Writing Excuses Season 3 Episode 29: Antiheroes

What is an Antihero? There are lots of definitions of this word, so Dan boils it down to just three: The Frodo, The Punisher, and The Talented Mister Ripley. And that third definition is the one Brandon believes to be the most correct, at least in the strict literary sense.

This was a difficult ‘cast for Howard because he’s familiar with Frodo and The Punisher, but has no experience with The Talented Mister Ripley beyond movie trailers. He gets by, though. He’s seen a lot of movie trailers.

Have a listen, and learn a lot.

Writing Prompt: Write a true, classically-defined antihero in such a way that Howard will enjoy it.

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61 thoughts on “Writing Excuses Season 3 Episode 29: Antiheroes”

  1. I think you’re wrong about Frodo. He’s not an anti-hero. He’s never a hero of any type. He fails every test along the way. He exposes himself in Bree, panics and uses the ring on Weathertop endangering all his friends, refuses to see the danger that Gollum poses, is taken first by Shelob and then by Orcs, and finally fails at the Crack of Doom. Without the support of his friends — especially Sam — Frodo is ineffecutal. And that is precisely why he is the only person in Middle Earth who can carry the Ring. Because he doesn’t want anything. He has no desires beyond the life he already has. Even Sam almost gives in to the Ring’s temptation, imagining turning Middle Earth into a giant garden. Frodo is not heroic at all, and that’s why the Ring can’t touch him (until the very end, when he too is taken by it). He is surrounded by heroes, but he isn’t one in any form. He’s not even terribly sympathetic by the time they reach Mordor — he whines and gives into despair. It’s hard to belive he’s Bilbo’s relative. Frodo has no shadow — no hidden desire, no grandiosity, no ambition. Gollum is Frodo’s shadow, and the two of them together make up a whole character, which is why they succeed in destroying the ring, which neither of them could have done alone. The only part of the novel where Frodo is truly heroic is when he returns to the Shire and he and his friends clean out the courruption there.

  2. refuses to see the danger that Gollum poses

    Umm, I don’t think Frodo really has a chance to see the danger that Gollum poses. The only moral choice he has is when he decides to pity him rather than abuse him- Frodo never gets any evidence that Gollum is untrustworthy.

    I think you’re also a bit hard on Frodo. He basically tortures himself to get the stupid ring to Mount Doom, and keeps going until the Ring utterly defeats him. Even if he was whiny or completely unsympathetic for much of the book beforehand, his sacrifices would be quite redeeming to me. :)

    On antiheroes in general- I’m not too interested in writing one, but the thing that most sticks in my mind from the podcast would be a an extremely self-interested pragmatist. (like say, Jayne from Firefly) They’d be a classical antihero of the third type, yes?

  3. Fantastic episode guys!

    Now, writing anti-heroes is extremely difficult. I’ve seen it in my writing group: it is hard to make people sympathize with the neighborhood baddy. However I think the most important aspect of an anti-hero is motivation (it is for every character, but for the anti-hero more so). If you fail to catch the readers interest as to WHY a character is negative and what his motivations are and whether or not his actions are justified the reader is going to discard the story very quickly.

    The Frodo theory is great: creating an initially positive character who descends into darkness. That way it is easier to understand the character.

    Another important point is this whole revenge thing. For me, characters like The Punisher aren’t very interesting. I’ll have to agree with Pat Rothfuss here:
    Bad things happen to people, every day (as he pointed out in one of his interviews). It is not realistic (for me) that a traumatic event turns someone into a 24/7 butt-kicking machine. I think that’s a bit shallow.

    As I am writing this Kelsier springs to mind (do I hear humming? I really shouldn’t post stuff at 2:30 AM…:)).

    Kelsier is a very positive guy. A very charismatic person, yet there’s a darker side to him. It makes more believable. He’s more rounded as a person. Then again I don’t see Kelsier as an anti-hero.

    Anyway keep up the great work!

    PS: Too bad no one mentioned Thomas Covenant :)

  4. I’ve personally always been fond of Rincewind, myself. There’s an antihero who defies the usual mold.

  5. So, can Kelsier be considered a sort of antihero? I mean, all through book one he kept killing people, yet he was still a lovable character because he was sympathetic and real. I just didn’t agree with him randomly killing noble men and throwing their bodies over their neighbor’s walls, and some of his fights were alot more violent then I would normally read if it weren’t for the fact that I cared about the story and characters so much.

  6. The two definitions of the anti-hero I’ve always heard are the “Punisher” morally-ambiguous type mentioned above and the Loser anti-hero. The Loser is a character who lacks the usual competence and courage of a hero. He isn’t necessarily morally questionable (though he may be) – he just sucks. Arthur Dent is a good example of this, as is Rincewind from Discworld. How they succeed varies (and sometimes they don’t), but you can be assured that they will rather pathetic without many redeeming qualities.

