Anti-hero is one of those terms that seemed really obvious when I looked at this week’s theme – taking it quite literally, the antithesis of heroic – but then I started thinking that it depends what you define as heroic, and I found this definition: “the central character in a play, book or film who does not have traditionally heroic qualities, such as bravery, and is admired instead for what society generally considers to be a weakness of their character”.
The first part of the above is self-explanatory – the second part I found much more interesting in considering what makes a hero or anti-hero, because it argues that the perception of what is heroic, or not heroic, is down to the society in which you, or your characters, are living. The culture I’m part of traditionally idealises traits such as bravery and strength – the hero who fights for his or her castle/country/planet/children/lover, often making personal sacrifices to do so, and generally acting for altruistic reasons. When it comes down to big budget film industry, Hollywood is dominated by heroes who run around saving the world, sometimes in tights, sometimes in a fighter jet, sometimes in court. These characters might be heroic from the start, or they might discover heroic qualities within themselves along the way, but with the hero narrative you know by the end they are going to ‘come good’ and perform their world-saving destiny with suitable panache.
Which is all well and good, but the anti-hero is a far more interesting psychological specimen. A few examples of anti-heroes in literature come to mind: Steerpike in the GORMENGHAST novels; Becky Sharp in VANITY FAIR. ARTEMIS FOWL, the eponymous criminal mastermind of Eoin Colfer’s YA series, is a rather delicious example, and an interesting comparison to the Harry Potter underdog-hero archetype. If you were to describe any of these characters, they might not sound especially appealing – in some cases, even repellent – but they make for fascinating reading. They may plot and connive and use people to get their way. They want to survive. On paper this might make them ‘the bad guy’, but these flawed characters are more human than the fearless hero who storms the castle or confronts the alien invasion single-handedly.
One of the best examples of how to do the anti-hero in recent television has got to be The Wire. I could rave about this series for days, but what I come back to again and again is the superb characterisation. Every single character in The Wire has an agenda, and most of the time it is one that aims to benefit themselves. It doesn’t matter if they are on society’s ‘good’ side or the side it prefers to forget – each character from the smallest to the leads are fully rounded, with flaws and redemptive qualities in varying measures. Bodie, who starts off Season One in Barksdale crew, is one of my favourite examples. I love the way your sympathies towards him shift across the series. Most characters in The Wire are anti-heroes, not heroes. And this is why it makes such compelling viewing and bears repeated viewing too. (Here I want to link to a fantastic post I came across recently by Richard H Cooper, ‘The Wire in 13 Characters’, but it comes with a health warning if you haven’t seen all five series – lots of spoilers!)
With writing these posts over the last few weeks I’ve been thinking a lot about the characters in my novel OSIRIS, and how they came to life. I think Adelaide is a bit of an anti-hero. At the start of the novel she’s flawed and single-minded and pretty selfish – she has her mission and she’s determined to see it through – but she’s also grieving for a twin brother who has been the most meaningful relationship in her life. I liked writing Adelaide because she isn’t perfect – she isn’t necessarily heroic. She makes mistakes, and then she has to deal with the consequences. Does that make her a bad person? I guess it all depends on your definition of what’s heroic.