Like most people with a Netflix account, I spent much of this past weekend doing a marathon of House of Cards’ second season. The protagonist, the character we are supposed to identify with is a ruthless Congressman who plays people against each other in order to gain more power, and he’s not afraid to kill in order to achieve his goals. Needless to say, he’s kind of a bastard and not someone I’d want as a friend.
But I couldn’t stop watching.
A few days before re-immersing myself into the world of Congressman Frank Underwood, Jean and I went to see Martin Scorcese’s newest film, The Wolf of Wall Street, a film where the protagonist’s actions, at times, made me physically ill. After all, this wasn’t a fantasy where naughty teenagers get chopped up in the woods, this was a real person fucking up the lives of real people.
But again, I couldn’t stop watching, and the film will probably be recognized by The Academy this year.
These two stories have much in common with some of the best entertainment in recent memory in that there are no clear heroes or villains. They are populated with gritty, more realistic antiheroes. Breaking Bad. The Walking Dead (I can’t tell you how many people have told me they were on Team Shane, not Team Cowboy Rick). Game of Thrones. 24. Even the most recent Superman film explored the messianic figure’s dark side.
And I couldn’t be more excited.
So, what’s the deal, you ask? Is this part of the unraveling of society’s moral fiber? A creeping cynicism that threatens to turn us all into indifferent sociopaths?
I disagree whole-heartedly. Flawed protagonists, antiheroes if you will, have been a part of literature for a long time. Shakespeare’s works are overflowing with them. The best stories in Ovid’s Metamorphoses consist of prideful humans who challenge the gods and ignore oracles–actually, even the gods in those stories are kind of conniving douche-bags. The Bible, too, has its share of antiheroes; David, “a man after God’s own heart,” is a murdering, womanizing, power-abusing king.
But David’s also a gifted psalmist. And it’s from his bloodline that the Messiah comes. Interesting, but more on that later.
What’s so compelling about the antihero is that the archetype covers a wide range. Batman is an antihero. His seemingly noble quest is really quite personal, isn’t it? With every crime he prevents, he’s trying to save his parents over and over again. Also, he’s a little arrogant to think that dressing up as a bat and going vigilante is going to make the world a better place. But he’s real. He hurts. That hurt drives a goal that does achieve a lot of good. So we like him.
And we like Wolf of Wall Street’s Jordan Belforte, because he’s not a one-dimensional character. This is best revealed by the generous advance he gives a new employee, a struggling single mother in a desperate situation. Even though he’s despicable, he’s capable of good. He’s no Batman. I’d say he falls on the “more villainous” side of the antihero spectrum, as does Frank Underwood. Despite his darker tendencies, he’s compelling because he has many dimensions and some of his qualities (ambition, the ability to lead) are downright admirable, even if he uses them for less than admirable purposes.
Breaking Bad’s Walter White falls somewhere in the middle. He’s a fuck-up, no doubt. Maybe one could even argue that he falls more towards the villainous side as the show goes on, but what separates him from Belforte and Underwood is that initially, his goals are noble. A dying man who wants to secure his family’s future. Even if his methods are dubious, often downright detestable, who can’t align with him, at least on some level?
My novel, Flesh and Fire (coming Spring, 2015), is chock full of characters who buck traditional archetypes. The three characters who make up the story’s main arc are Todd, Chloe, and Samael. Ignoring the rule that male protagonists should be an alpha hero, Todd is a once bright soul whose on the verge of a midlife crisis when we meet him. He gave up his dreams and the love of his life in order to pursue a life of simplicity. He’s very much a beta-male in the sense that he doesn’t act except in moments where he’s pushed to his absolute limits (not a beta-male in the hilarious, Christopher Moore sense).
Chloe’s journey, however, is closer to that of a traditional hero’s. In fact, as during subsequent drafts of the novel, I came to see her quest as the focal point of the story, rather than Todd’s. She descends into the pit; she makes crucial sacrifices to serve the greater good. These are two qualities of a traditional hero. But she also qualifies as an antihero because her methods of achieving her goals are sometimes questionable.
The most conflicted character of the three, at least to me, is the antagonist Samael. Early on in life, he got some really twisted information on what it means to love and be loved. His near redemption comes in the form of a woman named Clare (who he believes Chloe has been reincarnated as), but after she’s taken from him, he begins a life of service to evil. By the time he meets Chloe, he no longer understands how to love, only to possess and destroy. He’s a villain to many of us, but a hero in his own mind, so if I’ve done my job as an author his scenes should be just as compelling, if not more so, than the protagonists’.
What I’m trying to say, in probably too many words, is that the antihero covers a lot of ground from the flawed protagonist with whom the reader can identify to the corrupted central character who has a warped sense of right and wrong, but has motivations the reader can understand (in other words, he’s not Big Bad). The ground covered by the term antihero is fertile for what I believe are the most interesting characters.
If you’re a creative type, don’t settle with a protagonist that is a hero with a capital H or an antagonist that you can picture going “MUAHAHAHAHAHA.” Give your hero wounds. Your villain dreams. Make your characters real.
I am happy to see so many works that blur these lines between good and bad, because regardless of what we tell ourselves when we lay down to go to sleep, we’re capable of both.