Tuesday, June 2, 2015

Blurring the Lines: What Are Anti-Heroes and Anti-Villains?

This post is a sequel to my posts "The Difference Between Villains and Antagonists" and "The Difference Between Heroes and Protagonists." If you haven't read them yet, please go check them out first.
The last two posts of this trilogy have been all about defining terms and making things clear. Now I'm going to throw a wrench into the system and talk about all the blurriness I haven't really mentioned yet: anti-heroes and anti-villains.
Image not mine. Found at http://meolliseo.tumblr.com/post/26161612400
These two things are the grey between the black and white of villains and heroes. And it isn't all defined stripes distinguishing the black, grey, and white, either - they all blend into each other, making it hard to tell them apart.
So unless you're prepared to deal with some uncertainty, forget trying to figure this out with me.

There was no set definition for "anti-villain" online. I did, however, get one for anti-heroes, so we'll start with that and move from there.
Let's tackle the easy thing first. What sets an anti-hero apart from a plain old hero? If you remember from last week's post, a hero is a character type and not a plot role and always has some noble, admirable qualities. An anti-hero, on the other hand, lacks those traditional noble qualities and is a main character. This means he can be anything between an average Joe and a psychopathic serial killer, as long he is a protagonist. According to TV Tropes, some common anti-heroes are loners, or are unfriendly, cynical, or willing to kill. Anti-heroes which immediately come to mind are Batman, Jack Sparrow from The Pirates of the Caribbean movies, Sherlock from BBC's Sherlock, Nathan from Half Bad, Katniss Everdeen from The Hunger Games trilogy, Kaladin from The Stormlight Archives, Nix from Nobody, and Vin from the Mistborn trilogy. In support of TV Tropes, a lot of those characters I just mentioned are unfriendly loners. Some anti-heroes are a little darker, though, actually fitting into the character type of villain - though I've never watched it, I'm told Dexter from Dexter is such a character. I talked a little more about villain protagonists in the post from two weeks ago
Okay, so anti-heroes are basically protagonists who don't match the classic hero description. But what are anti-villains? Are they any different from anti-heroes or villains? How?
As I mentioned above, the term doesn't seem to have made it into dictionaries yet. The word is being used by other bloggers and authors, though, so it is becoming something a writer should know about. Urban Dictionary had two definitions which were interesting, saying that an anti-villain "pursues undeniably villainous goals, but employs arguably noble methods to achieve them" or is "an antagonist who isn't entirely evil nor entirely unsympathetic -- a character who doesn't seem to deserve being cast as the villain." Villains Wikia says that "the anti-villain plays a villain's game, but for a noble cause... at least in their eyes. They may be more noble or heroic than an anti-hero, but the means to achieve their ends are are often considered immoral, unjust, or evil."
Quite a few different opinions flying around. The one thing every source seems to agree on is that anti-villains are anti-heroes' polar opposites. That would mean that anti-villains are always an antagonist, but don't fit the description of a classic villain. I like what TV Tropes says:
 "Their desired ends are mostly good, but their means of getting there are evil. Alternatively, their are evil, but they are far more ethical or moral than most villains and they thus use fairly benign methods to achieve it, and can be heroic on occasion." 
Simply, anti-villains are antagonists who don't have the entire classic villain package: they're missing either the evil actions or evil motives.
Shadow from Sonic X serves as an anti-villain in several episodes, as does Knuckles. Loki from Thor could be an anti-villain - he's got the whole "misguided" thing going on - but I think he may have strayed into being a classic villain by the time Avengers rolled around. Szeth-son-son-Vallano from The Stormlight Archives is an anti-villain, as well as Marshall Gerard from The Fugitive, Inspector Javert from Les Miserables, Sohrem from The Follower, and Carl Hanratty from Catch Me If You Can. As I mentioned before, some common anti-villains are in law enforcement, are brainwashed, or are misguided. The Write Practice has a wonderful article on the four types of anti-villains, which I highly recommend reading. 
Both anti-heroes and anti-villains are character types, but neither fits into the description of a classical villain or classical hero. They're always something in between. This is why they are difficult to tell apart. However, you can tell them apart by determining their plot role: anti-villains are antagonists and anti-heroes are protagonists.
In short, an anti-hero is:
  1. Always a protagonist.
  2. Any kind of character type which does not fit into the classical hero description. They are often loners, or possess traits such as unfriendliness or a readiness to kill.
And an anti-villain is:
  1. Always an antagonist.
  2. Any character type apart from a classic villain. They don't match the description of the classically evil villain, either in their motives or actions.
Things can get very complicated when dealing with these characters, who are neither black nor white, but rather a mix. I hope that this helps to clarify things a little bit. 

