Unscrupulous Hero

Not all fictional heroes are the sort of person you might expect to be a hero of a story. The idea that there is an "Ideal Hero" and there are "antiheroes" who deviate from the ideal has been around since classical antiquity if not earlier. Since then, writers have explored many types of antiheroes, each of which lack one or more traits of an Ideal Hero.

An Unscrupulous Hero is an antihero who is a step further down the slippery slope from the Knight in Sour Armor and Pragmatic Hero; while the former lacks the positive outlook and the latter the moral cleanliness of the Ideal Hero, this archetype combines and amplifies both, especially the lack of moral character part, while remaining A Lighter Shade of Grey than the antagonists.

Despite this, these heroes share one overriding heroic trait: unlike a Nominal Hero, they are heroes in the true sense of the word: when they have to take a stand on one side or another, they choose to fight for good for a morally positive reason, and aren't just helping the heroes for selfish reasons.

These characters tend to fall under two different categories:
  • They are usually defined by dark experiences that have made them cold and unforgiving, and due to the settings in which they exist, there will usually be no compunctions to using more extreme methods. They are as much about payback (or any assorted type of catharsis) as they are the greater good, and their targets will be deserving of it, more likely than not. You probably shouldn't expect them to be mindful of collateral damage, though.
  • They may be a little more selfish, but unlike a Nominal Hero, have a much stronger honor code that keeps them from becoming less sympathetic.

In terms of sympathy, personality, etc., these characters can vary widely. For some, their admirable motivation may be their only good trait; others may be highly sympathetic, having all the characteristics of a compelling Anti-Hero combined with the fact that they are willing to sacrifice for a good cause.

A heroic character on this part of the scale runs the risk of kicking one too many puppies and end up a Fallen Hero if they can't get over their demons. Often found in conjunction with Tragic Hero and Byronic Hero.

Compare with Knight Templar and Well-Intentioned Extremist. Compare and contrast with Nominal and Sociopathic Heroes (both of whom are more...well...sociopathic). And also compare and contrast with the Tautological Templar and Visionary Villain for villains who just think they're the good guys.


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    Anime and Manga 
  • Vino from Baccano! is one of the most quintessential examples, gruesomely killing and torturing unsympathetic characters throughout the show.
  • In the OVA of Dogs: Bullets & Carnage, the leads all have shades of the first type except for Badou who's closer to a cowardly Loveable Rogue. In the manga, they edge a little closer to Nominal Hero.
  • Kenshiro from the Fist of the North Star manga. Many people write him off as a compassionate messiah, but some seem to forget that he puts his own goals ahead of others and would only show concern towards friends and family (there are a few exceptions, but still...). The rest of the time he's The Stoic. Now he does have a strong sense of justice but he's definitely not a saint. And let's not get into how violent he is with the bad guys...
    • The manga version counts, but the anime version is a little less heroic even, since he's shown walking nonchalantly where atrocities are occurring whereas the former would run or at least arrive in time.
  • The protagonists of Hell Girl seem to be this at first, especially Hone-Onna. They've always gone after the Asshole Victim...well, until much later on that is, where they start being less restrained about who gets sent to hell.
  • Hellsing has Father Alexander Anderson, though he does have shades of a Nominal Hero. He mainly targets vampires and heathens, believing them to be an affront against God and danger to the innocents of the world. And he sometimes takes it a little too far with his Ax-Crazy attacks and Blood Knight beliefs, but he also adores children, acts like a surrogate father to his Iscariot followers, respects Integra's principles and Nerves of Steel attitude, and takes a stand against Maxwell when he starts killing the innocent survivors of Protestant England.
    • Another mention goes to Anderson's Iscariot followers, most of whom he raised himself. Compared to Maxwell and his fanatical Holy Crusaders, Heinkel, Yumie, and the rest of Iscariot are under Anderson's Even Antagonists Have Standards direct influence, which prevents them from committing similar atrocities against innocent but non-Catholic populations.
    • The TV series' version of the protagonist himself could qualify... until he Takes a Level in Jerkass near the end.
  • Reiji becomes this later on in Kurogane no Linebarrel.
    • In some ways, the protagonist himself also kinda fits.
  • In Death Note we have L, the Hero Antagonist to Light/Kira's Villain Protagonist. While L does try to capture Kira because he's a murderer, his main motivation is because he sees Kira as a challenge, and it's revealed that in general he only cares about cases he finds interesting, making him something of a Nominal Hero in this regard. Describing himself as "childish and hates losing," he is willing to resort to, among other things, kidnapping, torture, lying and invasion of privacy to get the job done. The series lampshades how Not So Different he and Light are from each other fairly often. Still, L only reserves his justice for people he sees as evil, and to be fair his accusations seem to always be correct. Moreover, while L does order the deaths of a few criminals to help further the investigation, these criminals were on death row anyway.
    • His successors Near and Mello are a mix of this and Nominal Hero.
  • Rurouni Kenshin's foil, Saito Hajime. Vicious verging on sadistic, believes Kenshin's optimism to be foolishly deluded, and yet is utterly relentless in punishing the wicked and doing what is right for his country. He also does (ahem) have shades of a Nominal Hero, though, as he's more of a Jerkass and sociopath than usual examples. The manga's Revenge Arc, though, makes him firmly the latter, considering what he did to Mumyoi.
  • Eren Jaeger from Attack on Titan.
  • Lelouch, exiled prince turned masked revolutionary from Code Geass, falls under this for most of the series, fighting for the freedom of the world from the Holy Britannian Empire but causing a lot of damage in the process... and dealing with a lot of issues.
  • Stocking from Panty & Stocking with Garterbelt falls into this category. While her attitude is largely the same as Panty, she's generally more levelheaded and shows more responsibility in missions than her. This is a major plot point in the last two episodes, where her efficiency causes her to be Put on a Bus. And the ending comes along and subverts this, with Stocking suddenly skewering Panty.
  • Ryuko from Kill la Kill. While her motives are self-serving, she's willing to help anyone if the Absurdly Powerful Student Council starts messing with them. This is actually an Exploited Trope, since both times she's done this, she gets screwed over by them. The first time, it was a student who tagged along with her and Mako for No Late Day who wanted to steal Senketsu from her. The second time, it was Nui Harime, who pretended to be bullied so she could get close to her and destroy Senketsu, whose parts were used to power up Satsuki's Mooks.

  • Rorschach from Watchmen is basically a psychotic nihilist who's lost all faith in humanity and yet, he'll still fight for his vision of justice. This is particularly evident in the story of Dr. Malcolm Long, who becomes "infected" with Rorschach's disorder after a Critical Psychoanalysis Failure: while he begins viewing the world as cold and cruel, he also feels compelled to stop injustice and abuse whenever he encounters it.
  • Disney Italy's Paperinik the Devilish Avenger has leanings toward this type of Anti-Hero. He is Donald's superhero (sort of) alter ego, but Donald initially created it to avenge himself against torts (real or imagined) he suffered, his main reason to fight criminals is that crime in general piss him off (assuming they didn't somehow target Donald or Paperinik in the first place), and the most light-hearted stories still have him doing things like sick a lynch mob on the Beagle Boys (they had organized a marathon with Paperinik's Secret Identity as the prize to empty Duckburg and sack it. Once he found out they didn't actually know his real identity, Paperinik lured the citizens back in town and had them catch the BB in the act).
  • Helena Bertinelli, the Huntress, is a multiple murderer who shows no real regret for any of the people she's killed, and once even cracked a joke after killing a teenager who had been possessed by an Evil Weapon and wasn't really responsible for his actions. Her teammates or other heroes regularly have to restrain her from killing people and do not always succeed. Nevertheless, she is on the side of the good guys.
  • Spider Jerusalem from Transmetropolitan. Cynical or not, and crazy though he might be, he's a journalist because he cares about the truth, and a savage beating from people who don't appreciate it won't make him see otherwise. Unscrupulous in that there is absolutely nothing he won't do to get to it, no matter what.
    • Really, nine out of ten of the characters Warren Ellis has ever created, if not Nominal Heroes, fall here. Most of his main characters follow the basic template of 'violent, cynical, and snarky chain-smokers who still possess moral codes'.
  • Depending on the Writer, John Constantine from Hellblazer could count. He's generally violent and anti-social, but when it's time, he'll stand up for most of the little people against the forces of heaven and hell.
    "He dances on the edge of the known like a crazy man, pitting himself against Heaven and the Pit, because he is John Constantine, and because he is alive."
    Dr Occult to Tim Hunter on John Constantine, "The Books of Magic"
    • Even on the best of days, though, he still could qualify for Unscrupulous status as he has zero scruples when fighting.
  • If he's not being written as a Nominal Hero, Namor tends to be this.
  • The Punisher kills criminals, and tends to be ruthlessly practical about how to do it.

  • James Bond in Licence to Kill, although he borders on Sociopathic Hero. As part of his Roaring Rampage of Revenge to take down drug lord Franz Sanchez and avenge Felix Leiter, he kills off quite a few bad guys in particularly terrible ways, like feeding someone to sharks and shoving another down a stone grinder.
    • He's more clearly this in Skyfall, where unlike most Nominal Hero incarnations of him, has heroic tendencies (objecting to abandoning another wounded agent, for example) while of course, still womanizing and having a merciless demeanor.
  • Sheriff Matt Morgan from Last Train From Gun Hill is simply trying to execute his duty to the law; however, he has no qualms about threatening his former friend's son, whom he's captured and holding for rape and murder, among other dirty tricks.
  • Hit Girl from Kick-Ass starts off a bit too ruthless to be this trope but in the end, fits, as almost all her victims are taken for granted to have at least been unsavory, if not evil.
    • Big Daddy to some extent as well, since he's basically a tragic, overly vengeful Batman Expy.
  • Captain Jack Sparrow in Pirates of the Caribbean: he will lie and reason with friends and foes alike if it means saving himself or gaining the upper hand in his Xanatos Gambit.
  • The Blues Brothers, especially Jake. They mean well enough as they just want to save the orphanage they grew up in, but they're not above scamming patrons, acting like jackasses and endangering bystanders more than they really need to.

  • The Dresden Files: Harry Dresden, despite being one of the best examples of Chronic Hero Syndrome you'll ever encounter, is not at all unwilling to get his hands dirty, and though he may have a My God, What Have I Done? afterwards, it doesn't stop him doing it again. This comes to a head in Changes when he agrees to become the Winter Knight in order to save his daughter, despite knowing that he would then be totally at the command of a manipulative and utterly ruthless Faerie Queen who could then make him do anything.
  • Despite being a straight up bad guy in the films, in the novel Denethor of The Lord of the Rings starts off as a wise ruler dedicated to protecting his kingdom, though he treats his allies with suspicion and verbally abuses his son. Eventually, however, the combined stress of Faramir's coma and his despair send him Jumping Off the Slippery Slope.
  • Mr. Slippery from Vernor Vinge's novella, True Names, is an out-and-out criminal hacker, in it for the fun, but when the chips are down, and the world needs saving, he's willing to save it. And not just because Federal agents have made him a deal he can't refuse—though that certainly removes any lingering doubts he might have had.
  • The Light Novel Fate/Zero gives us the adoptive father of Fate/stay night protagonist Shirou Emiya, Kiritsugu Emiya. Unlike most examples in this page he still has his moral character however it is how he channels it that makes him this.
  • Felix Harrowgate of Doctrine of Labyrinths is a wizard uses his powers to put the dead to rest, save a country from invasion, and take out Magitek machines before they can annihilate another country, all at considerable risk to himself. Unfortunately, he also says horribly cruel things for the sheer joy of it, repeatedly mind-rapes people including his own brother, and has a rage blackout in which he seriously crosses the line with an anonymous sex partner.
  • Thomas Cromwell is portrayed as this in Wolf Hall, with a very colourful past, and being quite willing to abuse the system to have his enemies executed.
  • Pocket in Christopher Moore's Pocket the Fool novels. He is deeply cynical, sarcastic and bitter due to his childhood as an orphan and generally being treated like a slave by his master King Lear. However he is protective of Cordelia whom he genuinely loves and has a sense of justice when it comes to other oppressed groups. That the latter also tends to go along with his acute sense of vengeance he finds very convenient.
  • In The Fire Rose, Jason Cameron is pretty amoral. To the extent that he's a good person, it's because he takes Cut Lex Luthor a Check and Pragmatic Villainy so far that they take him out of the "villain" sphere entirely; he's a philanthropist because that (used to) earn him street cred in his social circle, and because a well-fed proletariat work well and don't start riots. Likewise, he's known for fair business dealings because he doesn't need to do anything shady, but he doesn't especially care that his apprentice and agent gets his rocks off on rape and uses his magic to rig cockfights, except that they show him to be a complete tool and unfit to be a Master. At least he develops genuine feelings of love for Rose at the end.
  • Commander Sam Vimes from the Discworld series would be a textbook Ideal Hero except that, in his words, "in certain specific areas" (mostly fighting) he has no rules whatsoever. This is in stark contrast to his immediate superior, Lord Vetinari (an Antihero who takes whatever steps are necessary to protect the city), and his immediate subordinate, Captain Carrot (who is The Cape).
  • Conan the Barbarian. He's not shy of any activity where there is an opportunity for violence, wenches and loot. Theft, piracy, assassination, mercenary work, Conan will do it all. He never kills anybody who doesn't deserve it or isn't trying to kill him first, he keeps his word, and he will fight without pay for someone who engages his sympathies. Despite his string of casual romances with different women, he is quite respectful to all of them, and while he is happy to burn and pillage, rape is absolutely out of the question.

    Live-Action TV 
  • 24: Gives us Jack Bauer, Probably the most famous unscrupulous hero in popular culture.
  • Blake's 7: Avon probably averages out here, especially in series 1 and 3 where he's amoral enough to try and abandon Blake on a Hellhole planet but occasionally shows concern for the others, especially Cally. In series 2 he has enough Pet the Dog moments to push him closer to Good Is Not Nice, but by the final series the stress of maintaining a rebellion he wants nothing to do with turns him into a Nominal Hero.
  • Doctor Who: Can you believe that Doctor started like this? Yes. He's devoted to his grandaughter Susan and is disgusted by villains like the Daleks but aside from that his morals are loose at best, with his flaws ranging from pride and paranoia to outright moral cowardice in trying to abandon Barbara to die on Skaro rather than risk further exposure to radiation, as well as Ian and Barbara becoming his companions only after he trapped them within the Tardis against their will. But by the conclusion of the first three stories he gets over this.
  • Revolution: Miles Matheson after the blackout became this. He helped to start a dictatorship because he wanted to bring peace and order, as shown in flashbacks in episode 3. However, he became the Butcher of Baltimore, hurt Rachel (shown in flashbacks of episode 17), and handed Alec over to the Texans when Alec balked at assassinating the Texan president (shown in flashbacks of episode 14). He ended up leaving the Monroe Republic when Monroe went too far and Miles failed to assassinate him (elaborated on in the first season finale). He makes it clear to Charlie that he hurts people and he doesn't think twice about it. Later on, Charlie's influence causes him to become more of a Pragmatic Hero.
  • Veronica Mars: The title character's intent is always to catch the bad guy, but her methods can range from manipulating an officer in order to steal evidence or eavesdropping on therapy sessions. Her motivation is almost always revenge rather than justice. She certainly enjoys her Kick the Dog moments, but her targets are always REALLY terrible people so the audience doesn't flinch too much.
  • Tsukasa Kadoya, the main character of Kamen Rider Decade, is held in prophecy to be the Destroyer of Worlds, who will bring about an end to the Rider multiverse and kill all the Kamen Riders. He acts less "ultimate evil", however, and more "kind of a tool" - he will troll and endanger other people to find and defeat the bad guys of the fortnight, although he'll throw himself into the firing line as well. Much of the series' mystery is "Is Tsukasa a Jerk with a Heart of Gold, or actually the ultimate evil?"
  • Breaking Bad has Hank Schrader become one in Season 5B. He spends that entire season trying to bring Walter White down, who by this point has become a monster. However Hank's tactics to do so range from the morally questionable to downright illegal. He even at one point flat out says that, if a plan involving a cooperative Jesse should go wrong, that he doesn't care if Jesse gets killed.
  • Revenge: Emily Thorne/Amanda Clarke, true to form as an expy of the Count of Monte Cristo, sets out to get payback against the people responsible for supposedly the death of her father and the loss of her childhood. Ruthless as she is, most of her targets however are treacherous and indecent, particularly Big Bad Conrad Grayson who it turns out was part of the very terrorist ring Emily's father was accused of being in on, making her takedowns all the more karmic and satisfying. To her credit, Emily never kills on purpose outside of self defense, and ascends to a Knight in Sour Armor in season 4 after capping off her revenge on Victoria as she tries to make amends by living more honestly.

    Professional Wrestling 
  • The Rock is usually this type of hero, when portraying a Face. The basic characterization of The Rock is that his ego is completely out of control, and this trait remains no matter what "side" he's on. The Rock doesn't care about anything other than himself. The only things that change are whether or not he's willing earn his victory with his own wits and skill or willing to take cheap and easy path to a championship, and whether or not he cares about having the crowd on his side. However, both of these methods are also done to satisfy his ego; he does it just to prove he can do it.

    Tabletop Games 

  • Ammon Jerro of Neverwinter Nights 2 is literally Hell-bent on saving the Sword Coast from the King of Shadows at all costs. He goes so far as to stealing the most sacred relic of a extraplanar race of Holy warriors, making several infernal pacts with various demons and devils of the lower hells, killing any who oppose him (knowingly or not), abandoning any allies if they do not pull their weight, and even razing entire villages if it means he has a better shot at defeating the King of Shadows. He's even the Disk One Final Boss. That is until he joins you anyways.
  • Zevran from Dragon Age: Origins qualifies, if the player can gain his loyalty. He can be recruited after he tries to kill you; he swears to help you end the Blight if you spare him. He advocates the use of poison, rather enjoys his profession and is one of your more ''morally ambiguous'' companions. With that in mind, he is also fiercely loyal to your PC if you can get his affection high enough and is nowhere near as bad as his former employers, the Antivan Crows.
    • The player character can be played as an Unscrupulous Hero. You can lie, extort, steal and murder your way through Ferelden, all in the name of stopping the Blight (or For the Evulz, depending on the player). Given that you are the only thing standing between Thedas and total annihilation via darkspawn, anything goes.
  • Team Fortress 2's ruthless mercs (and long-suffering P.A. Miss Pauling) may not have consciences, but they are capable of human affection, which is more than their ironically named business rival, Gray Mann, can say...
  • The Third Street Saints have become this by the time Saints Row IV rolls around.
  • Sarah Kerrigan in StarCraft II. She's no longer the Villain Protagonist she was in Brood War, thanks to being freed from the Overmind's programming, but she's still capable of controlling a Horde of Alien Locusts by force and chooses to use them to kill Emperor Mengsk, mainly for personal revenge. She can be persuaded to give civilians a chance to get out of her way, but she really had to think about it first.
  • Midna in The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess may be this, especially at the beginning. Even when she had no sympathy for those who lived in the light, she still fought for a righteous cause. She loves the people under her rule and wanted to save them. Plus, her dispassion for the people of Hyrule is no different from a government's lack of interests in another nation's politics. She may not have cared about saving the world of light (at the time) but she sure as hell didn't want to worsen the situation either.
  • Castlevania: Lords of Shadow 2 is mainly about Dracula's development from a Nominal Hero, who is only 'good' because he's fighting SATAN, into one of these (kinda). Admittedly not much of a jump, as although he does get some Pet the Dog moments regarding his family, he never stops being utterly ruthless, and the mountain of tragedy he's gone through over the centuries never leaves him entirely. The main development is that while his desire for vengeance on Satan and Zobek certainly remains at the forefront of his motivations, it becomes clear as the game goes on he really just wants to be at peace with his family, and in the end, Marie and Alucard forgive him and help him find his peace.
  • In Final Fantasy Tactics: Delita is an embodiment of this trope, also Izlude may be taken into account after the events in Orbonne Monastery.


    Web Originals 
  • Worm gives us Armsmaster, who arranges the death of multiple "villains", including a fifteen-year-old girl he knew to be The Mole, in order to give himself a chance to defeat Leviathan in a one-on-one fight.

    Western Animation