Hero or Anti-hero?


While at Norwescon, I was on a panel talking about rogues, heroes and anti-heroes. Apparently the subject is still bugging me, because I feel the need to continue it here, talking about anti-heroes in particular. The usual anti-heroes that I think of when the subject comes up is Elric of Melnibone and Thomas Covenant. I hate Thomas. Never liked him. Couldn’t get through the first book even. But I loved Elric. It’s been so long since I’ve read those books, though, that I can’t tell you why. They are all packed up and waiting for my eventual move that I can’t get to them either and have another look.

The conclusion of the panel was that anti-heroes do good accidentally or only selfishly. They frequently cause chaos. We talked about how heroes and anti-heroes can both be dark and do horrible things, sometimes for good, sometimes for not so good (like revenge). Sometimes they steal just because they want something or because they need money or what have you. There was some agreement that anti-heroes have some driving flaw or tortured past that has created them, though it does not excuse their bad behavior/bad choices.

This week the discussion came back to me while watching Justified. If you don’t know the show, then this next bit won’t make any sense. There’s this scene in the season finale where Boyd and Raylan were together and both end up saying to each other something to the effect of: how do you go to sleep at night not believing you are the bad guy? (different words for each, but that’s the essential idea.) I was thinking about both men in terms of being heroes and anti-heroes and I’m not sure if either are straight heroes.justified-s4-raylan-and-boyd_thumb

Raylan has done bad things. In the season finale, he does more bad things, or at least sets them in motion. Boyd has done bad things and sometimes feel sorry, sometimes not. It’s hard to know if Ralan feels particularly bad, but he usually feels, as the title says, Justified, as does Boyd. Boyd of course deals in the criminal trade, but is loyal and is deeply in love with Ava. He also wants to improve his standing in life and is highly driven. Ralan of course works on the side of good, but he is a very dark hero and I think walks awfully close to being an anti-hero. What seems to save him from that is that he does have lines he won’t cross. Even saving his family, he finds a roundabout way to allow a murder to protect them without actually breaking any oaths. Technically. Meanwhile Boyd commits to a more extensive criminal project. The reason he’s an anti-hero to me is because he’s still driven by mostly selfish motives and causes a great deal of harm. Ralan will do good because it needs doing. He’s also not mean and sometimes Boyd is. I think meanness can’t be a part of a straight up hero.

I’ve been thinking about the character I’m trying to develop for my current WIP. I like dark heroes. My current protagonist is not heroic. She’s not much of anything. I can’t find her flaws and her traumas. Yet. I’m poking with a sharp stick. I want her to do bad things. I want her to have flaws and failings. She’s just not there yet. On the other hand, she’s not all that helpful. Mostly she just is. I’ve developed some of her backstory, but the impact hasn’t become something I feel yet. One thing that I know for sure is that I do not want her to be too good. I want her to be walking the edge because that’s what interests me more. And right now, she’s just too damned good and it’s not working.

Tell me, what do you think about anti-heroes? Do you like them? Do you think the definition here is a good one? What would you change? Talk to me.


18 comments to Hero or Anti-hero?

  • I, too, despised Thomas Covenant. Even before the now-famous rape scene solidified my dislike, I couldn’t stomach him as a character worth reading about. He was whiny and self-absorbed, and I just couldn’t bring myself to care what happened to him. I did love Elric, though. He had his despicable moments, but he also didn’t waste time blaming the world for his misery. Or if he did, I didn’t get that impression (it’s been a while since I read the books.)

    I think one of the attractions of the antihero is his ability to do the dirty, cruel things that will bring about the desired conclusion quickest. The things most of us just would not do. I’ve been a role-playing gamer since high school, and most of the time I choose to play thieves. Would I steal from anyone in real life? Of course not, which is why playing that role is so attractive. It’s the same reason a well-written anti-hero is exciting – it gives us a taste of a life we wouldn’t necessarily embrace.

    And by the way, I adore Boyd. 😉

  • sagablessed

    It was not Thomas that kept me reading…it was Mhoram and the world itself. I found Thomas whiney.
    I have never read the Elric stories.
    Hero or anti-hero? Hmm, I really have to think about that before I post more.
    Seems to be a theme with you and Faith lately. 🙂 Maybe the universe is sending me a message about my WIP? Hmmmm….

