I’m a big fan of the Vampire Diaries. Yes, I’m 34, hold two college degrees, and I watch the Vampire Diaries. That is another discussion. One of the main characters, Damon Salvatore, is your traditional bad boy antihero. Over the course of the last four seasons he’s redeemed himself somewhat, and he gave this wonderful bit of advice to the series’ main villain, Klaus, “If you’re going to be bad, be bad with a purpose. Otherwise you’re not worth forgiving.”
That, in a nutshell, is what separates an antihero from a villain. They are bad with a purpose.
What, then, separates the antihero from being a mythic hero? An antihero by definition lacks the virtues and qualities that would make him heroic. If you’re writing a regular novel, your protagonist can be an antihero with no problem. When you are writing a myth, however, you are writing about the epic struggle between good and evil. Experts maintain that a mythic hero must be unambiguously good, or the structure breaks down.
In James N. Frey’s The Key: How to Write Damn Good Fiction with the Power of Myth, he lists the qualities of the mythic hero. (For those of you who didn’t read my previous posts about The Hero’s Journey and the characters the Hero meets along the way, you can click those links for more info.)
The Hero Must:
- Take the lead in a cause or action. No reactionary heroes.
- Have courage, or find it in the course of the story.
- Be an outlaw or maverick of some kind, living by his own code. This is only in the sense of him defying conventionality; he cannot be an actual criminal.
- Be good at what he does for a living. He can’t be a lazy, surly employee before the call to adventure.
- Have one or more special talents that set him apart.
- Be clever and resourceful.
- Be sexually potent.
The Hero Can Never:
- Act cruelly.
- Win by luck, although luck can play a part.
The Hero Usually (you can use these qualities or not—up to you):
- Is stoic.
- Is loyal.
- Is forgiving, or learns to forgive over the course of the story.
- Is considered sexually appealing (slightly different than sexually potent, which is a non-negotiable).
- Has a special birth (parent might be a king, doomed prisoner, a goddess, an Apache warrior, and the like).
- Is physically superior in some way (strength, speed, hearing, reflexes, etc.).
- Has a special destiny (predicted by a seer, perhaps).
- Has hubris (a big head, or at least seems to think he can do things most people can’t—an extra dose of stubborn and initiative might be another way to think of it.).
The Hero Occasionally (the rarest traits):
- Is cynical.
- Is mouthy.
Now, if we look at that list of traits, you’ll probably notice that the only ones that sound slightly like an antihero are the last (and rarest) two, and even then, they’re pretty mild for an antihero. Some could argue that the requirement that the hero be an outlaw tips the mythic hero in favor of the antihero, but the distinction between outlaw and criminal is made very clear. The mythic hero is a little rebellious and thinks outside the box, but he doesn’t break the law. I think the real line in the sand, though, is that a mythic hero can never be cruel. Can you think of an antihero that wasn’t at some point cruel? If not, were they truly an antihero?
Thems the rules, folks. I’ve read about the Hero’s Journey from multiple sources now, and they’re pretty adamant. The Journey doesn’t work if your Hero isn’t written a certain way. I want to rebel against this, because like most postmoderns, I prefer the antihero. Man of Steel wasn’t a perfect movie, but it was by far my favorite Superman because it was the first one that the character wasn’t a total boy scout.
I was getting myself pretty worked up. I wanted to write a Hero’s Journey, but I still wanted to be able to write an antihero. Then I realized it was all moot anyway. Why? Because my protagonist is not a hero but a heroine. While the public clamors for antiheroes, they’re not so interested in anti-heroines. Once a heroine crosses certain lines, it’s just not socially acceptable to consider her heroic anymore.
Wikipedia has a listing of antiheroes, and it’s pretty telling. In the literature category, it lists 26 antiheros, only one of which is a woman—Scarlett O’Hara. The movie list had a mere four of the 137 listed: Beatrix Kiddo of the Kill Bill movies, Juno MacGuff of Juno (which I think is a bit of a stretch), Lisbeth Salander of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, and Dawn Weiner of Welcome to the Dollhouse (has anyone heard of that?). TV had the best showing with six names of 80: Emily Thorne from Revenge, Jackie Peyton from Nurse Jackie, Veronica Mars (again, I don’t see how she counts), Ally McBeal, Faith from Buffy the Vampire Slayer (wasn’t she an antagonist?), and Nancy Botwin from Weeds.
What’s an author to do? Are the rules made to be broken? In a postmodern world, can you successfully write a mythic antihero, or even crazier—a mythic anti-heroine? Can you think of someone who has already done it?
Let Mindy Kaling Be an Asshole (Fabulous article, and I hope she doesn’t cave to pressure and change the show too much, because I loved it.)
Thanks for linking my Dexter post!
All rules are made to be broken and the first “hero” that comes to mind is Stephan R. Donaldson’s Thomas Covenant of Lord Foul’s Bane. He is the biggest asshole protagonist that I’ve ever run across and he breaks every “A Hero Must Never” that you have listed over the course of his trilogy.
I’m not familiar with that trilogy. My question would be is it a myth? I totally agree you can write fantastic stories with antiheroes. My question is can you write a time-enduring myth with an antihero?
Within the context of the story and to the people he meets in the book, I’d have to say he is mythical…As far as real life is concerned, probably not…lol
“Faith from Buffy the Vampire Slayer (wasn’t she an antagonist?)”
She was an an anti-hero, then an antagonist, and then went back to being an anti-hero, which is pretty much where she stands in the comics right now. Sorry, the Buffy fan in me just has to speak up 🙂
And I’d say screw the rules. Just write about characters you care about and hope the world will agree with you.
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