Continuing on from last week’s discussion about heroes, today I want to look at his evil twin: the anti-hero.
We live in a cynical age. We’ve learned that most of our heroes have feet of mud. No one’s whiter than white. The best we can hope for is a slightly less dingy shade of grey. In an time where the men whose songs lulled us to sleep in our cots are being unmasked as paedophiles, where sports stars are convicted of murder, and charges of corruption are being leveled against even the most trusted of politicians at least once a month, surely there’s no room in our world view for the true-blue hero.
Bruno Bettleheim, himself a fallen hero, observed that the hero is very important to a child:
It is not the fact that virtue wins out at the end which promotes morality, but that the hero is most attractive to the child, who identifies with the hero in all his struggles. Because of this identification the child imagines that he suffers with the hero his trials and tribulations, and triumphs with him as virtue is victorious. The child makes such identifications all on his own, and the inner and outer struggles of the hero imprint morality on him. (From “The Uses of Enchantment” by Bruno Bettleheim, 1977)
If such tales inspire children to become heroes of their own lives, as I believe they do, what happens if we take those role models away from them? Nowadays, it seems, the only options we offer young people are superheroes, which no one can be expected to emulate, or the antihero who accepts that they are flawed and seems incapable of redemption, though there are exceptions, of course. Is it kinder this way? Will people live more peaceful lives if they accept their failings right from the outset and never challenge themselves to change? The ‘Haters Gotta Hate’ mentality. But do they, really? Isn’t there any choice in the matter?
Accepting that we’re all hopelessly flawed might be pragmatic, but I miss the magic.
There’s a short story by Irish writer Bryan MacMahon called “The Windows of Wonder”. In it, a young teacher arrives in a small village to teach in the local school. She discovers that the children have never heard a story, have never had the world of the imagination revealed to them. They are intelligent, enjoy their maths and other lessons, but there’s something dead in them. A short film was made based on the story and you can see it here if you’re interested:
This concept that children need an imaginary world to give a foundation to their lives isn’t new. I don’t think many people would disagree with it. But the question I’m asking is do we need to be careful about the types of stories we tell? To quote Stephen Sondheim, “Careful the things you say, children will listen.” (“Children will Listen”, from Into the Woods 1986)
Of course, as writers our duty is to the integrity of the story we are telling. What happens to that story once we release it into the universe is beyond our control. You can’t blame J.D. Salinger that a weird number of psychopaths have taken “Catcher in the Rye” (1951) as their bible, can you? If the hero we create happens to be a serial killer, well, them’s the breaks. Right? I don’t have answers here, I’m just asking questions.
With all that said, let’s move on to some specifics.
The anti-hero and his role in fiction
The anti-hero isn’t a new concept. Shakespeare is full of his ilk: Coriolanus is an anti-hero, so is Othello. Lear is certainly an anti-hero. You’ll find the anti-hero all over Greek tragedy: Jason, for instance, is a real rapscallion. And what about his missus, Medea? Because, you know, you don’t have to be male to be an anti-hero. Isn’t Lady Macbeth every bit as much the heroic villain as Mr Mac?
Lately, though, he seems to be everywhere. He crops up in films and television and books. He’s become far more prevalent than his saintly brother, The Hero.
He’s a victim of circumstances, more sinned against than sinning. Well, except for serial killer Dexter Morgan. He shows up in “Game of Thrones” and “The Blacklist”, and even in the Harry Potter books. Of course, he’s always been part of the popular cinema. James Cagney and Humphrey Bogart were masters at making the street punk lovable.
So what exactly is an anti-hero and why would you want one in your books?
1. An anti-hero is the protagonist and his world view, no matter how corrupt it may be, is the one that dominates.
2. He or she is deeply flawed. Even if she takes out almost everyone in her school like “Carrie” they had it coming, so it’s all good. Or speaking of ‘having it coming’, what about Velma and Roxy in “Chicago”? Both killers, both blame their victims.
3. Their flaws are deep and dangerous. We’re not talking bad body odour or a tendency to tardiness, we’re talking completely anti-social behaviour. These folks are Number One and everyone else is Number Two. And gets treated like ‘number two’, too.
4. Not only are they bad, but they often relish their wickedness. They pat themselves on the back for their cleverness, for their achievements, and for getting away with murder. Often literally.
5. A small number are seeking redemption but often fail to find it. Sydney Carton in Dickens’ “A Tale of Two Cities” (1859) only finds it at the very end of the book. Prior to that, Dickens says he is a,
“man of good abilities, and good emotions, incapable of his own help and his own happiness, sensible of the blight upon him, and resigning himself to let it eat him away.”
The anti-heroes’ victims are worse than they are
Now, you could make a hero out of a man who tortures puppies or murders infants as they sleep, but you’re going to have a real problem getting your reader to identify with this character. The only way they’ll keep reading is to see him get his comeuppance. And if you rob them of that, they won’t be happy.
The safer option is to make the victims even worse than their predator. Think about Sweeney Todd: yes, he murders people by cutting their throat and has his accomplice make pies of their flesh, but the victims are all corrupt, vile, hypocritical. Sweeney is their moral superior because he has no illusions about what he is: a homicidal mad man.
The dynamism of the anti-hero
There are reasons why the anti-hero has lasted, indeed thrived, over the centuries. Some of these are:
1. He’s more believable than a hero who never fails, who never has a bad thought, who is solid gold all the way through.
2. There’s something delicious in seeing people being true to themselves, even if that person is evil incarnate.
3. We hope the really villainous anti-hero will be caught and punished. That gives us hope that the world is a lot more just than we think it is.
4. We really, really want the poor slob to overcome his own baser instincts and become the hero in the end. It is this dynamism that drives the fiction: the push-pull of evil versus good, of man’s innate selfishness or cowardice being forced into something good. We hope for the anti-hero’s redemption because it’s what we hope for ourselves.
So by all means give your protagonist a dark past, an itchy trigger finger, VD. Make him wicked. Enjoy yourself.
Just don’t forget the kids.