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The Antihero: Spheres of Influence

Updated on March 29, 2021
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Rebekah has been giving presentations on Japanese literature and media for many years. She has a high nostalgic value for childhood anime.

The Literary Triad

In my previous hub, I spent some time explaining the villain-antihero-hero literary triad, as well as discussing character alignment. I will not be going into much more detail here, but it is important to go back and touch on the subject, as it lays the foundation for what this hub will be addressing: the influence of each of the three character roles. The image to the right explains the relationship that exists between the villain, the hero, and of course the antihero (when an antihero is part of the story).

We are all familiar with the "chicken or the egg" argument. In the triad, the hero is always last to emerge. As I argued earlier, without the villain, the hero cannot exist, and without the antihero, the hero cannot grow and become who he needs to be. This is not the case with the villain and antihero's emergence, as one can exist without the other. If the villain emerges first, the antihero is usually a direct result of the villain's influence, however if the antihero emerges first, the villain may appear much later by taking advantage of the antihero's actions. Either way, whether it is intentional or not, the antihero is responsible for the villain's ability and strength, as well as the villain's ultimate downfall.

The reason for the antihero's importance in a story is this: the antihero is the primary character responsible for action, and action is what drives narrative. Certainly a hero and villain may exist without the presence of an antihero, but even without a named character playing that role, the notion and ideal of antiheroism still exists. Stories are never completely without an antihero. Narratives do not always need a villain, but they need something to oppose the hero. Likewise, narratives do not always have a hero, but someone must fight against the villain, and an antihero is more than capable of being that person in the absence of a hero. That is why, for a good story and balance, all three roles should be present, and when all three roles are, they generally follow the same pattern.

Protagonist, Antagonist, and Antihero

One quick note on the differences between protagonist, antagonist, and antihero. At its simplest form, the protagonist is generally the hero of the story, while the antagonist is the person working against the hero. In this way, there can be multiple antagonists against a single protagonist (such as when a villain and antihero both exist as antagonists) or there may be multiple protagonists fighting against a single antagonist, such as in the case with campaign setting novels like Forgotten Realms and Dragonlance. There may even be, in those campaign settings, multiple pro- and antagonists! (Those stories can get a bit confusing sometimes because of this)

Simply put, however, the hero and villain can never exchange roles. The hero is always the protagonist, and the villain is always the antagonist. The antihero is unique in that only he is capable of changing these roles. The antihero will usually begin his story as an antagonist, working against the hero, but will usually end up becoming a protagonist, working alongside the hero. The antihero can also begin as protagonist and stay in this role, but again, he can do the same as antagonist.

The Villain-Antihero Influence

While neither the antihero nor the villain need each other to be a part of a narrative, there is a particular relationship they do tend to have across all media. Many times the antihero and villain have no connections, but generally this is not the case. What many people seem to believe is that the antihero is the villain, but as I hope I have already proven they are not always the same. While some antiheroes have the rare privilege of being both, typically the antihero and the hero occupy the same level of existence (i.e., same powers/abilities/age/etc), while the villain sits on a separate plane. This relationship applies specifically to the antihero as a rival; the intricacies of antihero-as-protagonist are somewhat different, as is the rare occurrence of the villain not existing within a narrative.

Generally the influence of the villain on the antihero is one of power and control. We see this type of effect in Paolini's Inheritance cycle with Murtagh and Galbatorix. Murtagh, upon becoming the antihero opposite the hero, is effectively controlled and used by the villain Galbatorix against Eragon. The hero and antihero, in this case, fight each other multiple times and nearly every instance has Murtagh winning, or drawing, the battle, until such time as Eragon ultimately defeated Galbatorix, thereby completely releasing Murtagh from the villain's influence. Murtagh, who began as Chaotic Neutral, became Neutral Evil.

The relationship between antihero and villain does not end simply there. The reversed connection, the influence which the antihero imposes upon the villain, is usually betrayal. The villain's influence is control or power, and the antihero ultimately will betray the villain. Raven, the pilot from Zoids: Chaotic Century and Guardian Force is a perfect example of this relationship. Raven, although not controlled by Gunther Prozen in the same manner as Murtagh is by Galbatorix, does act in the same role as antihero/rival. He more or less does whatever it is that Prozen commands him to do. At the end of the first series, Chaotic Century, he fights and is finally defeated by the hero, Van Flyheight and disappears presumably with Prozen. In Guardian Force, he reappears, along with a new villain (who is being controlled by a transformed Prozen). In the end, just like Murtagh, Raven breaks free from the villain and betrays him, even fighting alongside the hero to defeat him.

This brings us to the relationship between hero and antihero.

Antihero-Hero Influence

What does it mean to be antihero? If a villain is against the hero, would he not be an antihero? The answer is no, he wouldn't be. The villain's hope and desire is to squash the hero like an ant and let evil win. The antihero wants to defeat the hero in order to prove something. As I've already shown, the villain and the antihero are usually separate beings. To be against the hero does not always mean being the core evil. So, what exactly does the relationship between hero and antihero look like?

