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Trope Overload: The Appeal of the Antihero

The lovable antiheroes of Cowboy Bebop, who do the right thing for the wrong reasons

Hi, everyone, this is a new series I’m tentatively calling Trope Overload. I am fascinated by the narrative devices we use to shape the stories we tell, and wanted to talk about some of my favorites here. It’s a bit of an experiment for me, so I’d love to get your feedback on whether you like this entry and would like to see more posts like this from me in the future. Thanks!

I’m a sucker for a great antihero. There’s something instantly satisfying about a character who blurs the line between good and evil, or who bucks the norms of polite society to save the day in their own way. And I’m far from the only one: from the wisecracking sociopath Deadpool to the ruthless drug lord Walter White (Breaking Bad), it seems anti-heroes have become all the rage in the past few decades. So I wanted to take a look at some of my favorite antiheroes, and examine what makes them so appealing (even though you really wouldn’t want to be friends with any of them!).

Broadly speaking, an antihero is any protagonist who lacks some or all of the traditional characteristics of a hero. While most “traditional” heroes are idealistic, selfless, and always do the right thing, antiheroes are usually cynical, selfish, and make morally questionable decisions. They usually have some sort of obvious character flaw, like a lack of empathy or an inability to make meaningful connections with others, that they must work to overcome as part of their character arc. They can work as a foil or rival to the main, more traditional hero, but are just as often the main protagonists in their own stories.

Image result for deku and bakugo
In My Hero Academia, the gifted but arrogant antihero Bakugo serves as a great foil to the more traditionally heroic Deku

Although we tend think of antiheroes in fiction as being a fairly recent development, they’ve actually been around for as long as people have been telling stories. Their popularity has waned and waxed over the course of history, often reflecting the changing values and realities of their time. Perhaps the most famous of all literary antiheroes is Hamlet, the brooding and misanthropic Prince of Denmark whose quest for revenge turns out to be his undoing. (Yes, I did just reference Shakespeare in a post that’s mostly about anime. I swear, I’m not trying to be pretentious.)

One of the most obvious draws of antiheroes is that they are often more interesting and relatable than more traditional, goody-two-shoes heroes. Even though we want to see our protagonists succeed and do the right thing, having a hero who is always perfect and never makes mistakes can get boring after a while. It can also make them feel unrealistic: we all have flaws, after all, so it can be hard to understand and relate to a character who has none at all. Antiheroes, by their nature of being flawed protagonists, can have a lot of depth, nuance, and character development that you don’t always get from a hero who lacks this sort of internal conflict.

Image result for kurapika
Kurapika (Hunter x Hunter) has a fantastic character arc, as his quest for revenge against the villainous Phantom Troupe threatens to consume him

Antiheroes can also be appealing to writers because they can fill a wide variety of roles in the story, and can have fascinating character arcs. Will they work to overcome their flaws and character deficits, or will they slide deep into despair or outright villainy? How strong is their moral code? Is their motivation based in justice and self-sacrifice, or something as dispassionate as cold, hard cash? There are so many different directions you can take an antihero’s story, and finding the right one can create a compelling character that audiences will never forget.

There are many different kinds of antiheroes that can show up over the course of the story, with varying degrees of morality for each of them. Some of the most popular types, whose names I’ve shamelessly stolen from TVTropes, are…

The Classical Antihero: An archetype that’s been around since Greek mythology, this character is a basically good person whose flaws and insecurities prevent them from being as heroic as they could be. They tend to be everyman characters who struggle with powerlessness (either physical or emotional), fear, and self-doubt. Often, their character arcs revolve around overcoming their own weaknesses as much as defeating the bad guys. Perhaps the most famous classical antihero in anime is Shinji Ikari from Neon Genesis Evangelion, a depressed teenager forced into heroics by his abusive father. Shinji’s story is not only about piloting the Eva and defeating aliens, but about overcoming his own self-doubt and learning to accept and love himself for who he is.

Image result for shinji ikari

The Knight in Sour Armor: A cynical jackass who still believes in doing the right thing. These characters may have started off as pure idealistic heroes, but the harsh reality of life has given them a huge chip on their shoulder. In a sense, their pessimism actually makes their heroics more noteworthy than that of traditional heroes: it takes a lot of personal strength to think that the world sucks and still try to change it for the better. Fullmetal Alchemist is full of these antiheroes, but the one I think fits the best is Olivier Armstrong: a badass four-star general, ruthless to both her subordinates and superiors, who nevertheless fights to bring equality and justice to her country.

Image result for olivier armstrong

The Pragmatic/Unscrupulous Hero: A bit more grey in terms of morality, this kind of hero has noble intentions, but will commit immoral acts to achieve their goals. They are often utilitarian, believing the ends justify the means, and their willingness to do whatever it takes to win often puts them at odds with the more “Lawful Good” traditional heroes. Kiritsugu Emiya from Fate/Zero is a perfect example of this in action: he truly wants to save humanity, but will mercilessly kill anyone who stands in his way. His actions force him into conflict with the more traditionally heroic Saber, even as they work together to win the wish-granting Holy Grail.

Image result for kiritsugu emiya

The Nominal Hero: While all the antiheroes described so far have had at least somewhat heroic intentions, this type is, well, a hero in name only. Their motivations can be as personal as revenge or as simple as making a quick buck, but they’re never for any lofty ideals of justice or doing the right thing. Often, these characters are only heroic because they stand in opposition to the villains. The big daddy of anime antiheroes, Vegeta from Dragon Ball Z, fits this trope to a T. Although he fights with the good guys for most of the series, he only really cares about becoming the strongest Saiyan and defeating Goku in a fight. His seemingly insatiable lust for power turns him into an outright villain in a few story arcs, and it’s not until he becomes closer to his family and realizes there is more to life than fighting that he becomes a true, unambiguous hero.

Image result for vegeta dbz

Who are some of your favorite antiheroes, in anime or otherwise, and what do you think makes them special? Let me know in the comments 🙂

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