  • What about Bad Boys? (or the female equivalent) At ConCarolinas last year there was a panel on Bad Boys. Not quite heroes, but not quite antiheroes. (I just posted my notes from this on Monday, which is why this is fresh in my mind). The discussion did touch on the spectrum: heroes, bad boys, antiheroes, villains. I liked Misty’s comment that antiheroes are more damaged, and have already lost what there is to lose. But bad boys still have somewhere to go. Is that sort of what you’re going for?

    I haven’t read Thomas Covenant, myself. Not sure if I want to bother.

  • I have to admit that I loved the Covenant books when I read them, back when I was in my late teens. They were the books that made me want to write. I prefer a dark hero, to an actual anti-hero, and I’m not at all certain that I would react to the Covenant books today the way I did way back when. Does anyone remember the movie HERO, with Dustin Hoffman, Andy Garcia, and Geena Davis? It was a flawed movie, but also a fascinating study of what constitutes heroism. I recommend it.

    When it comes right down to it, I don’t mind a hero who is driven, at least at first, by selfish or even malevolent motives. But I like me some redemption by the time the story is over. If the hero doesn’t redeem him or herself by the end, I wind up dissatisfied.

  • I was a big fan of the Elric saga. I still get ’em down and read through them from time to time. The first time I read them was high school and I burned through just about one book a day. I do like the anti-hero and the tragic hero. Raistlin Majere from the Dragonlance Chronicles was another character that fit the mold of anti-hero as one of the Heroes of the Lance. Hanse Shadowspawn from Thieves World could sort of fit the category. When you’re an assassin and thief for hire you sort of already blur that line. The MC in my Noir work is sort of pushed into the anti-hero role and it takes his close friends around him to keep him from falling too deep and becoming something worse than what he’s investigating.

  • Di, I too like the redemptive aspect of the antihero. I’m exploring that in the WIP right now with a secondary character who is totally despicable, but … um … teachable, maybe? It’s interesting to write, but way too easy to make the character appear whiny. Or weak. It’s a delicate balance between the redeemable, the boring, the un-redeemable and the unbelievable.

  • Sometimes I think anti-heroes are just heroes who haven’t figured out what they’re willing to die for yet. They’re the ones who are deeply selfish, and usually know it, but are capable of change, or at least remorse. (Villains are people so devoted to their ideals whatever they are, that they are incapable of change. That’s why even deeply moral characters can end up being villains sometimes). So, Darth Vadar might be an anti-hero ultimately, because he changes. Han Solo certainly is. Deeply selfish, but at some point he cares more for the lives of others and comes back and is capable of great self-sacrifice (remember, Lucas originally envisioned HS not surviving).

  • Hepseba ALHH

    Okay, so my definitions would be:

    hero: you’re cheering for them and their goals are justified
    anti-hero: you’re cheering for them even though their goals ultimately cannot be justified
    rogue: they do unjustifiable things, but you cheer for them when they turn to just goals
    villain: you don’t cheer for them and their goals aren’t just
    (?anti-villain: you don’t cheer even though their goals are just?)

    I guess on this scale, Han Solo is a rogue, and Darth Vader: might have been an anti-hero (had they developed his prequel movies better), was a villain, and had the potential to become a rouge if had he lived.

  • I loved that scene from Justified, where we as viewers along with the characters themselves, had to ask just who is the good guy and the bad guy, and what’s the difference between them.

    I tend to see heroes (especially the dark ones) as people focused on doing good for others and the world, even if sometimes they do bad things in order to achieve that goal. Anti-heroes are focused on doing what’s best for themselves, even if sometimes they do good things to achieve that goal.

  • Hepseba ALHH

    On a side note, I think you’ve just helped me figure out what separates anti-heroes that work for me from those that don’t. Something about their goals still has to *seem* justified. (This is why Anikan *so* didn’t work as an anti-hero; by the end he was just flat-out nuts.) And I suspect that I’ve now got to classify Nick Burkart from Grimm as an anti-hero. (which actually really helps with my he’s-cool-but-he’s-turning-into-a-sociopath conundrum.)

  • Misty: I love Boyd too. And Raylan. And most of the cast really. But I do like a dirtier, uglier character. Not that I don’t also like the clean, above board character too. I like a full on hero too, but the weird thing is that I remember Thomas being whiny too. And that’s unforgivable. I’m not sure I ever got to the rape scene. Or I blocked it out. It’s been so long. So for me, anti heroes tend to be more selfish and uncaring of others than not. Or so focused on what they do care about, that other things don’t matter. Boyd fits that last for me. I’m thinking Thomas as anti-hero, though usually the model held up at the definitive anti-hero, isn’t such a good model for me. He’s more of an asshole.

