These days we love characters in all of their shades-of-grey glory, with everything from books, to Tv shows and even movies showing a tendency towards darker and more dubious heroes and heroines. Anti-heroes have been around for a long time – you only have to look at Shakespeare’s Macbeth, to some extent Julius Ceaser and the Byronic heroes of the Brontë sisters to see their early incarnations – but it’s only been recently that their popularity has began to eclipse that of the classic, squeaky-clean hero.
But why is that? What exactly is it that we love so much about anti-heroes? Why are we so fascinated by Tyrion Lannister, Rachel Watson (The Girl On The Train), the Underwoods (House of Cards) and the Hamlets? Why do we craze about Deadpool, Sherlock Holmes and Rhysand (A Court of Thorns and Roses)? Their character is wrought with flaws and demons, disregarding the normal societal processes for their own agendas. Their actions are often morally questionable, and in many cases reprehensible, and they’re exactly the kind of people you wouldn’t want to know or meet in real life. So why do we love them so much in books and on screen?
They’re flawed, just like us
Although our flaws don’t involve murders, blackmailing, selling of meth etc, but we are flawed and this is as true as we are humans
The dictionary definition of an anti-hero is ‘a protagonist or notable figure who is conspicuously lacking in heroic qualities.’ So according to that definition, we all are an anti-hero of our life.
I can vouch for the fact I’m ‘conspicuously lacking in heroic qualities. I’m certainly not selfless. If I have to pick up my share of a cake, I’m picking the bigger piece! And whilst I think I’m a fairly moral person, I’ll still have a little chuckle if I see someone fall over in a comical manner (once I’ve established they’re OK, obviously!).
While I’m not exactly Vito Corleone (The Godfather), I am a flawed human being, and that’s what anti-heroes are at their most basic level. We may not be able to relate to a lot of the terrible things anti-heroes do, but we can definitely relate to being imperfect!
One thing I want in a character – whether they’re an alien from a far off planet or your average student – is to believe that they are real, and therefore, they have to be a complex, fully-realised person, rather than a cardboard cut-out.
I have never liked Superman in my life. He is too good a person to exist, always saving humanity and people around, at any cost. I would prefer Deadpool and Jason Todd any day, atleast, they know when to give up. Their characters are mix of both good and bad, which can lead to a lot of internal conflict, mimicking human nature, rather than “I need to save my earth” shouting anytime of day.
They have a backstory, and how they came to be what they are.
I don’t know about you, but I’m a lot fascinated by psychology, and anti-heroes can provide some pretty interesting backstories and psyches to indulge in.
I believe we’re all partially the product of our background, whether families or experiences, and so when I’m first introduced to an anti-hero, I often find myself wondering how they came to be the way they are. What was their family like, and how were they brought up? What happened to them to make them as they are and what drives them?
The answers never disappoint you, you get a solid reason and not just that you were bitten by spider, so you gained super power, it’s not that I don’t like Spiderman. Severus Snape from Harry Potter and Rorschach from Watchmen are great examples of this: in both cases there’s a moment where you suddenly discover a huge piece of their backstory, and get a great insight into why they behave as they do. And, who doesn’t love Severus Snape?
They make us consider our beliefs on morality and ethics.
They are by nature ambiguous, and that can give us plenty to think about and debate. For example, Dexter Morgan from Dexter is a serial killer, which is terrible, but he only kills bad people. Does that make him any better than the people he murders? Or is he just as bad as them?
They can certainly get us thinking in a way that straight-up heroes don’t. Classic heroes just ‘do the right thing’ because it’s the right thing to do, and there’s no thinking, or internal conflict involved, whilst anti-heroes throw up a lot of brain stimulating questions and conundrums to consider. And, being made to think is always a good thing, surely?
We can live vicariously through them.
Maybe in our daydreams we’re all unstoppable badasses (armed with a number of well-timed equipments for when we’re about to defeat our enemy) or the mastermind of an impossible heist like The Professor or being a drug lord or a mafia leader like Thomas Shelby or Walter White, but in truth, we’re mostly just going to work and doing the laundry. And to be honest, I think most people would much prefer the quiet life to being a criminal mastermind!
However, since books and movies are largely for entertainment purposes it can be nice to live vicariously through anti-heroes. That attitude of ‘say whatever they want, and do whatever they want’ pleases us momentarily. Because, let’s face it: we all have those days when we just want to scream at our boss to stick their job, and tell our ‘friend’ who keeps subtly putting us down to get lost! Maybe we can’t do those things in real life, but it can be therapeutic to see someone else doing exactly what they want.
Don’t forget to comment your favorite antiheroes. Mine are – Dr Victor Von Doom, Sherlock Holmes and Moon Knight. Have a great weekend!