    I think the second type of anti-hero mentioned above is an extremely broad category than encompasses all sorts of people who do bad things for good causes. Some of them are mercenaries (of the non-lovable kind. see Jayne Cobb). Some are just ruthlessly pragmatic, like Klaus Wulfenbach from Girl Genius. And of course, some are just outright bad people working for the good guys. These sorts of people don’t even necessarily have to be unfriendly: see Ender Wiggin of Ender’s Game.

  7. Also meant to add:

    I think that ultimately, the best definition of an anti-hero is a protagonists who subverts the expectations of a hero’s qualities.

    Maybe they fail (Frodo), maybe they do bad things for a good cause (the Punisher), maybe they just suck (Loser/Arthur Dent), or maybe they are just plain evil (talented Mr. Ripley). Regardless of the qualities they possess, they all subvert what we expect from the hero.

  8. I’m not sure I have anything to say about a classical anti-hero, but I kind of want to write a story with one now, just so I can annoy Howard by sending it to him.

  9. One of the best examples of an anti-hero of the third type is Patrick Bateman from American Psycho. I think you guys missed something when you dismissed this type as a novelty act–there’s a very real fascination to watching this guy, basically predicated on the question of “is he going to get away with it”… and yet despite the horrible things he’s done, I think for the most part you want him to get away with it. It’s the exultation of the free fall: when actions and consequences have been severed, it can make even distasteful acts exciting. There’s a kind of wish fulfillment there too, even though Bateman isn’t killing anybody who deserves it; it’s a wish we may not have known we had, and one we may not be comfortable having. Somehow that all creates a story from which you have trouble looking away.

    Listening to the categorizations in the podcast, two examples occurred to me. One is Westlake/Stark’s Parker, a ruthless, single-minded thief. I just read the excellent graphic novel adaptation of The Hunter, in which Parker basically gets revenge for a past betrayal and then kills his way to regaining the money that was stolen from him. Despite the fact that he’s doing this mostly to people who are more odious than he is, I think he’s the Ripley type, not the Punisher type, because he’s not righting any larger wrongs or cleaning up society or any of that; he’s acting totally selfishly. To me that drains him of any sympathy, although you have to admire someone as skilled and ingenious and flat-out tenacious as he is.

    The other example was Dexter, from the television series of the same name. Half of that show is about playing with audience identification–whether we find Dexter to be sympathetic or his murders to be justified. The pilot episode establishes the character as being at least better than the first victim we see him kill, a child molester/killer. The villains of each episode are essentially people just a little bit worse than Dexter himself. The question is, does that make him a Punisher-style vigilante, since he only kills killers? On the other hand, he doesn’t kill killers because they’ve done something wrong; he kills them because his father, a cop, taught him that if he has to murder, he should murder criminals (because the police are less likely to fully investigate those deaths/disappearances); Dexter has internalized this “code” and it is a part of his killing ritual, nothing more.

    I guess that’s the question, then–is motivation the difference between the Punisher and Mr. Ripley? One being selfless, motivated by public justice, the other being selfish, motivated by private need? Or is it sympathy–an admirable bad-ass killer like the Punisher versus the creepy, distasteful, somehow alien Mr. Ripley?

    If it’s selflessness, then both Parker and Dexter are anti-heroes of the third type; if it’s sympathy, then Dexter (and possibly Parker too) should be considered anti-heroes of the second type.


  10. [i]True, but he wasn’t very sympathetic until he was like, dieing in Luke’s arms.[/i]

    Ok, he was a “punisher” until he turned “frodo”.

  11. I want to say so much in response to this, in fact I wrote a response for close to forty five minutes, but then decided that I needed to put more thought into the antihero archetype.

    Being a vigilante doesn’t necessarily constitute being an antihero.
    Spawn (Spawn comics) is the only character that comes to mind who truly embodies the antihero archetype. He’s from Hell, and murders literally thousands of thousands of people, good and bad, but is the champion of the Earth and all it’s inhabitants, all while being hunted by the forces of Heaven and Hell.

    The Christmas vs Halloween metaphor is pretty good.

    For a first time visit to your podcast guys, you have me sold, more listening and attempting to write stuff. actually, i may have already done so last year.

    prepare for a read through of a gruesome rough draft

  12. Come to think of it, wouldn’t Zane be an antihero in the Frodo sense? Or does that not apply in this case. since he failed at resisting Ruin and his father’s influence before the book began?

