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Unscrupulous Hero

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"I am ready to return, but understand, I shall use undreamed-of measures to conquer the evil."

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 "Anti-Heroes" 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 lacks one or more traits of an Ideal Hero.

An Unscrupulous Hero is an Anti-Hero who is a step further down the slippery slope from the Knight in Sour Armor and Pragmatic Hero; where 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 ending up a Fallen Hero if he can't get over his 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). 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 & Manga 
  • Eren Yaeger from Attack on Titan. He will go to any lengths executing his master plan and he will slaughter innocents without compunction.
  • 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.
  • 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 similar he and Light are to 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 successor Near is a mix of this and Nominal Hero.
  • 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.
  • Piccolo shows definite shades of this in Dragon Ball Z, including blowing up the moon to stop Vegeta and Nappa from being able to transform into Great Apes and distracting Super Buu by telling him to kill everyone on Earth so that he could buy time for Trunks and Goten to train. (Granted, he did the latter knowing that they could be revived later on, and is horrified when Super Buu, instead of taking his time doing it, just blasts humanity all at once just to spite Piccolo.)
  • Senku from Dr. STONE has no problem playing dirty and manipulating people if it gets him what he wants. His allies frequently remark he comes off as more of a villainous Mad Scientist than any kind of hero. However, his goal — to restore humanity to its former technological glory After the End — is incredibly noble.
  • Hellsing:
    • 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. To be fair, every other vampire outside of the two employed by Hellsing are Always Chaotic Evil.
    • 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.
  • 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. By the end of the series, however, she becomes more of a regular hero, following an incident where her unscrupulous qualities directly lead to her becoming Brainwashed and Crazy by her Big Bad mother.
  • Reiji becomes this later on in Linebarrels of Iron. In some ways, the protagonist himself also kinda fits.
  • The titular character from Misappropriation Investigator Nakabo Rintaro gets a lot of leeway from the Misappropriation Enforcement Act that enables his job. He's authorized to negotiate plea bargains, which are otherwise illegal in Japanese courts, and blackmails along with threats are among his favorite tools.
  • Mikazuki Augus from Mobile Suit Gundam: Iron-Blooded Orphans is a Child Soldier who has no qualms about killing, does not have the concept of mercy when it comes to disposing of enemies when they're still speaking, often gives vulgar nicknames to enemies who manage to survive his encounters, and remains in an unnervingly calm mood all the time. Orga is the only one making sure Mikazuki is a hero, but whenever he enters the battlefield, it's clear that the situation can no longer be solved peacefully.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • Ran from Texhnolyze is almost completely apathetic towards the lives of individual citizens of Lux and has no problems with being cruelly honest about the horrible things about to happen. However, she does regret all of this, wants to change it but can't, and is really overwhelmed by being an 11-year-old girl.
  • Shinji Weber of Yu-Gi-Oh! ARC-V. He's part of the Commons, who are the poor, oppressed people in a class-based society. However, while he does seek justice for the oppressed people, he also wants to see all Tops punished, including innocent people who just happen to benefit from the system. He uses his time in the Tournament Arc to incite a class war, and later starts riots. He also has no problem throwing innocent people under the bus to further his own agenda and even uses Yuzu's "death" to prop her up as a martyr for his own cause, despite the fact that she wanted peace between the classes.

