What are the Differences Between an Anti-Hero vs. Anti-Villain?

anti hero or villain?

Estimated reading time: 10 minutes

In stories and life, the “good” guys aren’t all good, and the “bad” guys aren’t all bad — sometime there’s a fine line between doing the right and wrong thing. As an author, it’s your job to convey this when character building. One of the best ways to do that is with an anti-hero and anti-villain. These two types of characters have similarities, along with fundamental differences.

Before we get into the details about what differentiates an anti-hero from an anti-villain — and why it’s important to include both character types in your writing — I’ll point out the obvious: complexity is interesting.

Sometimes, rooting for a hero with flaws and weaknesses is more gratifying. Why? Because people can relate to that. On a similar note, a villain with a complex backstory revealing their humanity is equally relatable and heartbreaking. Anti-heroes and anti-villains blur the lines between good and evil, making a story great.

What is an anti-hero?

An anti-hero is a protagonist who lacks conventional heroic attributes — like undaunting heroism and courage. They often make questionable (or even harmful) decisions. Despite their flaws, they have enough endearing qualities to make you root for them — even though it can be frustrating.

Hero vs anti-hero

A traditional hero is confident, courageous, and noble. Regardless of genre, a hero often has a Herculean presence and stands by their morals. Heroes can resist urges of corruption and immorality. A traditional hero is unbreakable.

On the other hand, an anti-hero has noble intentions but does not always abide by moral behavior. In both literature and film, anti-heroes have a questionable moral code and are willing to achieve their ultimate goals by any means necessary. Despite their negative characteristics, readers and viewers still cheer for the anti-hero to achieve their aspirations because the good outweighs the bad.

Types of anti-heroes

This isn’t an exhaustive list, but I’ve identified five different types of anti-heroes.

The Corrupt Protagonist

The corrupt protagonist is a type of anti-hero who is primarily motivated by achieving money and power. Despite their flaws, readers, and viewers often root for the corrupt protagonist because they admire their fierce ambition and determination.

If you’re looking for an example, think about one of my favorite shows, Peaky Blinders. Thomas Shelby is one of the most compelling corrupt protagonists in film and literature. He is tremendously ambitious and will do whatever it takes for the Shelby family to gain power, money, and notoriety. His methods can be cruel and manipulative — he also is deeply damaged by a traumatic past. Despite his dark undertone and menacing behavior, there is good in him, and you want to see him win. After all, it’s fun to root for the bad boy.

The classical anti-hero

Also known as the “original anti-hero,” the classical anti-hero is a person with pure morals and good intentions, making them easy to root for. Their weakness comes from their self-doubt and insecurities. When a classical anti-hero is the protagonist of a story, the plot usually involves them embarking on a journey to overcome their insecurities.

Frodo Baggins in The Lord of the Rings is one of the most notable examples of a classical anti-hero. Frodo does not have any special abilities, and he never really seeks adventure. He is a kind soul who lives a quiet life. However, when he stumbles upon a series of extraordinary events, he must embark on a journey that requires him to overcome his self-doubt and fear. Sharing a classical anti-hero’s growth and newfound bravery is a great way to inspire readers with your story.

The pragmatic anti-hero

Editing Guide bannerThe pragmatic anti-hero can be best described as “any means necessary.” This type of anti-hero has a clear moral compass and will do whatever it takes so long as it benefits the greater good. A pragmatic anti-hero has no qualms with harming — or even killing — others so long as it serves their heroic goals.

Look to Game of Thrones for a perfect example of a pragmatic anti-hero — Tyrion Lannister. Tyrion always wants to do what’s right and best for the people of King’s Landing. Sometimes, ensuring the best for the masses requires him to act out of cruelty and violence.

The unscrupulous anti-hero

The unscrupulous anti-hero comes with a lot of moral gray areas. Ultimately, they fight for what’s right — but wreak plenty of havoc along the way. This type of anti-hero is frequently motivated by revenge and is distrusting of most people. Despite being flawed, you simply cannot resist cheering for them to succeed.

Captain Jack Sparrow in Pirates of the Caribbean is a well-known unscrupulous anti-hero. His former shipmates (who happen to be the bad guys) took his ship away from him. As a result, he will help Will and Elizabeth (the good guys) because assisting them means he can get revenge. Is he motivated by self-interest? Yes. Are his efforts benefiting a noble cause? Also, yes.

Hero in name only

Sometimes it can be hard to root for the hero in name only… but you still do it. This type of anti-hero does bad things — a lot of bad things. They usually have a dark side stemming from a compelling backstory. They can be selfish, manipulative, and irresponsible. But at the end of the day, they fight against the bad guys.

Dexter Morgan in the television series Dexter is my favorite hero in name only. Dexter is a complex character who is fascinating, frustrating, and endearing all at once. He is an actual serial killer who you are rooting for throughout the series. Dexter lives by a code. He recognizes that he exists with a “dark passenger,” and he channels his darkness to become a vigilante. He satisfies his sadistic urges by only killing other murderers and serial killers. He never seeks to harm the innocent, but there certainly is plenty of gray area with his code since the primary rule is to never get caught.

