MisCon 28: Anti-Hero, Hero, or Villain?
In the panel transcriptions, I’m mostly paraphrasing what the panelists said. If there are any errors, they’re mine and mine alone. For any corrections, just drop me a note.
Panel title: Anti-Hero, Hero, or Villain?
Panel members: S. A. Bolich, Steven Erikson, Diana Pharaoh Francis, James Glass
Panel description: What is an anti-hero? How do anti-heroes differ from standard heroes and villains? Do we still love them even though they’re good and bad? What attracts us to them? Who are some of the best ones in modern culture?
DPF: What is a hero?
SE: I’ve been obsessing about that notion for the past ten books. I play with Joseph Campbell’s idea of the hero. I wanted elements of the hero’s journey on the page but I wanted the reader to take the journey. In order for something to be called heroism, it must be witnessed. So in my books, the idea is to write an unwitnessed hero. The reader is the witness, but the reader is also a silent witness. It’s a hard thing to define.
JG: I think a pure hero is someone who is noble and has no flaws. An anti-hero has flaws.
SAB: The hero gets the job done and comes through in a pinch. But he gives up something in the process. For example, Frodo in Lord of the Rings chooses to do the greater good over comfort.
DPF: I’ve read stories growing up of heroes slaying dragons. They sacrifice themselves for strangers. Heroes get the job done but they can also be selfish. They don’t want to do it, but they choose to do so.
JG: The pure hero does it for someone else. He’s selfless.
DPF: But what if you’re only doing it for some people you care about? What about the anti-hero?
JG: An anti-hero has something good in him but is also villainous. The anti-hero has good and dark sides and is more like a real person.
SE: The anti-hero is fundamentally flawed. We need that flaw because it’s a recognition that they’re doing things against their nature. Readers like that. The anti-hero is the most human of these tropes. The heroes and villains are dehumanized because of their extraordinary abilities or actions. You need motivations in villains. There’s no motivation if the heroes can do no wrong.
JG: Villains who are pure evil are one dimensional and boring. A villain believes what he’s doing is right. In writing, you can make the villain or hero change.
SAB: The creepiest villain in Harry Potter was not Voldemort but Dolores Umbridge because she was so awful and human. She thought she was right. Voldemort was one dimensional. In The Man Who Used the Universe (by Alan Dean Foster), the overlord was doing all these awful things, but he was preparing the world to meet an alien threat. Even though he wasn’t good–he was a psychopath–he did it for his own reasons.
DPF: Sometimes the end justifies the means. Hitler didn’t think he was a bad guy. It depends on the point of view. Mercedes Lackey said that “Even evil wizards get up in the middle of the night to eat chocolate chip cookies.” It’s shades of gray. Some people want to protect their family but they don’t care about others. Truth is no excuse for fiction.
JG: How did they get that way? We are what we experience. We are the product of life experiences.
DPF: There are a number of popular not good guys on TV today. What qualities make them sympathetic? You can lose the audience if you let the dog die. How do you decide on a hero or anti-hero’s qualities? Do you consciously play them up?
SE: I use multiple points of view. Heroism appears in countless forms. I like to see heroism through innocence and in characters that get beat down the most. When I write big convergent scenes with a larger tragedy, they need to be balanced with a gesture of humanity. In one of my books, all the heroes die, but two dogs are saved. That’s the smallest gesture of humanity for the largest tragedy that they’re capable of doing under the circumstances.
JG: I write biographies of the characters, histories of what happened to them. My characters start as anti-heroes because of what happened to them before. How they react is because of what happened to them before. In my book Shanji, the main female character has superpowers, but they’re triggered by her memories.
SAB: I used to write organically but I ended up writing about the same character. So now I’m more organized. I ask myself what is the best and worst in a character? I had a character who was very abrasive because of the things that happened to him, but he was also very loyal. Actions are totally driven by the backstory.
JG: It’s a lot harder to do in a short story. In a novel, you have more space. In a short story, I could only tell how one guy became a child molester in one sentence.
DPF: If someone’s a serial killer or did something horrendous, we need a reason for why they did that. But on the flip side, when they’re on trial, we don’t care why they did it. We want to understand them but not necessarily sympathize. I had a character who was a gambler who got into debt. He did something bad but he convinced himself that it wasn’t so bad. He stopped gambling for a while but then he went back to it. It takes a struggle to break habits which creates interesting tension.
Q: I used to write short stories but now I’m transitioning to longer fiction. I have nice scenes but the parts in between are bland. How do you keep the journey fresh?
JG: Write a good novel like a good short story. Make everything count. If it doesn’t count, cut it out.
DPF: Everything in the story should do two or more things.
SE: You can use transitions to include subtext and foreshadowing. Like Chekhov’s gun, keep piling it up for every transition. Keep a list. You can include it in conversations, settings, etc. These can carry the story far, especially for emotional impact in contrast to action scenes.
DPF: If you don’t have to say that they’re moving from place to place, cut it out.
SE: If you look at the films from the 1940s and 1950s, you see that they’ve included all the scenes from when the character wakes up and brushes his teeth to the time he gets into the cab. Now we skip all those scenes because we’ve been trained. We don’t need all those transitions.
JG: I like how Dan Brown transitions. He puts hooks for the next chapters. He cuts scenes in half. He shortens chapters. In today’s writing, many things can be cut out.
Q: We’ve mostly talked about dealing with the banality of evil, so how come there’s an appeal for more over the top villains like the Joker or BBC Sherlock’s Moriarty?
JG: The Joker adds humor. In the written word, the bizarre becomes interesting. Moriarty is an interesting case because he serves as the perfect foil for Holmes.
SAB: There’s a certain appeal for over-the-top. How much can you stretch it before it becomes too creepy? It’s interesting to explore even though it’s not realistic.
DPF: Even for the Joker, maybe the writer had a backstory for him that we didn’t see for the character motivation. The writer still needs to understand the character even though it isn’t explained to the reader.
SE: You need the hero and the villain. They are two halves of a whole. Batman and Joker. “Every Moby has his Dick.” There are always reasons in fiction even though it’s not true in reality. Where there are supervillains, there are superheroes. They are reflections of each other.
JG: The character of Two-Face used to be good before he changed.
SAB: The villain offers an opportunity for tragedy. Villains are people who could have done better but didn’t. That’s human. There’s a moment that they have to choose; it’s a way to round them out.
Q: How can you prevent the villain from overshadowing the hero? If he does, does the villain become the protagonist?
SE: Sometimes. The notion of the hero is more dangerous than the villain. Lex Luthor is human but Superman is the omnipotent god. Luthor is battling an implacable force.
DPF: Power corrupts. Absolute power corrupts absolutely.
JG: Even with a protagonist, you can have a strong antagonist. If the antagonist is too strong, maybe you need to change the story.
Q: There’s fantasy with many villains but no heroes. I can’t think of any science fiction like that. Is it a function of genre on how to treat the hero, anti-hero, and villain?
SE: No. They all have goals. It depends on your approach.
DPF: Fantasy has the traditional good versus evil. But now, evil isn’t strictly evil. Hitler, for instance, saw everyone else as villains.
JG: In science fiction, the protagonist doesn’t have to be human. It could be the environment or something else.
SAB: In my Elements series, the protagonists fight against the elements. The elements are the antagonists. You don’t necessarily need an evil overlord in fantasy. Ask yourself, what else can be a threat?