In Search of the Antihero: an introduction to ambiguity
“The smallest hope, a bare continuing to exist, is enough for the antihero’s future; leave him, says our age, leave him where mankind is in its history, at a crossroads, in a dilemma, with all to lose and only more of the same to win; let him survive, but give him no direction, no reward; because we too are waiting, in our solitary rooms where the telephone never rings, waiting for this girl, this truth, this crystal of humanity, this reality lost through imagination, to return; and to say she returns is a lie.
But the maze has no center. An ending is no more than a point in sequence, a snip of the cutting shears. Benedick kissed Beatrice at last; but ten years later? And Elsinore, that following spring?
So ten more days. But what happened in the following years is silence; is another mystery.”
- John Fowles, The Magus, 1977
Who is the antihero?
Everyone knows the hero. You know them inherently. They are the ones whose names are in the titles of your favorite books and movies. They are the one on the front cover, standing above all the rest while the villain looms in the background. The hero is the one who takes the moral high ground, either because they want to or have to. They are born, or somehow created, and at some point in their story they realize they are destined to do good. They are destined to do great.
The villain, likewise, everyone can recognize sooner or later. They are too charming, too kind, too perfect, or maybe they dive right into their evil scheme and embrace the villainous life wholeheartedly. Few villains remain hidden for long. Villains provide that much-needed balance to the overwhelming goodness of the hero. Heroes and villains are necessary to each other, neither one can exist without the other, and to make use of a cliche phrase from the great Rowling, “neither can live while the other survives.”
As long as the villain lives, the hero must always act. Once the hero is victorious, the villain is no more. The hero-villain relationship is perfect. It needs no other to be viable. This theory, of course, does not apply to everything, but bear with me while we consider the most basic of character roles and relationships for the sake of better understanding one particular archetype.
The world is never so black and white- consider the periphery. The hero and villain understandably take center stage. The story is about them, yes? Everyone else is there to help, and they may help in big ways, but they only help. Friends, family, sidekicks, blind followers, they help move the story along through plot devices and situational irony.
Consider now a completely different viewpoint, one neither heroic nor villainous, a character who does not exist in the center but neither are they shoved aside into the periphery. I ask you to consider the antihero. Go ahead, I can wait. I can make tea. By the time my tea is brewed, you have likely already made a mental list of all your favorite antiheroes as you understand them, and are ready to fight me if I speak poorly of your favorite character. I will try to be good, because all of my favorite characters are the morally ambiguous ones, too, but I must ask for some allowances.
As I said earlier, the world is never so black and white. The recent Marvel and DC movies have shown that. Star Trek has been proving that since the 1960s. There is good and evil, but there is also that wonderfully shadowy place in-between, and hence, the antihero takes shape in a glorious grayscale.
The antihero plays an important role in the fictive universe. In fact, I would argue that the antihero is possibly the most important role when he appears (I use the masculine ‘he’ only for simplicity, and for the fact that most of the examples I will use are male). The antihero does not always appear. Not every story has one, and not every story needs one. I am speaking only of the stories in which such a character appears and intend to cover as many of the different roles that character fills. The antihero’s primary reason for being is to provide polarity and resistance to the forces of good, but also to the forces of evil.
How evil are you?
To begin my analysis, I want to start by assigning character alignment such as players of Dungeons & Dragons might use. Understanding character alignment is fundamental to understanding character development- even when the setting has nothing to do with role-play settings or Forgotten Realms novels. If you think about the book you are reading right now- maybe the latest crime fiction by a favorite author- you could theoretically place each character in one of the nine alignments. In a typical Dungeons & Dragons campaign setting, you have three rows, each dedicated to Lawful, Neutral, and Chaotic. Then there are three columns, designating the Good, Neutral, and Evil side. This gives you nine boxes, each with a unique combination of these six traits (see the chart below).
I find it easy to automatically assume the antihero is evil. After all, it’s right there in the title: anti-hero. What is more difficult to understand is the antihero is not the same as the villain, the antihero is not always against the hero. It simply means they are a character who has none of the innate, heroic qualities assigned to the hero. An antihero can, in some cases, be a good character. Have you ever wondered about the blundering sidekick who ruins everything? Oh, they are rare enough, but they exist. In general, these are not the antiheroes this article will analyse, but it is necessary to understand their existence.
