There’s no end to the books and guides, manuals even, written about writing. Set to that body of work with a ginsu knife and you can carve out probably a dozen or more sub-categories of study within the world of writing.
I know my shelves are lined with books about writing. One topic that’s never well enough addressed for me is the Hero / Anti-Hero juxtaposition. Popular media is rampant with badass tough guys with that one redeeming quality. Are these characters the ultimate examples of the literary craft? Probably not. But they draw us in and we love them.
A good character can pull even the worst plot through the muck and get it on its feet again. In Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, we follow Indy on another exciting, but somewhat predictable whirlwind adventure. In fact, by the tank chase through the desert, we’d seen all the tricks the filmmakers had available – but we *love* Indy, so we watched him battle his way through another legion of very there-for-the-body-count Nazis.
A good character should never be confused with a Good Character. Luke Skywalker is a good character. Boba Fett, with only three damn lines, is a Good Character. The best characters are flawed, certainly, but more than that. The best characters are downright damaged. This damage usually manifests itself as psychological scarring – something the outward appearance can hide. This ever-present internal struggle gives us the recipe for the ultimate opposite – The Anti-Hero.
The Anti-Hero, grim faced and of questionable morality, but stern ethics, is a literary entity that I think the average reader can more readily identify with. We all, sometimes we call in sick to work, lie about eating the last cookie, or slip a stoplight. There’s a bit of the anti-hero in all of us, just waiting to burst out.
Is it even possible for the “hero” archetype to live up to our expectations in a realistic setting? Perhaps there is actually only the Anti-Hero?
Consider Hector from the Iliad. This dude was considered by his contemporaries and the listeners of the tale for centuries to follow, as the pinnacle of the ancient Greek arête. The best man. He defended his home, family and whiney brother with his life. Hector knew that Paris was an adulterer, had absconded with a king’s wife and brought an incredible doom to Troy, but he defended him anyway. He’s a hero for his defense of King and Country, but a bit of an “anti” for intentionally choosing the wrong side. At the cost of his own life, Hector was true to his filial obligations. He was a hero. This tale, told from the Greek perspective paints Achilles as a main character, of not a protagonist, in that typically dubious Hellenic way.
Maybe this isn’t the best example of an anti-hero. How about Dirty Harry? A loose-cannon cop with a bad attitude and “the biggest handgun made by man.” He’s a police officer; ostensibly out to do good, out to keep the streets safe for Little Janey and Little League Pete. At the same time, he’s as destructive as a force of nature and a fearless gun fighter who’s put more than a few baddies six feet under. A good guy we want to fear. James Bond, essentially an SAS thug with expensive tastes. He’s saving the world, no doubt. But he’s also been licensed by MI6 to kill at his discretion.
What’s the difference between a Hero’s Fatal Flaw, and an Anti-Hero’s Redeeming Quality? Well, staying with the Anti-Hero, it’s usually something “cool,” something we admire. The Wolverine from Marvel comics is a perfect example. He’s on the good guy’s team, but he’s not really very good. In fact, he’s a cigar smoking, beer-swilling brawler, who’d just as soon knife you as look at you. Corwin, from Roger Zelazny’s Amber Chronicles is another great example. He’s charming and suave, yet cold hearted enough to lead an entire shadow population to their deaths ascending Mount Kolvir, his justification being quite simple: they are from a Shadow World, Amber is the only one true City.
In more contemporary media, I suppose Anakin Skywalker could be considered an Anti-hero. He’s a Jedi, but treads dangerously close to the Dark Side, forever tempting powers he simply cannot understand. But here’s the failure in the character: he’s got nothing we want. He’s emotionally unbalanced, suffering from an unrelenting Oedipal complex and constant badgering from his foster-family (the Jedi Order). He’s a killer. He’s a powerful force user. But… he’s lacking that something special. It’s as if he was designed to be an anti-hero, but can’t fulfill the “cool” part. He lacks that suave, debonair charm. Sure, he wears black and has a bad boy attitude, but ultimately, he chooses to murder the Jedi Order’s young students. Perhaps he’s more of a Fallen Hero, or dare I say it, never even achieved that Hero status?
Most interestingly, the protagonist in many contemporary stories is what would easily (perhaps should) be considered a villain. I’ll admit freely that I’m a fan of the anti-hero. But when the lines between good guys and bad guys are so thoroughly blurred, the craft of storytelling makes a fundamental change. The plot centers on events and needs, not belief and ethics. Maybe this is a good thing – maybe it’s the breakdown of archaic and outdated social institutions. Maybe it’s a bad thing – the corruption of a value system.
One or two things prompted this topic. First, was a tremendously interesting discussion on the LinkedIn.com group, the Fiction Writer’s Guild. I posed the simple question, perhaps the same question we’ve always been asking – is the rise of the anti-hero in popular culture indicative of social trends? Are we seeing the abandonment of long-held morals and ethics, right and wrong, in favor of a more fluid and certainly less binary code of behavior in our contemporary heroes?