    Comic Books 
  • Batman:
    • 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.
    • Jason Todd, a.k.a. Red Hood, formerly the second Robin. He's right on that line between a very unscrupulous hero and a fairly scrupulous villain. Like Huntress, he's happy to kill criminals as a first resort, but (depending on the adaptation) he also believes that the best possible outcome, since ending crime for good is impossible, is for him or someone like him to take over the underworld and regulate it.
  • Disney Ducks Comic Universe: 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 sic 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). His Paperinik New Adventures incarnation takes it a step further, as the general more mature tone of the comic means that he's a lot more willing to resort to non-comedic violence. Perhaps the most extreme examples is that time he knowingly helped someone commit genocide against an Always Chaotic Evil alien empire.
  • 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. Even on the best of days, though, he still could qualify for Unscrupulous status as he has zero scruples when fighting.
    Dr Occult: 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.
  • Horizon Zero Dawn: When Erend overheard Dervahl's plan to kill Avad and the rest of his family when his usefulness runs its course, Ersa tries to kill him and has his cohorts Asera and Korl arrested before it ever comes to that, acting cruelly to prevent their plan from being sabotaged.
  • The Punisher: Frank Castle tries not to hurt innocents, but there's a long, long list of non-innocent people he's killed in various messy ways, usually involving whatever guns he can get his hands on. His way of telling the world to put his dead family back in the ground after a mobster dug them up and urinated on them was to grab every gun he owned and see how much of a dent in the local criminal population he could make.
  • The Shadow is usually this. He'll not only kill criminals regardless of the immediate threat but laugh madly while gunning them down. Then he'll do things like intimidating civilians into serving his cause. His wealthy alter ego? He's actually impersonating someone else he sent on an indefinite vacation. (To be fair, some adaptations suggest that the guy was cool with it.)
  • Sub-Mariner: If he's not being written as a Nominal Hero, Namor tends to be this.
  • Transformers:
    • The Transformers (IDW): Prowl is very much an ends-justify-the-means kind of character who very occasionally does more heroic things, but tends not to exempt himself from the list of "acceptable casualties" and does want good results in the end. In Sins of the Wreckers his old partner Tarantulas implies that Prowl has been in a cycle of doing morally questionable things for the greater good, realising he's crossed a line, working to better himself, hitting a setback and falling back into old ways for four million years.
    • The Transformers: Last Stand of the Wreckers: The Wreckers go out of their way to recruit these. They'll use war crime bullets by the magazine, engage in any amount of brutality, recruit thugs and murderers, take advantage of people with mental illnesses like poor Pyro...but ultimately, a lot of the missions they take on (not all, but a lot) do need to be done to prevent the Decepticons from killing lots and lots of people, and the Wreckers are willing to take considerable casualties in order to carry them out.
    • The Transformers: More than Meets the Eye: Whirl is a borderline Robotic Psychopath with a fine line in Comedic Sociopathy, but he also has a surprisingly noble streak buried under the fury, which occasionally comes out to help other members of Team Rodimus. Of note, he's able to open one of the Matrices of Leadership that Rung/Primus creates, despite the morality lock.
  • 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.
  • Stephanie in Über is an Allied scientist that worked as a double agent with the Nazis to develop the titular super-soldier project. She had to commit sickening atrocities and horrifying human experiments to preserve her cover and provide the Allies a fighting chance. Even though she is devoted to defeating the Nazis by any means, she feels great shame and guilt over her actions.
  • 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.

