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The Antihero In Storytelling

 Definition of Antihero

Anti-hero is a slippery term that can cause a lot of confusion. Simply stated, an anti-hero is not the opposite of a hero, but a specialized kind of hero, one who may be an outlaw or a villain from the point of view of society, but with whom the audience is basically in sympathy. We identify with these outsiders because we have all felt like outsiders at one time or another.

The Writer’s Journey, Christopher Vogler

Howard Suber in his book The Power Of Film argues that there is no such thing as an antihero, only those who act heroically and those who do not. He says that the word ‘antihero’ makes it sound like a character who is ‘anti’ (against) the hero, but this is not the case. Characters called ‘antiheroes’ are generally characters who are ‘not yet heroes’. Perhaps Suber would prefer the term ‘unhero’:

The un-hero is most similar among the types of heroes to the everyman, with a key exception: he rarely ends up being a proper hero. Generally, the un-hero is in all the wrong places at all the wrong times and does more to hinder the cause of good/justice/world-saving than to help it. Somehow though, through cosmic confluence or the intervention of a more traditional hero, everything works out in the end and the un-hero is heaped with the credit.

This is generally a less serious heroic form and should be reserved for a less serious work.

J.S. Morin

Another storytelling guru Blake Snyder called a subcategory of the unHero “The Fool Triumphant”:

However, antiheroes tend to be very smart. This distinguishes them from the Everyman archetype, the unhero and “the fool triumphant”. The antihero is near the top of

The Function Of The Antihero

Antiheroes are fun to watch. We get to see characters breaking boundaries we’ve fantasised about breaking in our real lives. A lot of the time, antiheroes have the witty comebacks. They are ace with a handgun, always prepared and very organised. These people would actually make great workmates if they were working on the side of good.

In thematic terms, antiheroes play another role. By transgressing social norms and legal boundaries they ask the audience to reflect upon what is okay and what isn’t okay. Breaking Bad did this very well, though I believe the writers overestimated the reflective powers of a vast majority of their viewing audience. If you’ve seen Vince Gilligan interviewed, you’ll know that he expected his audience to stop siding with Walt and take the side of characters such as Skyler. This didn’t happen for much of the audience, who are like ducklings, falling in love with the first character they are encouraged to bond with. Breaking Bad and the discussion that happened online around that time, with much hatred directed towards the character of Skyler, and to the actress who played her, offers insight into the Duckling Phenomenon.

A Brief History Of Storytelling That Lead Us Here: To The Age Of The TV Antihero

Poster boy antihero Tony Soprano, played by James Gandolfini

Poster boy antihero Tony Soprano, played by James Gandolfini

In the 19th century, you maybe spent an hour a day reading a novel, two hours a month watching a play. That was all the storytelling done by professionals for you. People now see that much storytelling every day. Theater became Broadway, then radio, movies, and TV. It all happened in the 20th century.

All the arts in the 20th century exhausted themselves technically. By the time Ad Reinhardt painted a canvas black from edge to edge and said it’s a painting, the form was over. Music had been explored down to noise. Every technical possibility had been explored. All possible techniques.

So I was thinking, Since all the arts have reached the black canvas, what was going to become of story? Where would writers go in the 21st century?

I realized there is one aspect of human nature that really hasn’t been exploited and explored: evil. You have dark characters like Iago, great villains who are diabolical and evil, but it’s a pure evil. Human beings are very rarely pure evil, and storytelling hadn’t truly explored the complexity of realistic evil.

And then, a few years later, came all these great long-form series, which opened an exploration of evil. There was The Wire and The Sopranos and Breaking Bad, even Mad Men. With all these great series, you get complex, good/evil characters.

Robert McKee in a Vice interview

Rise of the Female Antihero

When storytelling gurus talk about antiheroes, you’ll notice they offer male characters as examples. But before we had Tony Soprano, we had Carrie Bradshaw. It can be argued that the main female characters of Sex In The City were antiheroes in their own way — Carrie would alternately seem sympathetic but next minute she’d do something most of the audience wouldn’t identify with at all. This is an essential element of the fictional antihero.

More recently we have a complex, fascinating female antihero in Animal Kingdom’s Janine Cody (aka Smurf). The discussion around this character is often about what makes a ‘good mother’, a discussion I don’t remember James Gandolfini being asked to comment on. Society has higher expectations for mothers than for fathers, and this is reflected in stories.

I expect we will see more female antiheroes on screen. Because of that gendered expectation differential, it’s actually better sometimes to have a female antihero, if you really want the audience to pass judgement. Imagine how different the discussion would have been if Skyler White had been the main protagonist of Breaking Bad.

I see this double standard pop up all the time in novels […] We forgive our heroes even when they’re drunken, aimless brutes or flawed noir figures who smoke too much and can’t hold down a steady relationship. In truth, we both sympathize with and celebrate these heroes; Conan is loved for his raw emotions, his gut instincts, his tendency to solve problems through sheer force of will. But the traits we love in many male heroes—their complexity, their confidence, their occasional bouts of selfish whim—become, in female heroes, marks of the dreaded “unlikable character.”