Achilles of Homer’s Iliad was the focus. Achilles, the slayer of men, is the epitome of the anti-hero. Driven by a lust for glory which sours and becomes an all-consuming rage, he strikes down Hector who was in fact, not only the “better” man, but also on the side of right. It’s true that Paris was an adulterer and caused more problems that he solved, but it was the moral obligation of Hector to support him, even at the cost of everything he held dear and sacred.
Leaping forward in time and across Europe in mythological terms, we encounter Beowulf. This character is another example of the rough-and-tumble adventurer, with nary a care in the world save perhaps his next meal and the glint of a few more gold coins. He comes from across the sea, with a story as wide and as deep as said sea, to slay Grendel and become King. His motivations from the onset are purely selfish. He’s hardly a stitch different than Achilles and is certainly cut from the same cloth. Yet he is, to the common folk, what a hero should be – boastful, larger than life and his petty shortcomings can be completely overlooked since he’s done us all a huge favor. Beowulf is just an adventurer with a larger than average sense of avarice.
When we consider characters in True Blood, Dexter, Batman, we have to wonder what is it about monsters or at least the darker side of personality that draws us in?
The anti-hero’s acceptance into mainstream media is a relatively recent happening. Within the past ten years, it seems that we’re saturated with anti-heroes: comics, books, television, and video games. The white armored knight is cliché to the jaded Gen-Xers, and down right hokey to me-centric Millennials. Maybe the Millennials can easier identify with a character that takes what he wants, and doesn’t have to go through the hoops to get it. It’s closer to their instant gratification culture. Easier to identify with, perhaps, than the stodgy moralist heroes like Captain America, who, however brief made an excellent cinematic comeback this past summer. Regardless of the cultural consequences of a generation raised on Grand Theft Auto, the Punisher and Hellboy, anti-heroes are in.
So these are my Top Ten Good Bad Guys
10. Hellboy (Hellboy I and II) – Seems like this would be a no brainer; the dude is a demon. But a wise old man who tried to impart upon him the virtues of being human raised him. I don’t know if it worked, but so far Hellboy hasn’t destroyed the world. He’s a character with a conscience, but an ever-lasting teenagers dis-respect of authority. Frankly, he’s a rather mild demon, throwing tantrums and the like when he doesn’t agree with his curfew. It is solely the character’s origins and his perceived destiny that make him an anti-hero. Without that demonic starting point, he might just be a loose-cannon cop movie.
9. Riddick (Pitch Black / Chronicles of Riddick) – The two Riddick films were excellent science fiction. By no means were they Academy Award winners, both were thought provoking and well cast. The character of Riddick is the quintessential anti-hero. His origins are shrouded in mystery, stalked by the law and the unlawful; he is prey and hunter, a perfect and simultaneous juxtaposition of dueling realties. He proves he has feelings, but has no qualms about killing. A close viewer will see that it becomes almost an act of pleasure. If not pleasure, then perhaps satisfaction. That’s about as anti-hero as it gets.
8. Corwin of Amber (Chronicles of Amber by Roger Zelazny) – Corwin, one of the Nine Princes in Amber, hails from a family of anti-heroes and outright villains. Pitted in a fatal competition against his siblings, Corwin raises an army from across dimensions to march on his family’s/brother’s castle. But Corwin remains frosty through out the endeavor. Even when his brother puts out his eyes and throws him in the dungeon, Corwin, more or less, stays composed. His love’em and leave’em attitude, his daring-do and cutthroat swordsmanship reserve his place in the Top Ten of Bad Good Guys (or is it Good Bad Guys?) forever.
7. Wolverine – Old snarl butt himself. I’ve been reading X-men comics since I was 11 (which was a long time ago). I think Wolverine is the only character who has become more interesting with time. Of course, he was basically an empty canvass. Introducing generic “bad asses” with amnesia is pretty heavy handed. But I think the writers did okay with it. I mean, he didn’t end up a lost prince or king of the vampires did he? Anyway, Wolverine is a cold-blooded killer with a heart of gold. He’s a perfect, if predictable and somewhat unsophisticated anti-hero. The dichotomy of his personality, the need for efficiency in his function, a sadistic bit of savagery and the idea that he is still a feeling human, make his a pretty classic anti-hero.
6. Boba Fett – Yes, I know he’s got cool Mandalorian armor. I know he’s got a jet pack, missiles and disintegration ray. But he’s also a bounty hunter; that is, he’s a fighter-type who hunts other sentients for money, regardless of their innocence or guilt. Sure, he does good when he gets the bad guys. But how does that weight against all the innocents he’s accidentally or intentionally disintegrated? He’s a clone of few words, but if we can believe Lucas’ expanded universe, and prequels, he’s the direct clone of the last of the Mandalorian warriors… which makes me wonder why the rest of the clone army are such poor shots. Bob, as his friends know him, later reaches an uneasy truce with Han Solo, as years of Coyote and Roadrunner antics. Bob is a great example of a bad guy being co-opted by public opinion, and being written in to fill the role he’s expected to have.