    Fan Works 
  • Post-Winter Soldier Bucky Barnes in Ain't No Grave. Seventy years as one of the world's deadliest assassins made him both very good at violence and extremely desensitized to it, and seventy years of torture and dehumanization by Hydra left him with a lot of pent-up rage once he got back enough of a sense of self to realize what had been done to him, so his crimefighting efforts tend to be pretty brutal. However, he's a pretty nice guy — when his brain's cooperating — to his friends and innocent bystanders.
  • Child of the Storm:
    • Magneto, following a Heel–Face Turn about 15 years before the story starts (the timing is ambiguous, and it is indicated that the actual turn was somewhat gradual). He's pretty benign and grandfatherly towards Harry Thorson, who is his daughter Wanda's godson, protective of Wanda's boyfriend, Harry Dresden, and in the sequel, proves to be a model father to Lorna Dane and model foster father to Ruth Aldine a.k.a. Blindfold, more generally coming across as a wise and noble man who has learned from his experiences. However, he spent decades as the most feared superhuman on the planet, an insane monster with an obsession with vengeance, a breathtaking capacity for savagery, and the powers of a Physical God. And he can (and will) call up all that darkness at need, as the Winter Guard find out to their cost.
    • The main example, however, maybe Doctor Strange, the series' chief Magnificent Bastard and Manipulative Bastard, who plays everyone — hero and villain alike — like a violin to get the tune he wants. This is all with the decidedly admirable motivation of not just stopping Thanos, but doing so with as few casualties as possible. However, he is totally ruthless, shaping everyone around him like tools into the people he needs them to be, and casually committing murder (and worse) to advance his schemes. He also allows some pretty horrible things to happen, because he deems them necessary. However, he always discards his usually absolute irreverence in response to someone else's sacrifice (which he genuinely respects), or when the subject of the death of a child comes up (being a Friend to All Children, he tries to protect them whenever he can, and wreaks some of his most horrifying revenge when he can't).
  • A Courier For Kivotos: Courier Six isn't exactly the best of role models to his students; he condones looting of defeated enemies, wholeheartedly backs the Foreclosure Task Force's bank heist and even keeps the stolen money against the morals of the Abydos students but at the end of the day, he does go the extra mile to help anyone in need and fights any injustice he comes across head-on.
  • The Night Unfurls has the Good Hunter. Defined by his dark experience in Yharnam and tendency to Pay Evil unto Evil. Fights savagely and is willing to use unsavoury methods to rid of anyone affiliated with the Black Dogs, including torture, Mind Rape (though never en masse), leaving little to no prisoners, and cracking down a rebellion in the capital. Yet at the end of it all, he aims to end the war swiftly so the people of Eostia will not be threatened by an Army of Thieves and Whores who wants to take over the country, build a Sex Slave Empire, and Rape, Pillage, and Burn.
  • Rattlesnake Jake gets this portrayal in Old West. When he's hired by Sheriff Rango to keep Mud (the former town of Dirt) safe from mercenaries, the violent and antisocial outlaw agrees to work for the chameleon he respects begrudgingly only because he's been lately between jobs, and he's repeatedly frustrated by Rango's reluctance to simply finish off the villains. However, Jake respects his contract, and as he's forced to keep Grace Glossy and her son safe, he shows nobleness under his rough shell and reveals himself to have experienced a Dark and Troubled Past. In the end, Jake remains a contract killer, but he stays as Grace's lover while doing his dark profession away from her home.
  • One of the Alternate Universe versions of the protagonist of With This Ring is a Red Lantern, whose power ring needs anger to function and is nearly useless for anything except destruction. As a result, he lives in a state of near-constant irritation, has become inured to killing those who deserve it, makes most of his money as a hitman, and collects the skulls of especially egregious offenders as souvenirs to decorate his home. Yet he hasn't lost sight of the "deserve it" part and has turned down commissions before because the target hadn't yet committed a crime. He even has a girlfriend with similar views and is very devoted to her.

    Films — Animated 
  • The Justice League in the world of Justice League: Gods and Monsters skirt between this and Pragmatic Hero. They have no qualms about killing but will stray into even more questionable stuff like invading a foreign embassy to get at terrorists or contemplate taking over the world as benevolent tyrants, and they still come off looking pretty heroic.

    Films — Live-Action 
  • 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.
  • Death Wish: Paul Kersey is an everyday man who became a Vigilante Man after his wife was murdered and his daughter was assaulted by criminals, and the law proved ineffective in giving him justice. He is brutal and merciless towards criminals, but he always helps out people who are in danger and fights for what he believes is right.
  • Frank Bannister in The Frighteners. He cons people by sending ghosts to haunt houses so he can come and "exorcise" them, disrupts funerals in order to promote his business, and is shown to be quite rude to the ghosts he works with; however, at least he isn't like Johnny Bartlett who murders people for game. By the end of the film, Frank has become a better person.
  • Haunted Mansion (2023): Con Man backstory aside, Father Kent is willing to manipulate people with important skills into entering the mansion so they will be cursed like him and be forced to help break the curse. However, he does care about the others and risks his life for them a few times.
  • James Bond:
    • Bond is this 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, in which he shows heroic tendencies (objecting to abandoning another wounded agent, for example) unlike most Nominal Hero incarnations of him while still womanizing and having a merciless demeanor.
  • Kick-Ass:
    • Hit Girl 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 Parody.
  • 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.
  • 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 World of Kanako: Akikazu is completely merciless. He abuses his family, threatens and beats up witnesses and classmates of Kanako, fights with everyone who is in his way, and forces Kanako's teacher to give him the location where she buried her. He's still better than other characters in the movie.

