all of these traits:

Selfishness - Whether they do the right thing or the wrong thing, anti-heroes are motivated by their own self-interest. If a crisis doesn’t directly affect them or the, like, one person they actually care about, they’re not getting involved. 

Self-destructive behavior - Anti-heroes don’t try to exorcise their personal demons through therapy or meditation. Instead, they give those demons the run of the place. They lean into whatever fear or anger stems from past trauma, even if it means getting in trouble with the law or dealing with social isolation.

Anti-social behavior - Your typical anti-hero is pretty much over people, with the occasional one or two exceptions. For the most part, they see human beings as corrupt, cruel, ignorant, or insufferable.

Unconventional philosophies - This character sees the world differently. They’ve developed a system of logic (usually through trauma) that justifies immoral behavior or condemns social norms.

A painfully human personality - While an anti-hero might conceal their weaknesses, they’re written in such a way that the audience can see that this person knows pain. 

Maybe they’re terrified of abandonment, desperate to prove their worth, or tired of feeling powerless. Whatever their vulnerabilities are, they’re just relatable enough to keep the reader reluctantly on the anti-hero’s side… or at least empathetic to the motivations behind their terrible decisions.

So is This Person a Hero or Not?

Yes. No. Both.

Some anti-heroes are only heroes in the sense that they’re the character at the center of the story—the character readers are invested in. But their actions aren’t exactly heroic. As the story progresses, they make more destructive choices and hurt everyone around them.

Others are heroes who manage to save the day despite themselves. They might even grow to become better people over the course of the narrative.

Anti-Hero Versus…

A person wearing boxing gloves stands with their hands on their hips.

As you may have realized by now, the term anti-hero can be kind of confusing. Google it and you’ll quickly discover that anti-heroes share traits with a handful of other character types. It can be hard to determine where the line is.

So let’s get a little clarity right now. Here are three types of characters that can easily get tangled up with anti-heroes: 

Tragic Hero

A tragic hero is still a traditional hero. They’re (relatively) noble and intend to do good things for others. In the end, they die or gouge their own eyes out or bring a plague upon their city or whatever, but it’s not because they’re the worst. They were either predestined for disaster (hello, cosmic irony!) or made a fatal error due to their own tragic flaw.

That’s flaw, singular. The flaw might be something obnoxious, like hubris, but it doesn’t reflect an entire pattern of self-serving behavior.

An anti-hero might meet a similarly devastating end, but not because the gods are punishing them for a single imperfection. They’ve been actively self-destructive for a long time.

Villain Protagonist

Much like the typical anti-hero, the villain protagonist is the character at the center of the story. They, too, are awful and destructive.

Anti-heroes are different because they’re written in a way where readers find themselves kind of identifying with them. The anti-hero’s insecurity, self-protective impulse, or traumatic backstory makes them relatable, and the audience still wants to see them redeem themselves.

But a villain protagonist? They’re wicked in a way that doesn’t resonate. Everybody just wants to see them pay. Patrick Bateman in American Psycho is a great example of a villain protagonist.


An anti-villain is a villain who does undeniably evil things but their motive is actually pretty admirable.

Erik Killmonger (Black Panther) is an anti-villain. He’s fighting colonization and oppression, which is pretty much the most righteous battle there is. He’s just a little too murdery about it. 

Now, this is where the dividing lines get fuzzy. The logic goes that if an anti-villain has a moral motive for doing immoral things, then an anti-hero must be the opposite: they do moral things but their motives are less than pure.

That’s often true. But pretty much anyone will tell you that Walter White (Breaking Bad) and Dexter Morgan (Dexter) are anti-heroes, and they’re firmly in the “good motive, bad actions” category… at least initially.

The reason they’re not anti-villains is because it’s still their story and the audience is invested in what happens to them. As uncomfortable as it may be, an anti-hero is a character you can’t help but care about.

The Anti-Hero’s Journey

A person stands on a mountaintop, looking out at the view.

You might be familiar with the famous Hero’s Journey, the archetypal story structure in which a traditional hero leaves their normal world to complete a difficult mission that ultimately causes them to transform for the better.

But what does the journey look like for an anti-hero? How do they transform? Do they transform?

They often do, yes, though there are also anti-heroes with flat character arcs. You see this a lot in gritty detective novels. A misanthropic, self-destructive detective solves the crime and delivers justice, all while stubbornly remaining misanthropic and self-destructive.