I am back to respond to comments! Tell me: had you ever heard of anti-villains before? Do you have a favorite anti-hero or anti-villain? What is your understanding of their definitions? Do you think I classified any of those characters incorrectly? The comment section is right there. Go on. Tell me what you think.

58 comments:

  1. This helps a lot! I don't tend to like anti-heros, but I love a good anti-villain when done right. And I think your classifications were pretty correct, except for I'd personally call Batman more of a classic hero...he has lots of heroic attributes. Anyway, great post, and thanks for clearing up all the confusion!

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    1. I've only seen the first Batman movie, but his grouchy unwillingness to talk a lot sort of made me think anti-hero, but obviously, he's a superhero, so it wouldn't be surprising if I'm wrong. :)
      I'm glad you enjoyed the post!

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    2. I was thinking the same thing about Batman. Yeah, he's grouchy and maybe even a little cynical; but he does not kill to avoid being just like the criminals he's working to stop. So, yeah, classifying him as an anti-hero is incorrect.

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  2. I know what an anti-hero is. I like the BBC Sherlock, so yeah, one cannot go without knowing about anti-heroes and avidly watch Sherlock. ;)

    The anti-villain though I was a little more confused about. I'm not very familiar with the term and it was a little confusing at first. But when you said the anti-hero is always the protagonist and the anti-villain is always the antagonist, I think I've got it. From there it's way easier to figure out who is who. (Though it does make me think of "Oh, Say Can You Say" and the difference between a Klotz and a Glotz by Dr. Seuss.)

    I think you're right about Loki too. He started out anti-villain, but later went classic on us.

    By the way, I love the title picture!

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    1. Ah, Sherlock. *shakes head* I do think you are correct. He's about the most blatant anti-hero out there.
      I had no clue what an anti-villain was either until I heard about it on The Write Practice. Honestly, I'm still not sure if there really is a difference apart from the plot roles. xD
      Oh, thanks! It is a cool looking dude, isn't it?

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  3. I actually hadn't ever heard of "anti-villains" before and to be honest? I'M NOT CONVINCED. XD hehe *hides* But see the whole "the anti-villain plays a villain's game, but for a noble cause... at least in their eyes" THAT should be the motive of every villain. I don't believe in villains who are evil for the freakish joy of it. (Except for The Joker. But he's seriously my only exception.) I think ALL villains should believe they're what they're doing is for the good of something, even if it's only themselves.

    BUT ZOMG I LOVE ANTI-HEROES SO MUCH. I write 100% anti-heroes. all. the. time. It's my absolute favourite. Blur me some grey lines, yes please and thank you. XD

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    1. Haha, well, I guess people like to make up words, and the fact that there ARE villains like The Joker who are evil for evil's sake means that another words can be made up to describe the ones who aren't.
      Haha, anti-heroes are fun. I've got . . . two, I suppose. And one hero. And one of the two anti-heroes ends up an actual villain protag. Get's confusing. Thanks for the comment!

