Throughout history, storytellers, playwrights and writers of all kinds have woven tales of terrible deeds, tragedies, courage, and conquering. In each case, the story has a main character, sometimes called a protagonist. The main character is also often referred to as the hero or heroine of the story, particularly if the character possesses a nature that is idealized or super-human in positive attributes. When the main character is deeply flawed, however, lacking in the attributes that people most often associate with heroism, he or she becomes an anti-hero.
Heroes face danger for the sake of protecting or saving others with little thought to themselves. Action movies often feature a classic hero or heroine who must risk all to beat the odds and achieve an objective that serves others as much or more than it serves the hero. In many cases, the hero volunteers through sense of duty, while at other times, he or she rises to the occasion when put in a situation that calls for action.
The anti-hero is often a reluctant hero who does not consider himself capable of accomplishing the goal. He might be selfish, addicted, corrupt, sullen, or disaffected. By the end of the journey, he typically transforms into a fuller, happier, or more complete person due to the struggles he endures. In many cases, the anti-hero dies at the end of the story, even while overcoming his faults.
Examples of classic heroes are seen all through early Westerns, embodied in actors like the late John Wayne, and include the he-man with manners and a predictable moral code. Keanu Reeves played a more modernized classic hero in Speed, a hotshot cop (Officer Jack Traven) who went after bad guy Dennis Hopper (Howard Payne) unflinchingly.
Anti-heroes are many, from Thelma and Louise, to Lt. Ellen Ripley of Alien, to Rocky Balboa of Rocky. Television also has its share, including the acerbic Dr. Gregory House from House, and the emotionally fractured Meredith of Grey’s Anatomy. Perhaps the best example is Dexter, the likeable blood-spatter expert for the Miami PD who also happens to be a serial killer ... but kills bad guys only. Here we have hero and villain rolled into one package.
The moral complexity of the anti-hero causes the audience to question the limits of its own moral integrity. This character often challenges people's willingness to extend themselves beyond comfortable boundaries to see life from a point of view that is perhaps more similar to their own in many ways than the classic hero who is beyond reproach. By delving into character, people delve into their own insecurities and hopes that, with all of their personal flaws and shortcomings, they too will be able to rise above any challenges and end victoriously.