Wednesday, January 27, 2010

How Can You Like an Antihero?

What I'm reading: Master of Torment, by Karin Tabke

Last week's reads, especially 3 of Barry Eisler's John Rain series got me thinking about "heroes." As authors, we want readers to care about our characters. If they don't care about the protagonist, why should they finish reading the book? It's especially critical for a series, because a reader who doesn't like the character isn't likely to read the rest of the books. I know I follow a series when the characters draw me in. We want our heroes to be heroic. They might not be saving the world, but they should be acting honorably. What would we do if we were in their position? For a romance, the hero had darn well better be a good guy.

What happens when your hero has unlikeable qualities? Why do readers keep coming back for more when the hero is more of an antihero?

My cop contacts told me about the television show Dexter, where the main character kills people according to his personal code, instilled in him by his father. But he only kills "bad" people, those who have escaped the legal system, which gives it an interesting twist. Definitely not your typical hero.

Dexter is in its 4th season, so people are willing to accept the characters "hobby." Likewise, John Rain has come back five times since the first book. What makes people connect?

I don't know if there's a gender bias. I know hubby has trouble with the Dexter episodes where Dexter doesn't kill anyone. He considers the way Dexter has to deal with his relationships as getting in the way of the "good stuff." He's been reading a lot now that he's home all the time, and as he samples the authors in my collection, he's likely to move to a new author if there's too much "mushy stuff" in the book. Is it because I'm female that I'm drawn to the emotional side of characters?

While I have a feeling hubby would love reading about John Rain's assassin side, I think a series of books where the reader simply watches each kill would get tiresome. I am more likely to skim over the choreography of the fights and the kills, accepting getting the gist without trying to visualize each body position, each blow, to recreate it in my mind. (As an author, I can appreciate the details, because when I'm writing my own fight scenes, I strive to make them accurate, and apologies to Mr. Eisler for not devouring each combat word.)

What draws me to antiheros might not be what makes other readers connect with them. There has to be depth to these characters. And they need to grow.

Eisler's John Rain is an assassin with his own 'rules' about who he'll kill, but I don't think that makes him a likeable character. Unlike Dexter, he kills on contract. It's not enough that Rain won't kill a woman, or a secondary player. As a reader, I want to connect with a character on an emotional level. Since I've read the 1st three Rain books back to back, I'll use them to show some of the ways Eisler did it for me. And is my gender bias the reason that these moments don't happen during his killing scenes, but afterward, frequently when he's with or thinking about a woman?

(Note: Eisler writes in 1st person POV, so we're inside John Rain's head throughout the books. The following quotes are during Rain's introspective moments.)

From Rain Fall

A little more time at an anonymous hotel where we could float untethered from the past, free of all the things that I knew would soon end my fragile bond with this woman.

What I needed to do was not deny what I was, but to find a way to channel it.

From Rain Storm

To be periodically tantalized by the hope of something real, something good, always knowing at the same time that it was all going to turn to dust

I wished I could just accept their collective judgment, accept what I am. Accept it, hell. I wished I could fucking embrace it.

He would have known not to believe that. It made me miss him, and for a moment I felt bleak.

I realized how much I missed this form of companionship, how virtually nonexistent it had become in my life.

She made me feel like that previous incarnation, made me believe, foolishly, that I might even shed my current skin and be baptized anew in the incarnation's unsullied body.

So, although Rain is an assassin and has been killing for a long time, knowing that deep down, he's seeking redemption, that he sometimes wishes he didn't do what he does, makes him more of what one might call "human." Yet doing what he does makes him who he is, and he's a fascinating character.

Your thoughts?

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darkangelauthor said...

For me it's definitely an emotional connection as well, Terry. I don't mind a "bad" hero as long as he has a thread of humanity in him that makes redemption possible. I'll stay with him for a long, long time if I think he has a ghost of a chance.

And I think I need to pick up a John Rain book... :)


Cara McKenna said...

Oh sweet Christ, I love an anti-hero! Or a good villain. Part of the appeal for me is that I find desperation (if portrayed well) an extremely magnetic trait. I wouldn't say I root for the bad guys, but I tend to get more excited when a good one's on screen. For example, in the X-Men movies, Professor Xavier, yawn, Magneto, mesmerizing. And about half of Alan Rickman's roles; Hans Gruber, the Sheriff of Nottingham, Rasputin, Snape... Nobody does it better. Heath Ledger's joker in the latest batman is another, and of course Hannibal Lecter. A lot of it has to do with charisma, the rest with motivation and drive. Even if a bad guy's GMC is totally whacked, as long as a reader or viewer buys the passion behind it, it doesn't matter if it's admirable or not. The emotion just has to be real.

Terry Odell said...

Linda - you have to read the John Rain books. I "ignored" them for too long because they were 1) billed as thrillers (and maybe they are, but they're not MY definition of thriller) and 2) by the time I heard of them, I'd have had to start with book 1, so I procrastinated. But I've glommed onto them now. The writing is amazing, and there's so much fascinating information.

