In my interview with Teel James Glenn, he mentioned that he had a fairly strict definition of what it meant to be a hero. His comment interested me, and we exchanged emails a few times discussing various aspects of the term. Below, you'll find a chronological record of those emails. Enjoy!
In the interview that I did with you recently, you mentioned that you prefer to write about "real" heroes and not "anti-heroes." Specifically you said that "the anti-hero idea has been carried to the point where serial killers have been turned into ‘good guys’—well-not in my work." I assume that in this example you're speaking about the TV show "Dexter" which has a serial killer in the lead role. I've seen only one or two episodes of "Dexter" and the reason it irritated me is that I found the character to be overly-apologetic about his nature, which didn't seem like a genuine attitude for a serial killer (it seemed like the writers of the show were approaching their project with a "do you think we're going to get away with this?" attitude).
I think that the modern public is willing to accept "anti-heroes" because they're willing to take a little sin upon themselves for the sake of the greater good. It would be nice if we were all faced with the choices of Galahad in which all we had to do was maintain a strict moral fiber and everything would turn out fine. However, it's not all that difficult to conceive of a situation in real life in which any one of your various solutions involve an act that some group could call "evil."
So I guess what I'm getting around to is that I'd like to hear a little bit more about the type of character that you consider "heroic." What are the lines he cannot cross, and what are the rules that are permissable to bend?
When I was teaching, I used to ask my students if it was morally acceptable to kill one person to save ten. What is your response to this enigma?
The ‘anti-hero’ concept was popularized in the 1960’s cinema by jaded film critics that decided that role models were passé, forgetting that the anti-hero was not a new concept and is based on a faulty assumption.
Hercules of classical myth (definition A) is a hero because he overcomes his own personal faults. He is really an anti-hero by that very modern definition. He is a drunk, he kills his family in a fit of madness and spends a guilt-ridden life trying to make up for that. Not a bland fellow at all. But he tries to do good, and that is the thing that makes him a hero. (definition C) In fact, in a ‘Hollywood’ happy ending his good works get him elevated to demi-god hood!
The faulty assumption is that heroes just do what they do and are not affected; but in fact they have to take what Joseph Campbell called ‘the Hero’s Journey’- moving from point A to their end point in a story and growing or evolving in someway or they are, by definition, not heroes. Heroes doubt, have their moment of weakness, their ‘human’ moment just as villains, to be fully human must have theirs. (Hitler was good to his dogs, the original Blackbeard was Joan of Arc’s sidekick and protector and Dracula was a patriot for his homeland before he became a human mosquito).
As writers we are obligated to connect with those human portions of both sides of the moral wall or we are cheating our readers and not doing our job of presenting a ‘complete’ world for them to journey through. Yet for me, I really don’t want to spend more time with unpleasant people than I have to in real life so I chose the same criteria for my reading/viewing/writing perimeters as well.
This brings us to definition C.
I confess, my criteria is narrow by some definitions. At the same time, nobody, including me likes a stuffed shirt and I don’t want my heroes to be that way either. Thus while I may want them to be a hero I need them to be flawed so I, a flawed human, can connect with them.
I still want them to be better than me: more able to withstand temptation, more able to endure pain, else why am I reading about them? Limit his perfection, though, so I can believe and connect with them.
And I want my villains to be less than me, expressing the darkness I fear either externally or in some far corner of my own soul that I want to conquer.
And this may be where I differ from far too much today’s audience; I do not delight in seeing people worse off than me as a way to make myself feel superior.
That may be why those aforementioned critics liked the so-called anti-heroes. Maybe in their mind following the adventures of rapists, killers and perverts they made their ‘heroes’ made them feel better about being flawed.
Me, I’d rather look up to the heavens than down in the mud even though I never forget that even the demi-gods have to stand in that mud.
How about you?
Ah, I think I see the crux of your objection. You think that audiences enjoy a show like "Dexter" because they can look down on that character and feel they are morally superior. While I believe that's probably true for a certain number of people, I don't think that is in itself a universal appeal. I think that people look to anti-heroes because in them they see a justification for certain laws or traditions that they feel are unjust. Although law is necessary for any kind of functioning civilization, it's fairly easy to conceive of situations in which obeying a law strictly to the letter creates an opportunity for the mistreatment of the innocent. Characters that then break these social laws in favor of maintaining a higher moral one are thus celebrated (anti-heroes).
For me, I think that I enjoy the anti-hero model because it draws light to the shortcomings of current society's moral thinking. Going back to the example of whether you should kill one person to save ten, many people would say this is an absurd hypothetical situation, but I would suggest that it happens all the time. If you can save one life with a 100 thousand dollar heart surgery or 100 lives with a thousand dollar test for diabetes, doesn't it make more sense to allocate the resources in the way that produces the greatest need? I think these kind of decisions are made all the time (and not always with the preservation of the greatest amount of human life as the deciding factor).
I think what it comes down to is that "hero" by itself is a fairly irrelevant term, you also need "society" for whatever you say with your character to be meaningful. If your character is living in a Utopia, s/he must then be a flawless hero to gain audience approval. However, if s/he is in a dystopia he or she must be an anti-hero to be compelling.
Questions like these always get more complicated as you toss them around. Thanks again for your imput.
By the way, which series has a rapist as the "hero?"
No series I know of has a rapist as a hero now, but Luke on General Hospital was introduced when he raped Laura--then she 'fell in love' with him and they continued for 20 years on the soap.
And Dexter is not even an anti hero--he is a serial killer who is the protagonist though the punisher also falls under this same heading).
A protagonist is not the same as the hero-this is the distinction that I want to make. But yes--I'll get ona soap box at a moments prodding--lol.
Hahaha! I wonder what that "General Hospital" thing says about the psyche of people who watch daytime soap operas!
Thanks for your comments Teel!