Character: The Dark Side of Heroic

Raskolnikov, Holden Caulfield, Winston Smith, MacBeth, Hannibal Lecter, Dexter Morgan and Tom Ripley. What do these fictional characters all have in common?

They are all protagonists, but fail to fit into the category of the archetypal hero due to their imperfections, their lack of positive qualities or having qualities that normally belong to villains. This kind of protagonist has populated literature for hundreds of years, and has spread to movies and television. He is the antihero.

Not the tragic hero who possesses one major flaw but is still heroic.  An antihero’s flaws overpower and dominate his heroic qualities.  Nor is he a Byronic hero who is simply rebellious, a sympathetic figure who rejects virtue but could be redeemed.

Antiheroes tend to lack the self-awareness they’d need to redeem themselves.  And no one else can redeem them either. They frequently perceive the rest of the world as wrong, suffer from grandiosity and narcissism, but are lovable and sympathetic.  They want to do good, but their definition of good may be skewed more in the area of bad. For example, they believe the ends justify the means in the pursuit of some honorable goal, including breaking the law in myriad ways — murder and mayhem.  Hannibal Lecter offers a good example of this: he has a specific moral code that he defends and protects. His moral code, however, is not the one most people live by, so people are always running afoul of his code. His solution is to kill them. If people would just honor his moral code, the world would be a much better place…for Hannibal, of course.

Antiheroes fascinate me. I love them. My favorites right now are Tom Ripley and Dexter Morgan. They are villains who are the heroes of their stories. Completely human and sympathetic, they charm through their flaws, and with each the reader glimpses the psychological pain that contributed to the formation of their personalities.

When I began writing Perceval, I wanted to explore the effects of psychological trauma in childhood on personality, behavior and how such a character perceives the world and his reality. The deeper I dug into the story, the more I realized that my protagonist also needed to confront the reality of the trauma he had experienced. My research convinced me that unlike most antiheroes, mine could have a conscience that he developed from his early experiences with a positive influence, a man who countered the force of the trauma in some way. This pseudo-conscience also makes him sympathetic and “good.”

I see now how my imagination was gradually steering me toward first a sequel to the first book and then to creating a series of five novels to encompass this protagonist’s journey and his struggle with the choices he does and doesn’t make. When I discovered Dexter Morgan and Jeff Lindsay’s novels through the television show, I realized that my protagonist too has an awareness, however different, about human emotions, how they affect behavior, where he is lacking, where he fakes it, and where he truly connects with his emotional being.

A quote by the psychologist Carl Jung has also influenced my work on Perceval’s story and character creation and development.  Jung said, “Where love reigns, there is no will to power; and where the will to power is paramount, love is lacking. The one is but the shadow of the other.” A desire for power, i.e. external power, or power over someone or something, makes real love impossible but not neediness, or the narcissistic need for love and approval. Characters who give only to benefit themselves are examples of this. As are antiheroes.

I know now that the questions that drive my thinking and work on the Perceval novels are: will my protagonist redeem himself?  How? I don’t know.  I write for the answer…..

For a list of antiheroes in literature, movies and television, check out this Wikipedia page.



3 responses to “Character: The Dark Side of Heroic

  1. As a philosophical point … I don’t think you can redeem someone else. Either they make the choice or they don’t. Sure, you can push them into making that choice, but they must be the one to choose. Yet, I’m not sure how I feel about a character becoming ‘bad’ and personal choice. One can fall into evil without meaning to/realizing it.

    How does a person come to believe the end justifies the means, or narcissism? Usually not on purpose. Can a character ‘redeem’ herself by self-recognition of her faults? This can equally be the primrose path where Evil attracts a person: making her self-image warped and thereby causing her to make evil choices. If so, it is the ‘true’ self-recognition which is key to redemption, and where the influence of others comes into play. Helping to redeem someone is then providing a method for her to see and assess herself in comparison to ‘good’.

    • Authors are quite capable of redeeming the characters they create, which is the angle I used in the post. As for reality, you’re right. Just as no one else can know my thoughts or control me. I control me and my thoughts and behavior.

      It’s quite possible for a fictional character, or even a real person, to become bad without meaning to. A lot of serial killers do not see their actions as bad, but they view the rest of the world as being wrong and persecuting them in some way. But a serial killer chooses to act out his killing fantasy, and in that he chooses to transgress societal norms. A government can intend to operate for the greater good, such as with communism, and while doing so actually be deeply harmful to the greater good. Intent does not always match outcome. I find this interesting and is something I explore in the Perceval novels on a personal level and on a national and international level.

      The way I see it, a character redeems himself by not only recognizing what he’s done, but also understanding why he did it and taking responsibility for it. This is much different than simply self-recognition of faults. A narcissist who is unaware of his narcissism cannot change, but if he recognizes his narcissism, understands why he is narcissistic and takes responsibility for it, then the desire for change could be realized. But what of the narcissist who recognizes, understands and takes responsibility but does not desire to change? A good example from literature: Hannibal Lecter or Dexter Morgan (although Dexter desires to change he believes he’s incapable of it).

      A good therapist acts as a mirror to her patient. The therapist doesn’t tell the patient what to do, but asks the patient what she wants to do. A therapist mirrors back to the patient the behavior and questions/challenges everything. It’s a long process but it works. Now, how does a self-image become warped? This is not by choice. This is where parents play a role, by failing to respect the child as a separate self, by being overly judgemental, derogatory, and by not nurturing the child’s self-esteem. This happens more with girls than with boys, at least for my generation and older. The parents, 99% of the time, don’t know any better and don’t know to even question. They are raising their child the way their parents raised them. The child is powerless, defenseless and has no choice but to comply in the face of parental power. And so her self-image becomes warped, created by her parents. This kind of psychological damage cannot be reversed in one epiphanic moment of insight and change. It takes a long, long time to counter parental messages, at least so the person recognizes them as parental messages and not hers, understands them and where they came from, and can place them where they belong as the responsibility of her parents. Then she can work on creating her own messages, etc. And that’s the road to redemption.

  2. Pingback: Evan Quinn, Antihero | Anatomy of Perceval

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.