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  4. Great post! I hadn't heard of an anti-villain before. I agree with Cait about the villain's motivations. They have drive and reasons just like heroes or anti-heroes. This post was really interesting! :)

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    1. Of course. I think that the difference is sometimes that classic villains' motivations are more evil (revenge, is one I can think of) and anti-villains' motivations are more noble (like Curt Conners in The Amazing Spider-man trying to turn everyone into lizards because he genuinely believes that it will help all those people).
      Glad you enjoyed!

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  5. So, is Hans from Frozen an Anti-Hero or an Anti-Villain? My friend says he's an Anti-Hero. And while he does act like a villain sometimes like trying to kill the protagonists, he's also different from the other villains. And we actually have a backstory for him. Some people theorized that he did what he did to prove himself to his brothers, and Jen Lee pretty much confirmed he was raised without love. (which is pretty sad) And there's another person who thought of it this way, and I quote: "a) Anna is going to die, soon, and there’s no way to save her
    b) Elsa needs to die for Arendelle’s sake
    c) Elsa is a sorceress who has cursed the land, can’t stop the curse, already tried to kill two men at the mountain and has now murdered her own sister - so she’s clearly very dangerous and willing to kill people"

    Idk, what do you think?

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    1. Well, I'm no expert. But, from what I can tell, anti-villains are always antagonists and anti-heroes are always protagonists. So the real question regarding Hans is whether he is portrayed as the main character (protagonist) or the main characters' opposition (antagonist). With Hans, I thibk it's fairly certain he is an antagonist, which would mean he's an anti-villain. If he was the main character in the movie, he would've been an anti-hero.

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    2. Huh. Interesting. . . . . .So he's basically a 'gray' character?

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    3. Yes, I'd say so - pretty much all anti-heroes and anti-villains are, because they're a mix of classic hero (white) and classic villain (black). At least, that is how I look at it. xD

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  6. These are interesting thoughts. I've never heard of anti-villains before this post. Though I've always pictured anti-heroes with a wider definition in that being they aren't always the main character. I consider Guy of Gisborne from BBC Robin Hood, Scar from Full Metal Alchemist Brotherhood and Zuko from Avatar: The Last Airbender anti-heroes in the fact that they start as villains and become good. That's always been my perspective on the word. So it coincides with the definition you gave since they are "central characters" just not /the/ central characters.

    storitorigrace.blogspot.com

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    1. The only one of those I really know anything about would be Guy of Gisborne, and he was almost an anti-villain because he WAS an antagonist. But then when he changed sides he became an anti-hero. This is the problem with these two categories because character type wise they're practically identical. xD

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  7. Anti-Heroes by definition after exactly that, they are the opposite of hero. A hero has a need or a goal that they set out to achieve. An anti hero will wait for events to happen to him, like Hamlet from Shakespeare's play. A dark hero on the other hand is a hero but whose methods of obtaining their goal are dangerous, they can be a danger to themselves or others. I didn't know this either until recently but I like the ideas about anti villains it's important to try and make villains as believable as the protags and who didn't love a villain who switches sides right?

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    1. I've never heard the term "dark hero." Very interesting. And yes, very important. xD I think they're getting more and more common nowadays.
      Thanks for the comment!

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  8. I love anti-heros and anti-villains. In one of my favorite shows (Code Geass... Not a fan of the animation style, but the plot and characters are amazing. I cried for like two hours at the end) the conflict was based between an anti-hero (the kind with bad methods to reach noble goal) and an anti-villain (antagonist with opposing (better? It changes as series goes on) methods to reach same noble goal). It made the whole show a lot more interesting, it was great.

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    1. I've never seen that show, but I think I've heard of it before. Ugh, I love anti-hero/anti-villain conflicts. It DOES make everything seem so much more complex and interesting. :)

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    2. Yes! Code Geass is exactly why I read these hero/villain posts! Although I'm still a bit confused. Lelouch and Suzaku are wonderful, but very confusing. Oh well... I think the only reasons I didn't cry were cuz I knew what was gonna happen, and I didn't have the sound on.
      -EJ Walker

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    3. EJ Walker . . .are you from LEGION? *squints suspiciously at name* Edge?