The antihero's influence upon the hero is simple. He emerges in order to confront, and essentially just make live difficult for, the hero. The antihero is driven either by personal gain, desire to prove something, or by the villain himself. Once the hero has appeared and begun challenging the villain's hold, the antihero is there to challenge the hero's path. The antihero may come and go, disappear for long periods of time and suddenly reappear, or he may ingratiate himself somehow and go so far as to travel with the hero. His actions may be obvious, or they may be well-hidden, and they may even be unintended, but in any case it is the antihero who makes the hero's journey so difficult to travel, not the villain.

Kitiara uth Matar from Weis & Hickman's Dragonlance is an interesting antihero. In the beginning of the Chronicles trilogy, it is said that Kitiara broke the vow made by the companions in order to serve a new master, which sets up a general sentiment amongst the group of betrayal and bad luck. More than one hero is affected by her disappearance, but otherwise she is absent from the narrative until Dragons of Winter Night, when she meets Tanis Half-Elven and is revealed to have become a Dragon Overlord. From this point forward, Kitiara is responsible for much of the trouble the companions find themselves in, mentally and physically. Kitiara represents antiheroism more so than she actually shows it. Eventually she fights against Sturm Brightblade, one of the heroes whom she loved dearly, and kills him, before herself and her dragonarmies fight against Laurana, who has at this point become known as the Golden General. Kitiara serves, and to an extent, is controlled by the villain Takhisis, but despite her loyalty she still loves and cares for her old friends and her half-brothers Caramon and Raistlin Majere, despite them fighting now on opposite sides of the war. Her continuous presence within the minds and hearts of the companions is one of the many things that help drive them to their ultimate fate of defeating Takhisis. Tanis, Sturm, and Caramon's desire to "save" Kitiara; Laurana's desire to "win" Tanis from Kitiara; Raistlin's desire to see Kitiara and perhaps join her if it suits him; and finally Flint's anger at Kitiara for breaking their oath. All of the heroes are driven in some small way by Kitiara's antagonistic presence, leading up to a final confrontation for each of them, as is the eventual fate of the hero and antihero.

The reverse relationship between hero and antihero is incredibly important, because it deals with the ultimate fate of the antihero: death or redemption. In some rare cases, this is one and the same but in all stories concerning an antihero, one or the other must take place for the antihero's story to be concluded. The antihero has spent his or her entire story fighting against the hero, willingly or not. They have been a constant thorn in the hero's side, stalling him, keeping him from his goal, but at the same time challenging the hero to become better and better so that when the hero finally confronts the villain, he can win. This is the influence which the hero has upon the antihero, because not only is it the hero's purpose to defeat the villain; he must also redeem the antihero.

Javert, the main antagonist and antihero of Victor Hugo's Les Misérables provides an excellently haunting end for us to analyze, because his redemption is brought about by his death. His constant need to bring the protagonist, our hero Jean Valjean, to justice drives him above all else. He is the law, and the law is neutral, and although he is written to appear hateful and even evil, Javert is anything but. Javert cannot comprehend that a man with a criminal past, however slight, can be a good man. He cannot comprehend that the world is not simply good and evil, black and white. Valjean and Javert's relationship is constantly weaving itself, and their confrontations almost always end up with Valjean's arrest at the hands of Javert, which he always then escapes. Finally, after years, Javert begins to realize that even a criminal can repent and become a decent person, and for the inspector, this is a disintegration of his very world. He cannot handle this realization: that he has been the wrongdoer and that Valjean is more noble and righteous even than he. Through Jean Valjean, Javert is redeemed, yet because he is unable to live with himself, he kills himself. Not all antiheroes end with death, but they always end with redemption, and it is such a wonderfully triumphant moment for these characters that it, more than the defeat of the villain, becomes the most perfect point in a narrative. We love to see the good guys win, but we love it even more when the antiheroes become good.

Redemption or Death?

Why is it that death or redemption the only options for the antihero? I have already explained the relationship between the antihero and villain, and how it is the villain's fate to be defeated by the hero, many times with help from the antihero. The reason why the antihero must redeem himself or be killed is because the antihero cannot become the villain, nor can he always be the antihero. Once this character has crossed the threshold of good or evil, his fate is ultimately sealed.

For an antihero to become a villain, then, he must end up as all villains do: defeated permanently at the hands of the hero. Opposite this, for the antihero to become a hero, then it goes without saying that he has been redeemed for all of his wrongdoings in the past. I would argue that an antihero can never stay static as an antihero; because once the villain has been defeated and the hero's job done, then our antihero no longer has a purpose, and without a purpose, he dies either physically or emotionally. Some antiheroes, such as Artemis Entreri, simply find new goals to strive for, and continue living having never attained either true good or true evil, but this still ultimately results in either death or redemption in an emotional sense.

