Thursday, March 1, 2012

Sympathy and the Anti-Hero

Okay, people, now that I've been over the basics of how to characterize your cast, how to structure a narrative, and how to test to make sure that both of those are sound, it's time to get into the nitty-gritty of how to do this well.

You see, it doesn't matter if your main character is well-rounded and dynamic, or if your plot is well-structured and tight, if these things do not engage the audience. The point of any work of fiction is, after all, to entertain. That is, first and foremost, your goal. This is why I am a fan of OH GOD THE RAPTURE IS BURNING, despite the fact that there are several things that I don't like about it. It's not a perfect work of fiction. Far from it (and this isn't a slam against you, Jordan; none of us are good enough as writers, myself included, to create a perfect work). But it is consistently entertaining, because it doesn't take itself too seriously. Even at its lowest moments, you can usually get a laugh out of it. It's engaging. We want to know what happens next.

That's the key point, you see. You have to make the audience want to know what happens next. So this post is going to go over one of the most reliable ways to do that: constructing a sympathetic protagonist.

I'm sure that you've all read my Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides review (which was really more of a rant). It was, after all, only the very last post here. Anyway, you might remember that one of my chief complaints with the film was that Jack Sparrow is not a sympathetic or engaging protagonist. Not only is he a flat, static character, his motivation is to achieve something that the audience either doesn't care about or actively wants him to fail at. Jack Sparrow is not an effective protagonist. He does not engage the audience. He does not make you want to see what happens next.

Jack is, therefore, an example of a failed attempt at creating an anti-hero.

There are, you see, really only two types of heroes in fiction: the hero and the anti-hero. Most works of fiction have one of these as their protagonist. Those that don't are usually told from the point of view of a villain, but those are a separate style of work that I'll cover in a later post; this topic is more than varied enough without bringing villainous protagonists into the mix.

Your protagonist is obviously the most important character in your work, as I've talked about in earlier posts. It's important that the audience cares about them. The easiest way to do this is to make them into a hero or anti-hero, trying to do what's right. If someone is clearly fighting for good, then the audience has sympathy for them and some investment in what they're trying to do. Everybody likes to see justice done and the evil overlord defeated, followed by parades and medals.

But the choice between having a hero (also referred to as an ideal hero) protagonist and an anti-hero protagonist is an important one. Let me illustrate:

The Hero
The Anti-Hero

Superman is a paragon of justice, with an incorruptible sense of right and wrong and the power to enforce it. He has an unflinching ethical code, refusing to work outside the law and always doing his best to uphold it.

Batman, on the other hand, lacks Superman's powers. He's not a pushover, but he's not superhuman. Beyond that, he's not nice or sweet, and he works outside what the law would deem "justice", taking down criminals that the police refuse to attack.

It isn't just a matter of upholding the law versus circumventing it when necessary that decides whether or not a character is an anti-hero, however. There's more to it than that.

You see, in literature, the term "hero" is rather more rigidly defined than in popular usage. A hero is someone who is genuinely good and nice, incorruptible, always standing up for what's right, never using unnecessary force, defending the little man without any promise or expectation of reward or recognition, and so on. Beyond that, he has the power to do these things.

An "anti-hero" isn't just a darker and edgier hero. In literature, an anti-hero is anyone who lacks the attributes of a hero, and yet is still good. They may be ineffectual, play it fast and loose with their moral code, be less than kind to those they help, use a little bit more force than necessary (or even kill), going outside what many members of their society would consider legal, ethical, or maybe even moral, and so on. And yet, through all of this, they are still a good guy. They're still a hero. They're just not the archetypical hero.

For another example of an anti-hero, look at Frodo Baggins of The Lord of the Rings. Frodo is not a skilled fighter. He is not incorruptible. He doesn't know much about the world that he's venturing into. And yet he is, unquestionably, a good guy. He's kind, decent, and shouldering the burden of a quest that many would consider to be too great for him so that no one else has to suffer through it. He is an anti-hero, not because he's dark or edgy, but because he's human (well, hobbit). Almost every protagonist in modern fiction is an anti-hero, whether they are referred to as such in common discussion or not.

For another example of a "traditional" hero, look at Aragorn, from the same trilogy. Aragorn is upstanding, skilled, incorruptible, knowledgeable, and so on. He upholds the law - or, more accurately, fights with honor - in a situation that would be much easier for him if he didn't (for example, releasing the army of the dead from their bonds following the battle of Minas Tirith when he could really, really have used their help at the Black Gate, all because he promised). He is an archetypical hero.

Why did I give these two examples? Well, I think that it's important to illustrate that not all ideal heroes are invincible paragons of sweetness and light. Aragorn isn't mean, but he certainly isn't the nicest character in the series. It's also important to illustrate that anti-heroes aren't necessarily dark and edgy amoral sociopaths. Frodo is one of the kindest, most decent characters in the series.

But again, this post is about engaging the audience through the use of these types of protagonists. It's all well and good to say that anti-heroes and heroes don't necessarily fall into the categories that you think they do, but that doesn't help to make your story any more engaging.

So what is my point with the above? Well, anti-heroes are much more common in modern fiction than ideal heroes. Ideal heroes are often incorrectly labeled as boring, invincible characters that can never have any real substance to them beyond "Truth! Justice! And The American Way!", when there's really much more to them than that.

What it comes down to is this: people look at the ideal hero and decide that it's boring. Aside from the fact that it's not, writers often assume that they have to avoid their characters being ideal heroes at all costs. Since ideal heroes are boring, if we write about heroes who are as far from the ideal hero end of the scale as possible, then our characters are more interesting, right?


What you get when you push your character as far away from the ideal hero side of the scale as possible is not something new and exciting that the audience wants to see more of. You get an amoral sociopath who kills for money and personal gain - or, at the very most, vengeance - rather than a desire to see good win out. You get, in short, the entirety of Rob Liefeld's work.

What you get is, in short, not a hero at all. You get a villain pretending to be a hero. You get a massive dick that the audience hates to watch on the screen because you keep trying to pass off their acts of bloodthirsty assholeishness as heroic. It just isn't going to work. Batman isn't an anti-hero because he's darker and edgier than Superman, any more than Aragorn is an ideal hero because he's darker and edgier than Frodo. Being dark and edgy is often an indicator of an anti-hero, but "dark and edgy" is not the definition of anti-hero.

The key point of this post is, in short, that "anti-hero" still contains the word "hero"

To be an anti-hero, your character must still be, at their core, a good person trying to do good things. If they're an anti-hero, they can be doing so in exchange for material compensation, but they should still be willing to make the choice to do some good even when there isn't going to be any reward. Han Solo from the Star Wars original trilogy, for example, continued to help the Rebels even though he wasn't being paid during the later installments. He was an anti-hero, but he was still a hero.

Remember, when writing, your goal is to entertain. In order to entertain, you have to keep the audience engaged. In order to keep the audience engaged, you have to give them something to be invested in. In the vast, overwhelming majority of cases, this means that you need to have a hero, be they ideal or otherwise, trying to do something heroic. A good person trying to do good things is someone that the audience can root for and desire to see succeed. A character who is entirely self-serving is not an anti-hero. They're a dick. And dickish protagonists are boring to read about, because we don't care whether they succeed or fail at perpetrating further dickery. 

So just remember that, when writing up your next protagonist. Make them as dark and edgy as you want, or as good and pure as you want, but, in the end, they have to be a hero of some sort.

No comments:

Post a Comment