Literature is full of characters, from dashing knights who save damsels, to maniacal villains who want to take over the world. Every hero can be identified and every villain stands out. But what about the characters who aren’t so distinguishable? The people who don’t inhabit a world of black and white but rather fall into shades of grey. Anti-heroes form a sub-category that has entertained readers for thousands of years. Why are they so popular? Could they have taken over the role of traditional heroes in today’s mediums? And can people aspire to them in the same way every day heroes can be remembered?
The concept of the anti-hero can be traced back as far as the Iliad with the character of Theristes. He was presented as the counter-point to the Greeks who believed the Trojan War was something to be reveled in. He was the spokesperson for the people who resisted and wasn’t painted in a remotely heroic light. Yet could opposition to needless slaughter have saved lives rather than throw them into battle?
Think about the people who risk their lives on a regular basis. Police demonstrate bravery by stopping criminals but they may not be remembered in the same way as a fictional character like Superman. If someone is resistant to going to war then does that make them cowardly or does it make them heroic for refusing to bow to the pressure of mass fighting.
Real heroes may give people mixed emotions because they have things that are expected of them. Fictional heroes are larger than life and may do no wrong because there are no expectations with things that aren’t real.
An anti-hero is a composite of several qualities. They can be self-serving, vengeful, under-handed and even villainous should it serve a greater purpose. They lack many of the characteristics that traditional heroes embrace such as nobility, courage and altruism. Who could forget the bitterness and tortured rage of Heathcliff from Wuthering Heights? Even Sherlock Holmes has been identified as anti-heroic for his methods and cynicism.
One the most memorable anti-heroes of the contemporary age is Magneto. Born around the onset of World War II, Magneto was of Jewish descent and forced into a concentration camp. The atrocities he witnessed there inspired him to rise up and protect his fellow mutants from the same horrors that he was forced to live through. The tragedy of the character is that he employed the same methods that the Nazis used on him in order to protect mutants against humanity.
The character was based on civil rights activist Malcolm X who adopted a militant approach to securing rights for black people. This forms a link between anti-hero qualities being present in the real world. Malcolm X was so influential that his legacy lives on in the qualities of a fictional character.
It could be argued that the roles of ‘hero’ and ‘villain’ have become one and the same because is there not some truth to people believing themselves to be the hero of their own story? Malcolm X was considered to be courageous by his admirers and deemed a terrorist by others.
It is the kind of example that allows people to invest in what an anti-hero stands for. You may not agree with their methods but you can understand what has made them be who they are.
What then makes an anti-hero so popular? It could be that they reflect the truest form of what real people are capable of. Human beings have the capacity to be do acts of light and dark. Anti-heroes bring our flaws under the magnifying glass and remind us that imperfections are a part of life.
Traditional heroes in fiction can be painted as infallible juggernauts. A fire fighter is capable of making a mistake on his best day and he may display anger if he wasn’t able to save someone’s life. When a hero dies they are remembered for their sacrifice and their memory endures. The same can be said for fictional heroes like Batman who live on for their persona.