Writing

Here’s Why True Antiheroes in Storytelling Are Hard to Find

‘Yet, why do so many people identify with Batman over Superman? Because of his flaws,’ Andrew Hilleman writes. Image © TheD3xus/DeviantArt

Editor's Note:

Andrew Hilleman was born in Omaha, Nebraska, in 1982. He has been published by The Fiddlehead and was a finalist for Glimmer Train’s Very Short Fiction Award. He’s most recently the author of World, Chase Me Down and joins us to talk about the anatomy of a well-written antihero.

First card off the deck: I don’t believe in heroes.

Which makes me more than a little wary of the term “antihero.” It implies there are actually pure heroes among us and, while we’re all capable of heroism, we’re also just as prone to fragility and ugliness. The whole Good vs. Evil trope is as tired a craft principle in fiction as “write what you know.” Any seasoned writer should know better because seasoned readers figured it out long ago. Plus, it’s simply inaccurate. Humans, even the very best of us, are often angry, scared, depressed, greedy, self-centered, lazy, prone to addiction, and capable of hurting one another in small ways and large every single day.

Take even the most fantastical heroes in our literature: those from the pages of comic books that wear capes and tights. They’re called “super” heroes for a reason: because their virtue is often a wild and unsustainable exaggeration of how we encounter goodness in our own lives on a daily basis. Yet, why do so many people identify with Batman over Superman? Because of his flaws. We see ourselves in his darkest moments and we celebrate his vulnerability while we struggle to adore (and even suspend our disbelief of) Superman’s omnipotence. Pure goodness is something we only tolerate in small, fleeting flashes because it only exists as such.

Which is why I don’t believe in heroes, only in heroic moments.

So if there are no heroes, how can there be antiheroes? You can’t have the opposite of something if that something doesn’t exist in the first place. The same goes for villains. Even the most evil creations in fiction have instances of profound and surprising charity. Examples of such cursory behavior are countless. But you probably know all of this already.

Let’s dig deeper. While I don’t abide the label of “antihero” because I think that all well-developed protagonists are, in fact, antiheroes — thus doing away with the need for the term in the first place — we can proceed under the assumption that some main characters are more inclined to maliciousness than others.

Here’s where the real separation begins to materialize: doing evil for evil’s sake. Too often we categorize characters as antiheroes because of personality flaws. These champions are wholly good save for a vice or two, such as drinking too much (I’m looking at you, Philip Marlowe) or performing a singular act of violence for personal piety, such as avenging a loved one’s murder (hello there, Mattie Ross). True antiheroes must act cruelly and succumb to darkness totally—even if only briefly—for no other reason than the simple fact they are capable of doing so. These characters must appall the reader with their heinous deeds, and the motivations for said deeds must come from an even darker place deep within them that isn’t born of some skewed subterranean morality.

Wait, you say, that’s a villain you’re describing, by definition. Not quite. It’s more complex than that and here’s the ultimate anomaly: despite such characters’ corruption, you’re still rooting for them to succeed in their ventures regardless of the villainy in which they’re accomplished. Conversely, as a reader you pine for antagonists to either: A) be defeated in climactic and cathartic fashion, or B) enjoy some terminal instant of reclamation or atonement because, underneath all that wickedness, you still hope for their returning to the light.

This just isn’t so with a fully-fledged antihero. With a true antihero, you find immorality something to be applauded rather than overcome.

Which is altogether different than redemption. Salvation doesn’t enter into the equation with an antihero, though it can be a subsequent result — but never the main determinant. You laud their vileness, even revere it. Evil, in such cases, isn’t only righteous, but wholesome. In chemistry, the phenomenon is known as an enantiomer: two molecules that are mirror images of each other but not identical.

Don’t get me wrong: goodness is obligatory in an antihero just as it is in antagonists. The final signature line is that both right and wrong are ancestrally inseparable in fiction because they are so in reality, birthed always from the same embryo: to summit the hill despite all odds and undeterred by what route it takes to get there. The key is never to forget an antihero’s darkening should be more than just equal to the light. It must engulf it.

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Follow antihero Pat Crowes from Andrew Hilleman’s latest book World, Chase Me Down using the interactive map below, tracing Crowes’s travels across the country and abroad.