For the purposes of this article, think of the antihero as ranging anywhere from Lawful Neutral to Neutral Evil- that is, any of the three Neutral attributes in the middle row, Lawful Neutral, True Neutral, and Chaotic Neutral, as well as the left and center columns in the Evil row, that is Lawful Evil or Neutral Evil.
The antihero can, or should, never be motivated by good, but neither can he be motivated by true evil. The antihero’s role is to challenge the hero, to fight him mentally or physically during every step of the hero’s journey. It is easy to think the antihero is at home in the chaotic zones, but in reality the antihero can only be Chaotic Neutral- to be Chaotic Good is to be a hero, Chaotic Evil is to be a villain. One might not believe an antihero is Lawful, but think of the person bound by law, who is not evil, but who still inhibits the hero’s movement.
Heroes, as anyone can tell you, will always occupy the top tier. They require at least one “good” trait, and can be either chaotic or lawful. Villains, of course, by contrast, occupy the bottom tier. The antihero is at his best in his chaotic zone, but can also be found bordering along lawful. The antihero creates movement within a story and provides obstacles for the hero without creating an impassable wall. This is why the antihero is most commonly found in the middle, neutral ground of the attributes chart. The fact that the antihero can change and blend so well is one of the aspects of this archetype that makes them all the more human.
The antihero archetype can be found flitting around amongst the rows and columns at will. The antihero is versatile, capable of doing good things (but not heroic things) as easily as evil things (but not villainous things). Good and evil must be viewed on a scale, and it is important to this analysis that neither “good” and “heroic” nor “evil” and “villainous” are considered synonymous. The antihero is never stagnant, but sways constantly between the forces of good, evil, chaos, and lawfulness.
The antihero is the only character capable of complete, true neutrality, though they rarely ever show it. Antiheroes can be influenced by either side and will flow to either side as it suits them or their purpose. Sometimes this is not a choice, and again we'll see more of that later.
There are two distinct archetypes which describe the role an antihero plays in a narrative or story. This article will briefly describe each of the antihero attributes (according to the D&D Alignment Chart) as well as each of the three primary roles often assigned to our beloved archetype.
The Antihero as Rival
The first antihero trope this article will discuss is arguably the most common- that is the role of the rival. The rival is often a central or peripheral character who appears seemingly randomly throughout the narrative. Rivals are always motivated by their own, personal reasons, though we see more often than not they are never actually in control of their own life. This key aspect contrasts the antihero with both the hero and the villain, both of whom are defined by the fact they are seemingly in control of their own destiny. The hero chooses the path of righteousness, because if they were to deny any grand fate placed upon them, they would not be very heroic. Certainly heroes might be reluctant to play the part, but they always do. Villains, too, choose their path, even if they want the reader to believe they were forced into a life of evil.
Because the rival antihero has a strong, continuous presence in the hero’s life, rivals are at their best in long-running series. This allows their character a chance to grow and develop alongside the hero’s own story. They may make few appearances and their appearances might be few and far between, but they always make an impact. The rival, even when they are not visible at that moment, are always in the back of the hero’s mind.
Some of my favorite rival antiheros from literature include Artemis Entreri of R.A. Salvatore’s Legend of Drizzt (1988 - present), Raistlin Majere from Weis & Hickman’s Dragonlance (1984-2011), and Murtagh Morzansson from Christopher Paolini's Inheritance Cycle (2003-11). From television, Prince Zuko from Avatar: The Last Airbender (2005-08) and Raven from Zoids: Chaotic Century and Zoids: Guardian Force (1999-2000) are both excellent examples.
Antihero as Protagonist
Second common antihero is when they appear directly as the protagonist. Keep this in mind: a protagonist does not a hero make! While reasons for creating an antihero as a protagonist vary, it generally is dependant on the morality of the narrative. What is the author wanting to say by creating someone unheroic to be our eyes and ears into their world?
