The Appeal of the Antihero

In a galaxy far far away, there was an antihero...
In a galaxy far far away, there was an antihero…
First, let me clarify what I mean when I use the term “antihero” in this piece. (Or should I say qualify? You decide.) I mean not a traditional hero. I mean someone with flaws or with blood on their hands. Or at least dirt. And their motives may be focused rather inward, at least much of the time. Or at least initially. So I don’t mean, say, Superman. Or Elliot Ness. (Fighting for the enforcement of prohibition laws? That man was not looking out for  No. 1.)

I mean anyone from Achilles to Han Solo to Michael Collins. There, we have legend, film, and history—a nice, all-inclusive start, no? And in the broadest strokes we have a working definition: an antihero is blemished, an antihero is, at least initially or by degrees, looking out for himself. Well, hey, aren’t we all? So, there you have it: we are drawn to antiheroes because in them we see reflections of ourselves, tip your bartenders and . . . good night.

Actually, wait—let’s go deeper with this, shall we? Now, really . . . why are we drawn to someone who, by reason, we should be at least mildly repelled by? Should we not aspire to be—and therefore be inspired by—persons of perfect honor and proper conduct? Should we not seek the categorical imperative to do Right and to respect Right always and in all things? So even when we see ourselves reflected in the so-called “antihero,” should we not turn our backs? We should, in some sort of theoretical vacuum of virtue. But we don’t. In fact, it’s quite the opposite.

So . . . are we all secretly evil? Or sadistic? Or sociopathic? No! Of course not! But most of us are, y’know, maybe a little of all of these things. It’s human nature! Or rather: it’s nature. The “human” element is what lets us overcome the “nature” aspect and not come to blows over every little thing. (Though any little thing is at times enough to lead to fisticuffs . . . or war. Jenkins’ Ear? Really? Google that if it doesn’t ring a bell. Sunavabitch. Jenkins’ E—gah.) But deep within us burns that desire to unleash a torrent of profanity at the dithering cashier, or blast through the 1 a.m. red light, or take that they’ll-never-know whatnot from the shelf by the door. If you have never pictured what the object you are holding could do to the face at which you are glaring, you are either a professional repressor or you are, in fact, Jesus Christ.

This guy doesn’t want to bash your face in with the nearest object. But I do.But you know who does give voice to those frustrations? Or who does sucker punch the loudmouth? Or smile and wink as the elevator doors close just before the security guard collars him for ducking a checkpoint? Why, yes! The antihero! Villains (unless they are really awesome villains) are, ehm, villainous. We hate them. They are evil. Heroes are great, but they’re boring. The “antihero” tends to be the figure who does what we wish we would do, but rarely does things we would greatly regret. Or who does things we would regret but does not regret them, thus distinguishing him as in some way superior, if only by being less cowardly and less concerned with appearances.

We, being real people who live in the real world that does not end at the last page or the credits or the curtain, are bound to certain conventions (laws, customs, family pressures, etc.) that are greatly limiting, if you really think about what total freedom could mean, but are equally protecting and even comforting. The antihero lives in a world much more of their own personal sphere, where doing what they want (I qualify: ideally what they feel they should do, not just whatever the hell they want to do) is pretty much the norm for them. And that is liberating. In theory, at least. It’s fun to watch. It’s fun to think about. Of course, we don’t act on the impulses, right? Because that would be wrong. But we are drawn to them, oh yes we are.


Steven John has been an avid reader for as long as he can remember, and has been writing for almost that long as well. Most of his early writing you will never, ever see. But as for some of his more recent writing, namely his debut novel Three A.M., he admonishes you to read it and force—er, ask—all your friends to do the same. He is currently at work on his third novel and a host of side projects. Track his wanderings at


  1. Saundra Peck

    The first “anti-hero” who comes to mind lately for me was a character on a great TNT show called “Saving Grace”. Holly Hunter played an Oklahoma City detective who was hard to like, let alone love, but as the series went on and ultimately ended, you knew why she was flawed and never wanted to see the show end. I LOVE anti-heroes, and any book or show/movie that features one always keeps me coming back, as I seem to enjoy the process of seeing characters expose their flaws and live a life with them, or in spite of them.

  2. Candice Stallone

    Agreed, who cares about a character with no evolution?

  3. Stephen Fischer

    It’s appropriate that Han Solo is depicted in the beginning of the article. The fact that such a “scoundrel” could indeed save a rebellion (numerous times) led us to root for him continuously. Indeed, the moment he blew away Greedo in the cantina scene was the moment he could be established as the antihero. George Lucas tempered this scene in recuts of the movie by making Greedo shoot first. To be sure, this denigrated the stature of Solo as the ultimate antihero.

  4. Clare 2e

    The lack of regret is one of they key things I appreciate and envy in certain antiheroes!

    As for the “theoretical vacuum of virtue,” you’ve described Crime HQ perfectly, which I also think is all pretty firmly on Team HanShotFirst, @StephenFischer : )

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