Friday, October 07, 2005

Anti-Hero Or Simply Misunderstood Rogue

Kathleen O'Reilly has written an interesting column for RTB about the appeal of anti-heroes. While I agree with her overall sentiment - there is a great appeal in anti-heroes - I kind of disagree with her definition of what constitutes an anti-hero.

She uses the example of Hans Solo of Star Wars fame as an anti-hero, and I along with several other commentors came foward to say that we see Hans as more of a rogue than an actual anti-hero. Too, she remarked on how hard it was for her to identify anti-heroes in romance novels. I would wager this is because many heroes in Romancelandia that might be called anti-heroes are actually more in that rogue vein.

My definition of a true anti-hero is a person who in the real world would not be a hero at all but a villain. It's the person who we know is really the bad guy but whom we want to win in the end anyway.

Examples that I can think of who personify the anti-hero to me are:

Spike (James Marsters as a cold-blooded vampire) from Buffy the Vampire Slayer
John Riddick (Vin Diesel as an escaped convicted murderer) from Pitch Black and Chronicles of Riddick
Sawyer (Josh Holloway as a hardened conman) from Lost
Captain Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp as a pirate) from Pirates of the Caribbean
Martin Blank (John Cussack as a hitman) in Grosse Point Blank
Jason Bourne (Matt Damon as a trained assassin) in The Bourne Identity
Thelma (Geena Davis) and Louise (Susan Sarandon) from Thelma and Louise
Bill Munny (Clint Eastwood as a retired gunslinger) in Unforgiven
Michael Sullivan (Tom Hanks as a mafia hitman) in Road to Perdition
Brian Kinney (Gale Harold as a promiscuous, drug-using playboy) in Queer As Folk
Tony Soprano (James Gandolfini as a mafia godfather) in The Sopranos

All of these characters are really bad guys, but because of their story and because of something inside them, we want them to win in the end. Despite the fact that they've broken the law - even having gone so far as to kill people - we still see something heroic about them. Maybe it's because they've been redeemed or they've been falsely accused or their actions were justified. For whatever reason, we are willing to forgive them their past sins and want their endings to be happy.

The definition of anti-hero offered by Wikipedia is broader and does cover those of the Hans Solo ilk, as Kathleen has. And after looking at a list of anti-heroes as defined on Wikipedia, I can see that my definition might be considered a little bit narrow. (Except in a million years I'd never consider M.A.S.H.'s Hawkeye Pierce to be an anti-hero, nor The Simpsons' Bart Simpson.) However, I find this summary offered by Wikipedia most closely matches my idea of an anti-hero:

"A good working definition of the anti-hero is a paradoxical character that is, within the context of a story, a hero but in another context could easily be seen as a villain, simply as unlikable, a normal person or coward."

I would contend that the majority of romance novel heroes that people might label "anti-heroes" are really Byronic heroes. These guys aren't necessarily villainous, they simply don't fit into the mold that society has cast for the typical hero. They aren't easy to get along with, they aren't necessarily even lovable. They have a vast dark side and are severely flawed, but they don't go so far as to break the law or act evilly. Thus Batman is not an anti-hero but a Byronic hero. Same thing with Angel of Buffy fame.

And along a different line, there are those rogue and rakes and cads who I also would not label as anti-heroes. They act in ways that aren't necessarily heroic - selfish, womanizing, less than honest - not because they are villainous but because they are immature or flawed or trying to hide something painful from themselves and those around them. This is where I see Hans Solo sitting, right next to Sam Malone of Cheers and every single rake strutting through all those Regencies.

In the end, though, I guess labeling these characters isn't really the point. Whether they are true anti-heroes or something else, we all agree that these guys are too far away from our definition of heroic to be considered heroes straight out. Even so, we can't help but love them anyway.

So maybe that's it. An anti-hero is any person we love despite our better judgement.

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