The topic of this post is near and dear to me, because I’ve seen way too many outright bad guys portrayed as heroes… meaning absolute merciless killers considered as “anti-heroes” rather than as… well… merciless killers. When an author (for prose, film, comics, television, etc) wants an anti-hero, the most common (and laziest) way to portray that is by having the hero commit countless numbers of variably-leveled crimes, and that’s fine. But only to a point. For me, one of the quintessential anti-heroes is Dashiell Hammett’s “Continental Op” character, especially in Red Harvest. He’s always forced to lie in his reports to the agency… he has a string of petty crimes and a string of fairly major crimes as well. He’s broken a couple hearts he knew damn well he was breaking. He’s broken a few men that he took a measure of pleasure in breaking. He’s broken a few bottles after a long night of drinking. He’s broken the law and he’s broken nearly every moral code. But he has a line that he doesn’t cross. He’s not an outright murderer. He doesn’t torture. He’s doing a job that he thinks needs to be done. He’s moving the world in a direction that he thinks it needs to move and he’s willing to die not for the glory of it all, and not even because he necessarily thinks it’s the way of justice, but simply because that’s who he is. It’s what he does.
And then there’s the other side of the coin.
For me… the other side of the coin is a comic book character called the Punisher, published by Marvel Comics. Frank Castle, the Punisher, is a war veteran whose family was killed when they were caught in the crossfire of a gangland killing. And Frank has been at war with the mob ever since. And he’s killed probably, oh… 20 or 30 thousand mobsters since then, and I’m not exaggerating. And he’s done so, for the most part, with cold glee. More… he’s done so, for the most part, without caring all that much about other people’s families who get caught in the crossfire. To me, the Punisher isn’t a hero. And he isn’t an anti-hero, either. He’s a killer, plain and simple. That’s fine, though; that’s not to say that he isn’t (at least at times) an interesting and workable character.
Not every story has a hero. Not every story needs one. A hero is nobility with flaws. An anti-hero is flaws with nobility. And characters like the Punisher or Omar from “The Wire” are flawed people who just happen to kill certain people who need a bit of killing. Doesn’t make it right. Doesn’t make them any sort of hero at all. Doesn’t mean we can’t cheer them on, though. Doesn’t mean that we don’t feel our own tingles of righteousness when the Punisher’s skull n’ crossbones design appears out of the darkness, or when someone in the back streets of Baltimore hears someone whistling A Hunting We Will Go and nearly wets themselves, because… Omar coming, yo.
The thing is… flawed characters tend to blend. Even if an author plans for one sort of character, they can plod at their own pace, and develop their own morality, or lack thereof… and suddenly they have their hands in The Wrong Cookie Jar. An author can look down at the page and suddenly realize, “Holy shit, Character X! You’re a complete bastard!” Because of that, here’s a handy checklist for what type of characters you’re writing at any given time.
HERO: Does good deeds for good reasons. Self-sacrifice at no extra charge. “I’ve defused the bombs, punched out the terrorists and sent them all to a prison that specializes in education and reform. Now, who wants to play with these puppies, and… I’ll buy ice cream!”
ANTI-HERO: Does good deeds, despite usual character, and isn’t all that nice about how he goes about it. “Hello… I am written by Mickey Spillane.”
ANTI-VILLAIN: Does bad things, but we find ourselves admiring him anyway. “You murdered him, but you saved me. Now c’mere and let me kiss you, you strangely alluring madman.”
VILLAIN: The bastards we hate. Despicable. Bad deeds. Bad people. “Hello. I have killed your puppies and stolen your ice cream.”
Steve Clarke, the main character in my first novel, “Prepare To Die!” is very much in the vein of the anti-hero. I planned him that way. But I also planned him as a man that you could trust to have over for dinner. To get a beer with. To leave alone with your girlfriend or take your kids to school. One thing about an anti-hero is that they try (oh how they try) to keep it inside of themselves as much as possible. The flaws are just exaggerations of what most of us, ANY of us, feel on a regular basis. The insecurity. The crushing doubt. The fears. And all of it balanced with a hope that we’re doing the right thing. A hero walks on water, while an anti-hero wades through the sewer, but they both reach the same destination. An anti-hero is marked by what she accomplishes, and because of that we trust her more; she resonates on levels we understand.
Most of us do want to be the hero. Most of us don’t want to be the bad guy. Most of us want to do the right thing, but we’re still crass, and we’re bastards, and we’re cheap, and we’re greedy, and we’re overly lustful, and we’re lazy, and we’re a hundred horrible things… but we have that nobility too. And that’s the main thing. That‘s what separates the anti-hero from the bad guy. That reach for nobility. Even if we know the reach will fail. We make the reach. We have to. Because we’re heroes.