  • Animorphs: Notably, in the opening to Megamorphs #3, when every other Animorph has become a fascinatingly horrible person, Marco is more or less the same as he's always been — only happier, because his mother's alive and he just got Pong. Later on, when evacuating his father from the Yeerks, he leaves his stepmother to get infested and lies to his dad that she was always a Controller.
  • The Asterisk War: Claudia Enfield is technically one of the good guys but she does have quite a few skeletons in her closet. She makes no effort to hide that she engages in shady schemes and is willing to take advantage of situations. That said, she has a healthy respect for Ayato Amagiri's stronger sense of morality and her actions in the greater scheme of things seem to protect him and Seidoukan as a whole.
  • Conan the Barbarian is 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 and has done it all. But he rarely 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. If someone is truly his friend, Conan will repay their kindness in turn and is loyal to a fault to his allies. When he becomes The Good King of Aquilonia, Conan considers all of his people part of his "tribe". Thus, hurting his people is disrespecting him, and Conan will not stand for that.
  • Matthew Sobol of Daemon is this at best. He programs an utterly remorseless distributed Daemon that he admits will cause the death of tens of millions, and winds up destroying many lives and causing untold suffering. The reason he did this was to stop humanity from inevitably regressing due to its efficient-but-fragile global supply chains and from being ruled by sociopathic corporate interests. He's right, succeeds, and the new order is better than the old one because it removes the power of those that would abuse it rather than empowering them like the old order did.
  • 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).
  • Possibly Doc Savage. Earlier works would have him take criminals away to a secret lab where he'd, ah... turn them into productive members of society. Surgically. This is probably a matter of Science Marches On, (readers of the time likely didn't fully understand lobotomies or their effects), but forcibly altering someone's behavior is still pretty out there by modern standards.
  • Felix Harrowgate of Doctrine of Labyrinths is a wizard who 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.
  • The Dresden Files: Harry Dresden doesn't make a habit of being this trope, despite his long history of causing property damage for the greater good, but when he's really desperate, he can give fellow Trenchcoat Brigade member John Constantine a run for his money when it comes to sheer disregard for collateral casualties, as demonstrated (spectacularly) by the climax of Changes.
  • Fate/Zero has Kiritsugu Emiya, an assassin who wants to achieve world peace but is willing to do horrible things to other people in order to reach that goal and can act excessively cruel, like when he used Kayneth's wife Sola-Ui as a bargaining chip against him and ended up coldly killing them both after Lancer was forced to commit suicide. He's also cheating on his wife with his assistant Maiya and sees it as a rehearsal for when he has to betray his wife for real by allowing her to sacrifice herself and complete the Grail.
  • 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.
  • Pocket in Fool and its sequels. 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.
  • The Lord of the Rings: Despite being a straight-up bad guy in the films, in the novels, Denethor 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 from battling Sauron in the palantir send him Jumping Off the Slippery Slope.
  • Zack, the protagonist of The Mental State, is a Sociopathic Hero who goes to extreme lengths to achieve his goals. He desires to alter the running of the prison so as to give the inmates more individual rights, aid them in reforming, and keeping them away from bad influences. Unfortunately, he is only able to do this through blackmailing officials, force the drug addicts into quitting cold turkey, and crushing anyone he identifies as being beyond the point of redemption. He is also not above using pawns to succeed.
  • Rebuild World: Akira is the first type, albeit a Defrosting Ice King. In an already Crapsack World, Akira grew up in the Wrong Side of the Tracks getting used and then thrown out by everyone he met, turning him into The Paranoiac. Akira's past trauma leaves him with two buttons that can get you Killed Mid-Sentence: Being stolen from, and threatening his friends, each of which evokes a Tranquil Fury Roaring Rampage of Revenge if not immediately settled (although Vengeance Feels Empty). Akira has strong views on fairness, insisting on equal shares for jobs, and takes I Gave My Word and I Owe You My Life extremely seriously. Akira has a belief system based on Laser-Guided Karma, making excuses that he's doing good deeds to earn back his luck and thus increase his chances of survival, often with Sheryl and her gang serving as his Morality Pet.
  • Mentioned verbatim in Records of the Three Kingdoms, a classical historical text concerning the Three Kingdoms – Shu, Wei, Wu. When Cao Cao was young, he visited Xu Shao, a man famous for giving accurate evaluations of people. Xu Shao initially declined to reveal his interpretation, but when pressed told Cao Cao, "You would be a capable minister in peaceful times and an unscrupulous hero in chaotic times." Indeed he was.
  • Reign of the Seven Spellblades: Main protagonist Oliver Horn secretly enrolled at Kimberly Magic Academy as the head of a conspiracy to murder seven key faculty members to avenge the death of his mother Chloe Halford in the series' prologue, which means he's knowingly leading dozens of other students to their deaths and is likely to end up having to kill uninvolved mages as well. He also tortured his first two targets in retribution for them torturing her. In public, though, he's an unfailingly kind and polite person who is enraged by acts of injustice and loves his friends and family deeply, and even in secret he hopes that his gruesome quest opens the way for a more compassionate cadre of mage leaders to take power and make the world nicer for everyone to live in.
  • Mr. Slippery from 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 Witch of Knightcharm: Even though Lauren is an elite student at an evil Wizarding School, she seems to oppose the more outwardly psychopathic members of the school and is also shown trying to support the occasional 'good' student like the protagonist Emily. Of course, Lauren is still willing to use brutal means to achieve that goal, including repeatedly risking Emily's life and even making her a target so Emily will get stronger and be more capable of helping Lauren.
  • Thomas Cromwell, as portrayed in Wolf Hall. He's a fair-minded businessman and lawyer, a good husband, is thoroughly determined to give his nieces, nephews, foster- and biological children a much better upbringing than the one he got, and is intensely loyal to Cardinal Wolsey, his patron and adopted father in all but name. However, he is rumored to have killed a man as a teenager, spent time as a mercenary on the Continent, and willingly engineers the execution of Anne Boleyn and her supposed "lovers" because of the role they played in Wolsey's downfall. So he is shown as a good man in most aspects but tarnishes himself by his unwillingness to forget insults and willingness to serve the ruthless and capricious Henry VIII.