Then there are the anti-heroes who evolve in response to the central conflict. Some change for the better (we call this a positive character arc) while others become decidedly worse (negative character arc). 

Let’s take a look at how each of those journeys tend to play out.

Positive Arc

A hand gives a thumbs-up.

In a positive arc, the anti-hero initially accepts the Call to Adventure for purely selfish reasons. That is to say, they get involved in the main conflict only because of what’s at stake for them. Other characters might stand to benefit from the anti-hero’s involvement, but the self-serving protagonist couldn’t care less.

However, as the story progresses, the main character develops more empathy for others. By the time the climax rolls around, they’re surprising themselves by doing wildly inconvenient or even dangerous things for the sake of someone else.

You see this in one of the most famous anti-heroes of all time, Shrek. At the beginning of the movie, our dear ogre friend is only motivated by his desire for solitude. By the end of the story, he’s driven by the need for companionship and connection.

Not every anti-hero has such a straightforward positive arc, however. In The Last of Us, Joel initially only cares about his own survival in the fungi-fueled zombie apocalypse. Then, as his relationship with Ellie develops, he begins to do everything for her sake. 

But when he’s faced with the ultimate moral dilemma (no spoilers here), it becomes clear that while he’s definitely grown, there are still limits to what he’s willing to sacrifice for the good of humanity.  

Negative Arc

A hand gives a thumbs down.

In a negative arc, the anti-hero often starts from a place where their morally questionable actions are at least understandable. Readers might not condone what the protagonist does, but they can empathize with their reason for doing it.

As the story progresses, however, those initial bad choices—or the resulting consequences—draw the character deeper into darkness. By the end, they’ve blown up their lives and hurt just about everyone around them.

That’s the big-picture explanation of a negative arc. There are several different ways this type of character journey could play out, though, so if you’re interested, I recommend checking out this article where we explore the topic in greater depth.

The Role of Anti-Heroes

The glaring face of a cat.

Now is when we ask—as we often do in DabbleU articles—what the point of all this is. Why write anti-hero protagonists? Why not let the main character shine as an admirable hero and leave the moral ambiguity to an anti-villain?

You can totally do that! It all depends on how you want to deliver your themes and the kind of emotional response you want from your readers. To help you think it through, here are some examples of how going the anti-hero route could enhance a story:

Reflect Human Complexity

An anti-hero is an inherently complex character. They capture the full, messy reality of trying to get through life as a terrified and deeply flawed human being.

Not to mention, because anti-hero characters reflect a relatable instinct for self-preservation at all costs, it’s all the more impactful when they also demonstrate a capacity for compassion and sacrifice.

We can empathize with an anti-hero because we see the best and worst of ourselves in them. They disappoint and even devastate us for the exact same reason. 

Challenge Norms

This type of character is great at flipping the socially agreed upon moral code on its head. While their words or actions might seem morally ambiguous at best, past traumas make the anti-hero’s self-serving nature feel at least logical.

You’ll get more tips on how to make this work in a bit. 

Present an Alternative Point of View

You know those fairytale retellings where the character who’s traditionally been known as the villain steps into the role of protagonist? Instant anti-hero situation. 

The audience gets a chance to hear the narrative from the baddie’s point of view, and—as is so often the case in real life—they see that the villain was just a regular person trying to get through this weird and challenging life. Sure, they do unsavory things. But now we see all their layers.

This idea doesn’t just have to apply to retellings of familiar stories. A lot of anti-heroes are mobsters, drug dealers, and corrupt politicians. They fall into categories we associate with unexamined immorality, and their story challenges our assumptions.

Anti-Hero Examples

A person reads a book beside a window in a dark room.

As always, seeing these ideas in action is the best way to get better at recognizing an anti-hero and learn how to write one yourself. 

Here are a few anti-hero examples worth studying:

Walter White, Breaking Bad

Walter White might be the most famous anti-hero in modern storytelling. While (probably) most of us can say we would not turn to cooking meth as a way to provide for our families, we likely can identify with the feeling of powerlessness and the fear of leaving nothing of value behind when we die.

We can even understand Walt's agonizing moral dilemmas when his little side hustle creates more trouble than anticipated. Those moral dilemmas escalate, however, and ultimately each viewer has to decide for themselves when Walt crosses the line from anti-hero to villain protagonist.

