Killer Year–The Class of 2007

Rise of the Anti Hero
July 10, 2006, 7:42 am
Filed under: Jason Pinter, Killer Year Members

I promise, this post is not about pro wrestling…so stay with me…

 In the 1980’s Hulk Hogan was the biggest star on the planet. His theme song was “Real American.” It had true blue, patriotic lyrics like “Fight for the rights of every man.” He advocated saying your prayers and eating vitamins. He lived and breathed off his fans, the Hulkamaniacs. He was everybody’s hero. And then everything changed.
In the 1990’s, people turned on Hulk. They were tired of his platitudes, his goody two-shoes posturing, and started booing him. Then in 1997, the world changed. Along came Stone Cold Steve Austin, the beer-drinking, middle-finger-waving, bald, goateed redneck who’d just as soon beat up your mother as a bad guy. Along came The Rock, a brash, young punk with movie star looks who didn’t go anywhere without wearing sunglasses, saying things like, “It doesn’t matter what your name is!”

 And the crowd loved it. Austin and The Rock took everything the Hulkster stood for and turned it on its head. They were good guys, in that people rooted and cheered for them, but bad guys in manner and speak. The swore, they drank, they talked down to just about everyone, and they always backed up their words with fists. They were anti-heroes.

Today, the anti-hero is bigger than ever. You see them everywhere, from such characters on the small screen like Vic Mackey from “The Shield,” Christian Troy from “Nip/Tuck,” Tommie Gavin from “Rescue Me,” even Sydney from “Alias.” You see them on the big screen in characters like Johnny Depp’s Jack Sparrow, and pretty much every Clint Eastwood movie ever (save “Million Dollar Baby”). Rappers like Eminem and Lil Kim were hardly the kind of people you’d take home to meet the parents, but we loved their brashness, their underlying pathos. In fiction, you have characters like Jack Reacher. John Rain. Anita Blake. People toeing the line of good and evil with remarkable dexterity.

It seems that these days, the public doesn’t just accept these rebels, but embraces them perhaps more than those who exhibit larger, purer, virtues. Though it’s not just the last few years where the Anti Hero has popped his or her head up. Indiana Jones had a mean streak. La Femme Nikita didn’t take crap from anybody. Bud White and Jack Vincennes had good hearts…but would never let you see them. Even James Bond as originally conceived was a much different, darker character.

But these days, the Anti Hero seems more the norm than the exception. Perhaps its because the world these days is seen more in shades of gray than the good old black and white. There’s no room for “Good versus Evil,” only “Slightly Less Bad versus Slightly More Bad.” And we eat it up. We’ve seen some of the most complex and interesting characters ever created in the last five years, in every conceivable art from.

At Thrillerfest, I had a long chat with a bestselling author about the antihero. His latest book featured such a person, a man with a good heart who’d done evil his whole life, but his world is thrown upside down when he has to protect the one thing he holds dear. It was fascinating to listen to, and I’m eager to read the book. More so than if the hero was Ah-nold or Sly, bland machines who would rather exist in the b&w than straddle the line. The author’s last few books had featured such characters. But he said it was this new creation who excited him more than any other fiction he’d written.

They’re captivating, complex, existing in light and shadow…and we love them for it.

Long live the Anti Hero.


29 Comments so far
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An antihero may have a mean streak, or not always play by the rules (ends justify the means) but an appealing antihero needs to have a strong motivation that people can relate to AND their own code of ethics, something that makes them unique and gives them a moral center (even if those morals aren’t standard Judeo-Christian values).

I think what people are more responding to than liking bad guys with a streak of good is the stereotypical “good guys.”

Do you watch DEADWOOD? Take both Al Swearingen and Seth Bullock. Al is a bad guy–he kills, he steals, he manipulates–but even he wouldn’t kill the two teen-age con artists. And he hired the lame woman because he knew she’d never make it on the outside. He has a reason for doing everything he does, and we can see a moral core that might be shifted, but is still there. Seth Bullock is a “good guy” with a bad streak. He has a violent temper and beat and Indian to death. We know why (his brother was killed in an Indian attack) but it still shows the internal struggle.

Comment by Allison Brennan

Ugh, my second paragraph is a mess. What I meant to say was that people are frustrated with the perfect heros, stereotypes of both good and evil.

Comment by Allison Brennan

I call this phenomenon the 24 Syndrome. Personally, I’ll take the anti-hero anyday, simply because they do have a moral code. These are ultimately moral characters doing ammoral things. Jack Bauer will kill and torture anyone without a second glance, but he does it for the right reasons. Vince Flynn’s Mitch Rapp is my ultimate anit-hero. James Sallis’ Driver, from his novella Drive is the same thing. You know that they are doing something “wrong”, yet you root for them anyway. It takes a fine hand to draw these characters and I’ve always admired writers (and screenwriters) who can do it.

Comment by JT Ellison

It seems to me that there is a distinction between an anti-hero and a genuine, richly-drawn character who reflects the complexity and dimension of real people.

The Rock, Stone Cold, Hulk, and even Jack Bauer are caricatures to me. Entertaining, sure, but I would submit that we engage with them on a viceral, superficial level. They go “RAWWWWRRR!” and we go, “Yeah, baby!!111!!one!!” But they exist outside of consequences for their actions, at a place where we all sometimes would like to go. They’re mean, or bullying, or dangerous, or violent, (even if they have a kind of ethical code that they live by) and they get away with it. Feels good sometimes to just kick ass and take names, even vicariously. But even if they’re bad guys we like because they’re bad, ultimately there’s a lack of depth to them and to the scenarios in which we encounter them.

