Heroes, antiheroes, and others – the good, the bad, and the ugly

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OK, this post is more opinionated stuff on books. I seem to be accumulating writers – not that I object in any way, you understand. I’m just saying. Still, if you’re all out there listening, I’m going to keep talking. My ego can take it…

Now, usually, your main character – your protagonist (you see, I do know some of the proper words) – is usually a hero type. You know, good, kind, wise, strong, handsome, etc, etc.

Your classic anti-hero has a lot of the characteristics of the villain, (antisocial, cold, cynical, etc) but he seems to be on the side of good. At least mostly. Willingly or not.

Then you’ve got the ordinary-joe, the ordinary (or thinks he’s ordinary) guy who is dropped into a decidedly not-normal situation and has to deal with it, and be the hero and save the world.

A couple of novellas I’ve read recently have brought this into focus for me. One of the most memorable of them was Retribution by Cameron Haley, in Harvest Moon. The protagonist is the classic anti-hero. She’s a gangster sorceress with no problem offing anyone who crosses her – just as a matter of business – and she likes the way she is. However, it’s quite clear in the novella that Domino – our protagonist – has her own moral code. When a pair of cops gets mixed up in her life, she puts her own life at risk to save them because she didn’t consider it was right that they should suffer for being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Some readers, however, didn’t like her at all, and didn’t seem to have seen her actions in this light, simply seeing her as a cold-hearted sociopath.

In the same collection, Mercedes Lackey’s protagonist, Moira, was a much more traditional heroine: good, brave, ethical, loyal to her king and country, and willing to risk all in the king’s service. I found her rather sappy. Now, don’t get the idea that I don’t like Lackey’s writing – I do. But Moira just seemed too nice, too good, too clever, too talented, just…. too. (Besides, I’ve worn mail and I’ve used a sword. You might well be able to hide a mail shirt under your dress but only if you think your maid won’t notice the rust and/or oil marks, and only if nobody is going to notice that not only do you suddenly jingle slightly as you walk, but also you seem to have put on quite a lot of flesh. And using a sword isn’t as easy as they make it look.)

The third novella was Banshee Cries by C.E. Murphy in Winter Moon. Joanne Walker (born Siobhan Walkingstick) is the protagonist, and she’s very much the ordinary-joe type protagonist, except that she does have extraordinary abilities she has only recently found out about. As I’ve remarked in my review of it, she seems to spend most of her time whining and trying to ignore the obvious. I found her frustrating in the extreme, and I just yearned to slap her and tell her to get over herself and grow up.

So what does this mean?

For me, the ordinary vanilla hero can sometimes come across as a bit of a goody two-shoes. A bit too perfect. It’s not very admirable, but I find that quite hard to identify with, and definitely hard to like. These are not the kind of people I would go down to the pub with, so why would I read a book about them? After all, that takes even longer…

A vanilla hero can actually be quite difficult to write, I think, and not have readers just aching for another character to dump them on their backside in the mud. You’ve got to make them just human enough not to make the rest of us jealous. There’s a thin line between someone you look up to, and someone who really needs to have a frog put in their bed.

Antiheroes, now, they’ve got a whole different set of problems. They get better dialogue (just think the Sheriff of Nottingham, played by Alan Rickman, in Robin Hood – the one with Kevin Costner as Robin) but here you risk sliding into Villain territory, and alienating your loyal readers by presenting them with a protagonist they think should have been drowned at birth. Get it really wrong, and your readers will be rooting for the villain of the piece rather than your anti-hero.

In some ways, though, the ordinary-joe protagonist is probably the hardest to get right. Is he really ordinary, or is he special but thinks he’s ordinary? If the former, how is he going to cope with the events you (the author) are going to throw at him? C.J. Box’s character Joe Pickett is a good example of this – all the poor guy wants is to do his job as a game warden, and be a good husband and father to his wife and daughters. Then C.J. Box comes along and wrecks his life. Repeatedly. Luckily, Joe is more-or-less equal to pretty much everything the evil author can throw at him, even though solving the problems dropped on his head costs him dearly. In the books I’ve read, I’ve found Joe pretty realistic – he’s a decent guy (with a level-headed wife) and although he is no superhero he is determined to do what he knows to be right, because he wouldn’t be able to live with himself if he didn’t. But with the ordinary-joe protagonist, you have to be careful that you don’t let him metamorphose into a Hero while you’re not looking. Your readers will feel betrayed if you allow this sneaky behaviour to take place; after all, it’s not very heroic to pretend to be just one of the guys until all Hell breaks loose. Who knows what else this guy was hiding? He is obviously not trustworthy if he would deceive his friends and neighbours that way. (If he’s a real Hero all along and just pretending to be an ordinary-joe to hide from Nameless Enemies, this is OK.)

The protagonist who thinks they’re ordinary until they turn out to have special powers or some such thing (special-joe, for short), can be equally difficult to write, especially in the early stages. How are they going to cope with their new specialness? Harry Potter seems to just take it in stride, pretty much, although since he’s in a kids’ book there’s a limit to the amount of angst that he’s allowed. Joanne Walker, as above, is at the other end of the scale, and seems to have enough angst not only for herself and Harry, but everyone else as well. She whinges and whines and drags her feet and generally lets everybody know how much she doesn’t want this power and she’s determined to ignore it until it goes away, regardless of the potential consequences to the people around her (if she gets eaten by an invisible demon, I don’t care). Somehow, the author has got to get the balance between “Oh, I’m a wizard… that’s interesting.. what’s for tea?” and spoilt-brat tantrums or logic-and-evidence-defying denial. While it’s unrealistic for someone to accept the complete rearrangement of their worldview with little more than a shrug, it’s equally unrealistic for a character to go completely the other way. To say nothing of being really annoying.

However, for myself, whatever category the protagonist falls under, the most important thing is that I care what happens to them. In a good way – that is, I want them to succeed in their endeavours, survive the end of the book, and be happy. And I’m willing to invest an hour or two of my life in finding out how that happens. If I really don’t like the protagonist, I may read the book in the hope that he (or she) gets gacked, but probably not. I’ll probably just bin not only the book, but the author as well. I do have my black list – the list of authors whose work I would not read if the alternative was the Yellow Pages. Authors whose work I’ve enjoyed before tend to stay off the black list, even if I don’t enjoy one of their books, at least until I’ve decided that their writing style has completely changed to something I don’t like (I haven’t quite given up on Laurell Hamilton – yet), but new authors don’t get that courtesy. If I don’t like the first book, the second book doesn’t even get a chance.

That’s mean, you say? That’s not fair?

Damn straight it’s not fair. Life is not fair. And the life of a new author is doubly unfair because there are so many others out there, all jostling for the attention of readers. We only have so many hours a day to dedicate to reading – so you’d better make it worth my while…

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