    Live-Action TV 
  • 24: Jack Bauer, one of the most famous unscrupulous heroes in popular culture. He is genuinely committed to saving innocent lives for purely altruistic reasons, and almost comes across as a Nice Guy when he's not in crisis mode, but he will go to any lengths to accomplish his mission, including Cold-Blooded Torture, murdering unarmed prisoners, breaking dangerous criminals out of prison, holding Obstructive Bureaucrats at gunpoint when they refuse to condone his methods and even killing his own friends and co-workers if The Needs of the Many demand it.
    "I see fifteen people held hostage on a bus, and everything else goes out the window. I will do whatever it takes to save them – and I mean whatever it takes."
  • Blake's 7: Avon probably averages out here, especially in series 1 and 3, in which he's amoral enough to try to 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, and severely weakens his grip on his sanity to boot.
  • 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 morally questionable to downright illegal. He even at one point flat-out says that if a plan involving a cooperative Jesse should go wrong, he doesn't care if Jesse gets killed.
  • Doctor Who: Can you believe that Doctor started like this? Yes, he's devoted to his granddaughter 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 and becomes a Pragmatic Hero.
  • Farscape gives us Dominar Rygel of Hyneria, a cowardly, kleptomaniacal, dethroned monarch (only in the figurative sense — he still has a flying throne he uses for transportation) with shaky moral values, and who is implied (and sometimes shown) to be capable of some very dark deeds. However, he is still unquestionably a hero, and it is suggested that many of his more vile character traits are a direct result of his being dethroned, exiled, and tortured for cycles on end by a sadistic Peacekeeper.
  • Game of Thrones:
    • Arya ultimately has a good heart but is fully capable of murdering without a second thought and goes to absolutely ghastly lengths to secure vengeance for herself and her family. The only thing that keeps her from losing much sympathy is the fact that her enemies are, almost universally, colossal assholes. Really, as of the sixth season, she's basically the Westerosi answer to The Punisher: a deadly, terrifying vigilante who would amount to little more than a Serial Killer if not for the fact that her enemies are far, far worse and absolutely deserving of a grisly end.
    • Even at his least villainous, Sandor has no qualms with ruthless actions that benefit himself.
  • 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?"
  • Lucifer (2016): The titular Lucifer uses his massive array of powers to punish the wicked and truly deserving, but only by his standards and his methods. Lucifer is also a snarky, womanizing Manipulative Bastard who loves those close to him but rarely shows it.
  • In Orphan Black, Helena graduates into this through her Heel–Face Turn after the first season. She grows to love her newfound family and friends but nonetheless remains brutal and ruthless to her enemies.
  • Revenge (2011): 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. Given that she never resorts to murder outside of self-defense, the only reason she falls under here rather than Pragmatic Hero is the extremes to which she will go. She 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.
  • 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.
  • Supernatural: Sam started acting like this in season 6, becoming a hunter without any moral lines he wouldn't cross to catch a monster, such as using a hapless sheriff as bait then executing him after he's been infected with The Virus, and shooting a woman who was being used as a human shield. His actions sicken both his brother Dean and their grandfather Samuel Campbell, both of whom may stretch the rules a bit but still have some standards. It's eventually revealed that this change in character is because Sam has lost his soul.
  • 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.