    Still, I don’t like the third definition of the Antihero as you gave it, which seems to mostly rely on the character being so badass that you don’t care that their character is shallow and uninteresting. And in the end, isn’t that what a character who relies on pure perceived ‘awesome’ to gather readers? Or maybe I’m just thinking about this wrong.

  13. I think Watchmen ( comic or movie ) illustrates three good variations of anti-heroes. Rorshach, the Comedian, and Ozymandias.

    Rorschach is crazy. Yet, at the same time, the code he uses can be viewed as the classical code for most super heroes. He attacks crime and makes the criminals pay, but he does this in such away that he often breaks laws to get the information he needs–breaking and entering, assault, torture, and murder. At the end of the story, he is the only one who does not sacrifice his beliefs based on the results Ozymandias was able to achieve.

    Then there is the Comedian. He is a character that is will commit murder for no reason. This character is one of the two characters that is sanctioned by the government. What does this say about how society operates? What does it say about what a hero is or how power can be used by the just and unjust alike? He discovers what Ozymandias plans are and he freaks at the horror of it. This man who has such contempt for life, finds Ozymandias’ actions repulsive.

    Last is Ozymandias. This character murders millions, based on a possible future he hopes to avoid. He presents the age old question: If you could murder one person in order to save millions–would you? Unlike Rorsharch, Ozymandias is viewed as sane and normal, but the actions he commits are the most monstrous. Yet, his ideals have been used in the past: for instance the question of whether the A-bomb should have been dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

    I think in a large part, what makes a hero an anti-hero, a hero, or a villain all depends on the belief of the person viewing the action. It could also depend on the cultural beliefs of those judging the event.

  14. Excellent podcast, guys – not sure if it’s just me getting excited about writing again now that I anticipate having free time soon, but you really seem to have raised the bar a notch this episode. I’m certain I’ll be listening to this podcast and the upcoming one on tragedy several times if the seed of an idea I’m carrying works out as well as I expect (unfortunately it’s one of those ideas that seems a little too good for my current skill level, but I already know the solution to that is to forge ahead regardless).

  15. Another great topic.

    I think Patrick Bateman is the epitomy of the just pure badness (not baddass) antihero – as mentioned above. Although a bit worried by Kyu’s wish fulfilment comments on that one!? Is there something we should know?

    I guess I saw Ripley in a more sympathetic light than most here – okay, he killed people, but he was just a mixed up puppy, rather than pure evil.

    I found Ripley (haven’t read the book) more sympathetic than Bateman and therefore more successful for me. I didn’t care about Bateman, in fact I wanted the book to end, so I could leave his horrible world behind me, which erred on the side of gratuitous.

    Looking forward to tragedies.

  16. Is Humbert in Nabakov’s Lolita an antihero? I remember reading the book for a class and much like Brandon with Madam Bovary, not liking it at all. But I was curious if he would fit the bill for one.

  17. @Kyu: I hope you didn’t think I was “dismissing” the third type of anti-hero, since that’s my favorite. In the podcast I recommended Perfume, and I recommend it again: if you liked American Psycho (which is an excellent example), you’ll love Perfume.

    Re: the conversation about Vader. I don’t think you can define Vader as a Frodo in Return of the Jedi, because he’s really the opposite: he spends the whole movie being bad, and then turns around at the end and does something heroic to save the day. That, as we said, is either a sympathetic villain or a redeemed villain. Maybe we could call it the anti-villain, in the same way Frodo is an anti-hero: they do one thing throughout the story, and then change behavior at the last minute.

  18. >>the conversation about Vader. I don’t think you can define Vader as a Frodo in Return of the Jedi, because he’s really the opposite: he spends the whole movie being bad, and then turns around at the end and does something heroic to save the day. That, as we said, is either a sympathetic villain or a redeemed villain. Maybe we could call it the anti-villain, in the same way Frodo is an anti-hero: they do one thing throughout the story, and then change behavior at the last minute.<<

    I have a long drawn out reasoning for it but:

    The Rebels/Jedi were the bad guys…

    Just think of George Lucas as Leni Riefenstahl, and the hex-logy as propaganda…they make much more sense that way.


  19. I think that Kyu is right, that there is a sort of wish fulfillment that is granted by reading about anti-heroes. There are dark impulses in everyone, and it can be exciting to see them played out in a novel or work of fiction. The civilized, higher parts of ourselves that have learned to be abhorred by these impulses, often shame us into denial of the indulgence and revel at the end when the anti-hero is punished. Yet the dark impulses are still there.

