The antihero is a well-known character in popular media. Whether in film & television or in novels & the nightly news, we have all met the antihero. Though antiheroes have proliferated in the past few years, the character type has actually changed dramatically.
A Quick Walk Through History
In classical literature, the hero was described as a virtuous figure. He was honorable and caring; strong and brave. He looked good, wanted good, and did good. Society celebrated, even worshiped, the archetypal hero.
The antihero was, obviously, the opposite. This guy wasn’t brave or strong. He wasn’t worshiped by society. He was antisocial; a loner flawed and scarred from some past experience. The common element of all antiheroes was that flaw. That ugly scar. This was the antihero in all his glory—or lack thereof.
The antihero character type proved to be popular and spread throughout entertainment. Fast-forward to modern times. The archetypal antihero is the dominant character type. Everyone has a flaw—even the professing heroes. Luke Skywalker is inept and reckless. Harry Potter is impulsive and angry. Superman struggles with identity and is lonely. The ubiquity of the flaw transformed the definition of the antihero. For if everyone is an antihero, then nobody is. This conundrum begs the question: what is a modern antihero? To reveal the new, we must first understand the old.
Understanding the Old
The common element among the archetypal antiheroes is their flaws. But why did that element cause the classical critics to call a flawed character an antihero? Aren’t we all flawed? How can we look down on someone who is just as flawed as we are?
The answer is in the society. They thought of their heroes in a specific way similar to the way we think of our heroes today. The difference is that the society in that day expected more from their heroes. They expected them to be grand and powerful and honorable and worshiped. The antiheroes? They were weak and cowardly. They weren’t worthy of such honor.
The archetypal antihero was shunned by society for his flaws. For the ugly parts that society could not celebrate. Today, character flaws are accepted. Characters are even expected to be flawed and are still not considered antiheroes. But the benchmark remains the same. Just as it was in the past, the antiheroes of today are the characters who are shunned by society. What, then, replaces the flaws? Since we accept flaws, what causes these characters to be frowned upon?
Revealing the New
In modern times, the antihero has been a vaguely defined character. They are simply called the opposites of a hero. This vague definition has caused much confusion to what an antihero really is. Many lists stating the “Top Ten Heroes” and “Top Ten Antiheroes” share the exact same characters adding to the confusion. But upon inspection of various alleged antiheroes and their qualities, I have discovered two types of antiheroes. The first is what I call a general antihero. The second type is what I call a true antihero. General antiheroes only earn the name, because they are one step away from the common “flawed” hero. Some consider them heroes masquerading as antiheroes. True antiheroes, however, tiptoe on the between hero and villain. They truly deserve the name, antihero.
A general antihero is shunned by society because of her personality. The general antihero can be rude, cowardly, irritable, or brooding. They are negatively viewed because of their behavior or looks (Quasimodo). They can be cynical braggart (Sherlock Holmes). Bitter critics (Severus Snape). Apathetic drunks (Haymitch Abernathy). What separates these guys from flawed heroes is that their bad personality is a core part of them. They don’t have a single flaw among a sea of good attributes. No, this is who they are.
True antiheroes, on the other hand, are completely different. They are not looked down on because they are ugly jerks. A true antihero might be good-looking, pleasant and agreeable, because the negative side of this character is rooted deeper within them. Their ugliness is in their heart. Their soul. In their corrupted values and twisted ethics. True antiheroes are morally depraved.
They are the thieves, murderers, and con men of this world. The ones we look down on. The ones we are afraid of. The ones that believe other people’s bounds can be crossed. That the social norms that might restrain them can be discarded like garbage (Harry Callahan). All because they live by a very different set of values than the world in which we live (Rodion Raskolnikov). What is deemed unacceptable by modern society is considered expedient by antiheroes.
But since antiheroes are corrupted—since they boldly attack our modern sensibilities and personal code of ethics, then why are we so fascinated by them?
Why So Fascinated
The ancient heroes were inimitable. Unattainable. Their heroic deeds, values, and lives were too high of a standard. When fiction drifted toward realism, the characters became realistic too. The ancient heroes were eventually rejected and replaced by the flawed hero. The hero who was more like us.
We like the flawed hero because we see ourselves in her. We see someone who wants to do right, but has that one weakness that hinders them (Jason Bourne). A weakness that pulls them away from their true goal. We empathize with the flawed hero as we remember our personal shortcomings which held us back (Spider-man). These similarities draw us to the flawed hero in the same way that mutual understandings draw friends together. Gone are the god-like heroes of the past. The realism of the flawed hero pervades our modern culture.
General antiheroes further the flaw. They don’t have a few personal shortcomings. They are rife with problems. Short-tempered, insecure, depressed (Jessica Jones). The image of a failure. But despite these defects, they remain heroes for they want to do right. They strive to be something more, something better (The Dark Knight). Their values may be idealistic or honorable, even if they have lost hope in themselves. And we commend them for that.
But what hope is there in the true antihero? Can we root for a man so broken and despised? Someone whose values contradict ours? The wide popularity of the true antihero in film and television testify to the truth: the answer is yes, we do root for true antiheroes.
The true antihero may do wrong things, but we applaud the end result of his actions (The Punisher). He just does what is right even if society says it’s not acceptable. Or maybe the end result is horrible as well as the carrying out of it (V). At best, the man wanted to do what is right. At least the motive was good . Actually, the true antihero may even have the wrong reasons for what he does, but at least the end result accomplished something of noble value (Dexter Morgan). So no matter what the motive, method, or end result is, we still rationalize a true antihero’s actions. Because the “hero” part of them . . . that’s the most morally justifiable part. And we cling to that. We see these characters and think, “Yes! That is like real life. Nobody is perfect. People are flawed. Some are corrupt. The most we can hope for is that despite all the dirt, something good happened.”