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    4. Yup! That's me! -waves at Annika-
      -EJ Walker

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    5. Ha, yes, I'm getting better at the "recognising people across websites" thing. :D

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    6. yup, I was trying to remember the title of that anime through most of the article. It's a mind-bender when you watch, and it doesn't improve when you are analyzing what they were thinking when after the end

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    7. Oh cool. Mind benders are always interesting.

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  9. So, correct me if I'm wrong, but if you have seen the anime Death Note, then I believe that Light Yagami could be considered an anti villain based off this description of Anti-Villains. He is another example of an anti-villain, I believe.

    If you have not seen the anime, then I'll try to explain it. Light is a regular student when he finds a notebook. And, when he writes a name in this notebook while coming up with a picture of this person in his head, said person will die. Well, Light uses this power to kill off all the criminals and all the people he feels are being unjust or are unworthy of living. So, he has good motives, but evil methods depending on your perspective of it.

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    1. I haven't seen it - is Light the protagonist? Or the antagonist? He certainly sounds like an anti-something, but which one he is depends on his plot role.

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    2. I mean, that kind of depends on your point of view. He's the antagonist to one character who later sort of becomes the protagonist, but he starts out as the protagonist.

      It's a little difficult to explain what he is for me...

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    3. Ooooh, one of those. I guess it would depend on the episode, then.

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    4. Light and dexter I would both consider anti-villians. They are the main characters but nether fit into an anti hero description at all. I disagree that the anti hero always = protagonist and that the anti villain always = antagonist. There are always acceptions, these two are definitely acceptions. Anti villians.

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    5. Also to add to the acceptions, I do t know if any of you have seen Dr . horrible ' s sing along blog. Dr . horrible is the main character and openly brags about being the villian, but he is definitely anti villian material. Once watching the whole story you see how misguided he is and what he his attempts to become a villian ultimately hurting everything he truly cares about.

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  10. Or, a more real-life anti-hero could potentially be Malcom X because of his method of reaching equality.

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    1. I feel so uncultured - I don't know who that is either. xD

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    2. In America during the civil rights movement for black people. He was similar to Martin Luther King jr if you know who that is, but he used violence instead of peace like Martin to get equality for black people.

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    3. Okay, I got it. Yeah, if real life were put into a novel he sounds like he'd be an anti-villain or anti-hero.

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  11. A great movie franchise to watch for more insight to these characters is Prophecy (1995-2005) starring Christopher Walken, Elias Koteas, Virginia Madsen, Eric Stoltz, and Viggo Mortensen.

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  12. Okay, so I just had a thought: Hans is an anti-villain, right? And Elsa is pretty much a anti-hero, right? So, if Hans had been the protagonist and Elsa had been the antagonist, then Hans would be an anti-hero and Elsa would be a anti-villain, right? Or are they both a mix of both?

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    1. No you've got it right! The main difference between anti-heroes and anti-villains is their plot role. :)

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  13. I love complex characters. Thomas Covenant from the Chronicles of Thomas Covenant by Stephen R. Donaldson was my first introduction to the anti-hero and I was so confused and intrigued by him. Now that I'm a mom, it's fun to see my 6 year old daughter's mind develop. Beauty and the Beast is her favorite movie and we've had lots of discussions about Beast. How he's bad and got cursed and locked up Belle's father, the way he treated people, his selfishness, etc...but then he transforms into the love interest and good guy. And we've had lots of discussions about Hans from Frozen too. While he lied to Anna and manipulated her, he truly cared for Arendale and doing right by those people (assuming/wanting it to be his) - handing out blankets and inviting freezing peasants into the castle. So he does do good things...but he's not a good guy.