In Defence Of Unlikeable Women

So, what exactly makes someone an anti-heroine on film? A ‘catch-all’ definition is this: someone who does bad shit for good reasons. A woman who’s flawed, but in the most relatable and almost inspiring of ways (because aren’t we all?), and whose decisions and development unfold on screen independently of their male counterparts.

They’re the Thelmas and the Lousies, the Beatrix Kiddos. We’re now saying buh-bye to the Disney princesses from our youth, who were (and remain; sorry Emma Watson/Belle) almost impossibly virtuous, beautiful and small-waisted. The anti-heroine of today is messy, gritty and imperfect in a more ways than one, often navigating her life with a moral compass that could probably use a service.

We don’t love that Veronica from Heathers literally kills a whole bunch of people, but her reasons for doing so resonate with us (in any case, who DOESN’T love our girl Wynona, even when she’s a murderous high-schooler?). Gone Girl’s Amy Dunne is arguably batshit, but is there anyone who hasn’t thought of a real-life application for her ‘cool girl’ monologue at least once since hearing it for the first time?

‘Three Billboards’ Shows The Anti-Heroine Is Finally On The Rise, Junkee

Further Reading On The Antihero

1. Are You Sick Of TV Antiheroes from LA Times

2. The Top 10 Fictional Antiheroes from Litreactor. It would seem most antiheroes are male, but this list includes some women.

3. A great definition of antihero, and a list of examples, can be found at TV Tropes.

4. The Likability Trap: We like to root for the antihero, but not for the antiheroine, from Bitch Media

5. A Day In the Life of a Troubled Male Antihero from Toast

6. Writing The Antihero (And Why So Many Authors Get It Wrong) from The Passive Voice

Jack and the Baked Beanstalk by Colin Stimpson (2012)

Jack and the Baked Beanstalk

As you can see from the cover art, this picturebook has been illustrated by someone with a lot of experience in digital art — as a coffeetable book of illustrations this stands alone as an exhibition of beautiful colour, wonderfully composed perspective drawings and interesting character design.

See here for notes on ‘the’ original tale.

The original Jack And The Beanstalk, at its heart, a male coming-of-age tale, in a milieu where boys must learn to be the income earners for the females in their family. You’ve probably also heard theories about what the beanstalk symbolises. I think that’s a bit of a stretch.

CRITIQUE OF CAPITALISM

As a story for older readers, this modern retelling would be good for discussing ideas such as industrialisation and its impact on small vendors, the problems with large fast food companies and a capitalist economy.

Normally in stories like these, the ‘giant’ stands for ‘the corporation’. Is that what the giant stands for here? If so, would the world really run better if these corporations suddenly quashed the structures they’ve worked to build?

The ideology of the original tale is a bit dodgy actually, when you think about it: Modern picturebook writers don’t get away with glamorising thieves. Just take a look at the one-star reviews of This Is Not My Hat by Jon Klassen, which is a great story, but rubs some gatekeepers of kidlit completely up the wrong way. I would add, in the case of the modern Klassen story, the thief is duly punished. (He — or she? — gets eaten.) Not so in the original Jack and the Beanstalk. Jack is richly rewarded for his thievery and daring.

In Stimpson’s modern retelling, however, the setting is different and so must be the ideology. What do you think of when you think ‘capitalism’? Those in favour of capitalism probably conjure up a (traditionally) picturebook township, with a milk bar, a greengrocer, a picture theater and butcher on each side of main street. The butcher who sells better sausages ends up making more money and eventually puts the inferior butcher out of business. Consumers win.

We’ve seen over the past centure or so that, actually, capitalism has a much darker side than that; in a capitalist society the rich can become super wealthy simply by having money in the first place, while the poor become increasingly destitute and are unable to work their way out of the pit.

What about the ideology in this book? This is no idealistic view of capitalism; it is a critique. The ‘little guy’ can easily get screwed over due to the machinations and schemings of people with far more money. This ‘flyover’ symbolises the way in which the super wealthy build their empires without a second thought to the little people, passing them over, so to speak. And in any narrative, the little people are the ‘underdogs‘.  We love stories starring underdogs.

NOTES ON THE ILLUSTRATION

Stimpson’s wonderful illustrations emphasise the similarity between the beanstalk and the flyover. Both are very high, thick structures wending and twisting high into the sky. There are other hints of beanstalk, too, foreshadowing what’s to come. Take a closer look at this wooden pole below, with the electrical cabling wound around it; this city hasn’t completely given itself over to industrialism — vestiges of the more wholesome natural world remain.

Jack and the Baked Beanstalk treasure

The illustrations in this story are wonderfully atmospheric. I love that there seems to be light coming off the magical can.

