AskDefine | Define antihero

Dictionary Definition

antihero n : a protagonist who lacks the characteristics that would make him a hero (or her a heroine) [also: antiheroes (pl)]

User Contributed Dictionary


Alternative spellings


  1. In a literary work, a protagonist that proceeds in an unheroic manner, such as by criminal means, via cowardly actions, or for mercenary goals.

Extensive Definition

In fiction, an anti-hero is a protagonist who is lacking the traditional heroic attributes and qualities, and instead possesses character traits that are antithetical to heroism.
The word anti-hero itself is fairly recent, and its principal definition has changed through the years. The 1940 edition of Merriam-Webster New International Dictionary listed anti-hero, but did not define it. Later sources would call the anti-hero a persona characterized by a lack of "traditional" heroic qualities.


There is no definitive moment when the anti-hero came into existence as a literary trope. Apollonius of Rhodes' Argonautica portrays Jason as a timid, passive, indecisive man that contrasts sharply with other Greek heroes. The anti-hero has evolved over time, changing as society's conceptions of the hero changed, from the Elizabethan times of Christopher Marlowe's Faust and William Shakespeare's Falstaff, to the darker-themed Victorian literature of the 19th century, such as John Gay's The Beggar's Opera or Philip Meadows Taylor's Confessions of a Thug. The Byronic hero also sets a literary precedent for the modern concept of the anti-hero.

Contemporary literature

In modern times, heroes have enjoyed an increased moral complexity. Mid-20th century playwrights such as Samuel Beckett and Tom Stoppard showcased anti-heroic protagonists recognizable by their lack of identity and determination. Pulp fiction and noir detective stories of the mid-20th century saw characters such as Sam Spade, who lacked the glorious appeal of previous heroic figures, become popular. Influenced by the pulps, early comic books featured anti-heroic characters such as Batman (whose shadowy nature contrasted with their openly "heroic" peers like Superman) and Sub-Mariner (who would just as soon conquer humanity as try to save it). Sergio Leone's "spaghetti westerns" showcased a wandering vigilante (the "Man with No Name" played by Clint Eastwood) whose gruff demeanor clashed with other heroic characteristics. Spider-Man has been considered the most influential antihero archetype in the superhero genre.
The young, flawed, and brooding antihero [Spider-Man] became the most widely imitated archetype in the superhero genre since the appearance of superman.
Bradford W. Wright, Comic Book Nation: The transformation of Youth Culture in America 212
Superman on the Couch by Danny Fingeroth 151
Many modern anti-heroes possess, or even encapsulate, the postmodern rejection of traditional values symptomatic of Modernist literature in general, as well as the disillusion felt after World War II and the Nuclear Age. It has been argued that the continuing popularity of the anti-hero in modern literature and popular culture may be based on the recognition that a person is fraught with human frailties, unlike the archetypes of the white-hatted cowboy and the noble warrior, and is therefore more accessible to readers and viewers. This popularity may also be symptomatic of the rejection by the avant-garde of traditional values after the counter-culture revolution of the 1960s. In the postmodern era, traditionally defined heroic qualities, akin to the classic "knight in shining armor" type, have given way to the "gritty truth" of life, and authority in general is being questioned. The brooding vigilante or "noble criminal" archetype seen in characters like Batman is slowly becoming part of the popular conception of heroic valor rather than being characteristics that are deemed un-heroic.

See also



antihero in Catalan: Antiheroi
antihero in Czech: Antihrdina
antihero in Danish: Antihelt
antihero in German: Antiheld
antihero in Spanish: Antihéroe
antihero in French: Antihéros
antihero in Italian: Antieroe
antihero in Hebrew: אנטי גיבור
antihero in Hungarian: Antihős
antihero in Dutch: Antiheld
antihero in Japanese: アンチヒーロー
antihero in Norwegian: Antihelt
antihero in Occitan (post 1500): Antieròi
antihero in Low German: Antiheld
antihero in Polish: Antybohater
antihero in Portuguese: Anti-herói
antihero in Russian: Антигерой
antihero in Simple English: Anti-hero
antihero in Finnish: Antisankari
antihero in Swedish: Antihjälte
antihero in Chinese: 反英雄

Synonyms, Antonyms and Related Words

actor, antagonist, bit, bit part, cast, character, cue, fat part, feeder, heavy, hero, heroine, ingenue, lead, lead role, leading lady, leading man, leading woman, lines, part, person, personage, piece, protagonist, role, side, soubrette, straight part, supporting character, supporting role, title role, villain, walk-on, walking part
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