Antihero: The Ambiguous Protagonist?

by Intermittent Rain ~ October 4th, 2018

I’ve long been confused by the definition of “antihero”. My daughter uses the term to describe characters in movies but I’m never quite sure what she means.

Wikipedia says:

An antihero, or antiheroine, is a protagonist in a story who lacks conventional heroic qualities and attributes such as idealism, courage, and morality. Although antiheroes may sometimes do the right thing, it is not always for the right reasons, often acting primarily out of self-interest or in ways that defy conventional ethical codes.

So,

  • Sometimes does the right thing, but
  • not from idealism, courage, morality
  • often acting primarily out of self-interest

I think Dexter, of the novels as well as the television series, is a good example of an antihero. Dexter is a serial killer, a sociopath with no inherent morals. When Dexter’s cop father discovered his adopted son’s predilections, he told him he can only kill those who deserve to be killed; other killers on the loose. Dexter is doing “good” for society by removing other serial killers but only because he is following his father’s rules while satisfying his own needs; needs which society might find objectionable.

In my mind, a protagonist does not have to be either a hero or an antihero. Or maybe he does, in the traditional definition of the term. Wikipedia seems to think so. Based on their list it looks as if any important character who is morally ambiguous is an antihero, including the Lannister boys from “Game of Thrones” and Snape from Harry Potter (who is not the most, second most, or even third most present character in the series). And I don’t see Micheal Corleone of “The Godfather” or Gordon Gekko of “Wall Street” as antiheroes. They’re protagonists, but they never come out the other side of the hero’s journey like Kurtz of “Heart of Darkness”/”Apocalypse Now”. They are anti-hero, as in the opposite of heroes.

Wikipedia also has Frank Drebin from “The Naked Gun” in the list. Does that mean Mr. Magoo is an antihero even though his good deeds are accidents that he stumbles into because of his extremely bad eyesight?

For my purposes, I take issue with the “may sometimes do the right thing” part of the definition. They don’t have to try to do good all the time, but must always do something hero-like at some point. Heroic, for me, meaning working for the good of others beyond oneself and struggling or sacrificing to achieve it. Otherwise, they’re not heroes, just protagonists or main characters.

Morally ambivalent leads of spaghetti westerns may or may not do something hero-like. And morally ambiguous characters who wander through the world in an existential or alienated funk are fine protagonists but that doesn’t make them antiheroes. At least not in our modern world of Marvel and DC movies.

Struggling internally for ones own peace of mind may benefit those who read and learn from the struggle, but if the results are only internal for that character I don’t know that it fits the same category of heroic action. Perhaps I’m not seeing all the ramifications though: is the struggle to maintain sanity not heroic, and how is that different from a character that is deeply and profoundly moved by societal issues?

But in the 21st century we have a clear definition of hero: Superman, firefighters, good Samaritans. And, I think, antiheroes are the ones who do heroic deeds unwillingly (the Marvel character Jessica Jones, who gets dragged into her fights) or primarily for selfish reasons (Dexter, who kills killers to satisfy his own need to kill, or Dr. Gregory House, whose need to solve puzzles usually results in curing the illness), or freely breaks rules in order to accomplish their journey (Jack Reacher, who doesn’t go looking for battles but once he’s decided he needs to right a wrong never hesitates to break laws or lie or to pulverize a few bad guys).

These antiheroes have dark sides, shadowy pasts, and struggle with themselves and their morals as well as with the villain and evil forces. Most interesting heroes have similar characteristics though: that’s what makes them interesting, human, relatable.

 

Apparently, my definition of a protagonist is not the same as a hero. Rather:

  • hero is a category of protagonist where the protagonist is at some point or on some level is trying to do good, and,
  • antihero is a subcategory of hero, not the opposite, so an antihero could also be a protagonist. Also,
  • the difference between hero and antihero is in the values of the character. Doing good needs to be an explicit priority for the protagonist to be a hero. If he or she ends up doing good primarily for other reasons (selfish, coincidental, forced or blackmailed into it), they are an antihero. They are doing good but not for heroic reasons or due to heroic values.

