Well, time for me to rip up my English degree once more.
I’ve gotta admit it: I wasn’t even aware there was a difference in definitions of an “antihero” until I researched for this blog post.
I thought all antiheroes were dark and deeply-flawed characters, “people you didn’t want to be,” as Extra Credits put it. But apparently the definition of antiheroes changes over time (Portnow and Floyd, “The Antihero – Can Games Create Antiheroes?”). That makes sense… if you realize what the core definition of an antihero is.
I discovered today that, quite simply, an antihero is a hero that doesn’t have typical heroic traits (LiteraryDevices Editors, “Anti-Hero”). This means that the definition of antihero changes depending on whatever the current archetypical hero looks like.
In classical history (think wayyyy back, like to the ancient Greeks), a typical hero was “a dashing, confident, stoic, intelligent, highly capable fighter and commander with few, if any, flaws and even fewer real weaknesses.” (Anybody else thinking of Odysseus at this point? Oh good. Not just me.) By contrast, “the antihero [was] plagued by self-doubt” or any number of other weaknesses (“Classical Anti-Hero”).
The antihero had flaws. The classical hero did not.
I’m ashamed that even after all those years of literature classes, I didn’t know better. (I probably forgot, because I’m sure they went over something like that…)
This all goes back to my discussion two weeks ago about protagonist morality and character flaws (or lack thereof). Morally-good characters like Captain America and Superman are remnants of a time that hearkened back to the classical period definition of a hero: someone morally good, a role-model, someone the audience could (and should) look up to (Portnow and Floyd, “The Antihero”). The fact that we have some people defending characters like this makes me wonder if in the near future we’ll be seeing a reemergence of morally-good heroes to rebel against the current antihero model–but that’s another topic for another day.
Obviously, the antihero has changed dramatically since the classical time period. In fact, the definition of the antihero has changed so much so soon (TV Tropes even claims the modern antihero has been called the “Nineties Anti-Hero” [“Classical Anti-Hero”]) that you can’t find its current definition in places like the Encyclopædia Britannica or other high-brow sources. You need to go somewhere more modern, more “hip,” more “in-touch” (I think “hip” was out of style even when I was growing up in the 90’s…)–places like TV Tropes or Extra Credits. Extra Credits defines the modern antihero like I did: someone riddled with angst, angry, brooding, dangerous to be around, and probably self-destructive (“The Antihero”).
Well, I gotta admit I’ve spent far more time writing “classical” antiheroes than modern ones. I like my characters with flaws, but they’ve more or less retained squeaky-clean records. They were the wide-eyed, innocent dreamers who would stand up for what was right simply because it was right.
But that has started to get a little stale for me to write. Not to mention, I worried that readers would find it hard to relate to characters that are still kind of… perfect. I worried my heroes’ flaws weren’t strong enough or their struggles not dark or “real” or relatable enough.
I’ve since started dipping my toes into some harsher issues to grow myself as a writer. After all, it’s my job to depict reality–even through fiction, even by exploring reality’s darker moments. I couldn’t really do that well if I can only create two-dimensional protagonists and evil-for-evil’s-sake villains.
I started a few years ago by toying with some moral dilemmas. The Titans Together roleplay was a great playroom for that. How did I edge my paragon good characters into the morally gray? Well, what would happen if a character fell in love with a long-time friend… who he knew was happy in a serious relationship? Or what would happen if a paragon good character–who had been taught by the Justice League not to kill–decided to take up a gun because she believed they were no longer fighting crime, but rather waging war in self-defense?
It sounds kind of sadistic, but… I did have a lot more fun with those scenarios than when I kept my protagonists squeaky-clean. More importantly, I felt that my stories really were better because of it. Go figure–I was improving as a writer just by letting my characters be a little more, well… human.
So, recently, I decided to take it a step further. I really wanted to challenge myself, so I was determined to make an “Extra Credits-type” antihero: a character nobody would want to be. I wanted to see if I could write a character who had done terrible things for the wrong reasons and see if anybody (including me) could stand him as a hero. In short, I wanted to take the antihero to its extreme.
That’s how Cassius was born.
…But more on him here. 😉
- “Anti-Hero.” TV Tropes. N.p., 8 June 2016. Web. 11 Aug. 2016.
- “Classical Anti-Hero.” TV Tropes. N.p., 16 May 2016. Web. 11 Aug. 2016.
- Editors of Encyclopædia Britannica. “Antihero.” Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc., n.d. Web. 11 Aug. 2016.LiteraryDevices Editors. “Anti-Hero.” LiteraryDevices.net. 2013. Web. 4 Nov. 2014.
- Portnow, James, and Daniel Floyd. “The Antihero – Can Games Create Antiheroes?” YouTube. YouTube, 25 Nov. 2015. Web. 11 Aug. 2016.
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