Saturday, July 12, 2008

A Potential Definition of Antihero

Alicia asks:

What makes a hero anyway? What makes an anti-hero? What do you see as the connection between the two?

If I were an English literature professor, I would define an antihero as a protagonist with unheroic character flaws. That's how my English literature professors defined antihero. They usually elaborated on that definition by discussing the lack of heroic qualities, or by discussing the way that the antihero's flaws impacted the plot. What they never did was explain antihero in a way that made sense to a writer. Because, if you're anything like me, this is how your classroom experience would go:

Professor: an antihero is a protagonist with flaws.
Me (silently): But all characters have flaws. That's how we make them three-dimensional.

Now, of course, the English professor is well aware that flaws are built into character. And when he's referring to flaws in his definition, he means unheroic flaws as opposed to heroic flaws -- the flaws in a tragic hero’s character that create tragedy. Othello was obsessively jealous, and he ended up murdering Desdemona. That jealousy leads to an act of tragedy, and so that jealousy is a tragic flaw in a hero, or what we might refer to as a heroic flaw.

This is all rather tenuous in my head, and certainly nobody ever taught me this, but I think antiheroic flaws are more related to character motivation than to plot. In other words, we teach our reader to forgive an antiheroic act by explaining why the antiheroic flaw exists in the first place. It all starts with a bad act, though.

Let's look at an example. Let's pretend there are two sisters, Sally and Carla, who live down the street from you. Sally has been engaged to the same man for many years. Then we come to find out that Carla eloped with this man. What do the neighbors say?

The consensus opinion will most likely be that Carla did a bad thing. Sympathy will run high for the jilted sister, Sally. People will almost certainly think less of the man himself.

Now let's add something else into the case of the two sisters down the street from you. Let's say that the eloping sister, Carla, doesn't actually love this man, but married him for his money. And Sally, poor Sally, who has been so patiently waiting for their wedding date, is heartbroken and is almost certain never to love again.

At this point, how many of you are cheering for Carla? If you've recognized the example, maybe you are cheering for her. And that's because you understand the character's motivation.

The example comes from Gone with the Wind. About halfway through the book, Scarlett O'Hara marries Frank Kennedy, her sister Sue Ellen's fiancé. By this point, we're already accustomed to Scarlett behaving in a selfish fashion. She's done a whole load of things that are bad according to the morals of her day. She married Charles Hamilton out of spite, she wore the wrong dress to the barbecue, she left off her widow's weeds far too early. She pretends to feel things that she doesn't feel just so that people won't think badly of her, she hides her constant selfishness, and she manipulates the people around her almost endlessly.

And then what happens? She discovers that her sister's fiancé has some money, and so she marries him.

This is the behavior of a villain. Not a hero.

And yet, for anyone who has read the book Gone with the Wind, we forgive Scarlett for this villainous act. And we forgive her because we understand her motivation. Scarlett has already rationalized this action for us. She has already taught us the value of Tara, and we already understand just how desperate she is to preserve this family farm. Before she marries Frank Kennedy, she has already dressed in the living room curtains, visited Rhett Butler in jail, and prostituted herself to him -- or attempted to prostitute herself to him. She has already sacrificed her dignity. She has already seen Belle Watling, the town Madame, and expressed a wish that she could socialize with Belle Watling and wrangle a loan from her, scandalizing Mammy. (Through most of the book, Mammy functions something like an external conscience.).

In any event, because we readers feel the sting of Scarlett's disappointment when Rhett Butler won't give her the money to save Tara, and because we already know how strong her motivation is to preserve Tara, we forgive her for stealing her sister's fiancé. We understand her motivation. We also understand the built-in punishment: that she'll be married to a man she despises, and that her relationship with her sister will never be the same. And we accept her rationalization: that it's all worth it if it saves Tara.

So let's return to our original question. What is the connection between a hero and an antihero? In order to answer that question, we have to draw the villain in, too. Let's try this out as a working definition, and see if you can all poke holes in it:

An antihero is a character in the role of the protagonist whose actions are villainous but whose motivation makes it tolerable to the reader.

So what do you think? Have I strayed too far afield?


1 comment:

Wes said...

Again, the usual caveat applies. I've only had one lit class thru too many years as a student and 12 years as a prof many years ago. BUT.........I think you've captured the essence in the second to last paragraph: "An antihero is a character in the role of the protagonist whose actions are villainous but whose motivation makes it tolerable to the reader." I'd go even further, and say "....whose motivation makes the antihero sympathetic, even endearing, to the reader." Some people say they are not sympathetic to Scarlett, but their reaction to Rhett's leaving her shows that they are. Few readers and movie goers are left unmoved. Margaret Mitchell created a finely drawn character. I doubt if there are many as well done.

Scarlet's devious means do much more than save Tara. She delivers Melanie's baby saving both mother and child, cares for her addled father, feeds starving family and former slaves, kills a scavenger, feeds and cares for hundreds of returning soldiers, etc. All of these are laudable, yet they are possible because she often uses methods that are not virtuous.