In some ways this doesn’t make sense. I’ve defined antihero as a type of hero whereas it should refer to the opposite of a hero, but I think this is closer to the current use of the term.

Especially in a world where the heroes are often superheros, or at least humans with super abilities.

Writing Review: The Host, by Stephenie Meyer, and thoughts on dialog and action tags

by Intermittent Rain ~ August 10th, 2018

I’ve only read a few chapters into The Host by Stephenie Meyer but I think I’m done.

The opening chapters of SF can be a challenge because the reader needs to be acclimated to the world, but an operating room with excited students that seem irrelevant to the rest of the story isn’t the best choice. Following that with a memory from the host whose past the narrator is experiencing rather than the eventual narrator’s own story is disorienting.

By Chapter 3 I can figure out what’s going on but Chapter 4 goes further back in memory and the writing style becomes simplistic and repetitive in rhythm. Since the host is in her teens at this point I assume the writing is supposed to be YA, but it’s not quite John Green. I might have been tempted to open the novel here and maybe present the story in parallel timelines because this scene is less confusing and has action. This is where I stopped reading though, so I don’t know how well my idea would work.
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In Chapter 2 there are sentences that have timing or logic issues which I wanted to look at.

For contrast, I’ve quoted an example that is fine. We’re in first person POV. The narrator is immobile, getting used to her host body. She has not opened the host’s eyes but has been listening to a conversation. (The following three quotes are from Chapter 2 of “The Host”.)

The woman breathed out heavily. A sigh. “But where did she come from?”

The narrator hears a sigh, then the spoken words. This is an action tag to the dialogue that makes sense.

But compare that with the next quote. After some internal narrative, a new paragraph starts:

The woman was defensive. “We do not choose violence. …”

How does the first person POV-eyes closed narrator know the woman is defensive? She can’t see the woman grimace or tense up because the eyes of the host are closed. We weren’t given any audible clues.

I think the author is trying to color the tone of the words, to imply tension and attitude, but the narrator can’t know this before the first word is spoken. It’s not an audible event that precedes the words like the sigh in the previous example. Maybe she can read it from the woman’s voice, but even that can’t happen until she hears some words. Just because the author knows doesn’t mean the narrator can know.

Later in the scene:

“Why should she have to?” the man muttered, but he didn’t seem to expect an answer.

The woman answered anyway. “If we’re to get the information we need -“

Again, we are told the woman is answering before she speaks. How does the narrator know it is an answer until the end of the sentence? And, by then it’s obvious that she’s answering so whether the reader needs to have it highlighted as “anyway” is questionable, though it does show some insistence on the woman’s part.

One could also wonder how, without eyes and in first person POV, the narrator understands that the man didn’t seem to expect an answer. Maybe he whispers or tails off. Or maybe it’s just lazy writing; telling rather than showing (or hearing). And inexperience with first person POV.


Dialogue tagging before the dialogue is more acceptable in non-fiction writing because the narrator is supposed to know everything in advance. We can dialogue tag in advance comfortably when we are instructing:

It was Lincoln who said, “We can complain because rose bushes have thorns, or rejoice because thorn bushes have roses.”

Or even action tag in advance:

Just before he fell off the stage and broke his arm, the actor delivered the line, “Men at some time are masters of their fates.”

This only works if reported after the event, like a news story. It could even be done in first person POV as long as it’s delivered after the diagnosis of a broken arm.

When I fell off the stage and broke my arm I had just delivered the line, “Men at some time are masters of their fates.”

But, though “The Host” is in past tense, I’ve seen no indication that the narrator is writing to us from the future.

Dialog or action tagging before the dialog can also be more acceptable in third person POV because the narrator can be varying degrees of omniscient and, like the non-fiction author, can know someone is going to speak or what tone of voice they will use. An omniscient narrator might know the woman feels defensive or that the man does not expect an answer.

But a first person (and blind) POV narrator can only know tone of voice after words are spoken, or that someone is answering after hearing their voice and determining what that person intends to communicate.