  20. Interesting podcast. It’s a bit tricky to try to define who precisely anti-heroes are, and how different they are from various tragic heroes or even Byronic heroes from classic literature. I recall learning that anti-heroes could refer to any protagonist that goes against the basic hero archetype, making anyone unorthodox or strange (like Bartleby the Scrivener) to be an anti-hero of some sort.
    Personally I’ll go along with Frodo being an anti-hero in the sense that he’s not the stereotypical image of a heroic defender of justice out to save the world with his strength and valor. But I don’t consider Frodo to be an anti-hero in the sense of having darkness in his heart, since that was brought about by the Ring’s evil influence rather than Frodo’s own personality.
    I wouldn’t call Darth Vader an anti-hero though, since he’s not the protagonist (Luke was). He was simply an evil villain that killed billions of people and then somewhat redeemed himself to some degree in the last few minutes at the end of the trilogy. I suppose the term could be applied to him for the prequel trilogy though – at least for the third movie.

  21. I don’t think you can call Frodo an anti-hero.

    Frodo’s quest to destroy the Ring was never actually possible—he was doomed to fail from the start. The precise character of his quest seems to have been lost in the muddle of the so-called Tolkien Imitators, who seem to have propagated a fundamental misapprehension of Frodo’s heroic quality.

    What Frodo was fighting against was his own Original Sin: Tolkien’s work was very heavily Catholic. That is a burden that Frodo could never truly escape, and therefore the quest was ever doomed to ‘fail’. The reason that it succeeded was Frodo’s inherent virtues: which is why he was ‘chosen’. Chief among those was Faith. He never set aside the quest, never questioned it. At the end, he lost all sense of himself and became a creature driven by the quest—the ultimate subjection to God. At the brink, when he was incapable of overcoming his human failing, Eru/God rewarded that Faith by pushing Gollum into the fire.

    The Ring itself (and Sauron through it) was an expression of Middle-Earth’s ultimate sin: the desire to supplant God. Sauron (like Morgoth before him) wanted to be worshiped, and all who contacted the Ring felt a similar urge (a stirring desire for power). Frodo, alone of all the ‘heroic’ characters, had another virtues that enabled him to see the quest to its end (expressed as a feature of Hobbits specifically): Humility.

    (The turn at the end of the book, in ‘The Scouring of the Shire’ is very important to this theme, which is why it is a travesty that Jackson left it out of the movie)

    However, the only reason Gollum was even there at the end was Frodo’s selfless pity, his compassion and empathy: he saw himself in Gollum (in a literary sense, Gollum and Frodo and Sauron are one), and he spared his life. It was that act specifically that God rewarded at the brink of fire.

    The great virtues of the ordinary man (as Tolkien the Catholic saw them), Faith, Humility, and Compassion, showed Eru/God that Men were worth redemption, worth saving. Frodo embodied those everyday qualities, and thus was the epitome of the ‘everyday hero’. His ‘failure’ at the fire was merely a feature of Tolkien’s worldview, his Catholic understanding of the struggle between Good and Evil and Man’s role in it.

    Second, I am not convinced that you can define ‘Anti-Hero’ as someone who changes sides at the end. Lucas long intended the entire Star Wars saga to be ‘about’ Vader, and the first?/second? trilogy (the original trilogy) was the story of Vader’s redemption through his children after his corruption to evil (following common mythic tropes). In this sense, Vader is ever the ‘Hero’ of the story. At most, I would call this a reversal, the Hero becoming Villain, but dramatic progression is still keyed to Vader’s development, the pressure toward his redemption. The fact that he regains some virtue in the end disqualifies him for ‘anti-hero’.

    I am tempted to suggest that ‘antihero’ is not something that can be properly expressed in the current literary climate, where moral ambiguity and the ignoble are the norm. Uncompromising virtue is in many ways frowned upon (in literature). Think of Martin’s work, where the virtuous are the first to die.

    [I’ve been listening to these podcasts since the beginning, but I’ve never commented before. Thank you for them.]

  22. Another datapoint. I’ve found it helpful to distinguish between “protagonist” (a role in story) and the manner or characterization of the person in that role. A hero is a type of protagonist. But we can also have protagonists who are rogues, scamps, criminals, and cowards. Here’s a wiki on it.

    antihero (plural antiheroes)

    (literature) A protagonist who proceeds in an unheroic manner, such as by criminal means, via cowardly actions, or for mercenary goals.


    This seems to cover quite a few protagonists, not just the ones we despise and root against. So an unheroic manner may or may not engender antipathy. As was stated we have people like Dirty Harry, for whom we cheer loudly. Or Phillpe Gaston (Mouse) in the movie Ladyhawke who is cowardly and self-serving yet engenders HUGE amounts of sympathy and interest. There are ways to get readers to cheer for these folks. I wrote something about it here: http://johndbrown.com/2009/01/villainous-heroes/

    However, the key thing, I think, is to be in control, understanding the effect on the reader and making sure that’s the effect we want to guide them into. Do we want the reader to cheer for or against the protagonist? Or be ambivalent? Or change their view of the character as time goes on?

