An anti-hero/ine is a central character in a story who is not a villain but is also not noble, not magnanimous, not successful, not special, not adequate and, especially, not heroic.
I got the above by distilling the essence of the entry in the Oxford Dictionary of Literary Terms, but actually I prefer this definition from Wikipedia:
An antihero or antiheroine is a central character in a story who lacks conventional heroic qualities and attributes such as idealism, courage and morality. Although antiheroes may sometimes perform actions that are morally correct, it is not always for the right reasons, often acting primarily out of self-interest or in ways that defy conventional ethical codes.
The reason I prefer the latter is that the former makes no mention of the good that anti-hero/ine’s can do and the latter alludes to this, albeit tangentially.
I’m thinking of Jack Reacher, a character created by Lee Child who basically goes around righting what he sees as wrongs (the reader, crucially in terms of book sales, tends to agree with his judgement) by murdering people. In his defence (if that’s possible), he usually tries to walk away, but someone hits him (or something), which activates his reptilian brain fight response to fatal effect.
I’m thinking of every single Clint Eastwood movie I can remember. The most famous is probably The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. Difficult to tell which one of these titular characters ‘the man with no name’ is, but no matter; he’s the one that kills all the bad guys while Ennio Morricone warbles away in the background. It’s odd to think that people like this have no morals to speak of, but are still seen as ‘doing the right thing’.
I’m thinking of Patrick Jane: the rogue consultant in The Mentalist, who makes no bones of the fact that he wants to kill the person (Red John) who murdered his wife and daughter and who has been teasing him about it ever since. Although Jane has a pleasant demeanour and skills aplenty, he would still (in my eyes at least) be considered an anti-hero because he has an immoral purpose (killing).
I think that Brian A. Kinnaird (Ph.D.) comes close to an understanding of the dynamic behind the anti-hero/ine when he asks: is there a goodness of purpose? He argues that the otherwise unexceptional people who exact their own brand of justice by taking matters into their own hands are acting on the old testament commandment: ‘an eye for an eye’. They seek to restore harmony through vengeance and suffering. With this in mind, maybe we need to see the widespread popularity of anti-hero/ine traits as being an opportunity for us to personally examine our own ethical boundaries. What do you think?