What is it about the anti-hero that we love so much? Today on EFW, author Melissa Berg looks at what makes an anti-hero and why this type of character’s journey is so compelling both to read and to write. Want more of Melissa’s articles? Check them out HERE.
We love to talk about heroes. And why not? Bravery in the face of evil, the one who stands up for the side of right while others grovel in fear… We admire such a person, because we are amazed and wonder if we could do the same. We use heroes to teach our children about good and evil, right and wrong. And we see real people, every day, running forward in the face of danger instead of running away. The stories we write are full of such heroes. Big or small, they are the ones who end up winning the day. We know what they stand for, and even with their flaws and mistakes, we know that they will win—sometimes before the characters themselves even know.
And then there are the villains… Oh how we love a good villain. Whether they are the evil genius, or they believe they are right and the only ones capable of saving us all by ruling over us, or they just want to see the world burn, we still watch in horrified glee at these megalomaniac demagogues. They are the opposite of everything good. They are the dark against the light, and there is usually no question as to their real intent.
Loki – The Avengers Moriarty – Sherlock The Joker – The Dark Knight
So what about the anti-hero? Fiction is rife with anti-heroes that make us either love them or hate them in an intense relationship of give and take. The bad boys our mothers warned us about that make us love them, maybe even more than the hero of a story… I know I can say that I love to write them. My series has had three so far.
But why do we love the Anti-hero so much?
“Ooh, ooh, I know, I know!” And yes, picture Professor Snape rolling his eyes at Hermione…
The answer: Because they hold the key to the rich emotion and conflict of a story; they have a backstory and an environment that has shaped who they are more than anyone else.
And, I bring up Professor Snape because, in my opinion, he is one of the best anti-heroes of all. And what was so great about the telling of his story, is that we never knew for sure until the very end.
Commence crying in 3… 2… 1…
“The hero is who we all want to emulate, and the villain is the monster we must defeat, but the anti-hero is all of us, floundering in the dark, searching for the way of right… sometimes we may even find it.” ~ Melissa Berg
The arc of a character’s journey is what defines him or her as the anti-hero
When we were kids, we all wished to be Superman, to have his god-like powers and be able to fly. But as we grew older and wiser, we realized that it is actually Batman who we relate to most, and it is within this complex character where we find our hero. Though it has its critics, I enjoyed the Batman Vs. Superman: Dawn of Justice movie, because the most intriguing part was what I felt and related to most, and that was the story arc of these two great characters. An older, more pessimistic, Batman was starting out in a very dark place; he was more of an anti-hero than ever. Still trying to do what was right, he had started breaking some of his own rules, using guns and killing lower level criminals a lot more. He didn’t trust anyone, and was skeptical of anyone else whom the people thought to call a Hero—even Superman, though he had managed to save the entire planet. In the case of Lex Luther, however, his instinct of mistrust was spot on, while with Superman, he was wrong. Before he was sure of either, he let his paranoia and anger get the best of him.
Then we have the big guy in blue. This perfect Boy Scout, who saw the good of mankind and tried to be the best he could be and use his power as a gift, started to feel the dark of human nature directed toward him. The hero in Superman was losing his way. He started to see Batman as the embodiment of the people’s shift of their faith in him, and he began to question what his purpose here really was. His love for Lois Lane and his mother, along with their true belief in him, is what kept him from falling over the edge completely. It is when the courtroom blows up around him, and he can do nothing to save those people, that he realizes his mistake. We see, for the first time, that Superman is not perfect. He has his flaws, like any other man.
As for Batman… at this point, he has already fallen over the edge, until even Alfred was losing his faith in the man he served, but hopeful that the boy he loved would return. Though these two heroes had started on the same team, Batman and Superman had now become opposites.
Lex Luther said it best:
“And now you will fly to him, and you will battle him to the death. Black and blue. Fight night. The greatest gladiator match in the history of the world: God versus man; day versus night; Son of Krypton versus Bat of Gotham!” ~ Lex Luthor
But this was not the real battle. This was an illusion of the mind, all created by the little guy with huge ambitions. Neither had really turned to the ‘Dark Side’. By creating this lie, Lex had broken down the convictions that had made them both strong. When these two, supposedly opposing forces met, the storm that raged was not as massive as Lex had hoped it would be, for by now, our two heroes had both landed in a place of gray; the realm of the anti-hero. And it was here where the storm gave way. They came to realize the truth of the common ground they both still held in their hearts, which was the unconditional love of those who had believed in them the most, and there the lie was exposed. They rose together, back into the light, to defeat the real monster in the dark: Greed, corruption, and power… the vices of man.
The journey of the anti-hero is what is so important. He may be someone misguided, a tortured soul of sorts, but his heart is in the right place. He may step the wrong way, put others in danger, even deny his heart for a while and betray the one he loves. But it is where he ends up in the end that makes all the difference.
In the first two books of my series, The Shifting Balance, one of the characters I loved to write most was an anti-hero. He was inherently good, yet in thinking he could make a change for the better, his actions only made things worse. At the moment of his descent, he realizes his mistake, and becomes trapped by his own decisions, believing he no longer has a choice. He must betray someone he cares for. He uses anger and resentment, and finds a flawed logic to justify his actions, and thinks that what he is doing is sound. Yet in his heart he is miserable and tortures himself to no end before he realizes the real truth: He always had a choice. There were several chances to take the right path, but he was blinded by his own anger. He had feared and then denied the truth of his heart, which was that he loved this woman he was working to betray. And if he had only allowed himself to love her, he would have found a way to set himself free. At the lowest point of his journey, he realizes this truth, and though it may be too late, he comes to a crossroads and must make a choice. Will he be redeemed in the end?
