Wednesday, July 3, 2019

Getting Back To Basics When It Comes To Anti-Heroes

When you hear the word anti-hero, what comes to your mind? Unshaven men with dirty knives stinking of cordite and blood? The hard-eyed look of a private eye as she pulls the trigger on someone, and walks away as their blood runs down the gutter? Maybe it's the vigilante, out on the streets, just waiting for somebody, anybody, to try him?

Ringing any bells?
However, what would you say if I told you the original characters who fell under this definition were more like Falstaff or Bilbo Baggins than they were Frank Castle? Because language is a funny thing, and sometimes getting back to the roots of a term or idea can give you some fresh perspective on it.

What Makes A Hero?

When you look at Classical heroes, you get a very particular set of attributes that you may not think of in terms of modern heroes. Classical heroes had to be of noble birth (or at least auspicious birth, since many were the children of gods), for example, and their struggles were always for themselves. Their deaths were always unusual or notable, and they typically had no flaws with the exception of their single, tragic flaw. This was the mold that we cast characters like Achilles, Odysseus, and other such O.G. heroes from, and it was the original standard.

Heard you were talking shit. Mind repeating that?
This mold changed over the years, and it was updated during the Medieval period. Heroes in these epics could be of common birth, though they were typically nobles in disguise, or without their knowledge as Reference points out. Their end goals, though, had to be noble ones. They often fought for their lord, or for a cause, rather than for themselves. Also, heroes during this period needed to suffer. The suffering was important, and it had to be physical in order to really fit the mold.

Tortured heroes were very much a literal thing during this period.

In both of these versions, heroes shared certain qualities. They were characters of purpose and action, they were capable, and they were typically dashing, clever, or both. They rarely had any real weaknesses to speak of, and they would typically boast the one, classic flaw that could lead to a tragic downfall (though even that wasn't present all the time). In many of the later cases, the heroes were possessed of powerful ideals, and they always did the right thing.

For modern touchstones, Superman is probably the best example of a character with capital-h Heroic qualities that most of us know.

So What's An Anti-Hero?

An anti-hero is, in essence, someone who is not a hero. That's literally it; someone who lacks the qualities of the hero, but who is still an important character in the narrative (and possibly the protagonist).

Kind of like that guy on the left, there.
Frodo is, in many ways, a Classical Anti-Hero. He's physically small, often doubts himself, has little to no capability in a fight, and struggles with himself at least as often as he does with the challenges of his journey. Which makes sense, after all, as his whole arc is an average guy in a big scary world that he can barely understand as an allegory for a WWI soldier's experience.

By contrast, though, Aragorn is a classical Hero, capital H. He's a noble in hiding, he's capable, he's handsome, he's sure of himself, and he takes decisive action when we follow him. He doesn't struggle with his decisions, by and large, and he inspires others to follow him.

To be clear, here, that doesn't make Aragorn a better character. It makes him a classical Hero. The two are not the same thing.

Changing Times and Language

While Classical Anti-Heroes have always been with us, it was shifts in literature that told the stories of more common (and more mortal) people that led to a strange shift in styles and tropes. Because when most people think of anti-heroes, they tend to think of their methods rather than their qualities as characters.

The idea that characters should be genuinely flawed, and that they should have to struggle, is commonplace in our fiction these days. In fact, if a Classical Hero shows up being effortlessly charming and sure of their actions, people often roll their eyes at them. Where's the struggle, we ask? Where is the grappling with who they are, and what they're doing?

Where is their lack of genuine, heroic quality that makes them more like the rest of us?

Look at them, all leaping tall buildings at a single bound, and shit...
It's interesting that the idea of something that is essentially antithetical to the nature of the hero has become a requirement of heroes in a lot of our modern fiction. That we have changed so much from our old stories that we are more interested in those who are weak, who are scared, or who are unsure than in those who are strong, brave, and certain.

More interested in those who are like regular people, than in the idealized figures who stand above them in many ways.

It's for this reason that I personally recommend referring to characters using specific terms like protagonist, rather than your hero, or getting bogged down in what kind of anti-hero your story is or isn't featuring. Because clarity of language (particularly in the design phase) can make for a much cleaner, clearer project.

Trust me on that one. After all, the character of my last novel is in many ways a classic Hero, though most would consider him an anti-hero by modern standards.

Seriously, go give it a read!
That's all for this week's Craft of Writing! For more of my work, check out my Vocal archive, or at My Amazon Author Page where you can find books like my sword and sorcery novel Crier's Knife!

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