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So…We’re here for the final part, the part where we look at heroes and anti-heroes. Yes, I know I’ve gone over the whole protagonist/antagonist thing, but it is exactly these terms (hero/anti-hero) that I want to dissect and talk about, so that’s what I’m using.
Now, before we go any further, I’d like you to go look at an article from waaaaay back in 2006. You’ll find it here. The article will give us a base to start this dialogue. Go ahead…It’s a short article…Ready?…Okay…
The gist of the article is: how can we tell the difference between an anti-hero and hero in these uncertain times, when heroes stand on crumbling pedestals and anti-heroes are hard pressed to be “anti-” anything when it’s hard to solidly define what’s right and wrong.
Not to poke holes in another person’s writing (especially when I sent you to it), but I feel that the article starts with a false premise: that in the early 2000’s we finally have reached the age of the anti-hero. We have anti-heroes throughout the history of writing. To give you some examples: Hercules, while a “hero”, was renowned for having a berserker rage, during which he killed his family, and had to perform his twelve labors to exonerate himself; and in the original Sleeping Beauty story it was labor pains that woke her from her sleep (some true love’s first kiss). Peter Pan was a child thief, taking Wendy because she didn’t want to grow up, herself an anti-character for fighting the established order of nature (not wanting to age). Sherlock Holmes, so popular in the mainstream now, was a heroin addict. Paladin, the main character from the series Have Gun-Will Travel. Almost all of John Wayne’s characters, and about half of Louis L’Amour’s. And more, all the way up to Jack Bauer of 24 and Dr. Gregory House of House MD, possibly the two characters responsible for the “age of the anti-hero” that got everyone up in arms about the whole thing.
Let’s take a look at Jack and Greg for a moment to try to piece together what made them anti-heroes. Jack is a family man, who gets taken from his home with his family by terrorists, who he then tracks for a day, and, ultimately, foils their plans. Along the way he does kill some people, though they were trying to kill him too; he does torture some people, though the terrorists did rape his wife and are planning to kill everyone in a city (or was it kill the president?). As the article I had you read stated being an anti-hero means you’re against something (anti-), so what is Jack anti-? Is he against terrorists? Yeah. Is he against the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people? Yeah. Is he against the rape of women (specifically his wife)? Yeah. Is he against people trying to kill him? Yeah. To be fair, the anti- in anti-hero means the character is against some established norm/laws/mores, but Jack is a character in a post 9/11 America, where the Patriot Act gave sweeping powers to law enforcement when it came to terrorists and their activities, making what Jack did legal if not exactly morally right. So, some people might take exception to the means and lengths Jack went to to accomplish his job, but I don’t know many.
Greg is another anti-hero to look at, a doctor, a man suffering from an injury that causes him constant pain, and someone addicted to pain killers as a result. Now, Gregory House is supposed to be an allegory of Sherlock Holmes, a drug addicted detective, but I think the character is much more than that. First off, his addiction comes from a genuine place (as opposed to being too smart), an injury that causes him pain. The fact that he became addicted to the drugs he needed to live his life is a statement on the pain-killer industry, and something that happens to hundreds of people a year. Also, he’s not just solving riddles of rich people who have been killed, or have missing jewels, he’s saving lives. Given Greg’s intellect, he could have been anything that could have kept his mind busy, but he chose to join a profession that saves lives. To be fair, he is more anti- than Jack, in so much that he hates all the rules he has to follow in order to do his job. In which case, he truly is an anti-hero for being anti-rules, but I think more in the case of Dr. Gregory House people are using the term anti-hero to mean asshole.
The point of the article I had you read is: it’s hard to pin down exactly what it means to be a hero. The point I’m trying to make, and maybe I’ve proven it, is that people enjoy complex characters; they prefer their heroes to get their hands dirty, or to have flaws. Not only does this give them depth (makes them believable), but makes them (I think) better examples than there pristine, “I’m-with-the-status-quo”, counterparts, the heroes. Because at the end of the day, it is the “heroes’” job to maintain the status quo, to make sure everything stays the same, or to, as quickly as possible, return things to “normal”. Which is fine if you’re in the top of the status quo, but something different if you’re not. From that point of view, the hero is actually the villain.
And thus, we come back to people like complex characters, and the terms hero and villain are too narrow and childish for many stories. So, the next time you start a story don’t think hero and villain, try to think of your main character as your protagonist and see how the story develops after that.
Until next time: be yourself, be well; write yourself, write well.