Heroes: gotta love ‘em. Take Aragorn, son of Arathorn for instance; he may look a bit foul, but feels fair. He won’t break any legal or moral codes in order to do the right thing—and he will always do the right thing.
Heroes play an important role in literature and entertainment: it is comforting to think that there are genuinely good people out there, somewhere, pure of heart and with a moral compass always pointing true north. Someone who is stronger than the best of us, less tempted to join the dark side. The kind of person you want to have standing watch while you curl up in your bedroll, weary from the day’s adventuring (or the kind of person you want watching your house and feeding your dog when you’re on vacation).
Heroes in fiction tend to be heroes because they’re heroic. Some heroes, like Aragorn, are predestined to be heroes because of family lineage, magical DNA, or some sort of unlooked-for and unearned special quality. Others, such as Kerigan G’ladheon in Kristen Britain’s Green Rider series, are thrust into circumstances which enable and encourage their heroic tendencies to rise to the occasion. In either case, the hero is an innately good person who sets out to achieve a heroic goal and is able to accomplish it because the actions they take are consistently heroic. If they stray from the righteous path, it is but a little.
Heroes are often enabled by a world that supports and rewards heroism. Naomi Novik’s heroic dragon handler, William Lawrence, is a gentleman in a gentleman’s world. Even when he defies societal law in order to follow moral law, it is a heroic and self-sacrificing act which ultimately ends in exoneration. And Novik is very careful to show that the protagonist breaks the law only to effect a heroic goal, only at great personal cost, and only as far as is absolutely necessary. The hero goes out of his way, for instance, to avoid or mitigate harm to innocent bystanders.
Heroes are important. But what happens when the rules of the world are less straightforward, more tarnished, even downright dark? What happens when the would-be hero has to swim against a very strong current in order to achieve a worthy goal? What happens when the king is less honor and truth, more gluttonous exploitation of the unwashed masses? Who will save the day when the laws are unjust and lawmakers corrupt?
Enter the antihero.
An antihero can be explained as a protagonist who lacks at least some of the qualities we expect to see in a traditional hero: courage, veracity, empathy, an uncompromising and uncompromised moral code. They are set apart from villains mainly in that their goal can be seen as deeply relatable, but which the antihero cannot achieve (or at least believes cannot be achieved) through more honorable action.
Some of the more relatable and resonant characters in fiction are antiheroes: Michael Corleone in Mario Puzo’s The Godfather is a young man who has broken away from his mobster friends and family, but when his family is threatened by powerful and degenerate forces, and local law enforcement is on the take, he must return to a criminal way of life and ultimately become the most ruthless of them all.
Jaime Lannister in George Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire will do anything to be with and protect the woman he loves, and their children. But she’s his twin sister, and married to the king: the only way he can achieve his heart’s desire is through sin and murder. And he’s consistently antiheroic, having killed the king he was sworn to protect in order to put an end to mad and murderous tyranny.
Kissin’ Kate Barlow in Louis Sachar’s Holes just wants to be with the man she loves, but when powerful and wealthy Charles “Trout” Walker has Kate’s lover murdered, she has no legal recourse—Sam is a Black man, and as Walker points out, it is illegal for a Black man to kiss a white woman—Kate turns to vigilante justice and life as an outlaw in order to exact a very gratifying revenge.
William Munny (The Unforgiven, directed in 1992 by Clint Eastwood), is a fine example of an antihero. On the surface, it is a heroic story—a strong fighter seeks to bring bad men to justice for harming a young woman. But this is an antiheroic tale: the young woman is a sex worker, which has both legal and moral ramifications. William Munny is a reformed killer and alcoholic who falls off all the wagons without needing much of a push. His moral compass is so broken that he not only shoots Little Bill Daggett as that villain lies unarmed and vulnerable on the floor, but on his way out the door and out of town Munny also kills a wounded henchman and leaves his friend’s body unburied and on display. Neither did Munny help Delilah out of the goodness of his heart, but for the lowest of all reasons: for money.
William Munny is an antihero and not a villain for one reason only: Sheriff Little Bill is worse. When Delilah is mutilated by a bunch of ranch hands for laughing at one of them, not only does Little Bill reckon her worth only insofar as she is the brothel owner’s property, he also shows himself willing and able to brutalize a group of powerless women in order to block them from seeking justice. This shows the audience that seeking legal redress for Delilah’s injuries will not be possible.
There are far fewer examples of female antiheroes, and too many of these are poorly written. I am not going to waste time discussing the all-too-prevalent storylines of women seeking revenge against their rapists, or those who are hailed as antiheroes but who are little (or nothing) more than an eye candy foil to a superhuman male character, while posing no real threat.
A well-written antihero can create strong emotional resonance in the reader. A character who desperately wants to achieve a relatable and admirable goal—love, justice, safety—but who is prevented from reaching that goal by a corrupt power structure is highly relatable. We can empathize as the protagonist tries time and again to achieve their goal through legitimate means only to suffer as a result until, pushed beyond a breaking point, they must aside the bonds of law and morality and finally, painfully, become the antihero their world cries out for.
After all, who hasn’t longed to dance with the devil in the pale moonlight?
Dances with Devils: Loving the Antihero by Deborah A. Wolf was originally published in Grimdark Magazine Issue #30.