  23. No one has mentioned Light Yagami from Death Note as a The Talented Mister Ripley anti-hero. (Or maybe I’m the only one who visits this site and reads manga . . .)

  24. Artemis Fowl is a sort of Antihero to me in the first book. It’s like he is on a pedestal that you can’t reach. You never seem able to relate to him because as soon as you figure out what is going to happen he’s not even worried about it because he has already got it figured out. I kept reading just to see how it ended and then didn’t pick up the second book for a long time, until I was board one day. The second book showed a much more sympathetic Artemis looking for his father, and I enjoyed it a million times more.

  25. I love your podcasts, guys. But why no mention of Stephen Donaldson’s Thomas Covenant Chronicles?

  26. I don’t think you can call Frodo an anti-hero.

    Actually, all you’ve shown is that YOU can’t call Frodo an anti-hero. The analysis is fascinating, but doesn’t preclude other analyses. Be careful not to fall into the “one true analysis” trap.

    Literature means what the reader thinks it means, and for many of us Frodo is an anti-hero. As such, he’s a useful example for studying the tricks and tropes.

  27. Light Yagami is an excellent example Jame – probably the closest thing to a classically defined anti-hero I’ve read in recent memory. But on the other hand he is almost like an object less on what would really happen to a “punisher” type anti-hero in real life. Because he does start out as a vigilante – things just get so twisted that you don’t really sympathize with him any more and he becomes a “talented mr. ripley” anti-hero.

    But definitely a great example of a story that keeps you fixated as you watch a character do horrendous things.

  28. Bdaggar, in his over developed sense of justice, I agree that Light starts out as kind of a ‘Punisher’. But the Punisher, like many other superheroes, was motivated into doing what he did as a way to get revenge. Whereas Light lived a comfortable life, surrounded by positive role models, and chose to do the things he did with no outside influence. He had a messiah complex that grew out of control after finding the Death Note.

    In short, I think Light is very much the Talented Mr. Ripply anti-hero because you can’t (or rather, I can’t) sympathies with him at all. His ultimate goal was not to bring justice, although he was trying to do that along the way, but to become the god of his new world.

  29. Bravo to Jen for mentioning Thomas Covenant -a true anti-hero in late 20th Century fantasy. I’ve been listening to the podcasts since Season One. I’ve believed at times that there was too much comparisons and allusions to contemporary movies and comic book characters – hey, remember books – but this podcast pushed the edge of the envelope with the redefining of literary terms and it’s unwillingness – or inability – to raise the level of erudition – even though we are speaking about science fiction and fantasy. And before you think I’m on a high horse – I own the first appearance of Punisher in Spider-Man -and am proud of it, but I did grow up to read novels.

  30. What do you guys think of this idea: A book where the two main characters are a regular hero and a classical antihero, whose paths cross and the regular hero eventually defeats the antihero. They would both be major point of view characters, so you could see their conflict from both points of view.

  31. Interesting, so the “Anti-hero” I’ve been thinking of doing really isn’t one? Good to know.

    I’m interested in what you’d call it, though. Something Dr. Horrible-esque: does bad things, but something inherently likable about them?

  32. By my English-class definition (“a protagonist lacking traditional heroic qualities”) “The Frodo” and “The Punisher” wouldn’t fit, but there would be another type: the hapless protagonist who does worse in their own situation than the reader would imagine himself/herself doing, due to some deficiency of willpower, intelligence, courage, etc., but is not morally repugnant.

  33. Someone mentioned Light Yagami wich is an perfect example but I would like to trumph that with another example from the anime world.
    Lelouch is the hero of the anime “Code Geass: Lelouch of the rebellion” and is probably my biggest inspiration to writing about an anti hero.
    Hes an outcast prince from the great brittanian empire whos hiding with his blind sister in the occupied state of Japan.

    Hes driven to bring down the empire by 2 main motives. First, reveange for his murdered mother and to make a better peaceful world for his sister.
    The leangths he goes to accomplish all this stunned me. While being haunted by the immoral choices he does he still uses his friends, commit mass murder and so on all in the name of bringing down an “evil empire”

    Anime may not be something for everyone but you will miss something great if you dont see this one.

  34. Brandon and Dan, once they realized I was listening, would have predicted that I’ll jump in as soon as they mentioned Punisher, Batman, and Spidey all int he same podcast. But first a reaction to the comments i skimmed.

