In recent years, we’ve seen a lot of authors shun the typical hero archetype in favor of the fascinating, complicated and sometimes unlikeable anti-hero. Some readers are thrilled at the change, while others are less than impressed. Either way, very few readers feel lukewarm about the type of hero they like reading about. So in this week’s Fiction Collision, we’re going to have the two types of hero square off.
The main character, or protagonist, is often referred to as the hero (or heroine) or the anti-hero. Throughout most of literary history, the hero has always been that super-human, impossibly good kind of guy. But more and more, we’re reading heroes that are so deeply flawed, so lacking in purity or goodness, that they’ve been given the label “anti-hero.”
Both save the day. Both are the driving force behind the story. The difference is in their motivation and their personality.
Heroes put themselves in danger to protect others. They risk it all to achieve a goal that has little to do with their own needs or desires. They’re selfless and good, dutiful. The classic hero is humble too, and doesn’t care for glory or fame. They might be lonely, feel a little outside of the regular world due to their awesome perfection. This character just wants those they love to be happy and safe. And a hero loves humanity in general (except the bad guys. Heroes hate bad guys.) Heroes usually volunteer to go into action when the shit hits the fan, but they might lay low, rising to the occasion only when the situation calls for action.
Anti-heroes are all of the things that you dated in high school. They’re selfish, corrupt, moody, slutty, and usually addicted to something not at all good for them. Sometimes the anti-hero sincerely doubts his ability to save the day, and doesn’t understand why in the fuck everyone keeps turning to him for help. By the end of the story, the anti-hero turns into a slightly better version of himself, and might be slightly more content than when the story began. But in a good story, he’s committed to being an asshole. Sometimes the anti-hero is even killed off, for the good of the story.
The hero is pure escapism at its best, and there’s nothing wrong with that, but the anti-hero adds so much more to a story. The sheer complexity of the anti-hero causes the reader to question the limits of her own moral integrity and forces her to ponder her willingness to move outside her little box to see life from a point of view that’s more human than the classic hero is able to see. By going on the journey with the anti-hero, the reader must face her own flaws and insecurities and wonders if with all of these shortcomings, could normal folks like you and me rise to the occasion without getting a hammer to the head.
On the other hand, I kind of miss that iconic hero with an abundance of virtuous qualities. That hero gave me hope. To think that perhaps such a person might really exist. It would mean humanity might not be completely fucked after all. Although, I don’t see the switch to a more “realistic” hero as bad influence on morality. Let’s face it, morality is rather subjective.
The distinction between hero and anti-hero often confuses people, and that’s because the anti-hero does act virtuously in the end. They are both brave and strong; they just have different points of view on life and love. Perhaps the anti-hero’s actions are due to his own selfish goals, but the bottom line is that he does what he has to do to save the day. That’s why he’s a hero. You can save the world and still do immoral or illegal things on your days off. Actually, that willingness to go against society’s norms and laws might be the very thing that’s needed when the zombies strike in December. Who knows? I guess we’ll find out. Once a character rejects the principles of conduct strictly adhered to by the hero, that character is immediately considered flawed. A hero is opposed to anything that goes against principle, so he can’t be up for a night in Mexico with a prostitute and a donkey, and maybe bringing back some “treats” in his trunk.
Some might argue that the anti-hero causes readers to glorify negative qualities; the very things that are “wrong” with society. Instead of being vilified for his sinful acts, the anti-hero is instead worshiped. This is why the world is going to shit, right? Wrong. To highlight that which is human, and yes, flaws and selfishness and such are human, is what makes a story relatable. The anti-hero isn’t to blame for the moral decline in society. There is no moral decline. We’re as immoral as we ever were. It hasn’t gone up or down. The difference now is that it’s almost impossible to hide our skeletons anymore. Blame technology, not anti-heroes.
Here’s why I see a place for both types of heroes in fiction: The classic hero is that strong character that sticks to his beliefs and enacts positive change. He is driven to save others from suffering or oppression. The hero is strong, intelligent, and committed. The hero is everything I wish I could be. The hero gives me hope that humanity could possibly improve. However, it’s kind of depressing to read about such a perfect person all of the time. I mean, who wants to be reminded of how shitty they are? The anti-hero is not perfect in any way. Well he might be a nice hunk of man meat, but he’s that hunk they take from the asshole. He is reluctant to help because hey, he has his own shit to deal with. The anti-hero is someone who resembles a good percent of the population. Why isn’t that depressing? Because the anti-hero reminds us not only that morality is a rather ambiguous idea, but also that there is a chance at redemption for all of us. There’s a chance that just once in our lives, we normal, flawed folks might be able to do something awesome.
That’s why my anti-hero just kicked your hero’s ass.