Have you noticed lately that there are more and more protagonists that aren’t…well…heroic? For instance, my mom likes to watch the Fox/Netflix show Lucifer. If you haven’t already guessed the premise, the show’s protagonist is Lucifer Morningstar (that’s right, the devil) who is tired of being the King of Hell, so he decides to run away and become the owner/operator of a club in Los Angeles.
Walter White, the chemistry teacher turned kingpin of meth, is another antihero that people love to root for even though they know he’s not a good guy. Originally, White got into the meth cooking business because he got news that he has cancer. He didn’t want to leave his wife and children with nothing, so he thought he’d earn some illegal money for them.
Frank Castle, the Punisher, kills people. However, he reasons that he only kills those that deserve killing. We sympathize with him because his family was killed by the mob.
All three characters are relatable to watchers/readers. Yes, even Lucifer. Have you ever had the feeling where you had to escape what you were made to do? What about the feeling of revenge and justice for those that cannot achieve it? What about the feeling that you’re going to disappoint and leave your loved ones unprotected?
Sure, they’re the heroes of the story, but they often don’t exhibit heroic tendencies. If you look up the definition of “hero” you’ll find the following definitions:
- A person noted for courageous acts or nobility of character.
- A person who, in the opinion of others, has special achievements, abilities, or personal qualities and is regarded as a role model or ideal.
As I go through some examples of antiheroes, keep referring to those definitions and see if they match.
First things first, let’s define exactly what an antihero is. Simply put, an antihero is the protagonist of the story who lacks conventional heroic qualities; hero whose actions are questionable.
“The root of every anti-hero story is the idea of wish fulfillment. You might not like what they do, but you are rooting for them anyway,” says Dan Wells.
Even though we know cooking and selling methamphetamine is illegal, fans of Breaking Bad still loved watching Walter White win (alliteration for the win). For me, I liked watching Walter struggle between choosing the “right” thing or choosing what he desired. A good antihero story will include an internal struggle. Will the antihero do whatever it takes to accomplish his/her goal? Will the antihero give up his/her loved ones for the greater good? Those are some of the questions that should be posed if you intend to write an antihero story.
Last week I said that every hero has to have a villain. That goes for antiheroes as well. Since we’ve flipped the script having the bad guy as the protagonist, we need a good guy as the antagonist. Remember, the antagonist is the character in the story that opposes the motives of the protagonist.
My favorite example is Thanos in Avengers: Infinity War (2018). Yes, Thanos is an antihero in this story. Throughout the entire film, he’s doing his rock collection thing because he wants to save the galaxy from overpopulation. The good guys, the Avengers, are the antagonists simply because they don’t like that plan. Thanos definitely lacks conventional heroic qualities, and his actions are far beyond questionable. However, he’s doing what he believes is right. Just like Walter White, just like Frank Castle, and just like Lucifer.
“The hardest choices require the strongest wills,” Thanos said in the film.
Now, you might be saying “But Jim, all you’ve talked about is film. What about literature?”
As with any rant of mine, I have to throw in Stephen King. In his Dark Tower series, which I highly recommend, the story follows the last gunslinger, Roland Deschain. Picture Clint Eastwood but grizzlier and with two gigantic revolvers. Roland travels to the center of the universe, the Dark Tower, in a pursuit to thwart the Crimson King who is trying to destroy the tower. Once the tower falls, all hope is lost, and chaos takes over.
Roland is an antihero. Sure, his purpose is pure. The path to that purpose is covered in blood, bullets, and bodies. He does whatever it takes to get to the Dark Tower including sacrificing his friends and family. He even sacrifices a child in his pursuit. However, as you read each of the seven books (eight if you count The Wind Through the Keyhole) you see the impact these decisions have on Roland. It’s a phenomenal saga.
Jay Gatsby, the main character in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s ‘The Great Gatsby’ is another example of a character that isn’t driven by heroic qualities. He’s driven by his idea of wish fulfillment. You can’t blame Gatsby for wanting success, wealth, and the love of an unattainable woman.
As a middle-aged, balding, overweight writer I all too well identify with Gatsby’s wishes.
We excuse all of Gatsby’s lies because we feel for him.
So, what makes the antihero more relevant now? Why are we seeing more Walter Whites than we are Sauron’s? Honestly, I think it’s because the line between good and evil is being blurred. What deems a protest as violent or peaceful? Is freedom of choice acceptable during a pandemic? Is killing in self-defense acceptable anymore?
All of those questions and more can be explored and discussed if you’re writing a story involving an antihero. Next week, I’ll be talking about another villain, so until then keep calm and write on!
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