An antihero as protagonist rather than as an antagonist provides a perspective often ignored by creators and readers alike. In these circumstances it can be difficult to successfully create a protagonist antihero. While antiheroes as rivals are meant to garner sympathy from readers in some form or another, antiheroes as protagonist have the ability to either deepen that sympathy or erase it entirely. As the main protagonist, the reader is inside the antihero’s mind. During times of evil tendencies, readers are forced to question their own morality, and when the antihero does good we find ourselves cheering them on only to watch them fall back again.
What is so fascinating about this aspect of antihero is the entire endgame rides entirely on the antihero’s own actions rather than someone else’s. In the common ‘antihero as rival’ trope, our character is random. The reader does not know what to expect or when to expect it. As a protagonist, we have this insight. The antihero’s actions are calculated. Every step they take is purposeful and we know what that purpose is. There is no rivalry, and sometimes there is no puppeteer. They are alone, and they will win. For better or for worse.
Antiheroes as protagonist are more common than you might think. In literature, Eoin Colfer’s titular character in his Artemis Fowl series (2001-2012) and again Monsieur le Compte from Alexandre Dumas’ classic The Count of Monte Cristo (1845) are both excellent examples. More recently, Emika Chen in Marie Lu’s Warcross (2017) I found to be appealing as a protagonist antihero. In manga, antiheroes are all the more common, but my personal favorite of all is Light Yagami, the main character in Tsugumi Ohba’s 12-volume manga Death Note (2003-2006).
In popular television, Walter White from the always-addictive Breaking Bad (2008-2013) played by Bryan Cranston is another favorite.
Alignments: The Good, the Bad, and the...Neutral?
Although not every literary or media pantheon uses the Dungeons & Dragons alignment scheme, it is one of the simplest yet most complete methods of describing a character's personality. Refer back to the chart I pictured above. It is the standard D&D alignment chart, but I entered in parentheses the character role I believe falls into each category.
It goes without saying that in order to be a hero, you must be influenced by good in some way. Therefore, to be good (or, preferably, righteous) is to be the hero. On the same token, the hero can be influenced by neutrality, but can never be true neutral. To act means to be driven by something, and to act as a hero means to be driven by good or lawfulness, but never true neutrality. Heroes, then, are generally one of the three good alignments: Lawful, Neutral, or Chaotic Good. This does not mean a hero protagonist can never be Lawful Neutral, or even Chaotic Neutral. Except in the case of campaign-setting novels, such as Dragonlance and Forgotten Realms, when there is more than one hero of the story, it is rare to have heroic characters driven by anything other than an overwhelming sense of righteousness.
The villain, likewise, by their very nature, must be driven by evil. Whether it is Lawful, Neutral, or Chaotic, the villain is always evil. In this way, this character is perhaps the simplest of the three characters to identify. We don't need to know why the villain is evil, it suffices to us that he is. There is no need for reasoning. Neutrality, by its very nature, is lack of action. If the villain were not driven to action by something, he would be neutral and never get very far in his evil scheme. The hero must be driven to action by Good, and the hero must be driven to action by Evil.
The antihero, then, becomes the most complex character because the antihero is bound neither by good nor evil, neither fully by law nor completely by chaos. The antihero's role can change mid-story, without warning. The antihero themself can change. In one instant, for no reason, they can be Good and do something driven by good. This does not change their nature, because they can just as easily do evil. Quite literally, an antihero can be anything he wants to be.
So let us delve a bit further into each alignment assigned to the antihero. A Lawful Neutral antihero, such as Javert from Victor Hugo's Les Misérables (1862), can do horrendous things yet not be evil while the hero of the story, Jean Valjean, is a Neutral Good felon.
The Lawful Evil antihero is driven by his own perception of what is right. Light Yagami is a perfect example of Lawful Evil while he remains as an antihero. He is one of the few antiheroes who succumbs to evil early in his development and becomes a villain long before the end of the series. The Lawful Evil antihero is driven by a need to see all evil destroyed, yet does not see himself as evil and therefore is misguided.
Vergil Sparda, a character from the Devil May Cry series (2001-2008), is also Neutral but is for the better part of the series, Neutral Evil. He is not particularly driven by evil, but his methods are inherently evil, forcing his twin brother Dante (Chaotic Neutral) to challenge him and stop him.