To me it feels like careless editing of a writer who thinks in third person rather than first person.

Was “Twilight” written in third? I don’t remember. But the prose and plot confusions in “The Host” are enough to convince me not to finish reading this one.

 

Writing Review: You

by Intermittent Rain ~ May 12th, 2018

I haven’t done a review for some time, but I haven’t been sparked to do so until now. You, by Caroline Kepnes has left me wondering. *Spoiler alert: many plot topics covered below.*

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I think I found the title via a list of novels that have surprise endings. I say “I think” because I’m not sure, and there is no surprise at the end.

“You” is a narrative in second person from the point of view of a stalker to his target (and effectively in first person when the target is not mentioned).

Second person POV is unusual to begin with. What’s more unusual is the long, long narrative with a character that just seems to be recording. He doesn’t feel nervous about his stalking research and actions. He also doesn’t feel much when he is threatened by the cop brother of a girl he’s dumped or when he’s beaten up in his bookstore by three guys, one of whom he recognizes. The narrative just records his thoughts and actions and the actions and words of others as if he is an android: thinking, planning, recording. Or numb, perhaps. I never felt he was supposed to be a sociopath because the emotions and reactions are there, but distant. I would expect a sociopath to draw blanks emotionally and to keep needing visual clues to fake responses to others, and that they would experience physical sensations normally. In “You”, both the physical and emotional sensations are numbed, as if the character is anesthetized rather than lacking in judgement.

Another oddity are the little time jumps where small important events happen and the reader is not given much detail or it is only summarized after the fact. If this were a diary and the main character was simply too busy in the moment to record until later this would make sense but that’s not the case during other situations.

This led me to believe that the author had a plan. The lack of real  emotion and physical sensation plus the time jumps made me suspect that this entire story was being set up to be faked because then missing elements in his narrative would make sense. And for me these time jumps stood out because the novel is well written on a line level so I was guessing that these issues were intentional, that at some point the author was going to twist the plot and reveal that everything was only imagined.

So I read on. And on. And on. It’s a long novel and at one point I stopped to see how far I had progressed (I read in ebook form). I was only half way but I felt as if the author should start to reveal the truth because we had been meandering about in this character’s world for a very long time. Eventually we start interacting with some new characters (he starts therapy with his target’s therapist and begins a relationship with another woman, the one whose brother who is a cop) but when he breaks up with the woman and we come back to focusing on his target again I lost hope that the story was going somewhere interesting.

The surprise in “You” is that there is no surprise. I did have some sense, as in “Lolita”, of an unreliable narrator, or maybe I’m only connecting the two because the main characters have obsession in common. But maybe the time jumps and missing event detail and emotional and physical numbness are not intentional clues to an unreliable narrator but simply weaknesses in the writing.

Even if the main character was intended as an unreliable narrator, there are other elements that fall short of being convincing. The target is not fully rounded or filled out. Yes, some of the unexpected changes of mind could be drawn from real life examples and we are told she has issues, but readers need to feel that the author knows what’s going on via clues and later clarifications. In “You” the target does things seemingly at random, like people in real life that we only know slightly. This is fine for the main character’s perspective but the writer has to convince the reader that there is a reason behind these changes of attitude and interaction even if the main character doesn’t understand otherwise the reader is left like I am; thinking the writer doesn’t know the other character well enough or hasn’t built them completely enough. The main character too is missing backstory that would tell us how and why he came to be who he is, and who Mr. Mooney is, beyond just the owner of the bookstore and the one who built the cage in the basement. Like the missing details, these are mentioned but briefly and glossed over.

It is a first novel for Kepnes, and maybe the goal was never any higher than satisfying genre focused readers.

What, then, made me so interested in the story? Why did I tell my wife that I’d never read anything like it?

Writing in second person and using a main character who is a stalker without giving the reader a sense of malevolence or of a complete lack of morals is interesting. But it seems that one of the biggest attractions; feeling that the author was setting us up for something interesting to turn later on, was a misreading on my part.