    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 to earn his victory with his own wits and skill or willing to take the 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 

    Video Games 
  • In Call of Duty: Modern Warfare (2019), Captain Price is willing to go to some extreme lengths to protect the free world, such as throwing an innocent man forced to wear an explosive vest off of a bridge so he doesn't blow up the other civilians with him or abducting and threatening a terrorist's innocent family to get him to tell them where Hadir is. However, he never shoots the dog without cause and he's completely aware that his allies might not be able or willing to stomach his tactics.
    Price: When you take the gloves off, you get blood on your hands, Kyle. That's how it works.
    Kyle: Where do we draw the line on this, sir?
    Price: You draw the line wherever you need it, Sergeant. End of the day someone has to make the enemy scared of the dark. We get dirty and the world stays clean. That's the mission.
  • 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 that 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.
  • Dragon Age:
    • 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.
    • By the third game, Leliana hates it but takes this view herself: given the threat no act is too vile, her loyalty is such that nothing is off-limits. The Inquisitor has to intervene to keep her from continuing down this dark path.
  • In Final Fantasy Tactics, Delita is an embodiment of this trope. Izlude may also be taken into account after the events in Orbonne Monastery.
  • 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 interest 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.
  • 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 steal the most sacred relic of an 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.
  • The Third Street Saints have become this by the time Saints Row IV rolls around. The Saints were gangbangers, superstars, and a terrible choice for the presidency, but they are also the only ones who were able to defeat the interplanetary empire of the Zin and save the future of humanity.
  • Sonic the Hedgehog's well-known Anti-Hero Shadow the Hedgehog is this. He fights for the greater good, but he'll go to extreme lengths to do what he feels is right, regardless of anyone else's opinions and those who get in his way are just as much of an enemy as the villains to him. He has also occasionally sided with the villains such as Eggman and Black Doom when he viewed it necessary.
  • 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...
  • Samuel Drake of Uncharted 4: A Thief's End is a harsher, colder version of his younger brother Nathan. When he puts a gun on Nadine Ross' head, he threatens to shoot her and Nate pulls him at the last moment setting the shot in the air, proving that he was indeed going to murder her. Then Rafe reveals that he's a manipulative liar, whose only redeeming virtue is that he genuinely does love Nate.

    Visual Novels 
  • In Apollo Justice: Ace Attorney, Phoenix Wright has been out of the law business for the better part of a decade. When met with an opportunity not only to identify a murderer but get back at the person who drummed him out of the work in the first place, he does so by relying on the tactic (evidence forgery) that was originally responsible for derailing his career. At least this time he did it for the right reason (since the evidence necessary to convict the killer was taken by said killer at the scene), as opposed to being on the wrong end of it (where the tainted evidence was used to sabotage his case instead of providing a falsified advantage). Still, it's certainly not something he'd ever have resorted to otherwise.
  • Sunrider has Admiral Harold Grey of the Solar Alliance. Grey is the player's biggest ally in liberating the Neutral Rim from PACT, but he's not waging this war out of the kindness of his heart, and he does shady things in the name of victory. Some examples include hiring mercenaries to do his dirty work, covering up civilian deaths caused by his soldiers' heavy-handed actions, and threatening to nuke an unaligned planet into oblivion unless a PACT fleet withdraws from the system (an act which sees his PACT counterpart Veniczar Fontana call Grey out on being no different). That said, he does have some standards: if you call him out on the aforementioned cover-up, he'll admit that it goes against everything he stands for and will promise to open a public investigation (while simultaneously chewing you out for your idealism). He also realizes that the Paradox Core is too dangerous for anyone to possess and has it destroyed, but not before secretly reverse-engineering it so that he'll have a planet-killer missile on hand as a weapon of last resort.