    Sagablessed: listen to the universe. Or it will *make* you listen. And you never want it to get forceful with you 😀

    Laura: I think Bad Boys can fall into any of those categories. Bad Girls too. I think Badness in the compelling and interesting sense is not attached to any category, but muddy the issue insomuch as they can make heroes look worse and villains look better (I know, that’s ironic, but I think true.)

    David: I think redemption is key, and it doesn’t have to be anything truly huge. For instance, in the case of Boyd, what redeems him is his love and loyalty for Ava. And his command of the English language makes me like him. But he does nice and kind things, and even when he hurts people, he is not usually cruel.

  • Daniel: I can’t remember the Dragonlance books. It’s been a long time. I really need to dig my Elric books out again. I want to go back and reread. It’s been a long time since I’ve read them. I don’t know how my older self will like them.

    Faith: what you said. Amen and pass the whisky.

    Pea_faerie: I tend to think of Han Solo as a rogue turned heroic. But I think you could be right–it’s a continuum. Though I think anti-heroes could be fallen heroes, rather than aspiring.

    Hepsebah: I’m not sure if it’s goals or if it’s means to the end, or a bit of both that defines them most. And I totally agree on Anaken. Or however you spell his name. Plus he was whiny. And there’s no forgiveness for whining. Right? 😀

    Sisi: Wasn’t that the best scene? I’m just wondering what lengths Boyd will go to for Ava. That will be worth watching.

  • I love the anti-hero. I have a really hard time writing characters who are so Superman good. Batman maybe, he tortures himself but he is tortured. I like part of what SiSi and Misty said. When the lines start to blur a bit between good and evil then you have a good idea of who the anti-hero is. I think they will get things done by any means necessary regardless if it gets them in hot water with everyone. They usually make the decisions that no one else has the nerve to do.

  • Razziecat

    I think of an anti-hero as someone who is so broken that he or she finds it almost impossible to do the right thing…yet still somehow manages to, at least part of the time. Felix in Sarah Monette’s Doctrine of Labyrinths comes to mind. A lot of readers hate him; I didn’t; I kept seeing him as someone who’d been hurt so much that he kept lashing out as a self-defense mechanism. Also, it seems that anti-heroes are people who made a wrong choice at a critical moment, have to live with the consequences, and are too damn stubborn to give up, even if it means they keep going down the wrong path.

    I read the Thomas Covenant books way back when they first came out, and liked them at the time. I didn’t particularly *like* Covenant himself. He was too negative; I don’t care for characters who are full of self-loathing. I find it interesting that most people who hated the rape scene don’t remember that Covenant hated himself for having done it. Just an observation. It certainly didn’t make him any more likeable.

    Oh, and Elric! I loved Elric! To me he’s not so much an anti-hero as a hero faced with ugly, impossible choices. Although now that I think about it, that may be a pretty good definition of an anti-hero. 😉

  • I sometimes think an anti-hero is the one who has been so damaged, and had to make so many hard choices in his life that when the final decision comes, he’s the only one whose moral compass is skewed enough to let him make the *necessary* decision. The true hero or rogue wouldn’t be able to let a child die to save the world; the anti-hero would.

  • […] have a post up at Magical Words today talking about Heroes and Anti-Heroes. It’s a fascinating topic for me and I’d love to hear your […]

  • quillet

    I really like the idea of anti-heroes being broken, because it makes all their “heroic” actions darker, dirtier, and more complex than a true hero can allow her/himself to be. It often makes them more interesting, too, though not all that comfortable or admirable!

    I must love anti-heroes, because I loved Elric, Han Solo, Raistlin Majere, and Severus Snape.

    …Oh, SNAPE. *sheds a tear*

  • henderson

    Really good topic. What type of character is Vito Corleone or Vic Mackie from the television show THE SHIELD? Littlefinger from A SONG OF ICE AND FIRE. Dogman from Joe Abercrombie’s FIRST LAW TRILOGY or any of the Northmen characters from his books. I am sure these characters or more like villains than rogues or anti-heroes, but for some reason I find these type of characters very compellingl.