Monday, July 14, 2014


The term “anti-hero” can be used to mean at least two things. One is as a simple synonym for a phrase like “central character of a story who is evil”, such as Tony Montana from Scarface. The meaning unique to the term, however, is something like “a central character with a worthy goal who does wrong to attempt to achieve it”.
He's unstable, miserable, and highly dangerous to those around him.
But he gets 'er done.

Notice I said to attempt to achieve it, not while attempting to achieve it. A character is not necessarily an anti-hero because he happens to do wrong while pursuing his noble end or even because he’s tempted and gives in. Such a thing represents a flaw or weakness in the character, but he could be a flawed hero, he could regret the wrong afterwards, for example. The anti-hero is somehow dedicated to or at least has embraced something wrong while ultimately trying to do the “right thing”. Riddick (at least in the Chronicles of Riddick) can’t resist mentioning how much he loves killing people and being misanthropic. Captain Malcolm Reynolds (at least in Serenity) seems to think of himself as a bad guy willing (or eager) to do immoral things. Characters like this have made a sort of philosophical choice to regularly act contrary to what they identify as moral, but in the pursuit of something worthwhile.

So, what is the deal? How is this attractive? Simple: people want to be bad. It’s a logical enough desire.

Let me explain. Remember the first guy that John McClane fights in the original Die Hard? They have an interesting little exchange:

Tony Vreski: You won't hurt me.
John McClane: Oh, yeah? Why not?
Tony Vreski: Because you're a policeman. There are rules for policemen.
John McClane: Yeah. That's what my captain keeps telling me. [elbows Tony in the ear]

Now, I wouldn't call John McClane an anti-hero. He’s just a straight up hero with a smart mouth and a lot of bravado. But, this exchange illustrates the frustration that the anti-hero idea fantasizes about doing away with.

It was a daring move, attempting to cast a stone cold,
serial murderer as the reluctant but dedicated savior
of the universe.
Many of the rules for policemen are good rules that, if we’re going to have policemen at all, should really be followed. Like due process, respect for privacy and private property, the presumption of innocence until proof of guilt. I want a policeman to follow these rules when he’s dealing with me, because those rules are meant to protect me from indignity and harm. But, in the Lethal Weapon movies, when we’re following Riggs and Mertaugh around, those kinds of procedures seem like they get in the way of catching the bad guys! “There’s no time for that crap, just beat ‘em up, Riggs, you crazy bastard!”

The human capacity to pay attention tends to be narrow and short. When we see something we want, even something worth having, other things tend to fade into the background and appear less important. But, just because we’re focused on some particular thing, doesn't mean that other things have stopped being important, and it is the burden of the good guy to keep track of that fact. The bad guy, on the other hand, is the very opposite; he sees what he wants (not what’s right), and goes for it head on, regardless of the collateral damage.

It’s much harder to be the good guy, because the good guy wants only good to result from his actions. He wants everything to be good. So, there are many more restrictions on the course he can take. The bad guy wants whatever he wants, and just goes right after it. But, the anti-hero is an ultimately flawed dream of both. He wants something good, like a good guy, while saying, “Screw all this other stuff!” and running straight for the immediate goal like a bad guy. And, in our eagerness, there is something appealing (if adolescent) about that.

© 2014 John Hiner III

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