Question of the Week: Antiheroes

“Antihero” is a slippery term. Sometimes I see it applied to characters I think of as heroes or villains, but I’m hard pressed to define the width of that gray line between the extremes.

With the recent trends in cable television, I’ve seen the term used more frequently and broadly. Does “antihero” apply to characters like Walter White? How about William Masters, Nucky Thompson, Don Draper, Jax Teller, or practically any character from Game of Thrones?

“Complicated protagonist” doesn’t have quite the same charm, but I tend not to think of characters outside of pulp fiction as antiheroes anymore.

Does “antihero” have a more specific meaning to you? Who are your favorite antiheroes? Who are some that you think are actually heroes, villains, or “complicated protagonists”?


3 thoughts on “Question of the Week: Antiheroes

  1. I feel that, in general, the original view of the “hero” was someone entirely selfless. A shining paragon of virtue who would sacrifice everything (including their own happiness or life) for the greater good. Sure, they might get something out of it in the end, but helping others was their main goal.

    The antihero (again, quite broadly defined in my mind), brings a level of selfishness into play. They are more often driven by their personal agenda, and they don’t necessarily care as much what happens to others, except in extreme circumstances. Oftentimes, their contributions to anything good happening is either begrudging, when they’re forced to it, or when their priorities almost accidentally align with others’. In that way, perhaps, antiheroes are almost more “human” than the traditional black-and-white hero, which might make them more relatable and explain their growing popularity in recent years. They’ve got a bit of the hero and the villain in them, making for those lovely gray elements we find intriguing because we never know quite where they might fall along the spectrum.

  2. I really enjoy these questions of the week!

    Heroic characters are larger than life; they originated from the great epics and later on were reincarnated as tales of knighthood and then again in epic fantasy. As readers, we will always need heroic characters because they restore our faith in humanity, friendship, nobility, loyalty and, generally, all that is good about human nature. However, one must not confuse heroic characters with flawless characters simply because heroes are better fellows than antiheroes or villains. Flawless heroes tend to be flat and boring because no one really wants to read about somebody who excels in everything. A well-written hero needs to be flawed as much as any other well-written character. To take an example from your own work, Oparal is definitely a hero but her flaws are what make her such an interesting and exciting character. I like to see heroes take tough decisions, facing moral dilemmas and being looked down upon by their peers because of their personality.

    Antiheroes, now, are flawed by default, which means they should have the advantage over heroes. But, again, many writers confuse being flawed with being a villain and we end up with evil characters who are pretty much flawless in any other way except their evilness and, as a result, flat and boring. In the end, readers need both and like both as long as they’re well-written, deep and properly executed. A hero can be as complex as any antihero if the writer puts thought into them and invests in their creation.

    The increased popularity of antiheroes coinsides with the increased tendency of de-fantasizing fantasy. Deconstructing myths can be engaging and brilliant if done right (like Crichton did in the “Eaters of the Dead”) or it can be terrible if not done right (like “Twilight”). “Game of Thrones” became so popular because it drew millions of people who had no previous experience with fantasy as a genre and perhaps even snubbed it a little. My parents, for example, always mocked me for the books I read but they really liked the first season of GoT. Then when the series started introducing more and more fantasy elements, they felt they’d been cheated. I know for a fact this is the case with a lot of people who started watching GoT as sort of a realistic fantasy series and later on found out that there’s no such thing as “realistic” fantasy. Furthermore, many people enjoy GoT because of its morally questionable characters because they believe this had never before done in fantasy, completely ignoring many of the iconic fantasy works which influenced George Martin. It all boils down to this, in the end: to most people, there are only two works of fantasy. The Lord of the Rings, which they consider childish and black&white and A Song of Ice and Fire, which they consider the genre’s messiah. Problem is, there have been tons of amazing writers and tons of complex fantasy heroes in between.

    This is starting to look like a huge wall of text and ranting, so I’ll wrap it up by answering your final question. I think it would probably come down to these three: Elric of Melnibone, Kane and Raistlin Majere. I must say I have enjoyed Kane’s stories more but that’s probably because I love Karl Edward Wagner’s style -not that Kane is not a great antihero. Elric is an amazing character and Michael Moorcock wrote him beautifully, but some of the stories felt a bit flat to me. As for Raistlin, I have a soft spot because I fell a little bit in love with him when I was reading his adventures but the writing falls a little short, especially compared to the previous two. In the end it would be Kane, for me, I think.

  3. I dabbled in antihero from my first published novel, creating one as a foil to the real hero. (In truth, the real mistake I’d made was letting both of them be too passive, which made the villains much more fun than they.) Sometimes I get heat from a certain portion of the audience who dislike flawed protagonists, even if they aren’t “antiheroes” by most definitions, but flawed characters are the only ones that interest me.

    Except Arnisant. He’s a good boy.

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