Literary Term: Antihero

Teaching antihero with secondary students? Follow these guidelines for a safe and fun class discussion.

Teaching the literary term ‘antihero’ is a favorite of mine. It’s everything that high school students love – weird, against the grain, out of the ordinary, tricky, and oftentimes, badly behaved.

Teaching the antihero can be tricky – it goes against the norm and students may not initially see a character as the antihero. Some of my best class discussions with literature have surrounded what makes a character an antihero and if they cross over to antagonist.

Because an antihero is such an inappropriate character, be intentional in your class discussion.

Be intentional in your class discussion about antihero - have school appropriate examples and be ready to discuss some shady characters!

Start with literature.

I begin talking about Macbeth. Not all students have read that play and don’t understand him. I start with a “clean” and appropriate example. I summarize why Macbeth is an antihero.

You could start with other examples from your favorite literature.

Ask students for examples.

In casual conversation with students, or in attempts at guiding them in understanding literature, I often rely on examples from pop culture. If students can understand antihero in a movie or television show, they can hopefully apply the idea in literature.

When teaching antihero, students will mention the most famous and controversial character – Walter White from “Breaking Bad.” Most of my students have seen “Breaking Bad” and if they haven’t, the show has become a part of our culture. Students know the basic premise – that White was a good guy, a teacher, and became an enormously terrible guy. What makes him an antihero is that the audience cheers for him, wants him to win even. We shouldn’t, though. Walter White ends up the worst kind of person.

Students often remark that they like Walter White and they know they shouldn’t! That is the heart of a good antihero. This takes balance to teach: the show is not school appropriate, but if I mention “antihero,” Walter White is the example most students consider. I don’t bring up the example, but when students do, I explicitly state that we will not discuss his actions.

Bring it back to literature.

I bring the topic back to literature – Mr. Gatsby. Antihero is a literary term in The Great Gatsby -for Jay. Jay, like Walter, runs an illegal business which funds a lifestyle. Both men feel that life has cheated them, and find satisfaction in thinking outside the standard job choices.

One aspect I’ve worried about is giving students a difficult example. Walter White is normally the guy; he’s the ultimate bad guy, after all. I often allow students to ask me if a character is an example, and direct the conversation from there.

What antiheroes do you find yourself teaching? Do you find this a challenging class discussion?