Chaotic Neutral is the most common alignment for an antihero. They are pulled by their own whims and desires, and are also the most unpredictable. Chaotic Neutral antiheroes are most capable of selish or selfless acts as the situation demands of them. Walter White is Chaotic Neutral for this reason. On the one hand, he wants to take down the real evil, but in doing so does a great many evil things. On the other hand, he truly seems to want to protect those he cares about, but we are often left wondering- how far is he willing to go, and at what point does he stop?
The key point to the antihero is something I mentioned earlier, and that is the antihero is almost always misguided, or he is unable to find a path so he forges his own.
Dante and Vergil Sparda from Devil May Cry 3: Final Cutscene (contains spoilers)
The True Neutral
The fate of any antihero is the ultimate realization that his actions and choices have consequences that can greatly affect the world. Any half-Neutral antihero is inevitably drawn to the four corners of the alignment chart, sometimes to all four throughout a single narrative. But, and this is the important thing to remember, any half-Neutral antihero still acts.
The True Neutral antihero is the character who opposes, either directly or indirectly, the hero by their own indecision, disinterest, or simple lack of action. This sort of antihero might be the jailer who did not imprison the hero, but certainly holds the key to the hero's escape and does not help. They may not actively oppose the hero, but through their lack of action, the hero is, for a time, unable to move forward. The True Neutral cannot last. The fate of this antihero is to eventually succumb to the pull of one side or the other.
The antihero, of any alignment, must face both Good and Evil, and they must eventually make their choice.
Rule Breakers, Line Crossers
Sometimes our antihero just does not fit into the lovely little molds I have outlined for them. Sometimes, we have a villain who somehow along the way became a hero. But are they really a hero?
The best examples in this context are nearly every former villain in the Dragon Ball/Z/GT franchise. As stated earlier, characters who confront the hero can easily be tagged as either an antihero or a villain. Many times it can be hard to figure out.
In the Saiyan Saga of Akira Toriyama's Dragon Ball Z (DBZ), we see one of the most powerful characters almost die, cause the hero's death, yet remain alive to move into that shady area of evil-tendency antihero. Vegeta somehow, eventually, becomes one of the good guys. But not really. Only when it suits him.
Other rule breakers include one of my favorite characters of all time: Dustfinger from Cornelia Funke's Inkheart (2005-07) trilogy. He is a classic antihero. Yet he is not really a "rival" nor is he "protagonist." So what is he? He is a central character, but he does not easily fit into either of those two roles.
Now, finally, we reach the end of this overly-long introduction, and this brings me to my final point. The end of the antihero's story.
So what is the final fate of the antihero? An antihero has gone to hell and back- has stood on the wrong side of good and the right side of evil. They have, I do not doubt, done many terrible things and must now face the choices they have made. What happens now?
Knowing the fate of heroes and villains is easy. The villain must be conquered by the hero, they must die in order to bring peace to the world. The antihero's fate is often just as grisly, but it does not have to be. The antihero is the one who has a chance at redemption. They are the ones who can be saved, if they want to be.
The goal of the antihero character is redemption. Remember, the antihero is not truly evil most of the time, they merely skirt along that fine line. Like Raven, Vergil, and Javert, the antihero must redeem themself by the end of the story, but they can only do so with help from the hero. Without accepting that help from the person they hate, they will die, or they will become the villain. For some antiheroes, their redemption is their death, and this makes them all the more tragic.
To better understand this idea of redemption, we need to ask the following questions:
- Is the antihero capable of redemption? By this, do they show the necessary traits which might save them from themselves?
- Does the antihero want to be redeemed? Many times the antihero is much too prideful to accept help from the hero. If given the chance, would they take it?
- Do they deserve redemption? Are their crimes too great to ever be absolved of them?
These questions we will delve into in future articles, but I want them to be in the back of your mind as you continue reading. For the time being, these are the questions we will answer next:
- What is the relationship between the hero and the antihero?
- What role does the villain play in the antihero's story?
- What difference is there between a tragic hero and an antihero?
I would love to read your comments below!