What is an anti-villain?

An anti-villain is not completely evil. At the end of the day, they have redeeming qualities and complicated backstories that make their overall character arc compelling. Despite their moral ambiguity, they stand in the protagonist’s way of achieving their goals. Readers and viewers will want the anti-villain to succumb to the hero but will likely have mixed feelings about their demise.

Villain vs anti-villain

5 Steps to Self-PublishingA typical villain is evil to the core. Their goals are wicked and immoral — and they seek domination by any means necessary. There is no hope for them. They have no light — only darkness and pure evil (like Lord Voldemort in Harry Potter).

On the other hand, you can see redeeming qualities in anti-villains. Maybe they once were good, like Anakin Skywalker before becoming Darth Vader. Regardless, readers and viewers can understand them and emphasize with them in ways that are impossible with evil villains.

Types of anti-villains

I’ve identified three flavors of anti-villains. I bet you can come up with more.

The well-meaning extremist

This type of anti-villain is interesting because they believe they are doing the right thing — but they achieve their goals through heinous methods. Readers frequently root against this type of character even if they sympathize with the cause.

Look to Inspector Javert in Les Misérables for a great example of a well-meaning extremist. He believes he is doing the right thing — working in the name of law and order. However, his tunnel vision and ruthless determination to pursue Jean Valjean blinds him to grace and compassion.

The villain with code

This type of anti-villain is all bark, little bite. They portray themselves as villainous — often out of self-preservation. But when a reckoning comes, they frequently struggle to harm other people. You also can refer to a villain with code as a “noble anti-villain.” Their morality can be quite ambiguous and you can’t quite call them the good guy in the story.

Once again turning to Harry Potter, you’ll find that Draco Malfoy is a perfect example of this type of anti-villain. It’s not Draco’s fault that his father is one of Lord Voldemort’s loyal Death Eaters. He has no choice but to follow Voldemort’s orders if he wants to live. So, he puts on the evil mask — but when push comes to shove, he is unable to commit unforgivable acts.

The woobie anti-villain

Regarding the woobie anti-villain, it’s more about nurture — not nature. They are not inherently evil. As a matter of fact, many woobie anti-villains once fought for what is right. But after enduring so much pain and struggle, they suffer a tragic fall to darkness. It can be downright heartbreaking to witness the woobie anti-villain’s downfall.

how to publish on Amazon guideI mentioned Anakin Skywalker in the introduction to anti-villains, and I’ll emphasize again here that he is the ultimate woobie anti-villain. As a Star Wars fan and a human being, I’m heartbroken by his tragic story. He is never quite accepted by his fellow Jedi council. He is lost, alone, angry, and desperate to save Padme. At his most vulnerable point, he was corrupted and ruined. After being destined to bring order to the galaxy, he becomes a monster motivated to control it.

Differences between anti-heroes vs anti-villains

Just as there’s a line that differentiates heroes and villains, we can draw a line between specific character traits between anti-heroes and anti-villains.

Nature

Although both anti-heroes and anti-villains have moral grey areas, anti-heroes, by nature, do the right thing. On the other hand, anti-villains do the wrong thing by nature — even if their actions are understandable. When assessing whether a character is an anti-hero or an anti-villain, think closely if they are doing something for the greater good or not.

Characteristics

When it comes to their characteristics, there is plenty of overlap. Anti-heroes and anti-villains are both complicated characters who face internal struggles and insecurities. Both can be charismatic and intelligent. Most importantly, they are deeply afflicted by the struggles of human nature. But in every story, the anti-villain stands in the way of the anti-hero’s righteous quest.

Motives

Despite all the overlap between anti-heroes and anti-villains, motives remain the great separator. Anti-heroes are motivated to do what’s right and are forced to overcome their weaknesses to achieve that. Anti-villains are driven by villainous motives even though they often have redeeming qualities.

How to write a compelling anti-hero and villain

Whether you’re writing an anti-hero or an anti-villain (or creating any character, for that matter), remember what makes us human. Readers are drawn to these characters because they are real. People are vulnerable. Everyone faces self-doubt and insecurities. Seeing an anti-hero like Frodo Baggins overcoming his self-doubt to become a hero is why Lord of the Rings is timeless. Furthermore, having compassion for an anti-villain like Anakin Skywalker says something beautiful about humanity — people are fiercely empathetic.

Tips for writing anti-heroes

Nobody is perfect, including heroes. Your anti-heroes should be vulnerable and flawed. You want your readers to get frustrated by their shortcomings. If you do this strategically, you’ll build a compelling character arc that demonstrates a tumultuous, relatable, and heroic journey.

Tips for writing anti-villains

Sometimes good people do terrible things. Some are truly evil, but most “villains” have simply lost their way. Keep this in mind when you are writing an anti-villain into your story. It is powerful to express droplets of humanity in even the darkest of places. The best way to do that is by establishing a backstory that makes readers fully understand the why behind an anti-villain’s decisions.

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