If you’re familiar with modern film and television, you’ve likely come across the term “antihero” in reference to characters who operate outside conventional parameters of good and evil. It’s an important storytelling trope for both writers penning scripts and actors looking to deliver compelling, complicated characters. Read on for details about what function such figures serve in stories, how you can create one, and the best examples of antiheroes on screen.
An antihero is a central character who lacks traditional heroic attributes; they may have redeemable qualities or good intentions, but their actions are flawed, often selfish, and occasionally violent.
In storytelling, a traditional hero is admired or idealized for their courage, nobility, or moral actions. Attaching the “anti-” prefix suggests the opposite of those traditional qualities, but the an antihero is more in the middle. As John Swanbeck said, heroes are on a mission to save the day; antiheroes are on a mission to save themselves.
Characters who wrestle with questions of morality have a quality every successful storyteller should consider: relatability. Antiheroes make compromises or can’t afford the luxury of idealism. The same is true for people in everyday life. Even if a story is set in the distant past or far future, in outer space or in a fantasy world, audiences relate most to characters who are forced to make questionable choices.
In both film and TV, an antihero’s character arc can take on many shapes. A character can be worn down by circumstances to the point of crossing moral boundaries. In this case, the audience identifies with a protagonist’s goodness before witnessing their less-than-noble actions, slowly but surely questioning their love of the character. Walter White on AMC’s “Breaking Bad” begins his story as a family man in dire straits, then crosses enough lines to qualify him as villainous.
The opposite arc can also be charted: introducing a character, warts and all, before revealing enough backstory to rationalize their behavior. In his many iterations on page and screen, Batman is a violent, mysterious figure; but his origin story, in which a young Bruce Wayne’s parents are killed by a mugger, helps explain his ruthless crime-fighting tactics.
To create a believable antihero, there are a few character-building tools to consider. Here are some pointers:
- Decide where the character lands on the moral spectrum: No one is perfect, and no one is irredeemably evil. Does your character have good intentions, but can’t help contradicting them with their actions? Or are they largely unlikable, but with subtle redeeming qualities we discover throughout the story?
- Consider inner conflict: What does your character want? What do they think they want? Most importantly, what are they willing to do to get it? If you can credibly establish a character’s motives, the answer to that last question can drive your plot.
- Consider point of view: An antihero can be a story’s supporting character, and they are often rendered more vividly when juxtaposed against a traditionally heroic protagonist.
Just as fun as creating an antihero is taking one from the page and putting it into a performance. If you’re an actor preparing a role in this vein, what are the best ways to go about it?
- Calibrate likability and its opposite: Actors playing antiheroes must balance both heroic and villainous qualities. Veer too far toward darkness, and you risk becoming a story’s antagonist. Lean too much on your dazzling charisma, and it distracts from your relatable flaws.
- Bring your personal history to the character: Who hasn’t made a compromise or mistake in the pursuit of what they want? By identifying where a fictional character’s journey overlaps with real experience, an actor can bring humanity to a role and make audiences more sympathetic to them—no matter how villainous they are.
- Consider backstory: Every three-dimensional character has an origin story. If you have source material, it can help fill in the biographical blanks. If not, it’s up to you to find answers to the character’s who, what, when, where, and why.
- Avoid easy answers: Antiheroes are complicated. Resist labeling people as solely good or bad, or giving their actions definitive justifications. The more layers of contradictions you use to flesh out a character, the better.
In film, antiheroes exist to complicate an audience’s expectations around who to identify with. Roguish scene-stealers like Harrison Ford’s Han Solo in the “Star Wars” movies—not to mention similar characters inspired by his blueprint—can upend that understanding. In “The Empire Strikes Back,” when Han responds to Princess Leia’s “I love you” not with “I love you, too,” but with the iconic line “I know,” he’s subverting a classically heroic moment.
When a movie’s main character leans toward the villainous side of the moral spectrum, the question of whom audiences should root for is put to the test. Sociopaths we nevertheless want to see succeed dominate the big screen, from Hannibal Lecter, played most famously by Oscar winner Anthony Hopkins in “The Silence of the Lambs,” to Christian Bale’s Patrick Bateman in “American Psycho.”
The downtrodden Carrie White (Sissy Spacek) in the Oscar nominated 1976 adaptation of Stephen King’s “Carrie” exemplifies the ways in which horror is a particularly fertile genre for antiheroes. By the time the blood-drenched conclusion of Brian De Palma’s film arrives, the audience is primed to not only understand Carrie’s violence, but to support it.
There are several actors whose entire body of work is a testament to this character type. Clint Eastwood epitomizes swaggering cowboy violence as Blondie in “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly” and Bill Munny in “Unforgiven,” among other roles. Al Pacino is masterful at performing despicable acts while maintaining glimmers of humanity: See Tony Montana in “Scarface,” Sonny Wortzik in “Dog Day Afternoon,” and, most essentially, Michael Corleone in the “Godfather” films.
In the 2000s, antiheroes dominated the small screen. Bryan Cranston’s award-sweeping Walter White on “Breaking Bad” is the foremost example, but HBO’s “The Sopranos”—especially leading man James Gandolfini’s crime-family patriarch Tony Soprano—paved the way for characters like him. In both performances, every violent act the character commits is counterbalanced by the actor’s innate charisma and likability.
On AMC’s 1960s-set drama “Mad Men,” Jon Hamm introduced an intriguing take on the trope as adman Don Draper. Is he a good person? No. Is that the result of unfortunate circumstances? Mostly, yes. Do we root for him? That depends on each week’s installment, offering audiences a Rorschach test of relatability.
ABC’s “How to Get Away With Murder” approaches the antihero trope head-on. As played by Emmy and SAG Award winner Viola Davis, law professor Annalise Keating dares audiences to dismiss her, filling in more and more backstory that explains her disastrously dodgy choices.
Men have historically played antiheroes more often than women. As Hollywood reckons with various systemic inequities, it’s clear that stories centering women aren’t extended as much empathy as those centering men. Anna Gunn, who won an Emmy for playing Skyler White on “Breaking Bad,” addressed the sexist backlash she experienced for playing an unlikable character in a 2013 New York Times op-ed.
Antiheroes exist to shake up a plot, introduce thorny nuances to characters, and upend audience expectations—always good elements to include from a storyteller’s standpoint. By understanding this trope and incorporating it into your artistic toolkit, you’re participating in the long legacy of actors and creators bringing antiheroic characters to life.