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.