Wednesday, July 29, 2009

The Appeal of the Antihero

I love antiheroes. They just intrigue me and captivate me. Why I wonder? I am a pretty morally-focused person. That doesn't mean I'm perfect. Far from it, but I do believe in doing what is right. Well, antiheroes, by nature, usually aren't the types of characters known for their moral compasses. Yet, they are the characters that usually appeal to me. Now I love the really good characters, but I probably love antiheroes just as much.

Before I sit down and ponder why I tend to choose books with antiheroes, I have to define what I consider an antihero to be. Antiheroes have these traits (in my opinion):

Immoral or Amoral or having a flawed moral compass
Extremely pragmatic or selfish in their decision-making
Hard to categorize
Unpredictable behavior
Dark personality, often dangerous

Well looking at that list, I can put together a pretty good argument for why antiheroes appeal to me.

First of all, I love the theme of redemption, regardless of the genre of literature. I remember reading Crime and Punishment by Dosteyevsky in school. At first I was less than thrilled at the story, and then a switch turned on. I saw this really awful man go through a change (moral, emotional, and spiritual). It was very influential on me as a reader. I don't know. Maybe this was when I fell for the antihero. Or maybe sooner, with Anne Stuart. Ms. Stuart, the Queen of Dark Romance, writes wonderful stories with dangerous, hellbound men who are saved by the love of a good woman. Those stories never, ever get old for me. I know fundamentally it's because I believe that as a Christian, God's love can save even the worst sinner. In literature, this message can be very well transmitted, and it doesn't even have to be on a religious level.

Seeing this character who would make decisions that are motivated by selfish or logical reasons (that don't consider doing what is right as the primary motivation) sets the reader up to find out how the situation will unfold. Will the protagonist develop a change of heart, will he/she reap what has been sowed in the decisions made, or will the protagonist learn a lesson and go on to make better decisions in the future. This hooks the reader in so that they have to keep reading, so closure can be gained. This definitely can make a book a high priority for me. I have to know what's going to happen. Now there is a danger in this, if the writer spends too much time heaping coals of damnation over the protagonist's head. You eventually get to the realization that you hate that person and don't care what happens to them. It's a delicate balance. There needs to be some intriguingly good or some core of unselfishness in that person, at least enough, to make the protagonist an unknown quality. So you can ask yourself, "What's going on with him?" and want to finish the book to find out exactly what the deal is with this intriguing character.

Another aspect of antihero appeal for me is the fact that they are usually conflicted, flawed people. In real life we are all flawed. There is no getting around it. You may meet people that you know are very good, kind people, but even they have flaws. Fiction has to mirror reality in that sense. You cannot have a character who is absolutely perfect. Yes, there can be good characters who are just wonderful. But even they must have flaws. Be it insecurity, a stutter, crossed eyes, whatever. They need a flaw, or the reader will not believe they are real. Even though the fiction writer is creating something that is not real, it must appeal or seem real to the reader in that sense (even if the book is set on Venus). The flawed character sucks me in. I don't know how else to say it. I want to go on the journey with this person. I want to see the character prevail and gain happiness in the end, and learn a lesson along the way (and hopefully I will learn one too). I get so bored with the perfect heroine with the perfect looks who is so sweet and she meets the perfect hero and everything is just perfect. Nope, bored now. I like the not so perfect heroine who falls in love with the guy who everything thinks is evil. Or vice versa (yes I love an antiheroine just as much)I like to see these outcasts get their happy ending. I will always root for the underdog. It's an integral part of my personality.

Do you ever read a book, and you're not sure what to think of a character? Well I love that. If the sentence in your review starts like this: "Well I liked him , but....", then chances are I will put this book on my to be read list. I want to find out what makes this character tick. I want to know if I will have the same dilemma of not having this person figured out. The puzzle needs solving, and I'm on the case. This adds an extra spice to the story for me.

The antihero is unpredictable to a 'T.' If he was straight up evil, he'd probably blow up the bus with the school children on it. But an antihero might assassinate the diplomat but save a child about to drown in a river. He's bad, but he's capable of good. And you never know which way he will go. Okay in the real world, that's scary. In books, it's fascinating and interesting. At least to me.
Another area where the writer must be careful. There are some places an antihero cannot go. There are some lines that cannot be crossed. If you cross that line, at least far into the story where the reader has some hope, then the reader is lost, and mostly likely the book becomes a wallbanger. The readers will not believe that this person is worthy of their interest or regard. The antihero becomes the villain that must pay the price for his or her actions in order for most readers to be satisfied with the ending of the book. (I am adamantly insistent that evil be vanquished in the end). Personally there are some things I don't want to see an antihero do. But I am more willing to keep reading if I see them do bad things early on in the book, and show a change (in a well-paced way) over the course of the book. I need to know that something has shifted in that person that makes them want to be a better person. Not perfect, not a boy scount. Just more moral. I won't tell the the writer how to accomplish this. It's up to him or her. Eecause, at the end of the day, it's all in the execution.

Dark and dangerous is a great combination for me. Antiheroes should have these qualities if it's a genre fiction story. If it's a family drama, probably not. In the romance genre, nothing gets me perked up as much as a dark or dangerous (both even better) hero. Oh, yes, Danielle is engaged. Show how murky the character is. Let me see him being a badass, and then give him a woman he can love. I am so there. Even better when he uses his dark and dangerous powers for good (or to protect the heroine. He would break most of the rules for her, yes). Happiness!

If you put these combinations together (all or most, or some of them) in a well-written and characterized story, you have have an antihero. That antihero will take the reader on a journey of discovery, that is unpredictable, resistant to pigeon-holing, full of insight and wisdom, and will hopefully to love and redemption. It's one of the best literary experiences that this reader can have.

Tune in for Part 2 (where I list my favorite antiheroes)

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