Several weeks ago, a friend mentioned that she missed good, old-fashioned heroes. And I thought, “Bleh. How boring”. I love the anti-hero. Malcolm Reynolds. Harry Dresden. Lazarus Long. Captain Kirk. I love them because they are flawed and complicated. And thrilling. And compelling.
When I was a kid, I read children’s books. I still love many of those stories, but as an adult I can see how two-dimensional those characters are. The Pevensy children aren’t perfect, but their flaws exist to demonstrate the moral lesson. Laura Ingalls may be jealous of her sister’s golden curls, but she still milks the cows every day. They have no capacity for real wickedness. This is, of course, totally appropriate for a children’s story – simple cause and effect. The character is faced with the consequences of a poor choice and learns their lesson.
In later elementary school I had a mythology phase. Cataloging and cross-referencing the gods and goddesses of different cultures appealed to my love of categorizing, but there were also inspiring heroes with good triumphing over evil. But even then I felt a mild dissatisfaction with those heroes. Arthur was so predictable and, in the end, a bit pathetic. And Thor always fell for Loki’s tricks. And who likes whiny Luke who is so obviously going to do the right thing? Especially compared to Han, who might just take off with that bounty money and never come back. With Han, you get the suspense, the delicious indecision, and the eventual relief when he does make the right decision – because you weren’t really sure he would.
And so I choose Buckaroo Bonzai over Flash Gordon. I choose the complicated, conflicted, unlikely and exasperated hero over the one who is so clearly and obviously good. As Anne Shirley says, “I could never love someone who was truly wicked. But I’d like it if he could be wicked and wouldn’t”.
But as a writer, how do you keep the anti-hero attractive? Francis Crawford is so repulsive and degenerate that it took me three tries to finish his first book, even with the endorsement of my mother and grandmother. But when I finally got to the part where his good side is revealed, I spent five hours in the bathtub because I couldn’t stop experiencing his transformation. And over the next 5 books, he kept me in suspense – he would be so bad that I was always on the point of giving up on him and just at the moment of utter disgust he would reveal that all his bad behavior had all been part of the plan. Or that the bad behavior was rooted in some deep psychosis that made him hopelessly attractive. I am constantly amazed at the perfect timing of the author (Dorothy Dunnett) as she tantalizes the reader with Crawford’s true motives and personality. She kept me engaged with him for over 6,000 pages.
I think the trick is that the anti-hero must understand his choices and their consequences. He has to demonstrate that, while he may skate around the edges of morality, he will eventually choose the greater good. Maybe not in the minutiae, but in the bigger picture. As Mal says, he doesn’t have to be a great man. Or even a good man. He just has to be all right – at the right time. And he must understand the difference.
The anti-hero must make his decisions transparently. He must own the harm he’s done, he must feel the suffering he inflicts and he must consciously choose to cause that damage as part of the sacrifice for doing the “right thing”. A “hero” sees right and wrong. An “anti-hero” sees a trail of bodies in either direction. And more, he understands and accepts that one of those bodies might be his.