Key Points: Antiheroes come in many flavors, including Frodo, Punisher, and the Talented Mister Ripley. Frodos are heroes, except they fail. Punishers do evil for good purposes. Talented Mister Ripley's are unsympathetic, unheroic, horrible. Sympathetic villains are not antiheroes, nor are heroes with a steep character arc. Heroes are like Christmas Day, and you wish it could last all year. Classical antiheroes are like olde Halloween, you never ever want to be like that, but it's stilll fascinating. Punisher antiheroes are more like modern Halloween, with cool costumes and candy from the neighbors. If you plan to write an antihero story, think about which kind you are writing and what will keep people turning pages.
[Brandon] This is Writing Excuses Season Three Episode 29... stop making faces at me, Howard.
[Howard] 15 minutes long because you're in a hurry...
[Dan] And we're not that smart.
[Brandon] I'm Brandon.
[Dan] I'm Dan.
[Howard] And I'm still making faces at Brandon.
[Brandon] Yes, but that's not the title of the podcast. It's actually antiheroes, of which you are not. We want to do an antihero podcast because there are lots of definitions flying around of what an antihero is. I was trained one way in college which is not the way that people normally use the word. Dan, what is an antihero?
[Dan] To my thinking, there are three definitions of antihero that you see a lot of. I call them the Frodo, the Punisher, and the Talented Mister Ripley. We start with Frodo. Frodo is the type of antihero that is a reflection of the hero. Follows all of the heroic convention and then at the end, instead of overcoming his problems, he is overcome by them.
[Howard] When you say reflection of the hero, he's not a reflection of the hero in the book, he's a reflection of the hero archetype?
[Dan] A reflection of the hero archetype. Exactly.
[Brandon] He does everything right except the end. He is the hero who then becomes a villain at the end.
[Dan] Yeah. Like if Luke succumbs to the Dark Side at the end of Return of the Jedi, that would be a Frodo hero.
[Brandon] Frodo antihero, which is not really an antihero, but we'll accept it. We're going to say...
[Howard] does that mean that Anakin is an antihero in the third Star Wars film or should we just let that go?
[Brandon] No, he is. He was always intended to be an antihero. He's actually...
[Dan] He was definitely an antihero.
[Brandon] Yes, this type of antihero.
[Dan] He's definitely a Frodo antihero in my opinion. All right.
[Howard] I contributed.
[Brandon] Yea, Howard.
[Dan] Number two is the most common one today, by today's definition. That's the Punisher. Which is basically the bad dude who... chews bubblegum and...
[Brandon] He's doing evil in order to achieve good purposes.
[Howard] Chews bubblegum?
[Dan] Got lost.
[Brandon] He's doing terrible things, but it's all to bad people.
[Dan] Exactly. He kills people, but they were all bad. Wolverine and Punisher, there's a lot of gritty comics stuff.
[Brandon] The Crow.
[Dan] You see it a lot. A ton of movies.
[Brandon] This has kind of overcome the definition of antihero and taken it into itself. Which is really actually kind of bad in my opinion because this is the one that annoys me when we call these antihero because they really aren't. There's nothing really anti about them. It's...
[Howard] Well, and they're shallow.
[Brandon] They don't have to be shallow.
[Dan] They don't have to be, but they often are because people think that this is enough to hang a whole character on.
[Brandon] We'll delve more into each of these three. But give us the last one.
[Dan] The third one, the one that Brandon accepts as canonical, is what I call the Talented Mister Ripley hero. Which is the main character of your story, the protagonist of your story, who is completely unsympathetic and unheroic in every way and yet you are compelled to follow their story. My favorite example of this, even though I didn't name the archetype after it, was Perfume by Patrick Susskind which is about a serial killer in medieval France, who is horrible and awful and the entire story focuses on him and you hate him the whole time, but it's just fascinating to watch what he does.
[Brandon] Let's throw two things in here that are not under the scope of this podcast. Number one is sympathetic villain. A sympathetic villain is different from an antihero. If you have a villain that we like, that's a bad dude doing bad stuff and we like them, go listen to our sympathetic villain...
