A couple of days ago a friend of my mine, with whom I converse extensively on film and TV, told me about Netflix’s Orange is the New Black, which is about a woman who is sent to 15 months in a women’s federal prison. He went into great detail about the rich cast of despicable characters and how the writers ingeniously force us to relate to them in different ways as their backgrounds and true natures are slowly revealed. From this we fell into another lengthy discussion about memorable characters in television today. I rhymed off a few of my favorites: Walter White from Breaking Bad; Dexter Morgan from Dexter; Nicolas Brody from Homeland.
Later that night, for fun, I continued adding to the list pulling from fiction in general:
• Holden Caulfield (The Catcher in the Rye)
• Alex (A Clockwork Orange)
• Mr. Hyde (The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde)
• Tyler Durden (Fight Club)
• Yuri Orlov (Lord of War)
• Daniel Plainview (There Will Be Blood)
• V (V for Vendetta)
• All of the vigilantes in The Watchmen
I immediately stopped typing the second I realized that not one bonafide hero, in the true sense of the word ‘hero’, appeared on my list. Upon reflection I concluded that I simply root for the ‘bad asses’ in stories, regardless if they are from movies, television, or books. And when I hold up my list against some of the darker characters that have emerged in recent fiction, it becomes clear that there is a demand for antiheroes. But why is that?
There are many definitions of ‘antihero’ from a cornucopia of sources on the Internet. My take on an antihero is that he is the protagonist of a story who pursues his goals for purely selfish reasons and who runs the risk of having absolutely no redeeming qualities. They often possess the ‘me or them’ survival instinct and, in extreme cases, won’t hesitate to push you under the bus if you get in their way. Some antiheroes will do the right thing simply because it’s in their best interest. However, if their best interest is not in anyone else’s interest, too bad. In any case, we can all agree that an antihero is not quite the hero, nor is he the villain.
So why do I find myself relating with antiheroes in fiction? On a superficial level, readers and viewers simply fall for the bad boy. Take Han Solo. Very few Star Wars fans can think of this character without adding ‘self-interested scoundrel’ at the end of his name. Yet he is the franchises most iconic character. And, let’s admit it, how many of us became a little sympathetic with Bill when we finally met him at the end of Beatrix Kiddo’s ‘rampage of revenge’ in Kill Bill Vol. 2? We were a bit sad when his heart exploded after he charmed the hate out of us in the final chapter of the film. We don’t come across scoundrels in our daily lives and so when we escape into fiction, anyone who goes against the mold becomes fascinating to us.
It might also have to do with how antiheroes become scoundrels or almost villains in the first place. In some cases, a character will reveal that they come from a troubled background which explains why they developed such an animosity for humanity. They are victims of a traumatic event or a series of unfortunate circumstances that forced them down a dark path. Or, they suffer from a family tragedy that motivates them to do certain unlawful deeds to ensure the well-being of their loved ones, which is something we can sympathize with. Walter White in Breaking Bad first enters the drug trade to make money fast for his family before he dies of cancer.
Life isn’t just black and white. There is also grey. We relate to antiheroes because they blur the lines in fiction and are closer representations of human fallibility. Plus, pure good versus undeniable evil is just plain boring in fiction. For readers or viewers who want realism in their stories, the antihero is the closest thing to a believable character. You can argue that these ‘scoundrels’ are caricatures of ourselves. We’ve all done good and most of us have done something bad. The vast majority of us have not diced a human corpse into pieces, like our friendly neighborhood serial killer Dexter Morgan, but we’ve done deeds we’re not proud of.
We don’t need to justify siding with the antihero at the end of a story. A well rounded, smartly concocted scoundrel is just damn entertaining.
Your humble writer,