  • Norah and Paige from Agents of the Realm are underplayed versions, both being fine examples of Jerk with a Heart of Gold.
  • Celesto Morgan, of Dominic Deegan, is the appointed Champion of Chaos and Destruction. While he views himself as a champion of freedom and destroyer of tyranny and evil, his actions frequently show him to be almost as destructive as the things he fights, such as his battle with The Infernomancer in Lynn's Brook, in which he killed more people than the man he was there to stop. He has also been the vigilante executioner of two, up until that point Karma Houdinis in the story and has become He Who Fights Monsters against the Beast.
  • Vriska from Homestuck would embody this trope were opinions on her not split further than the San Andreas Fault. Forced by her lusus to become a Serial Killer from a very young age, she soon grows to embrace the role and kills thousands of trolls through FLARPing. Her Establishing Character Moment is throwing one of her players off a cliff with Mind Control because she can. She then goes on to try and establish a caliginous relationship with him — only he doesn't return her feelings, so her "courtships" come off as abusive, even for the twisted culture she exists in. Later she even goes as far as turning Jack Noir into a Physical God just so that she can have some impact on the story and murder said caliginous crush for having the guts to stand up for himself. And yet through all this, she has every intention of defeating Jack Noir and spends much of her time assisting John on his quest, developing romantic feelings for him as time goes by. In her mind, she is following the footsteps of her powerful, infamous, and morally bankrupt ancestor, but at crucial points proves she is either too cruel or not cruel enough to play that part.

