Ethics of the Anti-hero

Morality and ethics play a key part in differentiating heroes from anti-heroes.

Legendary murderess Bonnie Parker, portrayed by Faye Dunaway in the iconoclastic 1967 Bonnie and Clyde. Image courtesy Warner Bros.

Jessica Page Morrell, the author of Bullies, Bastards & Bitches: How to Write the Bad Guys of Fiction, offers comparisons between the hero and the anti-hero, and on which opposing sides of morality they can be found. Morrell offers a much more nuanced way of conceptualizing the hero/anti-hero split than good/bad, black/white.

  • A hero is an idealist.
  • An anti-hero is a realist.
  • A hero has a conventional moral code.
  • An anti-hero has a moral code that is quirky and individual.
  • A hero is somehow extraordinary.
  • An anti-hero can be ordinary.
  • A hero is always proactive and striving.
  • An anti-hero can be passive.
  • A hero is often decisive.
  • An anti-hero can be indecisive or pushed into action against their will.
  • A hero is a modern version of a knight in shining armor.
  • An anti-hero can be a tarnished knight, and sometimes a criminal.
  • A hero succeeds at their ultimate goals, unless the story is a tragedy.
  • An anti-hero might fail in a tragedy, but in other stories they might be redeemed by the story’s events, or they might remain largely unchanged, including being immoral.
  • A hero is motivated by virtues, morals, a higher calling, pure intentions, and love for a specific person or humanity.
  • An anti-hero can be motivated by a more primitive, lower nature, including greed or lust, through much of the story, but they can sometimes be redeemed and answer a higher calling near the end.
  • A hero (usually when they are the star of the story in genre fiction, such as Westerns) concludes the story on an upward arc, meaning they’ve overcome something from within or have learned a valuable lesson in the story.
  • An anti-hero can appear in mainstream or genre fiction, and the conclusion will not always find him changed, especially if he’s a character in a series.
  • A hero simply is a “good guy”, the type of character the reader was taught to cheer for since childhood.
  • An anti-hero can be a “bad guy” in manner and speech. They can cuss, drink to excess, talk down to others, and back up their threats with fists or a gun, yet the reader somehow sympathizes with or genuinely likes them and cheers them on.

These are just general comparisons that you can use to further develop your anti-hero. Playing with these comparisons allows you to also craft the story around them by forcing the anti-hero to face conflicts that you conjure, which are inspired by the various sides of morality that anti-heroes travel in between.

Pages: 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15