Sometimes heroes are overrated. The first hero I ever followed was Underdog, that classic animation from long before my time. In real life he was the humble, lovable shoeshine boy, but when trouble arose, he became the invincible Underdog, saving Polly Purebred from gangsters like Riff Raff and Simon Bar Sinister. Only later did I realize he popped speed in every episode. That pill habit kind of took something away from my hero. I hope Underdog got clean.
This, however, does not mean they are evil. The important part of a well-written anti-hero is that the end result of their actions is positive and acceptable to the reader, even if the route to get there was unethical, morally questionable, or very uncomfortable to read. Murderers do not make interesting anti-heroes. Vigilantes, however, offer an alternate form of justice for the reader to consider and decide upon.
Anti-heroes have shown up throughout historical literature, and the great ones quietly leave an indelible mark. Holden Caulfield from The Catcher in the Rye was the quintessential frustrated young man, but before him was a lineage going back to Jay Gatsby of The Great Gatsby, the playful title character from the Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, or the dubious Raskolnikov from Crime and Punishment. These characters all take a very different route on the hero's journey, but in the end we appreciate traveling with them.
One form of anti-hero is the warped ethicist. Such a character follows a strict ethical code, but one that does not reconcile with social norms. These anti-heroes are often written with an eye toward social or political protest, or to highlight some hypocrisy in the world. Such a story is very fun to write, but the writer is strictly contained by the anti-hero’s code and all that it implies. When they are created and this code is defined, the character becomes complex and satisfying as the reader sees how such a code affects every aspect of their life.
In Jeff Lindsay’s Darkly Dreaming Dexter series (on which the Showtime series Dexter is based), our anti-hero, Dexter Morgan, is a psychopathic serial killer. Typically, this is not a likable character type. However, he follows a strict code to control his impulses, and focuses his need to kill on criminals who have slipped clear of the justice system. He also pursues social normality, trying to live beyond his illness and understand love and social connection. With these traits, the reader understands the character’s humanity and vulnerability, all while considering whether his vigilante behavior is ultimately just. (Clearly, anyone who does not like stories of people taking the law into their own hands will not be a fan.)
Possibly the most frequently written about anti-hero is Death. Yes, Death. The Grim Reaper. The Oarsman. That guy. While frequently portrayed as terrifying and even evil, Death has often appeared in literature and movies with a humanized side. My personal favorite portrayals of Death as an anti-hero are in the Fahfrd and the Grey Mouser series, Terry Pratchett’s Reaper Man, and particularly Neil Gaiman’s comic, Death: The High Cost of Living. As Death is portrayed as someone who makes sure the world doesn’t overpopulate, who gives Life some value, and who cares about and even appreciates all the people he is obliged to take, the reader is given a fresh perspective on the world.
Nowadays, most anti-heroes are found in the comics – Deadpool, the Punisher, etc. – and we can just leave them there. But the spirit of the anti-hero can be very powerful in the written narrative, because it can leave the reader thinking about the conclusions the character came to, whether some greater good was served, and if they agree with it.
And it doesn’t matter whether or not they popped pills like Underdog.
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