    @KG: how do Frodo and Punisher NOT fit in a definition of “A protagonist lacking traditional heroic qualities.” Frodo has some luck and moral fortitude by several interpretations, but he’s not particularly skillful, nor, might I add, is he very charismatic. He doesn’t seek glory, and he doesn’t accept glory. He seems pretty a-typical of a hero to me.
    I can see it a bit more for Punisher. In fact I wrote an essay on TWG (which I can’t link to because TWG is blocked here at work) about how a society gets the heroes it deserves, and for those who have become jaded on the the entire system and want justice above all else, Punisher fits them. He’s extremely capable and brave, and he has a code. But he’s bloody. he doesn’t want order, he doesn’t reason. He kills because they killed first. And if he’s convinced someone needs it, he’ll kill them. He’s not interested in law, he doesn’t care about … well, I could go on. But he seems somewhat atypical of the tranditional hero too. and he definitely isn’t interested in excellence or glory. Shooting a cop (one who is clearly not corrupt) is even ok it keeps him in business.
    (Traditional heroes, for me, makes me think of people like Robin Hood, King Arthur, Lancelot, Hercules, El Cid, Perseus…)

    Now, for superheroes. What’s the logic that makes you jump from “Punisher is an antihero” to “That means Spider-Man and Batman are anti-heroes”? Lawbreaking? That’s not the case. Neither Batman nor Spider-Man break the law. Maybe in some technical sense, but both of them have express approval of law organizations and other crime-fighting groups. Parker is hounded every now and then, but every time it’s been because he’s been falsely accused of an actually crime. So maybe evading the law is his crime? seems sketchy. They’re vigilantes, but in their settings, they are also valuable parts of the crime-fighting and safety institutions approved by society.

    That’s what made the Civil War story line interesting — finally there WAS some problem with the vigilantes. It turned Captain America into a criminal (along with many others who wouldn’t register their secret identities). I’m not convinced that this alone made them “anti-heroes” however, even in the Punisher sense. They were doing it because the law was, in their minds, wrong — a value that has, at least since 1776, been a singularly important one in American mindset. Heroes are defined by their society. If they exhibit strength int he values that the society holds highest, that makes them heroic. most superheroes do that — being as most superhero stories are written by and for Americans, or at least western culture, they tend to exhibit the values that Americans hold highest. “Truth, Justice, and the American Way.” They are, if anything, the epitome of heroism, not anti-heroism.

    By that argument, however, i’ve contradicted myself a bit. Antihero is a somewhat subjective title in the “punisher” sense. If your values are violent retribution over order, safety, civil liberties, or law, then Frank Castle is most definitely a hero (it’s not one of my values, so I still think of him as an antihero). The point is, however, still that breaking a law doesn’t turn a hero into an anti-hero, even if you take the Punisher as a type of antihero.

    To canonize a definition, somewhat, I have my copy of Penguin’s _Dictionary of Literary Terms and Literary Theory_ (1991 publication) here and is says this in the “anti-hero” entry:
    “a ‘non-hero’, or the antithesis of a hero of the old-fashioned kind who was capable of heroic deeds [note: still leaves frodo and punisher as “heroes”], who was dashing [excludes Frodo, methinks, and most interpretations of Punisher], strong, brave and resourceful. It is a little doubtful whether such heroes have ever existed in any quantity of fiction except in some romances (q.v.) [meaning, primarily, Medieval pre-novels about knights and such] and in the cheaper kind of romantic novelette (q.v.) [such as the kind, they are too polite to say, published by Harlequin].”
    Note that this leaves “success” in the over all plot not as an issue. Meaning Oedipus, despite being the protagonist of a tragedy, still a hero. They can do great things, they’re resourceful, and they are admirable, perhaps even enviable as the type of person you want to be.
    The book goes on to say:
    “The anti-hero — a type who is incompetant, unlucky, tactless, clumsy, cack-handed, stupid, buffoonish…” I.e., he may still get the job done, but he has significant non-enviable traits, particularly in personality, that do not seem to outweigh his accomplishments in terms of making us want to be like him. So in this sense, Frodo and Punisher ARE anti-heroes, even in the traditional literary sense.
    Examples given by Penguin are found in Greek New Comedy in ancient literature, and in more modern/European lit include: Don Quixote, Hylas in _Astrée_, Tristram Shandy, Schweik in _The Good Soldier_, Leopold Bloom (_Ulysses_), Meursault (_Hurry on Down_), Jim Dixon (_Lucky Jim_), Jimmy Porter (_Look Back in Anger_), and Yossarian (_Catch-22_) and a lot in Graham Greene books (my personal favorite example of his being _The Power and the Glory_ but _The Tenth Man_ also suffices). They also reference, curiously to the entry on “Angry Young Man”