I think of the “rise of the anti-hero” as distinct from the rise of character-driven fiction. Of course character-driven fiction has always been around, but it seems to ebb and flow in genres. The Rock and similar ilk, either media personalities or characters, aren’t really part of that, even if they do entertain. Rich characters who reflect the essential ambivalence of genuine people reach us on a level these caricatures never can. They challenge us, demand reflection, and ask questions without easy answers. There’s a lot of great mystery/suspense/thriller fiction over the last twenty years that feature exactly this, I agree. But The Rock and Jack Bauer are not Dave Robicheaux or Al Swearingen.

Comment by Bill Cameron

Personally, I find these characters more fun to write. With very ‘moral’ characters who play by the rules, there’s less room for discovery in any given situation. With a character that has their own moral code, which sometimes goes against conventional thinking, you never know what they might do, and that creates all kinds of challenges for you as a writer.

Comment by Sandra Ruttan

I agree with Bill, I find pure anit-heroes like the Rock just as predictable as true “goody two-shoe” heroes.

But I agree with where Jason’s going with this–I much prefer playing in the grey zone. That area where ordinary people do the wrong thing for all the right reasons, or what’s even more intriquing at times: the ones who do the right things for all the wrong reasons (which I often use for my villians).

I enjoy reading and writing novels where people are searching for what completes them–and they have no idea what it is, often bringing the wrong elements into their lives in an effort to complete that existential whole.

I think this is where many anti-heroes are born–in this search for balance and completeness.

Comment by cj

I was using those guys just as an example of the shift from cookie cutter good guys into darker areas. Of course The Rock is a caricature–it’s pro wrestling, not Proust.

But CJ is spot on in that it seems more and more media forms are dabbling with characters in the gray area, some of them with “heroes” who even lan further to the black than white.

Comment by Jason Pinter

I do see an increase in the anti-hero in writing and media. One example I can think of is the show House. For those of you who don’t know it…it’s a medical drama with the main doctor being House. But instead of the him being the gifted brilliant handsome wonderful doctor of days gone by. He’s gifted and brilliant but a total ass…he ignores the rules and does whatever he feels is necessary to save the patient. So he does the wrong thing sometimes for the right reason. I think you’ve got it right…they are definitely more interesting than the totally good guy or totally bad guy.

Comment by Andrea

I love anti-heroes. They appeal to me because I can see myself in them. One wrong decision, one misstep, one moment when you do something bad cause you think no one will find out, and your life can go to the crapper.

Sometimes I wonder how many of my good decisions are motivated by the fear of consequences and of societal pressure. Are you really good because your heart dictates for you to be good, or are you conditioned because of the consequences of being bad? And what is good anyway? How many of us aren’t inherently evil but don’t really do anything that good or kind? These are the sort of characters I love and the characters I create in my fiction.

I was reading your post on your blog about Superman and have to agree that he’s too perfect and moral and such a turn-off. In Smallville they capture the complexity of Clark Kent becoming a superhero and the struggle he faces between being a good guy and being a regular guy. But still the episodes that most appeal to me are when he’s wearing red cryptonite and has no moral compass. So even though he isn’t a antihero he is struggling with his goodness and values and that’s why the show works (and the previous ones were duds).

Comment by Amra Pajalic

Hello Jason, good to see some familiar names mixed with some new ones in the Killer Year blog. The buzz is building quickly.

On the subject of the anti-hero, I’ve always loved the black & white cartoon superheroes, but I think they appeal to a younger audience that is still grasping the grey areas of life.

It never made sense to me that someone could stay completely good while fighting evil. Everything you come in contact with affects you, and it’s near impossible to avoid using the methods of crims to catch them in the act.

When you touch the darkness, the darkness touchees back.

I know, I should have said abyss, but The Darkness is so much funnier.

Comment by Daniel Hatadi

You wish that the darkness. but it’s not. You’re just too deluded to think that it’s funny.

Comment by Anonymous

I forgot to add put “is funnier” after “darkness” just as I forgot to capitalize the B in “but.” My mistake.

Comment by Anonymous

I don’t really agree with this “new media” definition of anti-hero. I’m more of a traditionalist in that, for me, an anti hero is a flawed character, usually lacking in certain heroic qualities.

Labeling someone an anti-hero simply because they are obnoxious or brutal, isn’t quite right. The media has done this in the last few years because, imho, the term sounds cool to them, and it’s an easy thing to do. But it’s a very “black and white” description of what has always been – for me – a very gray, complex character.

An argument could be made for John Rain being an anti-hero, but Reacher isn’t an anti-hero at all. Nor is Jack Bauer. But some people might see them as so within this new media definition.

Regardless, I too, love the anti-hero. The dark, flawed anti-hero. So much more interesting and compelling than an All-American do-gooder, or a superficially drawn dominator.

Comment by Guyot

Clint’s new movie, Iwo Jima, looks like a real winner also. The cinematography looks spectacular! And I heard he is making 2 versions of the movie, one from the US and the other from the Japanese perspective. If that is true, I love the idea, it’s brilliant!

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Comment by brandy

Like more than one of you people who posted in here, I happen to like anti-heroes (but not all of them) because I can relate to them. I know that they aren’t bad guys. They’re good guys who act like bad guys.

The reason that I can relate to anti-heroes, who are false heroes, is because is sympathize with them and because I fall in the gray area like lots of real people do.

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