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    1. That is the reason I love anti-heroes and anti-villains as well - they are often more accurate depictions of human nature. They are more complicated, more twisted, and more relatable. We were made multi-layered with the capacity for both good and evil so the anti-characters really show human nature more fully. :)

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  14. So...would you say an Anti-Villain can have a redemption arc? Yeah, it's a question about Hans. I honestly don't know what it is about him that makes me want to know more about his thoughts during Frozen and his backstory. (Ooh, I would love to see why his brothers ignored him) I wish I could post pictures in here cause there's this really interesting one I found of Hans' facial reactions after Elsa falls to the ice in grief. P.S. I'm also thinking of having an Anti-Villain in a story I currently have on hold.

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    1. I'd say redemption arcs all depend on the individual character and your plot. :) So yes, I think an anti-villain could easily have a redemption arc.

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  15. Hm, I quite like this new term, "anti-villain". It makes sense to me. Since anti-heroes are the not-quite-glowing-good members of the good side, why not use the same terminology for those not-quite-evil members of the villainous side? Especially since "anti-hero" really doesn't work for those characters who are most certainly villains of their stories. I should say "stories in which they appear", really, since the story technically belongs to the protagonist.
    Though I love a well-rounded hero (Captain America, Spiderman, Barry Allen in the TV show The Flash, Horatio Hornblower, etc.), my heart will melt over certain anti-heroes. My number one would be the protagonist of The Winter Prince by Elizabeth E. Wein. Another anti-hero love of mine is Hank Pym aka Ant-Man (he has several other superhero identities as well). He is such a conflicted character, poor guy. Always tries to be the hero, but somehow can't seem to overcome his demons. He tries though, he really does. For which I love him all the more.
    A favorite anti-villain of mine is The Winter Soldier from the second Captain America movie. And Annakin Skywalker. Though he starts out as a hero, becomes an anti-hero in the last two prequel movies (actually, he might be full villain by the end of the last prequel movie), a classic villain (black cape and all!) in A New Hope, but by Return of the Jedi, he definitely becomes an anti-villain. And I love him. He is such a conflicted character. <3

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    1. Oh goodness I love Anakin Skywalker. You're right; he's an incredibly complicated character and he breaks my heart. XD

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  16. I don't know how many people remember this show, but I think a good example of an anti-villain would be Jack McGee from the old television series The Incredible Hulk. His character wasn't necessary wholly villainous, though he was more than a bit shady. But the Hulk/Banner, definitely the protagonist, would best be described as an anti-hero (although a powerfully sympathetic one) and was constantly threatened by McGee, who was definitely the antagonist, and therefore McGee would be a classic anti-villain.

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  17. I had NOT heard of anti-villains before, so I'm glad I clicked on this from Pinterest! Thanks for an informative post. :)

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  18. Thanks for this interesting and informative piece, Annnika. I'm sure it'll prove helpful to me. :) --- Suzanne

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  19. Thanks, Annika for this informative and interesting piece. I'm sure it'll prove helpful. :) --- Suzanne

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  20. Like Margaret above, I'd never heard of an anti-villain either. It's interesting to think of a character that way.

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    1. I found the concept very interesting when I first heard of it. I might be too preoccupied with sorting characters into little boxes, lol. XD

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  21. Those characters have always been my favourite. The complex, multi-faceted protagonists who are hovering between good and evil. LOVE them. One of my characters is definitely an anti-villain, and even though he's a secondary character, his scenes are the most exciting for me to write. The anti-heroes and anti-villains are more interesting, more unpredictable and less boring than their perfect counterparts.

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    1. Agreed. And I think that comes with them just being more realistic, since no one is entirely good or evil. Everyone has at least a little bit of both . . . and now I sound as if I'm trying to quote Sirius Black. XD

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  22. Anti-hero's and anti-villains are alway such interesting characters! Thank you for the helpful article. A good example of an anti-villain is Count Girolamo Riario from the Da vinci's demons series. He has noble, religious motives, but his actions are really the ones of an old-fashioned villain. I highly recommend the da vinci's demons series! The characters are amazingly well-developped!

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    1. Oh I have never seen that! He sounds like an interesting character.

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