Limyaael

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11:04 am: Rant on anti-heroes
A few people asked for a rant on anti-heroes. This is a collection of thoughts loosely organized around that topic.



1) Moral ambiguity or not? Supposedly, an anti-hero is someone who’s a major character in a story and yet takes morally ambiguous actions—or at least actions that don’t tend to fit under what a reader thinks of as “heroic.”

So what happens if an “anti-hero” only kills people who are shown to totally deserve it, or if her use of torture is preceded by seven arguments that show (at least to the author) why it’s justified in this case, or if he brags that he doesn’t care about anybody and yet he cares for a helpless innocent orphan child as soon as he gets the chance?

I don’t think those are anti-heroes. I think those are normal protagonists whom the author is trying to cushion, as authors usually do, against ever making a mistake.

If you have an anti-hero whom you want to make morally ambiguous, you have to give up most of the moral justifications. An anti-hero may well have set up his or her own moral codes, but they’re not going to match the usual definition of “good.” And his or her actions have to run the risk of being objectionable; otherwise, the author is just flirting with or teasing the audience with the specter of immorality.

I would consider Roland Deschain, from Stephen King’s Dark Tower series, an anti-hero, at least in the early part of the series, because he lets nothing get in the way of his quest for the Dark Tower. The narrative puts an obstacle in his path that most authors would use as an opportunity to demonstrate their protagonist’s innate compassion; Roland doesn’t take the bait. (I’m avoiding spoilers here, but if you’ve read The Gunslinger, you know what I mean). On the other hand, I don’t think Locke Lamora, from Scott Lynch’s series, is an anti-hero, because the justification of all his actions is carefully planted in the narrative. Though he’s a thief, he only steals from nobles who “deserve” it. When he becomes violent, it’s for the sake of friends. And so on.

So, consider. What exactly is the degree of moral ambiguity you’re going to permit your anti-hero? Is it real complexity, or just a way of escaping unpunished from actions that would earn severe disapproval in the real world? Is it truly a choice between two evils, or a choice between an evil and a right thinly disguised, with the character always choosing the right? If the character claims to pursue an ethic of self-interest or choosing the greatest good for the greatest number, does she actually do so, or does she flinch when it comes time to put it to the test? (Though I despise the philosophy of the greatest good for the greatest number, I think it would be interesting to see a fantasy character who actually took this to its logical extremes. Where it shows up, though, it always means rescuing the heroes of the book, while the sacrifice-oriented mentors or guardians kill off unimportant side characters).

2) What traits does your protagonist lack? For an anti-hero, I think this is at least as important as deciding what they’re actually like. Otherwise, you’ll turn out to have a hero the moment you stop keeping an eye on the little buggers.

For example, here’s a list of some traits that fantasy heroes often have:

Courage
Compassion for everyone around them
An open mind (this goes back to the fact that overtly racist/sexist hero/ines are very rare, even when it would make them fit better within their culture)
Drive to achieve some goal that is not simply personal (personal ambition is Bad)
A conviction that they are unworthy or unsuited to their chosen task or any honors that they earn (self-confidence and self-esteem are likewise Bad)
Skill in speaking, even when they think they’re fools
Very strong personal bonds, such as friendships and love affairs
Loyalty
Ability to perform the (seemingly) impossible
A dislike of change, hence the amount of heroes who end up restoring the “good” status quo at the end of the story
Exaggerated sensations of angst and guilt

So, let’s say you go through that list and decide that your anti-hero is going to be a coward, extremely self-interested, unequal to persuading other people to join her with her words alone, and prone to double-crossing people when it works. And she stays true to those characteristics. She isn’t loyal to someone who can’t benefit her, she runs away from fights, she abandons a group goal to concentrate on her own, and she isn’t an eloquent speaker; she just hands over money to hire help.

Already you can see that this is going to be a very different story from one about a completely heroic heroine, or even one about a heroine who starts out thinking she’s self-interested and then changes her mind halfway through the book, usually because she adopts a child.

The trick becomes keeping an audience’s interest, because one thing true anti-heroes do is turn some people off.

3) Make them like his other traits. A lot of anti-heroes have senses of gallows humor and cunning that allow them to get revenge on their enemies, because that makes them more amusing to read about. And certainly, if you’re writing about an anti-hero, especially one whose career puts him in danger quite often, you could do worse than this.