Terry Odell said...

Cara - even a villain has to feel like the hero of his own story. But the antihero, I think, takes even more depth to love.

Michelle Polaris said...

I relate to an anti-hero because their struggle seems more authentic. They've failed and made bad choices but they are still trying to figure out where their lines fall and what personal standards (Dexter as you mentioned) they can maintain. Although hopefully few of us are running around as assasins and serial killers, I think we relate to the sense we are not perfect, and have screwed up, but can still be good guys in some way despite this. The situation is more dramatic for these villainous heroes, but sometimes we need to see our stuff played out in more dramatic ways to hit our emotional buttons.

Valerie Douglas aka V.J. Devereaux said...

I'll agree with Terry on that, but also, most anti-heroes are also bad boys, rebels or loners and we all love them. Just a different kind of Alpha male.
Even one who is an assassin - as long as he's not randomly killing nice people - may be doing it for the right reasons.

Justin D. Jacobson said...

I just tweeted about this the other day. One of the things that gets us to side with Rain is the competence porn. See:

And this post + comments has a lot of good examples:

Terry Odell said...

Michelle - yes, dealing with choices (only trouble is interesting) makes a compelling character.

Valerie - I think no matter who he's killing, the assassin has to think there's a "good" reason. Whether the readers buy the reason is probably what makes the connection for them.

Justin - yes, I recall that "competence porn" message.

Mason Canyon said...

I think antiheroes like Dexter are easy to like. They do bad things, but with good intentions. He may kill people (very bad thing), but it people that have done extremely worse things and gotten away with it. So he's a bad guy you can't help but like.

Carol Kilgore said...

I like Dexter, too. But like you, I do go for the emotional parts of books and movies rather than fight scenes and car chases. Maybe it's a woman thing.

Caroline Clemmons said...

I don't watch "Dexter" but I have watched "Leverage" and read a series about a woman named Mrs. Smith who killed those who had escaped justice, starting with the man who killed her loved one. I believe part of the appeal is that we like justice, and reading/watching antiheroes achieve that which is denied us is satisfying. We go "Yeah, finally, the bad guy gets what he deserved," yet we didn't have to break the law ourselves. We love seeing the really bad guy--who has power and money and great lawyers on his side--lose. At least I do.

Patricia Stoltey said...

Another blogger award, Terry. Please stop by my blog when you have a minute. This one is kinda fun.

Bob Doerr said...

This topic is one I imagine med students wanting become psychiatrists would love to delve into. Most of us have read about really evil people - some of us may have actually known one. And, in turn, most of us have probably thought that it could have saved us all a lot of grief and expense if someone would have just shot the bad guy long ago. I would prefer reading about an otherwise good cop or PI exacting a little street justice rather than giving the bad guy a chance in the courts. That's probably why in my books, my lead, is a good guy. Maybe a fine line but my preference.

Terry Odell said...

Mason - must be why the antihero lives on

Carol - I haven't watched Leverage, but maybe I'll give it a try.

Patricia - thanks - I'll officially acknowledge it next week.

Bob - I think the really evil person is a villain, not an antihero. The antihero has to be a 'good guy' at some level, which is why we can accept him (or her).

Lorel Clayton said...

I began watching Dexter entirely prepared to hate him (and slightly icked out that such a show was even made) but it really did pull me in. I still don't like him, but his vigilante dealing with criminals that evade the system is satisfying (I'm ashamed of feeling a thrill from it but I do). It also helps that he has remorse for some things and cares about his family. An utterly inhuman anti-hero would not have worked.

Great post!
I gave you a blog award:

Terry Odell said...

Thanks, Lorel! We've been watching Dexter on Netflix, so we're a season behind, but it's an intriguing character study.

Kate Hill said...

This is a great topic. As both a reader and a writer I strongly prefer antiheroes and villains. There are times when the villain is a hero in his own right, depending on your point of view. I find they usually have qualities I admire, such as strength, perseverance, and the ability to overcome horrible situations. They're the kind of characters who do whatever is required to achieve their objectives, even if what they need to do isn't pretty. They’re usually shunned for doing the dirty work that purely good characters won't attempt, even when necessary. Antiheroes don't conform, which can be a good thing. While at times I like golden heroes, there's something irresistible about a flawed character who flirts with danger and darkness. Everyone has a bad side and antiheroes (and of course villains) aren't afraid to explore theirs. To me that's part of what makes them exciting and usually more interesting than their pure counterparts.

Terry Odell said...

Kate - I think the villain has to think of himself as the hero of his own story for it to work. And I agree that a 'golden boy' hero can be boring, just as a purely evil, one-dimensional villain can be cardboard.

Kate Hill said...

Those are great points. I completely agree. At times it seems like a one dimensional villain is only used to make a hero look better, but if he's a truly strong hero, he can still shine with a multifaceted antagonist. I love a series in which the villain in one story is the hero of the next.

Terry Odell said...

Kate - making the villain into a hero would definitely add character interest.