[Howard] So Anakin Skywalker is a Frodo antihero, but Darth Vader is a sympathetic villain?
[Brandon] I don't know how sympathetic Darth Vader is... until maybe the third movie.
[Howard] He ends up as a sympathetic villain...
[Dan] More of a redeemed villain than a sympathetic villain.
[Brandon] Something else that gets tossed out here is the person who's unsympathetic at the beginning so they can have a growth arc so you'll like them at the end. That's not an antihero. That's just someone with a very steep character arc. Antihero. That's not someone with a very steep character arc. Antiheroes... it's interesting... we want to talk about it because as writers who are listening to this podcast, you may have heard this term thrown around a lot and you may be thinking I want to write an antihero book. Each of these different types, even though Brandon doesn't accept them as canonical as has been stated, do different things and can be very successful types of stories. I just want you as listeners to be able to understand what actually makes an antihero and why it works. Frodo antihero. Let's spend some time talking about them. Why do they work? How do you do them well?
[Howard] Frodo antiheroes work well because when you get to that point at the end of the story where the hero has fallen and has failed, you've managed to turn attention past the breaking point. You've managed to do something that... when Frodo fails, that's... at least the first time you read it... it is pretty darn amazing. The fact that all ends up saving the day, the book still gets a happy ending, which was awesome.
[Brandon] The thing about this is... what we're talking about are actually what would generally be called the classical tragedy archetype. We should do a different podcast on that, but that is the classical archetypal tragedy, a heroic person who does not succeed in the end. The difference between tragedy and comedy classically was the hero would succeed in a comedy. Not necessarily that you laughed at one and you didn't add another, it was a person who failed. If you look at Oedipus, Oedipus was actually a very sympathetic hero, did a lot of things right, and then failed in the end almost because the gods just decided he had to.
[Howard] Well, the gods decided he had to from the beginning.
[Brandon] Right. Though he did have a heroic flaw. Generally, there will be a heroic flaw.
[Dan] You should save that, I guess, for the tragedy one so I won't say anymore about that.
[Brandon] Let's move on and talk about these other two, because these are the main antihero types. Let's see. Let's talk about the Punisher antihero.
[Dan] The Punisher. The Punisher, like I said, I think that's the one that everyone thinks of these days... or most people think of when they hear the term. It's because it's become such a common thing to see, I guess, as we grittify our media.
[Brandon] I would say that movies and comic books have had a lot to do with this. Turning the Dark Knight into a quote unquote Punisher-style antihero in some of his stories. Batman, and this sort of stuff.
[Howard] You get a little bit of that from Batman, but not to the extent that you get it from the Punisher...
[Brandon] The Punisher or Lobo or...
[Howard] Batman is breaking the law by virtue of being a vigilante. Punisher is breaking the law by virtue of murdering people.
[Brandon] Right. But why are these stories compelling? Why are they so successful? Howard called them shallow?
[Howard] Because I think that... and... this is... ah, I'm going to get chewed to bits, I'm sure. The problem I have with them a) is that I love them. Because we love to see justice done at the expense of propriety. In a very real sense, I think that undermines part of what makes civilization work. But there's a part of us that says, boy, I really want to see justice served.
[Brandon] And this person's going to do it for us.
[Howard] And this person's going to do it for us because due process is getting in the way and democracy...
[Brandon] It's a very American sort of thing.
[Dan] In some ways, I think it is. I think a lot of that modern definition comes out of the noir, the film noir kind of idea.
[Howard] When you say it's very American, I don't think it's American. I think it's cowboys.
[Dan] Well, and noir comes from France, I guess, so I shouldn't say that.
[Brandon] That's what I was saying, cowboys. It's the concept of you've got to take matters in your own hands. The whole idea of superheroes kind of feeds out of this whole culture of ours that sometimes the system doesn't work... and we love that for some reason. Maybe it's because going back to our roots where America said it's not working, we're going to revolt.
[Dan] We're just going to do it ourselves.
[Howard] That's true. If you look at the Punisher as an antihero, you have to say, well, gosh, Batman is also an antihero. And so is Spiderman because he's a vigilante.
[Dan] Breaking the law and hiding from people.