I think an ordinary, limited person also makes a fine anti-hero. She won’t have the killer magic or the incredible skill with weapons that often gets the normal heroine out of trouble. She may not be able to sweet-talk her way out of there, either. Instead, she has to figure out what thing within her power to offer her captors when she’s thrown in a jail cell and told she’ll be executed tomorrow morning. This exercise is good for the author’s brain, because it gets them out of the “normal” pathways of heroics, and it’s good for the audience, so that they can see what clever thing the author will come up with next.

Or you can have someone who’s an excellent psychologist, in the “reading people” sense of the term. She could get out of trouble, survive, and punish her enemies by manipulating people, playing them against each other, and destroying relationships from the inside by her knowledge of the partners’ fears and jealousies.

Anti-heroes may not be very nice people, but they can still be interesting.

4) Make this anti-hero a normal citizen of her culture. Say you’ve constructed a fantasy culture with many fine artistic and scientific achievements, but it’s still not a utopia, and it doesn’t hold to many of the cherished ideals of Western liberalism. (Notice that I said “ideals,” not “realities”). So you have slavery, or open persecution and discrimination against a racial or religious or linguistic minority, or constant class warfare. Fantasy heroes are usually fighting to change this—not by revolution as such, but by restoring some older status quo, like a legendary kingdom, where things were better for more people.

A fantasy anti-hero might exist as happily in this culture as a fish in water, and oppose any struggle to change it. After all, why change it? He’s not being hurt, and nor are his interests or the people close to him, and that’s all that matters, right?

The key to writing a story like this, I think, instead of a simplistic one where the rebels are the heroes and the defenders of the status quo are the villains, is to make the justifications of the defenders of the status quo familiar and reasonable-sounding. I’ve found a very good source of arguments like this in listening to American citizens argue about foreign aid, listening to whites argue about racism, and listening to men argue about sexism. Learn how those arguments go; then give them to your anti-hero. You’ve got a person who can do quite horrible things and yet rest easy with herself, because the structure of her beliefs sounds convincing.

5) Give another perspective. The problem with writing solely from an anti-hero’s perspective, especially if it’s first-person, is that it can come to sound as if the anti-hero really is a hero. (It doesn’t help that the author often has that impulse I mentioned above, to cushion the protagonist against making mistakes, and that the audience is often willing to identify the central character as being right no matter what he does).

So write from another perspective. Write from a heroic one, too—but make the hero a minor character instead of the protagonist. When the anti-hero inflicts magical leprosy on a person who once insulted him, that perspective is there to remind the reader how someone outside the anti-hero’s head might view that particular reprisal (that is, as being completely over the top).

6) Stunt certain emotional responses. In the case of the magical leprosy, the responses stunted are reflection and horror. Where a heroine might want to punish someone with a disease for insulting her, but then she’ll stop and reflect and be ashamed of herself, the anti-hero flings the spell and goes about her normal routine, perhaps feeling nothing but a quiet satisfaction.

Anti-heroes have to, I think, be less introspective than heroes, because otherwise the natural tendency is to show them coming around to other points-of-view and questioning themselves, and that almost inevitably leads into a story where they’re not anti-heroes anymore. They’ll probably also lack responses of deep horror, terror, exaltation, love, and other dramatic emotions that many fantasy heroes swing through. They can still feel fear and joy and love, of course. But those emotions won’t rule their lives to the point of driving them to do the impossible or the impossibly risky while ignoring their personal safety, the combination of traits that usually rules when the fantasy hero is performing some heroic act.

Try writing a less introspective character. It’s an interesting challenge, especially if you’ve been accustomed to writing people who did more thinking and talking than doing. If you do want to write an introspective anti-hero, then I think you’ll need the reasonable-sounding arguments I referred to in point 4: he or she will have to have some reason for being able to live with what they’ve done when other people in the society around them disapprove.



Comments

From:[info]arterialspray
Date:December 13th, 2007 07:02 pm (UTC)

Kellhus

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Anasurimbor Kellhus, from the Prince of Nothing series, is in many respects the ultimate anti-hero (and he's not the only one populating the pages of that trilogy -- Cnaiur is also a rather nasty anti-hero). Kellhus is a master manipulator, an adherent of an utterly ruthless rationality that is devoid of human sentiment, and that transcends all human customs, conventions, and morality.

