Everyone is used to the idea of a traditional hero and their struggles. A lowly farmhand learns to believe in himself and he discovers he’s destined for greatness. En route, he retains his morals while battling the evil that upon a closer look acts as more of a reflective surface. So much so that the character becomes just as attractive as the protagonist. The Voldemorts and Grendels of the literary world are indeed a rare breed in that despite the evil in their hearts there’s another layer to the typical handlebar mustached bad guy that warrants more than just sympathy. Everyone knows they’re still ultimately rotten and must be dealt with, however the greater understanding one has of the opposite end of the coin, the better one comprehends the nature and meaning of the coin as a whole.
We need something out of the norm when faced with heroically saturated stories. Sometimes we need to follow a character that might not have it all together. Ideally, we accept one another with our respective flaws but when it comes to the page, and often times the screen, we tend to mend our perspective even more so. Perhaps we want to like our too human monsters or alternatively understand them. If these antagonists truly are reflective of their counterparts then surely stories focusing on them must be equally rich in both content and moral significance. What better way than to understand the greater good the hero wants to achieve than by reading along with the challenger of said greater good and seeing just why they question them in the first place.
The device of the anti-hero is one of the informative side of literature. The reflective motif most have serves as a conduit to the standards of their times. The aforementioned Grendel is also a grotesquely tragic novel of the monster, within the classical story of Beowulf, before the warrior is called into action to defeat. Grendel in the original tale is a merrymaking hating monster that eats the innocent folks of Heorot. Beowulf himself is the epitome of a righteous man both in character and his actions. He’s representative of his beliefs and the ideal man of his time. A warrior, a leader, a messenger of God’s will. Anything he does is seen as a product of what he’s around and even a property of his soul. Grendel, inversely, is a disgusting evil monster but in an almost childlike and oddly innocent way himself. Beowulf is a grown man by the time he attempts to slay the beast but the beast himself treats his existence as a lowly child would: blissfully wild. In the original poem, this sounds unreasonable but his novel paints a different picture. There he is discovered as a monster bred from the long lineage of the Cain family i.e. the first murderer. Grendel’s cells are literal evil despite his attempts to just live his life. He is bound to the inherent evil of his being with little choice. Music and laughter to him sounds like a cacophony of trains passing his eardrums. Its presence is just as much of an insult as Grendel’s very own presence is to Beowulf. The classical anti-hero is a perfect foil to the protagonist in character, both aesthetically and of pure being.
Modern antiheroes needed to adapt to the times considering that the face and very nature of evil has taken a much more Machiavellian approach since the days of gods and demons. This means modern-day antiheroes more closely resemble the everyman archetype that most protagonists of good moral fiber typically take on. The idea is that the more we study the tales of villains the closer we realize how people can be unmade rather than made. The flaws of one’s character more thoroughly examined offers a window into the deeper, more repressed depths of the soul most shy away from.
The term villain even means “One of the village” and hero traditionally means “One of God/demigod”. Naturally, in our age, we can confide more easily within the parameters of an antihero because we are all ‘of the village’ as it were. We all justify our actions regardless of how good or bad the situation we are tangled in because we are just as human as those characters we follow so feverishly.
The attraction of these good bad guys is that the hero represents the ideal that we seek to become and the antihero is the reality of our current course. Not that we’d likely turn to pure villainy but the intention is to serve a healthy dose of brutal honesty to our own character in hopes of bettering ourselves. By simply reading or watching an antihero along the plot like Patrick Bateman of American Psycho or Geralt of Rivia of The Witcher franchise is in a meta sense antagonizing ourselves. These misguided miscreants showcase the uglier sides of humanity and the only way to better an issue is not to ignore it but embrace it. As long as it is shown it cannot be ignored and with the stylings most authors/screenwriters like Bret Easton Ellis or Chuck Palahnuik, it’s too hard to look away.
Feature image via Fox