The ladies of the Chicken Scratch group have been having off-line discussions about writing craft and characters for a very long time. One of the most interesting discussions of late has been about how we characterize our darkest souls. Are we writing heroes, anti-heroes, or redeemed villains? What’s the difference, and how do we know?
AR DeClerck Weighs In
I find it hard to think about characters in the narrow, black and white view of either hero or villain, protagonist or antagonist. After all, humans themselves cannot be boxed into such tight corners. We are never wrapped up so neatly as to be only one or the other, but we are mostly more of this than of that. I think of some of the most intriguing works of fiction in which the character set out as the hero has more flaws than the one named the villain. Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, for example. But what is that fundamental difference that puts our character on the redeemed villain side of the board, and what makes him an anti-hero?
To my mind, a redeemed villain is a character who has done terrible things, whether in this narrative or in some time gone before the narrative starts. The character has come upon a change of heart whether by circumstance or by emotional growth, that has led him to rethink his prior bad acts. Now, given the chance to relive his previous villainy, he would make different choices and find himself down a different path. Characters are never so easily written as to have only good traits or only bad. Perhaps our villain is simply the victim in another story we have not been told. What sets our redeemed villain apart is that he no longer views the world the same way.
An anti-hero on the other hand, is a character who has little care for the ideals of good and bad. He’s as apt to kill and maim as he is to save, his choices based solely on his own primary goal. I’ve seen anti-heroes with the primary goal of survival only. They’ll do whatever it takes to live. Riddick, for example, moves forward each day with a goal of making it to the next. One could argue that all his choices are made with that primary focus at the forefront of his mind. Anti-heroes can be fueled by revenge, like The Punisher. He wants only to see the ones who hurt his family dead, and he doesn’t care who gets in his way as long as his ultimate goal is achieved. Anti-heroes never waver to one side or the other, and their character arcs rarely include personality change that pushes them into the light to be a true hero, or toward the dark where villainy reigns supreme. I find it extremely interesting that many of our favorite superheroes fall squarely into this category, though they’re adored as heroes despite the collateral damage and bodies they leave in their wake. One of the most interesting concepts to explore in fiction writing is to embrace the darkness that lies within all men, and to push characters into situations that test how they react and reveal the truth that anyone can be the villain, it simply depends on who’s telling the story.
Jordan T. Blake Weighs In
The Uses of Evil, or People Need Villain Tales
A few years ago, my partner and I took to watching Once Upon a Time as our “couples” show–don’t ask me why–and I was struck by how quickly the show morphed from clever updates of familiar fairytales into a string of villain redemption stories. From Regina the Not-So-Evil Queen to pitiful Rumpelstiltskin to the impossibly sexy and hopelessly boring Hook, it seemed like each season’s arc was one giant villain apologetic after another–and that was after starting with an anti-hero who ass-kicks her way through a creepily pleasant microcosm.
Incidentally, this was also about the time that Disney discovered it could make bank by expanding its nostalgia-ridden franchises not just with live-action remakes but also with feature-length villain redemptions. Cue Maleficent and her ilk. Assuming that there was something else at play besides the Disney Corporation’s evil quest for world domination through the monopolization of pop culture, ahem, I couldn’t help but wonder why we as a society suddenly became so obsessed with villain redemptions. I mean, they’re villains. We’re supposed to hate them.
Perhaps we love redeeming classical villains because by and large we’ve come to reject the classical hero. Then it’s really not a coincidence that the rise of the villain redemption happened at the same time that we developed an insatiable appetite for the post-90s anti-hero. (Yes, that’s right. Because the 90s subverted everything, including the subversive version of the hero.) Classic heroes have become boring to us because they read like Mary Sues: Why settle for an irreparably good, attractive, and talented hero when you can get complexity, moral ambiguity, and a good cause all rolled into one Tall Dark and Snarky package?
This is not the classical definition of the anti-hero. Before the 90s, the anti-hero was pretty much a loser. Physically weak, cowardly, and unattractive, the pre-90s anti-hero was often the protagonist in a whole world of awful, and we only ended up rooting for him because the antagonist/world he was fighting against sucked so much. Think Winston in 1984.