This is the type of character arc that moves me the most. You want to hate him, but you also want to help him; you want to yell at him and tell him he’s got it all wrong. And when he finally sees the truth, you want to have hope, all over again, that he will be saved.
Some anti-heroes are really the hero in disguise, but because we don’t know who they are, we can never be sure. They have an unknown past that has shaped them, things that made them unable to see the truth of their own souls, even when those around them know that they are good. They think themselves unworthy, so they play the part of the uncaring, brooding, and sometimes high-functioning sociopath, to keep people away from their ‘dark’ nature. Benedict Cumberbatch’s vision of Sherlock Holmes weaves a beautifully complex anti-hero. He tells people that he doesn’t have friends, that he is above all that, and doesn’t have the time or the energy for such a frail human weakness as love. So this he claims, yet there are times when you feel he is pushing people away more in an effort to make himself truly believe it. Even watching ‘normal’ life happen from the sidelines with the slightest of yearning. We feel his need, we see his empathy and his capacity to love, yet that he constantly shuts others out, makes us wonder: Why does he feel so about himself? What happened in his past that makes him believe he is anything but a hero?
He says to his arch nemesis, Moriarty, during their final confrontation and battle of wits:
“I may be on the side of the angels, but don’t think for one second that I am one of them.” ~ Sherlock
He says this in such a way, that I think he truly believes it, not just as a way to steer Moriarty toward a more amenable direction. He is an anti-hero still on the path of shadows, searching for the light of redemption, and only time and more seasons will show us what started this self-loathing to begin with.
This type of anti-hero’s journey is more subtle, but it is still just as interesting. We may know them for a hero better than they do. I have a character who I thought was an anti-hero in the traditional sense, but as his story grew, I realized that he is extremely good and loyal, and always strives to do the right thing, placing duty ahead of self, and wouldn’t think twice of rushing into danger. But his anti-hero tendencies have proven to be more about his attitude toward himself. He is a bit emotionally withdrawn. Though he is highly respected by those he serves, as well as by those he leads, his supposedly uncaring demeanor is actually a shell that he has built to hide and protect his true self. He was hurt by love in the past. So much so, that he has become trapped in a place that he cannot crawl out of. Because of this, his own self-loathing doesn’t allow him to live completely for the dark or for the light. He is in a world of gray, and could easily choose one way or the other. We begin to feel for him, and have hope that he will again, find love and set his true self free. But the question is: Which way will he choose? Maybe it is too late for him.
There is another favorite character similar to this type of anti-hero, and even a little like Severus Snape. Sawyer, from Lost, at first, seems to be a villain, then we see that maybe he isn’t so bad. But his actions crisscross over that gray area, merging and weaving with another anti-hero—Kate. It’s not until a few seasons in, that we find the truth of both of their pasts. Yes, they did bad things; yes, they expect others to stay away and not be ‘tainted’ by their terrible nature. But they are both inherently good, it is just their pasts and their environments shaping who they are and making them think that they are lost, when really, there is still a chance for their salvation; a light at the end of the tunnel—or in this case, the church entrance.
The last anti-hero’s journey that I use in my series, is a little like the first, but the main difference here is that his innocence, like playing with fire, gets him into trouble. When this character realizes what he has done, instead of fixing it, he chooses to lay blame on others and hide the real truth. Pretty soon, his lie has become so big, that he feels it is easier and better to stay the course rather than tell his closest friends the truth. He justifies his decisions by believing he is doing something right for a greater good, a last ditch effort, because he sees no other outcome. He hurts everyone he loves by choosing such a path. In the end, he hurts himself the most. But even for one such as he, there is still hope. It all depends on the real truth of his heart, the journey he takes, and whether or not he can find his way back to the side of Light.
This is where the true anti-hero’s Journey lies. It’s what is in the hearts of these characters which makes them not necessarily evil, only a misguided logic that takes them down the darker path. They do what they feel they must, even if it hurts others or themselves. They feel trapped by duty, having to weigh the odds in lives lost, rather than seeking the harder choices that could end with their own death. This is what sets the Anti-hero apart from the Hero. A hero will always save others at the cost of his/her own life. The anti-hero might choose themselves over others, but will believe that they are doing it for the better. They tend to believe the lies, whether those lies are created by outside forces or in their own head about themselves.
To be the full and true journey of the Anti-hero, they must go down the wrong path, while seeking to do good, and in the end, they must crawl from the abyss and become the real hero they were always meant to be.
Melissa Berg is the author of the Shifting Balance Series, which has been her passion for the past ten years. She also works as an illustrator and studied art and design at Madison Area Technical College in Madison, Wisconsin. When she isn’t writing or painting or entertaining her son, she is pursuing the art of 3D computer illustration/animation, as a side project and to feed her fascination in the ever-expanding medium used for storytelling. She currently lives in Minnesota with her husband, young son, and a crazy Border Collie.
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