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Jack And The Beanstalk History and Symbolism

Jack and the Beanstalk is also known as Jack The Giant Killer, which kind of ruins the ending, so no wonder they changed it.

Jack and the Beanstalk nesbit

The first version to appear in print was by a London bookseller called Benjamin Tabart. This was in 1807.

There are hundreds and hundreds of versions of this story, so I’ll stick to the Grimms’ version.

STORY STRUCTURE OF JACK AND THE BEANSTALK

Jack is poor, goes up a beanstalk, finds giant and goose that lays golden eggs, heads back with goose, defeats giant, no longer poor.

If in doubt about story structure, it is always useful to refer to fairy tales for validation — they contain the DNA of almost every story we tell. Take Jack and the Beanstalk:

  1. Down to their last penny, with father dead, Jack’s mother sends him to market to sell Daisy their cow.
  2. On the way to market Jack succumbs to a mysterious stranger who offers to swap the cow for some magic beans.  Jack’s mum is furious and throws the beans out of the window.
  3. Overnight a massive beanstalk grows right up into the sky.

Which part is the inciting incident? If one is forced to highlight one single aspect, then inciting incidents are the invitation to leave home and venture into the forest; to reject the thesis of the first stage for the synthesis of the new world. This is where the journey into the woods (or up the beanstalk) begins.

— John Yorke, Into The Woods

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What’s true of heroes is true of princesses.

Having a hero isn’t always positive. It has the reputation of being a good thing, but it can actually backfire and become pretty limiting. Here’s how:

When we have heroes, we look up to them. This is all well and good, but the problem is — in a subtle, sneaky way — simultaneous to looking up, we’re putting ourselves down. We become the subordinate one. The hero is the one who’s supposed to remain on the pedestal and take care of his or her holy business, while we remain down on the ground, consumed in worship.

The Problem With Heroes from The Good Men Project

The Good Guys Are Not Always Good

White hats, Black hats

Herb Jeffries, second from left in white hat, greets Flurnoy Miller | Screen capture from The Bronze Buckaroo

Screenshot from The Bronze Buckaroo, 1939

Take a look at the screenshot above, from an old Hollywood Western. It’s not likely you’ve ever seen this exact film, but can you say which of these men are the goodies and which are the baddies?

The answer is that the men wearing the white hats are the heroes and the men wearing black hats are the adversaries. As Marjery Hourihan explains in her book Deconstructing The Hero, this overt distinction in hat colour was necessary precisely because the behaviours of the ‘heroes’ were not otherwise different from the behaviours of the ‘outlaws’. In other words, when determining who the goodies and baddies are, in life as in literature, relativism is everything.

The circumstances which have made the criminals what they are, or the values which label and reward the hero, are not examined….Criminals in adventure sories which condemn them as wild things are often guilty of no worse deeds, by conventional standards, than the heroes but they are seen from the hero’s point of view and the inferior terms of the basic dualities are attributed to them. They are depicted as uncivilized, irrational, governed by uncontrollable drives and passions, animal-like.

– Deconstructing The Hero by Marjery Hourihan

RELATED

The psychology of superheroes (and villains: What we learn about personality when we analyze good guys, bad guys — and ourselves from The Boston Globe (notice that superheroes and villains are different sides of the same coin. There’s not all that much difference between them, if any.)

For a good example of the black hat, white hat trope, in ‘the Western film for people who don’t like Westerns’ (according to Australian film critic David Stratton), watch Shane (1953).

screenshot from Shane

See also this infographic of ‘Alignment Abuse’ which outlines the ways in which characters are classically (stereotypically?) defined on the good-evil continuum in popular stories.

Gods, Heroes and Ordinary Characters In Children’s Fiction

 The conventions of literary fiction are that the bourgeois hero (more likely the heroine) be vulnerable, prone to shame and guilt, unable to fit the pieces of the larger puzzle together, and on the same banal moral plane as the “average reader”: sympathetic, in other words, someone we can “identify” with, who reflects our own incomprehension of the world, our helplessness and inability to effect change.

– an example of why we need to read about amazing characters, in an opinion from Anis Shivani

 

Gods, Heroes, Ordinary Kids

 

Roman Mars of the 99% Invisible Podcast has an interesting discussion with the author of a biography of Superman. It’s episode 82, here. Like me, Roman Mars finds Spiderman a far more interesting character, but as is pointed out, Superman was never meant to be relatable. Before he was known as ‘Man Of Steel’ he was known as ‘Man of Tomorrow’, in a much more optimistic age when it was thought that humankind is making its way closer to the ideal mindset of altruism for altruism’s sake.

This raises an interesting question: Where are we headed? Are humans becoming more kind or more harsh toward others? Steven Pinker thinks we’re getting less violent, for one thing. This is the main argument in his book: The Better Angels Of Our Nature.

Listen to him speak on iTunes U, in a podcast from the School Of Humanities and Sciences from Stanford.

Related

A Psychoanalysis Of Clark Kent (from Emory University on YouTube)

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