While he is emotionally stunted (except in the sense that he purposefully fakes emotional responses as a means to manipulate those around him), I am not certain that "less introspective" is really a correct description of Kellhus. He does seem to _doubt himself_ less than Drusus Achamian (who is arguably the 'hero' of the story), except towards the very end when he rejects the Thousandfold Thought thingy. But doubting/questioning oneself and introspection are not quite the same thing.
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From:[info]limyaael
Date:December 15th, 2007 03:57 pm (UTC)

Re: Kellhus

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I've heard that one problem with those books is that there's not really enough distinction between anti-heroes and heroes, so you can't tell whether you're meant to approve of the characters or not. I've held off on reading them because of that.
From:[info]illidanstr
Date:December 13th, 2007 07:47 pm (UTC)
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Created an account here just for you =)

I like interesting introspection, but there's nothing to turn me off a book faster then listening to the "good guys" think. I kinda think I associate them with banality, illogic, and a total lack of anything resembling (to me) human emotion...

As people, most of us really, really do suck hard insane. What with all the benefits of presenting a stereotypically good personality, there might be a facade on top of that.

But introspection is incredibly awesome, either with an anti-hero or a villain! If an author can't plausibly do that, can't show their point of view in detail, do they really have a believable villain/anti-hero in the first place? I think, to understand ugly beliefs or actions on the part of others, you have to dissect your own. Sure, we might *think* ourselves forward-minded with our tolerances and all, but..

We're not, obviously. Example: Darfur. Huge humanitarian crisis. People there are living in utterly atrocious conditions. We as people are more interested in the economic benefits of a tight relationship with China. There are major problems like that which would *not* be easily fixed; problems which even the first step toward a solution might provoke an economic downturn, might make things worse in the long haul. It's easier to hold one-day hunger fasts, isn't it?

Can it really be so hard for writers to understand that supporters of slavery and genocide could rationalize their own actions in the same way?
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From:[info]shadowvalkyrie
Date:December 13th, 2007 08:13 pm (UTC)
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I adore anti-heroes! It's what makes me love George R.R. Martin so much.
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From:(Anonymous)
Date:December 13th, 2007 10:03 pm (UTC)
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The 'Sir Apropos of Nothing' books are a good example of an anti-hero STAYING and anti-hero. It's hard not to hate him sometimes.
From:[info]l-clausewitz.livejournal.com
Date:December 14th, 2007 07:46 am (UTC)
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Every inch of this post is actually just plain common sense. It's only "thinking out of the box" if the writer allows him/herself to fall into the box of generic fantasy heroes in the first place.

But then, to be strictly fair, staying out of that box may be easier said than done....
From:[info]frostflowers
Date:December 14th, 2007 09:21 am (UTC)
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Thank you for this - it got me thinking about some of my own characters. A lot of them are of the thinking-and-talking-rather-than-doing variety, which is really what killed my NaNo this year - I'm going to go over them with a fine-toothed comb before I start rewriting, and this will be a useful resource. :)

From:(Anonymous)
Date:December 14th, 2007 10:43 am (UTC)
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Thank you heaps for a great rant! I'm currently attempting a pair of anti-heroes as my main characters and this has been a great help!

As for common justifications for objectionable actions, I'd have to add the good ol' "They're not people" or "They are not like us" argument that generally leads to the conclusion that morals can be suspended in the case of others. For example, if a culture considers murder wrong, they may chose to see their enemies as "not people" for whatever reason, thus making it ok to kill them. This is used often in fantasy (usually along the lines of "evil henchmen aren't people, so they're fine to kill) but strangely enough it is never seen as questionable.

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From:(Anonymous)
Date:December 14th, 2007 10:22 pm (UTC)
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I personally love characters like Roland, so obsessed with their goal that conflict just comes naturally. Especially if they are theoretically "good" goals. In the Death Note manga/anime/movie, Raito just wants to create a law-abiding society - by summarily executing as many criminals as he can around the world.