    Most literary theorists are a bit hoity toity to read much genre fiction (their bias I expose in the first quote there), but I believe this would extend to someone like Punisher, but certainly not Batman, who is focused entirely around resourceful, accomplishment, and yes, even “Dashing” as Bruce Wayne, which is a very important feature for his character. Peter Parker may be less “dashing” but I think he still falls into the clever and resourceful, capable of good deeds, and is in a way, socially impressive — he has a great wit and he does, after all, land a super model/actress for a bride. Superman, of course, is the comic book go-to boy for non-anti in our heroism. Yet they’re all vigilantes. They’re also LEADERS though. Deadpool, however, comes to mind as an anti-hero, as well as the Hulk.

    In fantasy and science fiction, good examples of anti-heroes are, as mentioned, Light Yagami (a recent read of mine and very interesting), and yes, Frodo. I would also include Bilbo, for while he’s resourceful and capable, he’s not charming and brave and larger than life, and he’s pretty dishonest and misanthropic. Han Solo isn’t an anti-hero, and Malcom Reynoldsis closer to one but doesn’t quite fit the bill. Hockenberry in Dan Simmons’s _Illium_ is, however (Helen of Troy even laughs at his… uhm.. .manliness), due to his passivism and scholarlyness and his cringing and his desperation.

    My favorite recent example, however, is Peter David’s Sir Apropos. He strikes me for much of the trilogy as merely a reluctant hero, perhaps a bit anti-social and self-deluded, but doing the right thing because he can adn really should, even if he doesn’t like it. He chooses against riches and comfort and sexy, sexy romance, based ONLY on a social expectation (and his personal distaste behind his agreement with the expectation) but in the process chooses to minimize the amount of hurt he will cause in the process. He lacks a little in charming, and has a gimp leg, so those are unusual, but these only put him on the fringes of anti-heroism. In the second book he really starts to become anti-hero, self-serving, destructive, but in the end he makes decisions that help others and takes more steps toward true heroism, a path he continues through much of book 3, until something happens to repulsive personally that he commits an incredibly destructive act on purpose and (apparently) forever turns from the socially capable, admired potential to a life of self-serving and cowardly actions.

    Final comment: @Foste “Bad things happen to people, every day (as he pointed out in one of his interviews). It is not realistic (for me) that a traumatic event turns someone into a 24/7 butt-kicking machine. I think that’s a bit shallow.”
    If you think that way, you really shouldn’t read comics at all, because it’s a genre that believes in the single life-changing event. However, it’s also not a very valid interpretation of how he became what he did. Frank Castle was a long-term Vietnam Veteran, which is where he learned his “butt kicking.” He was special forces and very good at what he did there. However, Nam was also remarkable in the sort of psychological damage it did. We finally started to see the effects ANY war has on the soldiers who fight in it, and the extreme opinions about the war and willing American soldiers caused severe problems in veterans of that conflict. In short, I would have expected Castle’s psyche to be, at best, very fragile before the fateful event. he’s expecting gratitude for his service and the only thing he wants is a quiet life, and that’s all taken from him when he expects to be safe, using the exact kind of violence he thought only happened thousands of miles away in the jungle. His training, combined with grief, basically blew up his already fragile grip on normalcy. Maybe it’s still not an EXPECTED response, but it’s hardly fair to say it’s a simple response to a single sad event.
    Interestingly, there was a story about ten years ago where castle had to be raised from the dead by an angel and loaned some powers — the angel was supposed to be his guardian, but had been drunk and absent that fateful day in Central Park — which prompted the further revelation that devils had set Frank up: after all, who in their right mind has a picnic in Central Park? Essentially, the Punisher was manipulated to be a sort of unwitting servant of hell. All of which changes a great deal of how I see Castle today. Marvel has always been big on the background of Catholic-style heaven/hell (see Daredevil, Ghost Rider, etc etc) so this wasn’ta new move, but it turns Punisher less into a simple vengeful badass and more into a man trying to take redemption into his own hands and rebel against heaven in righteousness (ironic, but interesting) while protecting the world. He takes a step away from anti-hero there, and more toward someone admirable.

  35. Another very good example for the third (true) anti-hero type would be Andrew Compton from Poppy Z. Brite’s “Exquisite Corpse”.
    He is a necrophiliac and completely amoral, but in spite of the horrible acts he commits, I just could not put the book down and have even reread it (almost exclusively for Andrew’s parts which are in first person).
    He is not in the least sympathetic (he makes it very clear from the start that he has always been this way and that there is no reason at all for him doing the things he does besides the fact that he enjoys it), but at the same time he was one of the most fascinating characters I have ever read about and he had a distinctive brilliant voice.