[Brandon] Here's the thing about all of these characters. The reason that I don't think they fit the classical definition is because they are wildly sympathetic. If you go back to our podcast about making sympathetic characters, what are they doing? These characters are extremely capable. That alone isn't enough to not make them an antihero, but they are very capable. We like that. They're also generally shown as having a lot of sympathetic qualities. They'll love their dog. They'll be funny. They'll be doing good works even if they're going off...
[Dan] There's a lot of wish fulfillment in it. There's a lot of that. Because how many movies do you watch or stories do you read where you just say, come on hero, just punch him in the face right now? Even though a good guy hero is never going to do that, we love to read this story about the bad guy hero that will.
[Howard] Jack Bauer.
[Brandon] Right. We're going to break for an advertisement right now for audible.com. We thought a lot about what we could do as a good antihero book. We really didn't come up with anything. Because...
[Dan] Unfortunately, Perfume is not on audible.
[Brandon] We disagreed a lot on what was... would make a good one. I ended up choosing Good Omens. Which is not really an antihero book, but it does deal a lot with a lot of cool concepts of good and evil, who is a hero and who is not. If you haven't read the story, it's by Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett. It's hilarious and philosophical and awesome. It's about what would happen if an angel and the devil decide to try and stop the Apocalypse by kidnapping the antichrist and having him raised by a good suburban family. It's awesome, you should give it a listen. If you do, go through our promo so that audible knows that people are clicking through. It's audible.com...
[Howard] slash excuse
[Dan] And you could potentially get the book for free.
[Brandon] Is it audiblepodcast or is it audiblecast?
[Brandon] If you do listen to this, please go through our link at audiblepodcast/excuse to let them know that you are listening and that you appreciate them and you can get it for free.
[Howard] Because we appreciate them.
[Brandon] Yes we do.
[Brandon] Let's continue on with antiheroes. Let's talk about the final classical definition of an antihero. I first learned about this in an English program. I got into class and they said we're going to read one antihero novel this semester. I thought oh, good, it's going to be something like The Punisher. I was smacked in the face when they gave me Madame Bovary. Which is a boring book that I didn't like at all. That was apparently the point. Dan, can you talk more about why these books exist? What's going on here?
[Dan] They exist because some people find them fascinating, even though you've found Madame Bovary boring. I think there's actually a lot of cultural stuff involved there, because at the time it came out, it was fascinating. Because it was the kind of thing no one had ever seen before. Another one is The Stranger by Albert Camus. It was popular in large part because no one had ever read a story about an unsympathetic jerk before. It was really fascinating. This allows us to tell stories about serial killers, about Hitler, about people that would otherwise not be able to be the protagonist of the story if we didn't have this kind of device to treat them.
[Howard] I think I just found a metaphor that works. This time of year it's actually especially appropriate. The hero is like Christmas Day. That's the person you want to be all year long. The antihero... the true antihero is like Halloween when you dress up like somebody you should never ever be. But we still celebrate Halloween.
[Brandon] The thing about that metaphor is Halloween does wish fulfillment. In a lot of antihero books, you don't want to be this person. You would never want to be this person. Their life history, they are miserable for most of their life, or they are just pure evil. There is no sort of desire... but sometimes it is fascinating to read about.
[Howard] You just haven't dressed up as the right person for Halloween.
[Dan] Is metaphor still works if we look at the history of Halloween. The old Halloween, where you would burn children in wicker cages, that's the original definition of the antihero. The modern Halloween, where you dress up like Spiderman and you get candy from your neighbor, that's the Punisher antihero.
[Brandon] Okay. Wow, Dan, way to rescue that metaphor. We sound brilliant now. Well, you do.
[Dan] And I owe it all to Howard.
[Brandon] I say that everyday.
[Brandon] Our listeners, they think they're going to write an antihero story. Let's give them some advice for the last part of the podcast. What should they do?
[Howard] Don't try to sell it.
[Dan] No, that's not true. First of all, figure out what you really want out of an antihero story.
[Brandon] Yeah, why are you doing this?
[Dan] If you say to yourself, I want to do an antihero... what kind of antihero are you really thinking about? