"There is nothing with which every man is so afraid as getting to know how enormously much he is capable of doing and becoming."
— Søren Kierkegaard, father of existentialism
Existentialism is the response to the soul-crushingly fatalistic, morally relativistic, Darkness-Induced Audience Apathy-fostering worldview of Nihilism. Nihilism (a tragic consequence of the scientific scepticism of the Enlightenment) deconstructs and rejects all ethics, ideals and meanings in life as meaningless unproven lies (e.g., science can't differentiate which morality exists and which is propaganda). However, existentialism on the other hand embraces this subjectivity. The existentialist agrees that "meaning" is an empty word, our life sucks and there's nothing we can do about it. However, they also point out that each individual can have the choice to make the most out of each hour of their empty lives-those who choose to spend it being bored, following others, wangsting endlessly, adhering to hedonism or For the Evulz, are wasting it.
Existentialism often advocates individuality and involves character tropes such as having a personal raison d'être (reason for existence), Be Yourself, Desperately Looking for a Purpose in Life, I Am What I Am, living out your Goal in Life, Earn Your Happy Ending, and sometimes moments of You Are Not Alone. This gives a world-of-cardboard/Patrick Stewart Speechto the nihilists and reconstructs the "meaning in life" concept.
The term ExistentialAngst is even coined to describe the sudden feeling of Quick Sandbox it gave them, especially if they had just abandoned the Freedom from Choice provided by both religion and social peer pressure.
Most existentialist thinkers, such as Jean-Paul Sartre and Friedrich Nietzsche, are atheists. This being said, some existentialist thinkers have incorporated religion into their thinking and philosophies (for example Søren Kierkegaard, who is considered to be the father of existentialism, incorporates his Christian religious beliefs into his existentialist thinking).
Existentialist character types include The Anti-Nihilist and The Übermensch (the extreme Blue And Orange version). The Knight in Sour Armor or Determined Defeatist have some elements of this.
While existential motifs are Older than You Think, Søren Kierkegaard, Fyodor Dostoevsky, Leo Tolstoy and Friedrich Nietzsche foreshadowed in the 19th century some of what would be the defining characteristics of the philosophy, although they didn't know each other and the philosophy was unnamed. Sartre himself went further, citing Jesus's words on the cross in the Gospel of Matthew note "My God! My God! Why have you forsaken me?" . The term "existentialism" seems to have been coined by the French philosopher Gabriel Marcel. It gained popularity in the early 1940s around the time of the Modernist movement (amidst incomprehensible scientific discoveries that inspired Lovecraftian Fiction, and of course the horrors of World War II, which contributed to further popularity of Angst in the arts), when Jean-Paul Sartre codified existential philosophy with three words: "Existence precedes essence." It was the reverse of most previous philosophical thought, which held that the essence (soul, purpose, meaning) of a thing came first. Existentialism coevolved with, and takes tropes and inspirations from, the artistic movement of Post Modernism, which dissolves the boundary between life and art and reality and fiction. Both are connected by the philosophy that life is art, and you can live your life as your own creative art.
Existentialism however had a very serious and political edge as well, which also reflected and affected the arts. Sartre noted that people who didn't take responsibility and live their life as they feel, and continued to kowtow to either family pressure, Church dogmas or a party line without thinking and challenging it for themselves were living in "bad faith" and that even people in exceptionally difficult situations had to choose and decide how best to live their lives and take a stand and be Neutral No Longer and/or Take a Third Option. Everyone is "condemned to be free" and in the end, people have to find out What You Are in the Dark of their own conscience and create an identity separate from their gender, sexuality, family, religion, political persuasion and nationality. This notion of radical freedom was needless to say very appealing for the generation of The Sixties, in France, England, America and around the world.
You'll find that many of the people held up as examples of existentialism indignantly claimed that they weren't-probably a side-effect of the fact that nonconformity is one of the school's main tenets ("Once you label me, you negate me" is a famous line of Kierkegaard's).
The Other Wikihas an article and analysis on the subject. Related to Absurdism, Postmodernism, Romanticism and Individualism.
Existentialism in fiction / Works with some Existential elements:
chapter 85 Only the me who is alive is definitely here. Will I be murdered or die a dog's death? How I die and how I live are choices only I can make. Only I can decide. Isn't it the greatest? Doesn't it make you damn excited?
Cowboy Bebop. Spike Spiegel states that in his youth he didn't care about dying, which made him a fearless hitman for The Syndicate. Then he fell in love with a girl named Julia and felt like wanting to live for the first time. He's contrasted with Vicious who still sticks to a nihilistic world view. When Spike gets ready to confront Vicious in the Series Finale he says he isn't going there to die but to find out if he was ever alive.
Ghost in the Shell In particular the two Mamoru Oshii movies deal with machine intelligence determining its own fate and nature against the will of its creators.
Kino's Journey: The eponymous traveller is on a journey that has no destination and with "the world is not beautiful, therefore it is" as a motto.
Neon Genesis Evangelion: Several of the involved factions struggle for the power to redefine what it means to be human, but even more so the original series concludes with protagonist Shinji coming to terms with his nihilistic self-loathing.
Baccano!'s primary theme is that, while the world might be a big ball of senseless chaos (hence the series' namenote "Ruckus" in Italian), that doesn't mean you can't pull subjective meaning out of it.
Naruto deals a lot with existentialist themes, as well as other philosophy topics. The title character himself could even be considered a full-blown Kierkegaardian Knight of Faith as his creed is that he will never give up and that he will achieve seemingly impossible ambitions through sheer hard work and belief. Case in point, early on promises that he will become Hokage one day even if he never rises above Genin, ("low ninja", the lowest ninja rank)- sure enough, three years later he is indeed still a Genin while everyone else he knows from his class is Chuunin ("middle ninja") or higher, yet he is also one of the most powerful ninja alive and several characters- including the current Hokage herself and even her dead predecessors consider him a shoe-in for the role.
The first major villain, Zabuza, makes a point of saying that ninja- and evil ninja, like him- try to become something other than human; a common theme amongst later villains is taking this idea literally, as several attempt to transcend their humanity in various ways, both ethically (eg. severing all bonds to clan and country, or viewing godhood as a way of looking at the world) and physically (eg. experimenting on themselves, turning themselves into living puppets etc.). Many characters, hero and villain, could be considered wannabe or actual Ubermenschen.
Common themes in the series include loneliness, isolation, alienation and despair, with Naruto himself and others like Gaara and Sasuke experiencing real, serious loneliness and pain due to their miserable childhoods and horrible traumatic experiences. Characters like Neji discuss determinism and free will and are portrayed as fatalists, and the story doesn't shy from the fact that all of these characters are basically child soldiers (current or grown-up) with all that implies.
Black Bullet. Yes, just because you live in a shitty world where the Gastrea virus have killed off a good portion of humanity and societies treating the cursed children as total trash, doesn't necessarily mean that you should just fall over and die, you do have some purpose to live. Case in point, when Rentaro lost his right leg, right arm, and left eye 10 years ago for saving Kisara's life, he was rushed to the hospital and was given two sheets of paper. One was a death certificate, the other was a contract that will allow Rentaro to live with Artificial Limbs and become a mechanized soldier through the "New Human Creation Plan." Encouraged by the words of his foster father ("If you don't want to die, live"), Rentaro decided to pick the latter and signed up for the "New Human Creation Plan;" feeling that he has a purpose in life.
The existentialist themes are highlighted further at the end of volume 6. While Kisara and Rentaro do not agree with their ethics and their purpose of life note Kisara's dedication of revenge on her Tendo family lineage and Rentaro's utilitarian ethics of "sacrificing his own happiness for the sake of others", they accept each other as whothey are and prefer not to stop each other as they see their reason for their existence to be subjective.
Watchmen: Few people are the heroes of anything other than their own stories, and Dr. Manhattan, the closest thing to God in this world, has grown aloof from humanity even as the apocalypse looms. Yet he later comes to recognize that the value of life lies in the sheer improbability of existence in the first place.
Rorschach decides that, instead of abandoning rules and discipline due to a nihilistic outlook, his rules and principles are all the more important in a world that has no more meaning other than the one we impose on it.
A more impressive example is the non-superhero character, Dr. Malcolm Long who has a crisis after serving as Rorsharch's prison psychologist which makes him question his middle-class lifestyle and belief that his profession is actually having a wider difference. In the end, he admits that even if there is no reward and even if his angst is upsetting his marriage, helping people in whatever small way you can is what matters most.
In Will Eisner's A life force the major character, a Jewish carpenter has just been told that the study hall he built for a local synagogue won't be named after him but a rich benefactor, making him feel like the four years he spent building it are wasted. On the way home he has a heart attack. He sees a cockroach on the sidewalk struggling to survive and figures they are Not So Different, but also starts to wonder why he wants to live in the first place. He figures that either God created man or man created God but in either case the meaning of life is anyone's guess. Eventually he concludes that staying alive is the only thing everyone agrees on and manages to do that. Towards the end of the story he divorces his overbearing wife and starts a relationship with a New Old Flame he genuinely loves because he doesn't want to be a cockroach who's only concerned with staying alive.
Played with in Fight Club. The plot revolves around a white collar worker having some mental issues, derived from his existential crisis because he finds that he can't find any purpose in his existence.
"We are God's unwanted children? So be it!" Tyler
La Jetée has probably one of the most beautiful quotes ever to describe this philosophy: "Time builds itself painlessly around them. Their only landmarks are the flavor of the moment they are living and the markings on the walls."
Rango: "No man can walk out on his own story." While this may sound like an argument for predestination, the film itself is about how an individual dropped into a harsh and confusing world discovers that only he can answer the question, “Who am I?”
The most terrifying fact about the universe is not that it is hostile but that it is indifferent. But if we can come to terms with this indifference, then our existence as a species can have genuine meaning. However vast the darkness, we must supply our own light.
Nausea: The book holds a dark, melancholic take on Exis' as Antoine, the protagonist, uses this philosophy to avoid the darkness he sees and feels as the eponymous title suggests.
The Stranger: This novella is often cited as an example. Albert Camus denied this, but it's worth noting that he became commonly known as the "godfather of existentialism". The book itself could be labeled as Absurdist or Nihilist; either that or it was just a character study of a psychopath.
The Unbearable Lightness Of Being: The book actually opens with a contemplation on Nietzsche's concept of "eternal return" (which is then refuted).
"I have known many gods. He who denies them is as blind as he who trusts them too deeply. I seek not beyond death. It may be the blackness averred by the Nemedian skeptics, or Crom's realm of ice and cloud, or the snowy plains and vaulted halls of the Nordheimer's Valhalla. I know not, nor do I care. Let me live deep while I live; let me know the rich juices of red meat and stinging wine on my palate, the hot embrace of white arms, the mad exultation of battle when the blue blades flame and crimson, and I am content. Let teachers and philosophers brood over questions of reality and illusion. I know this: if life is illusion, then I am no less an illusion, and being thus, the illusion is real to me. I live, I burn with life, I love, I slay, and am content."
Live Action TV
On Red Dwarf the crew members encounter the Inquisitor, a Mechanoid who has seen the end of existence and come to the conclusion that there is no God. He travels through time to demand from every creature that they justify their existence. Turns out everybody he judges is judged by themselves.
Rimmer: Everybody is judged by their own selves? Inquisitor(as Rimmer): It's a bit metaphysical but it's the only fair way.
With the ironic result that, of the four of them, the two who are found innocent are the egomaniacal Cat and Rimmer, who refuses to accept any blame for his many faults. So the ones who are condemned are the unselfish Kryten and generally decent guy Lister, because they actually hold themselves to a higher standard and recognize that they have failed to live up to it. So ultimately, the Inquisitor's crusade is eliminating nice people and leaving the universe filled with jerks.
Comedian Kevin Bridges did a bit about how God created the universe, but 'pissed off' because he had other properties to tend to. Humanity's only response to a godless world is to be like a teenager having a party when his parents are away for the weekend. At a wild party it's a given you'll get roughed up a bit.
Planescape: Living next door to angels and demons and being able to visit gods and meet them in person, the people of Sigil have long given up on religion and the city is dominated by several philosophical factions that seek to find meaning in existence.
Assassin's Creed: There is no God. There is no Devil. There are only Flawed Humans, the children of flawed Precursors. So if we wish to live in peace, prosperity and freedom, we must build a civilisation that permits those things.
Mass Effect: While rarely directly concerning itself with philosophy, the solution to basically every problem Shepard helps solve is to teach the involved parties to determine their own fates and overcome prejudices that prevented a peaceful compromise.