But, I believe there is a more nefarious reason for our fascination than just morally justifying the true antihero. It has been said that fiction lets you live thousands of lives one after another. It is true. Empathy allows you to live in another’s shoes looking at life through their eyes. Vicarious living seems to be the appeal of fiction.
Just like true antiheroes, we would like to have revenge on someone who hurt our loved ones. We want to do what we believe is right even if others say it’s wrong. We want to confound authority if they get in the way of our goals. We want to do things that we would otherwise be afraid to do. We may even want to do something wrong just as long as we can justify ourselves. It seems that we, as humans, have a depraved nature. And true antiheroes allow us to express that nature vicariously.
Antiheroes, Audiences, and Ethics (A Dilemma For Authors)
Is that a problem? Should authors—creators—willingly allow their audience to enjoy a potentially malicious aspect of the story? Shouldn’t we desire for our audience to love good and not evil? Put more simply, is it okay for artists to create bad stuff?
In story at least, the good and bad are directly related to each other. If good becomes a powerful force, then the bad must also rise in power. It has to seem as if either one will triumph. Only then will there be a gripping story.
Therefore, something negative must be included in story. It is a necessary part. Good vs. evil. The tricky part is when the audience is rooting for the antihero. Is it ethical to support somebody who is profoundly wrong?
At the highest, most comfortable level, the author can rest easy if the audience enjoys the hero. A virtuous character who strives to do right. A model of righteousness. Great. Let’s take it a notch lower.
The general antihero is like a convict released on probation. He’s done bad stuff, but, at his core, he’s trying to do better (ideally). He may look really really bad. But this guy is ethically sound. For the general antihero, I’d say that the author should be unsettled . . . slightly. Even though the general antihero wants to do good, you would never want your audience to see a bitter, apathetic man as a completely respectable character.
A notch lower and you’re in deep, dangerous waters. The true antihero may not want to do good. Good outcomes are just side effects. Is that ethically commendable? Or even if he wants to do good, you don’t want to advocate morally wrong methods. And then there’s the problem of vicarious living. There is a chance that you may allow the audience to vicariously commit wrongdoing. To enjoy the harmful outcome. To desire something wrong. Is the true antihero a character you should stay away from? Is he character you should never write?
Let’s establish two principles.
Principle #1: With Great Power Comes Great Responsibility
If you’re creating a story, then sorry—you are endowed with great power. And as our Uncle Ben taught us, with great power comes great responsibility. The audience is a group of people who willingly place their emotions in your hands. They give you free reign (some more than others) to do what you want to do with them. If you’re skilled enough you can make them laugh or cry, thrill or motivate them. A captive audience, they trust you to give them a good show.
The problem is that in this state of vulnerability, they allow you to make them see the world from another point of view. Wanting to enjoy a story, the audience sides with the characters that are most empathetic, stepping into their shoes. The audience and the character are bonded together. When that character makes a decision that could potentially disgust the audience, the author can make the character even more empathetic. The audience becomes more lenient and justifies the character’s actions. They make allowances for the sake of pleasure. The author, therefore, has the power to make the audience morally justify repulsive actions. To change how they view certain issues.
The artist also has control over vicarious living. Though ultimately each audience member is responsible for their own amount of engagement, the artists still has some power in that regard. He may not have the ability to stop the audience from vicariously living through the actions of the main character, but he has the ability to limit it. Vicarious living, by definition, requires the full imagination no matter the medium of entertainment. Whether it be film, novel, or even music, the mind must be engaged in order to step into another’s shoes. The mind is engaged through captivating information. The more information given to the audience, the easier it is to see through the character’s eyes. The creator of the story can limit the detailed information that is given, and, therefore, limit the vicarious living. The devil is in the details.
Principle #2 Evil is Evil
Morally grey areas are attractive. The question of whether or not something is right or wrong is quite captivating. How far is too far? Where should the line be drawn? These questions quickly delve into the philosophical and situational realms, but one thing is sure: the grey is between black and white. So while true antiheroes are thought to be intriguing due to their morally grey nature, the author has the obligation to show evil as evil. To show that the grey stands between black and white. The evil and the good. But there too lies another misunderstanding.
The true antihero is not morally grey. The true antihero does do wrong, and though it is mixed in with the right, the action is still wrong. A grey area is the mixing of right and wrong. Therefore, the right must be magnified, and the wrong solidified. Modern society’s preoccupation with uncertainties and agnosticism forgets that in order for there to be grey there must be already be a benchmark black and benchmark white. For without a set of standards to operate by, all dilemmas would be nonexistent. And where’s the story behind that?
So show evil to be evil and good to be good. Portray an end result of either redemption or punishment. Swing your theme between positive good and negative evil. The range of emotion will be wider. The depth of the characters will be lower. The strength of the story will be greater.
If you keep these principles in mind, you can write a true antihero into your story with greater effect. But how do you write an antihero? How do you make an effective antihero? Well, the same way you make any successful character. Through empathy.
Truly great antiheroes can anchor a story better than heroes can. They are realistic and compelling. Their actions are more memorable. Their choices—more conflicting.
But if they’re created wrong. If the author mishandles and fumbles around with them, then they can turn out to be repulsive to the audience. They won’t be seen as an antihero, but as a villain. It’s either hit or miss.
But when the antihero is created with thought and effort, then they communicate more deeply and completely. The audience will be more invested. The theme will be more powerful. The story strikes a chord.
Creating the antihero is an art.