The Mythic Hero: Can He Ever be an Antihero? Can an Antihero be Female?

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.”

Vampire Diaries' Damon and Klaus

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:

  1. Take the lead in a cause or action.  No reactionary heroes.
  2. Have courage, or find it in the course of the story.
  3. 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.
  4. Be good at what he does for a living.  He can’t be a lazy, surly employee before the call to adventure.
  5. Have one or more special talents that set him apart.
  6. Be clever and resourceful.
  7. Be sexually potent.

The Hero Can Never:

  1. Quit.
  2. Act cruelly.
  3. Whine.
  4. Grovel.
  5. Win by luck, although luck can play a part.

The Hero Usually (you can use these qualities or not—up to you):

  1. Is stoic.
  2. Is loyal.
  3. Is forgiving, or learns to forgive over the course of the story.
  4. Is considered sexually appealing (slightly different than sexually potent, which is a non-negotiable).
  5. Has a special birth (parent might be a king, doomed prisoner, a goddess, an Apache warrior, and the like).
  6. Is physically superior in some way (strength, speed, hearing, reflexes, etc.).
  7. Has a special destiny (predicted by a seer, perhaps).
  8. 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):

  1. Is cynical.
  2. 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?

Related Reading:

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.)

Darkly Developing Dexter

Do You Need a Yoda? How about a Q? Casting Your Hero’s Journey

On Monday, I wrote about the monomyth known as the Hero’s Journey. In addition to following a set structural pattern, the Journey also has a cast of characters. They overlap quite a bit with Jung’s Archetypes, another source of universal characters. Do you need all of them if you are writing a myth based novel? No.

Think about each of them and whether they would advance your particular story, and if they won’t, discard the character and move to the next. It is also perfectly acceptable to have a character in your novel take on more than one role. The Threshold Guardian and the Mentor can be the same person. Likewise, the Armorer and Magical Helper are often rolled into one.

So here’s your cast:

The Hero:  Your protagonist, male or female, needs to have a certain set of characteristics. I’ll be doing an entire post on this because they are so specific.

The Villain/Evil One:  Again, whether male or female, the villain is much more structured in a myth, so I’ll go into more detail in another post. Note that this role is called the Evil One, not The Antagonist.  You are not allowed to ultimately redeem your villain or just make him/her misunderstood. They have to be old fashioned evil.

Lover:  As in any other plot structure, your love interest needs to be well-formed. You have the added responsibility, though, of making sure the Lover has enough of the same qualities of the hero to be worthy of him/her, but at the same time he/she must be as much of an opposing force as possible to create conflict. Remember, your lover is an antagonist, at least at first, not a helpmate.

Robin plays goofy sidekick to Batman.

Sidekicks/Allies: These guys/gals usually pull double duty and take on another one of the roles below. They can be heroic as well, but they can’t show up the hero. Watson is fun, but he’s not Holmes. Think Robin, not Batman.

Minions:  The Villian gets to have friends, too. The difference is the minions can be more powerful than the villain if you want.

Followers:  A level down from a trusted sidekick, your hero can have a band of merry men or women to accompany them. If you want something a little more modern, it could be a forensics team, or in what I felt was one of the most clever parts of the Hunger Games, a stylist team.

Wise One/Mentor:  The hero needs someone to guide him in this new world he has entered. Here’s your Yoda, or to use Hunger Games again, Haymitch. This person is always older. However, remember he/she doesn’t have to always look older. In the world of fantasy where you have a number of immortal creatures, this leaves you open to a mash-up other genres can’t do without being creepy. I made my Mentor and my Lover the same person.

Ollivander presents Harry with his wand.

Magical Helper:  The hero goes to this character for “magic” for the journey. This might mean spells, amulets, science, technology, a secret weapon, etc. In the Harry Potter books, all of Diagon Alley played this role to some degree, but especially Garrick Ollivander. The wand maker had the responsibility and talent of matching this most important of magicians’ tools with the right wizard to wield it.

Loved One:  The Loved One is often The Loved One Left Behind of the Tearful Parting. This can be a spouse, parent, sibling, friend, beloved talking goat—doesn’t matter. They often are also a Threshold Guardian.

Threshold Guardian:  These guys are your Debbie Downers, and you can have more than one in a story. They’ll tell your hero that going on the Journey is a bad idea. They’re not wrong, but it doesn’t matter, because your hero is going to ignore them.

Shape-shifter:  Let me be clear, I’m not necessarily talking about a werewolf type shape shifter although you can certainly let the character have more than one physical form. I’m talking about someone who emotionally/mentally is a metaphorical shape-shifter. A great recent example of this is Thomas Hardy’s character Eames in Inception. He can become whatever character is needed in a dream and thus is known as “The Forger.”

Sam and Dean can't escape the Trickster.

Trickster:  This is a common trope and great for laughs as your hero is thrown into sticky situations. One of the funniest episodes of Supernatural ever is “Changing Channels,” where Sam and Dean are stuck in a T.V. world created by the Trickster God. (Yes, I know he wasn’t actually a god, but no spoilers!)

Fool:  Slightly different from the Trickster, who is generally seen as clever, the Fool is regarded as dumb. However, the hero recognizes his/her wisdom, which becomes apparent to everyone by the end.

A God with Clay Feet:  I’m unsure if this character is ever a woman. This is a very, very common character in romances. He’s almost always the Lover for the Heroine at the beginning who is clearly wrong for her. He’s usually perfect on the surface. As the story goes on, though, we discover he’s cheating, is rude to her best friend, and is secretly kicking puppies.

The Herald:  The Herald doesn’t necessarily even have to be a person; it just has to issue the Call to Adventure. In the Mission Impossible movies, it’s just a recording that self destructs.

Q in Skyfall

The Armorer:  In Sword and Sorcery fantasy, this could very well be a blacksmith handing over a sword, knife, mace, or other things pointy. In Bond films, it’s Q giving 007 the latest gadget. The Armorer does not have to give your hero something made of metal. In Cinderella, her Fairy Godmother was the Armorer, providing her with gowns, glass slippers, and pumpkin coaches to win the war of love.

The Rival:  The Rival is in love with the Hero’s Lover, forcing the Hero to compete for the Lover’s affections. He/She is usually preferred by the Hero’s family and friends, providing more conflict for your story. The Rival doesn’t have to lose. A great example of this is My Best Friend’s Wedding. Cameron Diaz was Julia Robert’s Rival, but she got the Lover in the end.

The Saint:  There’s a bit of variety here. The Saint can be an innocent or a world-weary intellectual. They are often priests, monks, bishops, and the like, but you don’t have to be clichéd. Jean Valjean in Les Miserables was a Saint, and he also was an ex-con.

Various Female Archetypes:  The Mother, Goddess, Nymph, Crone, Whore, Bitch, and Femme Fatale can all make appearances or be doubled up with another character. Your Lover can be a Femme Fatale, or your Mentor the Mother. The Rival is often a Whore or Bitch. If you are unsure of any of these archetypes, again, check out that article on Jung.

Whew!  That is a lot of people.

Related Reading:

Hero Archetypes

Of Arthurs and Lancelots: Mythic Origins of the Irritating Polygon (a lengthy, but interesting history of the love triangle, arguing that it might be an archetype in and of itself)

Up Next:  The Mythic Hero, or, Anti-heroes Need Not Apply