    Web Originals 
  • How to Survive Camping: The owner might be actively trying to protect campers while preserving the land and appeasing its inhabitants, but that does not stop her from accumulating quite the body count, to a point where some comments worry that she may be bordering on downright sociopathy. She poisoned one of the campers and burned one of her employees alive to appease and/or banish beings of power, had to strangle her former best friend to death when she was still a teenager, and stabbed the sheriff in the neck possibly just as much out of personal satisfaction as necessity. And that's only her non-supernatural victims.
  • Worm: Armsmaster 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 
  • Mizu of Blue Eye Samurai rarely has cause to get into a deep conversation with others, but when they do, she explicitly warns them that she is out for vengeance, any seeming closeness or alliance they might share is only in service to that goal, that she's going to create a lot of bodies, and if their feelings (or bodies) get hurt, it's because they chose to stick around her after she's warned them not to. All of the few people she does manage to bond with have reason to give her a hearty What the Hell, Hero? especially when she decides not to warn anyone about a plot against the shogun so that its ringleader will still be available for her to murder once she's done convalescing from her first attempt to kill him. However, she avoids involving innocent people when she can and when she fails in her mission to Madam Kaji, resulting in Kaji's brothel being targeted by a massive gang, Mizu chooses to remain and defend them against overwhelming odds rather than run away and continue her quest.
  • Bugs Bunny acts against others mostly when provoked or attacked (mostly), and damn if he doesn't enjoy giving those he goes up against their sweet dose of punishment, but he's otherwise a friendly and nice individual.
  • Zamfir from Castlevania (2017). As a fighter, she has a bad habit of only pitching in to help after the damage is already done. As an ally, she tends to dismiss any casualties as necessary sacrifices for the cause and treats Trevor and Sypha with a rather unnecessary amount of suspicion. As a leader, she does nothing for the remaining peasantry's non-existent living conditions and even confiscates what little food and supplies as "tribute" for their "betters".
  • Centaurworld has the Mysterious Woman, who is determined to do good but has severe difficulties determining what "good" is. Like, that isn't a lame excuse she uses to do evil, we actually see her vacillating between actions that will kill the villain and actions that will spare him, actions that enable the slaughter of a small group to preserve entire worlds and actions that prevent it, etc. A big reason she isn't the main hero is that it takes her almost two seasons to get her priorities in order. The Last Lullaby flashback implies that she had clearer ideals before her abusive relationship with the Elktaur.
  • The Dreamstone juxtaposes this with the Sugar Bowl Land of Dreams (yes, odd). While usually sweet-natured and borderline messianic, the heroes seem completely apathetic to the fact that most of Zordrak's Mooks are harmless cowards Trapped in Villainy, and often take sadistic pleasure in punishing them or taking their retaliations outside self-defense compared to vice versa, mostly all on the principle of trying to give them bad dreams. Later episodes make them more passive, like something in Pragmatic Hero territory.
  • In El Tigre: The Adventures of Manny Rivera, although Manuel Rivera is usually on the good guys' side, that doesn't stop him from doing mischievous things from time to time.
  • Eda Clawthorne of The Owl House is greedy, prideful, lazy, rude, a trickster, and has no respect for the law (or any authority figure, for that matter). She also has few compunctions about killing or stealing to get what she wants, and has a grumpy, misanthropic outlook on the world in general, while keeping her issues close to her chest. That said, she's rebelling against a genuinely oppressive authority, is protective and self-sacrificing when dealing with those she cares about, and tends to act heroically whenever a threat would harm the innocent. She also slowly warms up over the course of the show, after assuming a surrogate mother role to Luz.
  • In Phineas and Ferb, Buford may boast about being a schoolyard bully, but when Phineas and Ferb need help, he can always be counted on.
  • Rick and Morty: Morty Smith has turned into this by Season 3. His utterly horrific experiences have ground down his emotional state significantly to him being significantly faster to and less afraid of violence, being perfectly willing to kill people without hesitation if he deems it necessary, to the point he deforms Ethan into a deformed monster for upsetting his sister. Despite this, he's kept out of the Villain Protagonist territory that Rick resides in by virtue of caring significantly more about the consequences of his actions and attempting to prevent harm.
  • Glimmer turns into this in the fourth season of She-Ra and the Princesses of Power as the weight of the war begins to bear down on her in the wake of her mother's death, and especially after the fall of Salineas in the middle of the season. In previous seasons, when she seemed about to do something overly ruthless, Bow would talk her down; unfortunately, in season 4, the growing ruptures in the Best Friends Squad mean that Glimmer stops listening. She starts threatening the Horde's Faceless Goons with torture, using her best friend as a decoy, hiring Double Trouble to manipulate her enemies, using her kingdom as bait for the Horde's armies, and taking jaw-dropping risks with a First One superweapon that nearly led to the destruction of a not inconsiderable chunk of the universe. Even at her worst, though, she remains a hero — she refuses to kill a defenseless Catra, is friendly and kind towards Scorpia, and her top priority remains saving Etheria. When her actions nearly end the world, it's because her jealousy compounded with her desperation to win the war and led to her becoming overconfident, and she immediately has a My God, What Have I Done? moment and desperately tries to fix it — in stark contrast to Catra, with whom she isn't that different, whose own doomsday event was driven entirely by envy, and which she did nothing to fix.
  • Jerry in Tom and Jerry, depending on the episode. Without getting into his sadistic nature towards Tom, he is generally a Friend to All Living Things. But he's definitely not above using violence for reasons other than self-defense or protecting others (often as vengeance for a legitimate wrong, but occasionally, because he's bored). Often when his actions are unambiguously unheroic, especially when unprovoked, we get a rare Laser-Guided Karma victory for Tom.
  • Merlin from Trollhunters. While he is aware of the harm he causes and bereaved into doing so, Merlin's behavior and methods come across as needlessly cruel and unusual at times. He seeks to prioritize all of the Trollhunter's efforts and resources into targeting Morgana despite Gunmar being the more immediate threat just so that he could have his magic powers back, believing that he could take out Gunmar himself when this happens in spite of the casualties. He concocts a potion that would turn Jim into a troll, knowing and admitting fully well that he has no way of reversing the spell, and more or less manipulates Jim into accepting it. On a lesser scale he is very quick to belittle or insult those around him (only sometimes by accident), especially people that sing his praises (like Blinky) or those that prostrate before him (like Strickler).
  • In The Venture Bros., Brock Samson and Dr. Venture, despite being self-centered individuals, fall here on their best days when they show some regard for human life and collateral damage. Usually, though, not so much...


Video Example(s):


Evil Cole

Evil Cole is out for himself. Everyone else is just collateral.

How well does it match the trope?

2.7 (10 votes)

Example of:

Main / UnscrupulousHero

Media sources: