I’ve already mentioned my obsession with Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency here. A recent episode, the fourth in the second season, had the primary villain saying something quite interesting to a character he was trying to persuade to join him.The woman he hopes to convince says that she never meant to get mixed up in all the crazy stuff that’s been happening. That she’s a “nice person.” The villain’s response?
“NO YOU’RE NOT! No. You’re. Not. The wand wasn’t drawn to you because you’re nice. You’re far better than nice; you’re interesting.”
I can’t get that sentence out of my head. You’re far better than nice; you’re interesting. If you’ve written a compelling story, these words likely describe your protagonist. Gone are the days when all heroes are weirdly god-like beings who can do no wrong. This is the heyday of the antihero.
An antihero is defined as the protagonist or hero of a tale who may possess some, but not all of the qualities typically associated with the heroes of old. Courage, physical strength, empathy, mercy, and even sometimes a random, unknown something that makes them The Chosen One. There are more, but you get what I mean. The hero is an all-around “good” person whose every quality except maybe one are traits that the general populace would consider desirable.
The antihero might have one or two of those traits, but their actions aren’t driven by a need to “do the right thing.” They do what they do because they want to. They might have a personal vendetta against someone who wronged them in the past. They might want money, power, fame, a fresh start, or simply to be left alone by society. Heck, they might do whatever they do just because it feels good to them, including murder. This puts the antihero perilously close to crossing the line into villain territory, which is exactly what makes them so interesting. Their motivations are not always clear. The means used to reach their goals are not always above board. They are muddled. They are complicated.
While the hero reflects what we aspire to, the antihero reflects what we are (with maybe an upgrade or two). Which makes them easier to identify with and root for than your run of the mill hero. What’s there to care about when you’re following the adventures of someone who always wins? It’s true that, if written well, even stories starring classically heroic protagonists will put you in suspense. But there’s something terrifying and exciting when you know the character you’re reading about could fail miserably, or that them reaching their goal could spell absolute doom for every other character.
The antihero factors more into their decision than whether or not something is “right.” In fact, they may not care enough or at all about the consequences of their actions… unless those actions further complicate their own lives. They might accomplish great things, things they’ve always wanted, only to be haunted by those same accomplishments. One of my favorite antiheroes is Victor Frankenstein, a scientific genius who succeeds in creating life from death, but must immediately face the many anxieties associated with creation, foremost of these the responsibility of the creator for their creation (and in this case, the creation’s horrific actions) despite existing apart from it.
Who are your favorite antiheroes?