- Last Servant
From:(Anonymous)
Date:December 17th, 2007 04:45 pm (UTC)
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I really like this post. First of all, I have always had this strong attraction to Anti-Heroes. In most of the worlds presented where they are used, heroism would typically either result in a boot to the arse or a sword to the throat. Anti-Heroes don't seem to me so much a class of people different from heroes, but heroes who do what they have to to survive. Heroes are characterized as people who a) do the right thing, but b) go about it using only moral tactics. It is very rarely (in good fantasy, at least) that you find a hero that believes in "the ends justify the means." Now, granted, in awful fantasy there's always the melodramatic, histrionic hero who weeps after killing and buries every one of his enemies, but crap fantasy can't really be held to the same rules that good fantasy can be, right?

Your post interested me because I'm writing a story - not fantasy, sadly - about a post-Apocalyptic world where a killer virus has ravaged the earth. The protagonist - an anti-hero - lives with about 1,000 others in a secluded compound which she helps lead. There is one situation where a man comes in from the outside and does not appear to have the virus. However, instead of being hospitable, she takes him into interrogation, tortures him, and then, when he doesn't have any useful information, throws him back out into the Outside. It isn't meant to be melodramatic, or create sympathy for the character in question - none of the, "Oh, but she is a tortured soul and was confused about what to do!" She just did it because it made the most sense - "It seemed like a good idea at the time," as a character from your story would say. I think that defines an anti-hero: someone who does not let moral inhibitions stop them from what they think is *smart*.

Well, /rant. Thanks for putting up with it!

Andromedaphile
From:[info]slimshadowen
Date:December 17th, 2007 07:13 pm (UTC)

Okie. So, here we go...

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Currently writing an anti-hero. Points are addressed as follows. (Warning: more in keeping with the '90s comics industry version of an anti-hero than an actual anti-hero.)

1) The character is a soldier. A soldier on the guerrilla side of a war. Civilians and other noncombatants? Well, if they can get under their desk fast enough, well and good, but if they can't see that the people they work for are bastards, well, if he takes an extra quarter second to be sure his bullets will go where he wants them to he might get shot...

2) Courage (Courage requires the capacity for fear)
Compassion for everyone around them
An open mind (this goes back to the fact that overtly racist/sexist hero/ines are very rare, even when it would make them fit better within their culture)
Drive to achieve some goal that is not simply personal (personal ambition is Bad) (sorta)
A conviction that they are unworthy or unsuited to their chosen task or any honors that they earn (self-confidence and self-esteem are likewise Bad)
Skill in speaking, even when they think they’re fools (Doesn't talk much, so when he does speak he at least gets people's attention)
Very strong personal bonds, such as friendships and love affairs (He is a soldier; he has to trust at least some of those fighting alongside him)
Loyalty (But not beyond reason)
Ability to perform the (seemingly) impossible
A dislike of change, hence the amount of heroes who end up restoring the “good” status quo at the end of the story
Exaggerated sensations of angst and guilt

3) He is damn near superhuman in skill...but there are others like him out there. They're all on the other side. So he has to avoid them or be overwhelmed. Sadly, with the way the world is set up, that is his only limitation.

4) This anti-hero would not exist without the contemporary society. He's not rebelling against the society because he hates it, but because it betrayed him. It's entirely personal and not all that practical. He's out for vengeance, and joins the rebels soely because he figures he'll do better with support than without.

5) Viewpoints a-plenty.

6) Emotionally bereft due to years of training him to not respond to most such stimuli. Emotions seem to consist of boredom, flareups of anger, cold disdain, and, when he's in over his head in a social situation, mild puzzlement.
From:[info]slimshadowen
Date:December 17th, 2007 07:14 pm (UTC)

And now that I'm through being a self-centered cock...

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This rant is awesome and helpful.
From:[info]dreamstalk
Date:December 19th, 2007 05:10 pm (UTC)
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Great rant! I've read all of them and very grateful to you.
Can I give you a theme for another very useful flaying of stupid stamps of fantasy - invalids. A huge war and no cripples after?
Thanks in advance!
From:(Anonymous)
Date:January 1st, 2008 07:09 pm (UTC)
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Interesting. The last point is the only one where I really disagree with you.

First, I don't think an anti-hero character needs to be less introspective. An antihero might well question himself, realize that what he's doing is wrong and... not care. It's wrong, but it helps him or feels good, so he does it anyway. On the other hand, a heroic character might do what he firmly believes is right but never stop to question his beliefs, and thus end up doing more harm than good.