If you want to study an anti-hero with a negative arc, this is a great option.

Wednesday Addams, Wednesday

This, on the other hand, would be your positive arc example.

Wednesday is an antisocial child who doesn’t have much use for other people. She antagonizes her family members but is also their fiercest protector, though that’s pretty much where her interest in other people ends. 

However, when she gets drawn into a mystery at her boarding school, she’s unable to avoid regular, frequent contact with her classmates. She gradually softens the tiniest little bit and even learns how to create chaos as a team. Sort of.   

Jay Gatsby, The Great Gatsby

Plenty of traditional heroes would go to the ends of the earth for true love. But Jay Gatsby makes it weird, what with all the lying and single-minded obsession.

He has some relatable traits. He wants a good life for himself and his friends, his relentless optimism is almost endearing, and who among us can’t identify with the desire to be the cool kid in the neighborhood? 

But the ability to set ego, image, and self-interest aside for a greater moral purpose is the mark of a true hero. And Jay Gatsby is anti-that.

Tips for Writing an Anti-Hero

Hands on a laptop keyboard.

Now that you’ve got a head full of anti-hero knowledge, it’s time to sit down at the keyboard and start clickin’ and clackin’ away on your own complicated character.

Real quick though, here are some final tips to help you really nail that morally ambiguous protagonist:

Give Your Reader a Reason to Care

It’s true: this character is supposed to be deeply flawed and a bit of an ethical trainwreck. But they still have to be someone your reader wants to follow for 80,000 words or so. 

Plus, what makes a good anti-hero so compelling is that we find ourselves pulling for them even when it goes against everything we supposedly believe in.

So give your reader a reason to invest emotionally in this character. A few highly effective ways to do this include:

  • Giving your anti-hero a relatable desire and compelling motivation
  • Revealing the fears and vulnerabilities behind their less-than-stellar choices
  • Making it crystal clear how much is at stake for them
  • Showing the reader that, in certain moments, this person does have the capacity to be selfless or empathetic

This next tip will help, too.

Explain the Broken Moral Compass

A dirty hand holds a compass.

Anti-hero characters tend to cling to flawed philosophies that are rooted in their traumatic backstory. K.M. Weiland calls this “The Lie Your Character Believes,” and you can learn how to come up with a great Lie for your anti-hero in this article.

For now, the short version is that you want to give your audience enough information to understand that your hot mess of a protagonist isn’t awful just to be awful. They’ve been through something that taught them that their survival depends on single-minded self-preservation.

Make Space for Internal Conflict

Internal conflict refers to the battle your character fights within themselves. It’s a key element of any good story because it heightens the emotional stakes and enhances the external conflict. It’s also a great way to demonstrate a character’s complexity.

Let your reader see the anti-hero struggle before making the choice that crosses a moral line and sets them on a negative trajectory. Or make a positive arc more believable by allowing them to hesitate before they grudgingly do the right thing.

Get Inside Your Anti-Hero’s Head

A Dabble character profile for a character named Bella Danes.

You’ve probably figured out by now that anti-hero characters exist on a wide spectrum. They can range from quite flawed to utterly despicable. They can self-destruct or blossom into full-blown heroes. 

And no matter who they are or how their arc plays out, they contain multitudes. Strengths, weaknesses, traumatic pasts, ambitions, passions, resentments… these characters demand deep development.

Dabble can help. Not only can you find loads of free articles on character in DabbleU, you can also use the Dabble novel writing tool to craft an unforgettable anti-hero.

Use the Plot Grid to track their arc. Outline every aspect of their being in a customizable character profile. Disappear inside their world with them as you type your draft in Focus Mode.

If you’re not a Dabbler, don’t worry. You can get access to every one of Dabble’s features for free for 14 days—plenty of time to determine if this tool is for you. Click here to get started, no credit card required. 

Abi Wurdeman

Abi Wurdeman is the author of Cross-Section of a Human Heart: A Memoir of Early Adulthood, as well as the novella, Holiday Gifts for Insufferable People. She also writes for film and television with her brother and writing partner, Phil Wurdeman. On occasion, Abi pretends to be a poet. One of her poems is (legally) stamped into a sidewalk in Santa Clarita, California. When she’s not writing, Abi is most likely hiking, reading, or texting her mother pictures of her houseplants to ask why they look like that.