Then the 90s introduced us to the anti-hero’s cooler, black-clad cousin. Meet Anti-Hero 2.0, who charms us, the hapless reader, with their high rankings in the Dark Triad of Machiavellianism, antisocial behavior (“psychopathy”), and of course, everyone’s personal favorite, narcissism. We relate to their isolation. We feel for their Dark and Tragic Past. We pant after their barely concealed hotness.
This kind of makes the anti-hero difficult to distinguish from the redeemed villain, except that the anti-hero usually has something else to accomplish besides overcoming their own personal villainy, whereas the redeemed villain pretty much gets an entire book or movie dedicated exclusively to how they’re not so bad after all.
And we lap it up. But why? Why are we so compelled by these closely related tropes?
Around the 1970s, it got kind of popular to psychoanalyze fairytales. Bear with me here. Now, if you dismiss all the outmoded Freudian mumbo-jumbo, and politely pass over the fabricated credentials and seriously messed-up scandals that plagued the most (in)famous purveyor of this genre of criticism, then things get kind of interesting.
The main contention was this: Rather than carry on Bowdlerizing classic fairytales–sanitizing those, um, grim Grimm brothers, giving nonsensical happy endings to the sublimely depressing Andersen, and basically ignoring the majority of über-sexualized Perrault–we ought to expose children to the “adult” versions of these stories, with all their dark, weird subtexts. Because, well, the world can be a dark, weird place for a kid struggling to make sense of really complex feelings that they don’t have the cognitive ability to name, much less to overcome.
In other words, fairytales, as history has handed them to us, channel the darkest parts of a child’s subconscious into manageable, tangible nuggets of fantasy that cathartically get resolved in some way by the end of the story. The underdog overcomes unfair worldly power through cunning and subterfuge. The villain gets a punishment that gruesomely fits their crime. And the Frog Prince appropriately freaks us out because sex is gross (until it isn’t; thanks, puberty!).
There are a few takeaways here. For one, now isn’t the first time in history when we’ve seen the pendulum swing from moralistic “classic” hero tales to darker, more complex stories with a whiff of allegory. But, more to the point, I think stories, not just fairytales, serve this purpose of channeling our darkest emotions and desires–for readers of all ages.
And that’s why we love both redeemed villains and anti-heroes: we can project onto them our struggles with morality in an incorrigibly complex world. If you ask me what the main difference between them is, I’d say it comes down to whether the character reconciles their exterior evil with their latent inner good, or accomplishes external good while retaining a touch of inner evil.
Or, to put it another way, which shadowy struggle within the reader does the character personify?
Villain redemption narratives give us hope that even when we are at our worst, we can still come round to good in the end. They give us a vehicle to satisfy our desire for achieving good, even and especially against the impossible odds of a great, big, hostile world combined with our own insurmountable shortcomings and regrettable decisions. Religion used to do this. Now we have the Marvel Universe.
Meanwhile, anti-heroes give us a fun and harmless outlet for all of our darker impulses. Who doesn’t love to live vicariously through the anti-hero who can get away with being a downright asshole, yet whom we all still root for in the end? This hero type gives us revenge stories as often as, or oftener than, redemption: they satisfy our thirst to stick it to our enemies in the most inventive or comically evil of ways. Through them, we can save the day but Kick the Dog; we can take out the rage, fear, and frustration we suppress IRL by reveling in the anti-hero’s no-holds-barred bastardry–which is all justified because, at the end of the day, the anti-hero is still, well, a hero, despite being so put upon or misunderstood or unappreciated by the world (just like us!).
This should tell us something about the times in which we live, and about ourselves, too. And yet, already the pendulum is swinging the other way. It bears mentioning that those classic heroes we find so unpalatable now made it as classic heroes precisely because they reflected the qualities that the readers of their times (not ours) most aspired to, liked, and valued about themselves. And, our love of “dark” narratives, at least in kiddie and YA worlds, is already giving way to a movement to scrub our culture clean of those evils we currently find so unbearable that we can’t even mention them in fiction. If you don’t believe me, wait ‘til Christmas. I guarantee you’ll find at least one well-intentioned group of adults who have taught their children a version of “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” that Contains. No. Bullying.
But meanwhile, I’ll be watching Die Hard. Yippee ki-yay, well, you know the rest.