The Antihero! Enemies-to-lovers! The Final Girl! We love classic tropes around here but often wonder from whence they came. That’s where this column, The Origin of Tropes, comes in. In this edition, we’ll explore the history of one of the classics — the antihero.

What Is an Antihero?

First, a definition:

antihero (n.)

: a protagonist or notable figure who is conspicuously lacking in heroic qualities Merriam-Webster

The word is said to date back to 1714. Then, Denis Diderot used the term in his 1761 work, Rameau’s Nephew. Antihero is a compound of two words of Greek origin: “anti” and “hero,” which comes from “hērōs” through French. Though antihero has a straightforward dictionary definition and etymology, its common usage is more muddled.

First, let’s talk about what an antihero is not. Antiheroes aren’t villain protagonists — those are main characters who are the “bad guys.” Think The Godfather or A Clockwork Orange. They’re motivated to do wrong but sure are fascinating to watch. 

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Then, there’s an anti-villain, a baddie who does awful things with good intentions (Thanos, for example). In contrast, an antihero does good, but they don’t have classic heroic traits or motives. That’s in classic literature, anyway. Nowadays, an antihero can mean any hero who isn’t super cool or may have unorthodox means of achieving their goals. 

It’s still not always that easy to discern, though. Loki, for example, could be any of these three, depending on which piece of media you’re viewing. Which do you think he is?

The First Antiheroes

Even though the word only dates back 300 years, antiheroes date back to ancient storytelling. From Zeus to Heracles to Medea, they were prevalent in ancient Greek mythology. The famous Anansi of West African folklore is another perfect example of an antihero. As is China’s Nezha. These characters are all thousands of years old. And though Don Quixote and Hamlet‘s eponymous antiheroes are only a few hundred years old, they still predate the word. 

It’s said the first US American (literary) antihero was Huckleberry Finn.

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Why Do We Love Them?

According to Psychology Today, antiheroes are a safe way for audiences to explore our darker impulses. These characters are relatable. They’re the “good guys” but still deeply flawed. And in many cases, they are complex with tragic backstories. Frankly, besides being boring, Canon Sues can be annoying.

Of course, some question whether it’s healthy to root for people with questionable morals, but as with many things, the answer likely lies in moderation.

There you have it, the somewhat convoluted origin story of the antihero trope. Did you learn anything new? Which trope should we tackle next? Let us know in the comments below! 

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