Because the death or redemption of an antihero is, in my opinion, the single most important moment of a narrative (or at least the most interesting) my third and final hub on the antihero will center around this aspect. Once again, I ask you to keep in mind these three questions:

  1. Can the antihero be redeemed?
  2. Does the antihero want to be redeemed?
  3. Should the antihero be redeemed?

Antihero in Various Roles

The antihero as protagonist is always an interesting aspect in literature or media, because it places the point of view of the main character within the mind of a person who does not exemplify heroic qualities, which then places the reader, or audience, within that same role. Artemis Fowl II, the title character in Eoin Colfer's eight book young adult series, is a wonderful example. He is not only a super-genius criminal at the head of a large fortune, he is only twelve. Artemis is obsessed with finding and harnessing the magic of the fairy world despite having incredible technology and wealth at his fingertips. The antihero is almost always driven by an obsession, not unlike the villain, but rarely with a larger goal in mind. The hero and villain always have a big picture, but the antihero never seems to notice a bigger picture, they live only in the here and now, just as Artemis does.

Artemis does, eventually, succeed in his endeavors, but he changes and becomes a better person from his experiences. What the antihero as protagonist shows us that growth first-hand. In most stories, we have the chance to see the hero grow and change, but the antihero's growth is often muted. While we see the change, we do not always have the opportunity to experience it and understand it. Artemis' growth happens over the course of several books, and at mid-point through the series, we finally see the real chance for that to happen with the introduction of a villain. Prior to book four, The Opal Deception, there was not a villain. We had heroes and our beloved anti-hero. This progression supports the reasoning that in order for an antihero (and by extent, the hero) to grow, the villain is necessary to create the perfect situation.

The antihero as villain is somewhat more rare but no less exciting because it allows the reader to see through the eyes of the villain, rather than the hero. The best example, in my opinion, of this aspect is Light Yagami from the manga series Death Note. Unlike the antihero simply as a protagonist, the change we see in the villainous antihero is descent, usually more and more into evil and madness. Light shows us exactly that. He begins as a person who, though misguided and possibly insane, truly wants to make the world a better place. He has that bigger picture in mind that normal antiheroes lack. However, the more he uses his power, which consequently is the ability to kill anyone simply by writing their name in a shinigami (death god)'s notebook, the more and more he descends into evil. The change is completely opposite of the change we see in Artemis, who eventually, though he always manages to be an antihero, begins to do good and redeems himself.

Light never has the chance to redeem himself, because he continues to ignore those chances. When the hero finally appears, it is the recognition of a hero that fully solidifies Light's becoming a villain, and from there he is no longer only an antihero. He becomes the evil that everyone else is fighting against, and a new antihero is then created in Misa Amane, who gains the same abilities as Light, and who ultimately is controlled by Light, further pushing Light across the threshold that divides antihero and villain. In the end, Light dies. The interesting point about his death is that it comes at the hands of his very own death god, Ryuk, rather than by a hero. Light was defeated by the hero Near, but Near is not the one who killed him. This allows Light's redemption, in some small part, by never fully creating him as a villain, but keeping him in that juxtaposition of being both.

The absence of a villain creates a duality within narrative that usually deals with characters showing neither good nor evil intent. Sarah Ash's Tears of Artamon trilogy exemplify this. The titles in the trilogy, Lord of Snow and Shadows, Prisoner of the Iron Tower, and Children of the Serpent Gate, follow at first the doings of Gavril Andar but quickly become immersed within the myriad of other central characters, allowing the reader to see through each of their eyes. Throughout the entire trilogy, there are many protagonists, and many antagonists, but I would venture to say that there are few heroes, and few villains, if any at all. What is wonderful about these types of narratives is that they show a reflection of our own world. No right. No wrong. Simply the world in its chaotic, gray scale state. The main protagonist, Gavril, grows to be a hero, but at the same time never really shows the traits that we would come to expect in a true hero. Gavril is a sort of antihero in that he was never meant to be a hero, he is simply born and must learn to make do with what fate has given him. He knows right from wrong and tries his best to always do what's right. Unfortunately that puts him at odds against several others who, like Gavril show tendencies towards good and bad, also believe they are doing what is right.

The absence of a villain does not make the absence of a hero, it merely changes how we perceive them. The characters can grow and change as they will, become better or become worse, but become neither hero nor villain. That is the world that Gavril, Andrei, Eugene, and their respective drakhouls (the demons who have possessed them), Khezef, Adramelech, and Belberith, live in. The world where they each fight for what they believe to be the greater good. Eventually, circumstances force them to work together against a greater evil, but never a true villain.

Final Note

Antiheroes appear in many different forms, but they still tend to follow certain patterns. The final piece of the puzzle is always at the end of a book- is the antihero redeemed? Keep these questions in mind; I will analyze them and seek to answer them in another hub!

Thank you for reading!


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