    I also enjoyed ‘Das Parfüm’ (I’m from Austria and we actually read it in my high school years ago) and the Dexter TV series. But I have to say, I was really annoyed with Dexter’s internal monologues at times because the premise of the show (Is what Dexter doing okay because his victims are that tiny little bit worse than him? etc.) was obvious enough without him always reiterating it for the audience.
    I liked the series, but I think it could have profited of a little bit more subtlety.

  36. One of my favorite anti-hero characters would be the Count of Monte Cristo (in fact, Dumas was excellent at writing characters you don’t necessarily like or care for, but you still are interested in their sotries and seeing if they reach their goals) but I think there is another type of anti-hero that should be mentioned. The infiltrator type anti-hero, who absorbs themselves in the lives of the “wrong” side, making it nearly impossible to tell if they are good or evil, only to reveal themselves at the end. This may or may not fit what people view as an anti-hero, but it doesn’t seem to fit into any of the three broad categories that were talked about (although you could make a case for #2, it seems to dumb down these types of characters). Anyone who is a fan of the Wheel of TIme books and has read The Gathering Storm, it has one of the best examples of this type of character, which should probably have their own classification.

  37. Thanks for the detailed response, Eric.
    In the case of Frodo, I was referring not to the individual character, but to the definition of type given in the podcast, which includes the phrase, “follows all of the heroic conventions until the end.”

  38. And if we’re still looking for antiheroes Howard would enjoy, surely The Good Soldier (as mentioned above) would work? If that’s too sympathetic, or too funny, to count, perhaps A Confederacy of Dunces would be another example?

  39. Another antihero to put forward is Emiya Shirou, from Fate/Stay Night, who at different parts of his personal timeline, occupies all three different roles. He starts off as the third type; he’s a bit dim, he’s got a dream of becoming a Hero Of Justice and protect everyone from pain, but is basically implementing it as “do whatever chores anyone asks me to, and hope for the best”, and while a mage, is absolutely horrible as magic.

    Then he winds up getting caught up in the story, becomes badass, turns himself into the Punisher. He winds up killing people to protect people, ignoring the people close to him to continually run after saving more people, and eventually winds up making a pact with the collective unconsciousness of humanity to become its servant in protecting humanity after death in order to get the power to save the people he wasn’t going to make it to.

    Eventually he winds up getting hung, and the spends his afterlife killing everyone in the area of an imminent threat to the world whenever he gets sent to the world. After a while, he looks at his history, sees all the blood he’s spilled for little reason, and goes, “I never wanted this to happen!” Then he becomes the Frodo, and goes back in time to kill his past self in order to create a temporal paradox in the hope that in doing so, he’ll wind up erasing himself from existence (since simply killing himself won’t work, since he’s already dead.

  40. Great podcast, just listened to it.

    I think all three definitions work and are distinct enough for each to warrant their own analysis (though as a literary term of art, antihero is an unsympathetic viewpoint character, as Brandon said).

    For me, these questions have always revolved around a limited list of roles in drama, only the first of which being strictly necessary for a given work:
    1) The Viewpoint Character (character in whose viewpoint the story is told, obviously)
    2) The Hero (the character who defeats/resolves the conflict)
    3) The Protagonist (the character with whom reader sympathy rests)
    4) The Antagonist (the character who imposes or causes the conflict)
    5) The Villian (The character who opposes the protagonist or hero)

    The trick is that you can combine any or all of these into any given character. Only the classical, straightforward model groups the first three in one character and the last two in the other. And we’re starting to tire of classical, straightforward stuff.

    As for the commentary, I think that you need to give credit to the French Revolution for the Punisher types, not American cowboys. I see the Punisher type as a backlash against bureaucracy and the assertion – we know we’re right, now off with his head. Very French.

    As for Talented Mr. Ripley types, I think that by far the best for illustrative purposes is Humbert Humbert in Lolita. Everything about him is loathsome, and the desire to see him fail is what pulls the reader through the book. Thus, he’s the antagonist AND the viewpoint character, while Lolita is the protagonist. If you think about it, that was definitely the best way to tell that particular story. Especially with complex, philosophical conflict themes, I think that often the most intelligent character needs the viewpoint role, regardless of whether he’s sympathetic. Lolita is pure anti-hero theory (though this is coming from a guy who thinks Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying is a pure illustration of suspense).

  41. Once upon a time there was an anti-hero. And Howard loved him.

    Boom! Writing Prompt complete.

  42. If you want a truly corrupt protagonist then you’ll find one in the Star Wars Darth Bane series by Drew Karpyshyn.

    Of course he isn’t morally corrupt, he is ethically corrupt.

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