5. Blade – He is a vampire, after all. I mean, half vampire. His heart is in the right place. You know, stalk the night, jack the leeches, send them flying, bursting into hot cinders and ashes, flinging stakes and blasting shotgun shells filled with…whatever the hell he puts in them. For all his grim determination and brutal efficiency, he’s sorta got a heart of gold, or at least a soft spot for strays. Perhaps it’s that so many anti-heroes see themselves, or at least, how they could or should have been in the disaffected and disenfranchised. I know whenever I’m plotting major pseudo-villainy, I always feel a pang of sympathy for the victims of my plots, almost as if I could see it from their point of view…
4. Batman – Everyone’s favorite egomaniacal pseudo-sociopath! Yes, the Batman is a true anti-hero. But I’m afraid his high-priced rough and tumble antics are wearing a little thin these days. The last installment of Batman’s legend was a great flick, no doubt. But here’s the thing – putting “Xxtreme” in front of the Joker doesn’t really make for a better story. Don’t get me wrong. The last Batman movie was spectacular, well played, posted, and cut. But I was watching Xxtreme Joker more than I was watching Batman. The hero has actually in this case become too “anti.” Batman’s need to dispense justice is now totally overshadowed by his lunacy. Nevertheless, he’s a classic anti-hero will likely never escape any listing “chaotic good” characters.
3. Alex (A Clockwork Orange) – His favorite pastimes are assault, rape and thievery. He certainly sounds like a villain. But in the novel A Clockwork Orange, Alex is “our humble narrator.” His apparent inability to tell right from wrong seems to stem from a sociopathic view regarding other humans as not-quite living things. I’m not making much of a case for the hero aspect am I? Well, in this context he’s our only point of reference for the world. While he seems atypical to us, he does have droogs who are more of less, just like him. Perhaps, in fact, he’s not an anti-hero, but more appropriately, just the main character…
2. Dexter comes in at a strong #2 on the top ten anti-hero list. I mean – he is a serial killer. It’s just that he kills the bad guys. His methods are gruesomely effective, his habits are typically fastidious and he’s desperately clever. He’d be a great hero, except that, you know, he chops people up. Nevertheless, for a sociopath, he manages to balance a job, family life and relationships reasonable well. For someone who is off and on again hunted by the FBI, he manages to “take care of business.” It’s Dexter’s ethical code that keeps him in our hearts as a merely misunderstood vigilante. He uses his code to curb, control, alleviate and justify his behavior. And from an absolute justice point of view, he’s absolutely correct. But then again, he’s using his code as a shield, a catchall excuse that allows him to indulge in his more base behaviors. He is, after all, a serial killer.
1. Achilles – “Sing oh Muse, of the mighty Achilles, whose wrath laid low so many great and noble heroes…” For my money, Achilles of Homer’s Iliad is the number one anti-hero of all time. Indestructible, or at least, invulnerable, unparalleled martial prowess and an ego to match, Achilles temper and self-centric world view cost the lives of many Greeks. Achilles fights for the Greeks, the invaders, looking to take troy by force of arms. The excuse for the conflict, Agamemnon’s wife Helen, is ostensibly justifiable. She was, according to their cultural tradition, the wife/property of Greek king, and Paris had no rights, legal recourse, or authority to take her, gods or no. Hector, the best of all Greek men, fought on the side of the Wrong. It is precisely because he had conscious knowledge of that fact, that he was the perfect man. He was honor bound to defend his family, his home and his people. When Achilles defeated Hector and his rage drove him to drag Hector’s corpse around, we see clearly what sort of monster we’re dealing with.
From Pure Textuality – Thanks so much to Eric Staggs for the fantastic post on the antihero. I am very happy to know that I am not the only one who has a tendancy to pull for the bad guy. To add to your list, I think we should recognize Black Hat (from Priest), Eric Northman (from The Southern Vampire Mysteries – he’s way better than the True Blood version of the character), James Bond – the rogue agent (especially in the earlier books that Daniel Craig is now portraying on film), Michael Corleone, and the list goes on and on. 🙂
If we were speaking of strictly film, there are a whole long list of them. Captain Jack Sparrow of the Pirates of the Caribbean series. John Doe in Se7en. John McClane of the Die Hard series. Corbin Dallas in The Fifth Element. 🙂
Thanks again to Eric for the great post. If you’d like to see more info on Eric and what he’s all about, you can check out his website at http://ericstaggs.com or catch him on Twitter at @somenewlanguage.