I also disagree that an anti-hero wouldn't feel deep horror or love "to the point of driving them to do the impossible or the impossibly risky while ignoring their personal safety". This sort of feelings can drive fantasy characters to heroic deeds but then again, they could also drive them to less heroic deeds; for instance, an anti-hero might betray his friends to the enemy in exchange of the enemy freeing his love interest.
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From:[info]trillian_astra
Date:May 28th, 2008 03:05 pm (UTC)
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Another good rant. I agree completely on the subject of Roland Deschain. I mean... I love the character... but he's practically the definition of anti-hero.

From:[info]aloranteriel
Date:June 30th, 2008 05:03 pm (UTC)
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Just had to say that this rant reminds me of Elaine Cunningham's Elaith "The Serpent" Craulnober who I so totally love. He's ruthless and mercenary but totally Forgotten Realms elven in his values, as Harper Danilo Thann points out to another elf who was rather shocked at Elaith's ways. He's the example that shows tradition and conformity does not equate being good even if the traditions themselves are based on moral principles. He even tries to get redemption by any means possible which sort of defeats the purpose. ^^;

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From:[info]shirozora
Date:October 3rd, 2008 01:34 am (UTC)
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I'm going to go out on a limb here and say that this reminds me of the books I've read on the American Civil War. The North and the South have their justifications for going to war against each other, and their reasons are so convincing that although I agree with the North more I know that the South is not entirely wrong and the North is not entirely right. Plus the people involved aren't all morally "good". The good generals are the ones who make terrible blunders (like the slaughter at Cold Harbor) and keep going on because they say the other army's lost men they can't replace and it kept their army occupied. People called General Grant a butcher and railed against General Sherman's "total war" and these men didn't flinch, kept moving on, kept doing what they had to do. In fact, General Sherman once professed that he hated war and that he brought total war to the people in order to end the war faster.

And the Rebel generals were quite honorable and the Rebel soldiers very honest, even if they were fighting for a cause that would've destroyed the United States of America. Talk about moral ambiguity.

So basically I'm just saying that I see the anti-hero as a morally ambiguous character. In more basically I'm just saying, "Look at Dr. House."
From:[info]opterna
Date:August 5th, 2010 07:11 am (UTC)

Anti-Heroes Rant Response

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I actually think it's a mistake to go into a book having already categorized one's characters as "heroes" or "anti-heroes" or even "villains." I think it works better to design a group of people and let them take whatever route feels natural given the setting and events. This might result in people originally perceived as protagonists doing unforgivable things, as well as the converse, but I think it feels more believable. Otherwise, the focus becomes keeping someone a hero or an anti-hero or something of that nature. I think that's how you end up with shoehorned rape scenes and salvation for kittens stuck in trees. Eventually, the plot is forced to bolster characterizations instead of characterization falling naturally from the plot.

My current story has a central character (I wouldn't say "main" character, since to me that means something slightly different) who I think most people would call an "anti-hero." I'd object to that terminology, however, since I believe his level of heroism or villainy depends on whether or not you value the attributes he expresses, as well as whether you are evaluating him as a leader or as a personal friend. He's avaricious, narcissistic, condescending, savage, imperious, and ambitious. However, he's also evenhanded, humorous, clever, protective of his people, and respectful of the law. In keeping with his role, he has enemies, rivals, allies, conditional allies, friends, servants, and confidants who all view him differently, not only in terms of "good" and "evil" but also in terms of whether he's reliable, pitiable, or any number of other adjectives. (If nothing else, no one really trusts him.)

In retrospect, this seems in keeping with other things you've said, and this was a requested rant on the topic.... I'm probably just muttering to myself at this point!
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Date:April 18th, 2018 11:37 pm (UTC)

Недвижимость

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Лучшие новостные заголовки СМИ за 2017 год:
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Date:April 28th, 2018 04:21 pm (UTC)

Недвижимость

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From:(Anonymous)
Date:May 2nd, 2018 01:48 pm (UTC)

Недвижимость

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Лучшие новостные заголовки СМИ за 2017 год:
По улицам Саратова третий месяц катаются бетонные шары
Блоги о недвижимости
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