A is for Anti-Hero

Hello, and welcome to the April A-Z Blogging Challenge! Over the first 26 days of April, we will explore aspects of writing and marketing books – authors, feel free to weigh in, and readers, feel free to observe and ask questions!

-M

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Anti-Heroes are all the rage these days, which is generally pretty great. I mean, let’s face it: we identify with villains sometimes. Someone who’s selfish, spiteful, and cruel doesn’t sound great on paper, but we can find ourselves admiring their unapologetic pursuit of their goals, sympathizing with their search for revenge, and kind of wishing we got to say snarky one-liners (why do villains get the best lines? It’s just unfair). By contrast, a hero who’s too good and honorable is boring on the one hand, and an uncomfortable reminder of our flaws on the other. Anti-Heroes, with the protagonist’s role and a mix of hero and villain qualities, keep us guessing and have plenty to keep us interested.

So is an Anti-Hero right for your story? Spoiler alert: maybe not. Anti-Heroes, just like everything else in literature, are a Sometimes Device, and, as Captain America proves, traditional heroes don’t have to be boring. It’s all in the execution – grit for grit’s sake won’t get you very far. Please consider this handy FAQ as you choose between Hero and Anti-Hero!

What’s the difference between Hero and Anti-Hero? A Hero is your standard fairy-tale protagonist: honorable, kind, deserving. They’d never stab someone in the back, and though they might be something society doesn’t value (poor, ugly, uneducated), their heart of gold will win the day. An Anti-Hero, on the other hand, has a mix of good and bad qualities. Bad qualities doesn’t mean, “not an Olympic athlete” or “can’t play the ukelele,” but instead something like engaging in vigilante justice or, say, selling meth. Just like a traditional hero, the Anti-Hero’s qualities will make them the perfect person to effect change in your story-world, but your reader will feel a mix of admiration and discomfort watching things unfold.

Do you have any examples? I sure do, internet questioner who is also me! Great examples of Anti-Heroes include Hannibal Lecter, Scarlett O’Hara, Walter White, and Han Solo. Examples of more traditional heroes might be Maximus (from Gladiator), Luke Skywalker, Jane Eyre, or Anna (from Frozen). Please note at this juncture that the heroes are not flaw-free. However, their flaws tend to be honorable in nature: Luke doesn’t finish his Jedi training because he’s just too impatient to save his friends; Anna goes rushing off impulsively to save Elsa, Jane’s fieriness and self-reliance may leave her almost dead on the moor, but can hardly be considered a flaw at all; and Maximus goes around killing lots of people, sure, but their all Bad Guys who support the Crazy Incestuous Usurper.

If I want my main character to be realistic, what should I do? Your main character should always be realistic. The idea is to create someone your readers can identify with, who not only overcomes external problems but also internal ones in order to solve the main problem of the story. However, as you’ll notice, that leaves a whole lot of room for interpretation. If you aren’t sure what kind of hero you want to have, look at your plot: your hero should be someone who is both uniquely suited to resolving the main conflict of the story, and also uniquely challenged by it. For instance, in Jane Eyre, Jane is kind-hearted and loving, able to open her heart to the one she loves. However, she is also fiercely proud, and that pride first drives her away from her love – before becoming the catalyst that brings her back again. Jane is in no way a boring or unrealistic character, but think how differently the story would have gone if we had Walter White in her place. Walter White was not the hero Jane Eyre needed. Likewise, if we had Jane in, say, Gotham City, she probably wouldn’t be the best person to solve the crime problem. Both heroes and anti-heroes can be realistic, but one will be better suited to your plot.

I want to be edgy! Edgy is great! Art does, and should, push boundaries and make people uncomfortable. One of the great aspects of storytelling is its ability to transport people into other situations, lives, and bodies, giving people a window into the parallel worlds that humans inhabit. Storytelling can turn “I would never…” into “I never realized…” And edginess is a part of that, speaking to the dark moments and selfish, unkind places all of us have in our souls. However, I caution you against traveling through the darkness simply for the sake of darkness and edginess. Game of Thrones, Batman, and Breaking Bad are so successful not because they are dark and edgy, but because they give their antiheroes something worth fighting for. There’s a purpose to every dark storyline: pride, when pride is all the character has left; revenge for the lost and the desire to keep any more innocents from harm; the incandescent rage we all feel when we have paid our dues and world still screws us over. And then there’s Star Wars, and Captain America, and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest – lacking anti-heroes, but not darkness.

I have a question you haven’t addressed. Ask away in the comments, and I will answer!

-M

 

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