Posted by: Trisha Leigh | October 6, 2010

We’re All Fine – The Appeal of the Antihero

I’m addicted to Gossip Girl. Fine, go ahead and laugh. It is slightly ridiculous, and I’m probably double the age of the average viewer, but I’ll tell you what won me over. It’s two characters in a push/pull, love/hate situation that are so craftily written that I writhe in pain and longing on a weekly basis.

The antihero. So compelling, so interesting, so unlovable – but somehow we root for them in spite of everything. Much is made of swoon-worthy heroes in literature, television, and film but some of the best, most memorable lead characters are the ones we shouldn’t be rooting for. An antihero has undesirable qualities, often behaves in an immoral manner, and could just as easily be the villain…except they’re twisted into something sympathetic. We want to see these flawed but evolving characters succeed, because we are all flawed but evolving. If they find the path to redemption, perhaps it means we can too.

Chuck and Blair

In the case of Gossip Girl, both the male (Chuck Bass, played by Ed Westwick) and female (Blair Waldorf, played by Leighton Meester) leads are archetypical antiheros. They’re not nice people by any stretch of the imagination. They’re selfish, immature, and cruel but somehow I want nothing more than the two of them together and happy. What’s even more fascinating about their particular characters is that as a couple they make each other into better people. Say what you want about the shallow silliness of this series, but I’ve learned a ton about the challenges and rewards of writing complex characters.

Here are some of my own personal favorite antiheros:

HISTORICAL:

Jean Lafitte – The gentleman pirate of New Orleans, he assisted Andrew Jackson and the American Army in a decisive battle against the English. Still – pirate. Thief, murderer, etc.

Andrew Jackson – A compelling man who made it to the White House despite his less than endearing personality and the fact he pretty much single handedly killed off the American Indians.

Jesse James

Robin Hood, John Dillinger, Jesse James – Outlaws, yes. Murderers, yes. Do we root for them to be the savior of the people/Stick it to the man/Show the banks who’s boss and win the hands of maidens fair? HELL YES.

FICTIONAL: There are so many. I’m going to list my five favorites as of this very second. Classical literature, especially Shakespeare, is littered with these characters.

Heathcliff (Wuthering Heights) – He’s an awful person who treats people in a cruel and abusive manner. We ache for him because of his past and desire his happiness anyway. Fascinating.

Professor Snape (Harry Potter) – Snape begins the series as the villain, and the persistent manner in which he picks on and humiliates Harry entrenches him as a bad guy. As we learn more about his childhood and the bullying he endured, as well as his redemption by Dumbledore, he becomes sympathetic and, by the end of the series, a hero in his own right.

Pacey Witter (Dawson’s Creek) – The bad boy who sleeps with his teacher and comes from a family of jailbirds weasels his way into our hearts as we watch him struggle to rise above his situation. He makes mistakes and treats people unfairly, but his flaws only endear us to him further.

Spike (Buffy the Vampire Slayer) –Vampires kill people without remorse (at least, they used to). Through Spike’s twisted past with his lady Drusilla, his reluctant assistance to Angel and Buffy, and finally the restoration of his soul we come to love him. We watch him battle the demons inside and, even though he slips up, come through on the other side.

Damon Salvatore (The Vampire Diaries) – Who wants the nice, upstanding brother when you can have the brooding, dark, emotionally scarred one? Not I. Damon’s heart has never fully healed from the wounds of his past, creating hard edges and destructuve behavior. We are watching him descend into evil, claw his way back to sanity, and get kicked back into the hellhole of his past time and time again. And you know what? No matter how atrocious the next act he commits – we’re still going to be on his side.

Look - an excuse to post a pic of Ian Somerhalder!

Honorable Mentions: Captain Jack Sparrow (Pirates of the Caribbean), Mr. Darcy (Pride & Prejudice), Tyler Durden (Fight Club), Bonnie & Clyde (Bonnie & Clyde), Lestat (Interview with a Vampire), Macbeth (Macbeth), and Jake Sully (Avatar).

Who are your favorite antiheros? Do you prefer your heroes as the gilded golden child or someone more flawed and perhaps even hard to like? If you’re a writer, which do you write?

What I’m watching right this minute: Last week’s America’s Next Top Model. Don’t judge. It’s good background noise for edits!

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Responses

  1. There is no better anti-hero than Avery Cates. If you haven’t read Jeff Somers’ novels, go now. Right now. Buy them all.

    • I have read The Electric Church and fell head over heels for Avery Cates – the second one is on my Kindle. So many books, so little time!

  2. Heathcliff is also hot because he is strong.

    My female lead in the book I’m revising is super-conflicted and forceful. I worry she won’t be sympathetic.

    • You can do it, Beth. Sometimes it takes only the tiniest bit of information to make us root for a character even if we don’t always like them. Agree about Heathcliff. I just adore him.

  3. Gray is the only way. Without shady or questionable stuff pushing on our protags’ admirable qualities, well, snore.

    I think of Jaime Lannister in George Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire. What an arrogant piece of work, but Martin gives you just enough that you can’t help but root for him.

    • I think the key is to give just enough – too much and they’re whiny. Too little and they’re not interesting. Thanks for the comment!

  4. I’ve pondered Tony Soprano’s appeal for hours on end. Violent, depressive, infantile, misogynistic, racist, corrupting and amoral, still he enthralled men and women whom I heard describe him as attractive, powerful, alluring, the kind of guy they in some way admired or wished to be.

    Often makes me think of Aristotle’s definition of a tragic hero: a man of high station and fortune but not outstanding in regards to virtue or justice whom we pity and fear; he falls into misfortune not through his own evil and depravity, but through some sort of flaw within him.

    Key is that his punishment stems not from his own actions, but from some inherent flaw within his personality. Tony’s would be an inability to reconcile his family life with his professional life.

    Anti-heroes are the predators we can’t take our eyes off of. The ones we want to befriend so as to have in our corner, the ones who do what we wish we could were we in a world without consequence.

    • A man after my own heart, quoting Aristotle! Thanks for the comment, I especially identify with your last couple of sentences – couldn’t have said it better myself.

  5. I would say something very clever about antiheroes, but I can’t stop staring at that pic. O_O

  6. Ha ha ha ha. Remember, you gave me permission. As a twenty-something male, I can honestly say that most of your non-historical references blew way over my head, and it’s a fact I’m pretty OK with. The one exception is a bandwagon I’m a little behind jumping on (Spike eventually gets his soul back? Thanks for the SPOILER ALERT).
    As a shameless fan of The Office, I can think of an entire cast of anti-heroes. I’m not the only one that wishes eternal happiness for Dwight (and Creed, for that matter).
    I should note that Ian Somerhalder began his professional career in my mind as the gay college kid that pines after jock James Van Der Beek in Rules of Attraction. Forgive me if I can’t take him seriously in any role ever again.
    Also, you don’t really like vampires at all, do you?

    • I like vampires done well – they are so inherently tortured and complex :). I thought about the cast of the Office, actually. They’re great examples of antiheroes, but I’ve never watched the show so can’t comment directly. And come on, Heathcliff form Wuthering Heights is a classic!

      I’m also going to make sure NEVER to watch Rules of Attraction for two reasons. First, James Van Der Beek. SEcond, I prefer Ian Somerhalder to be Damon in my mind as opposed to, well, that.


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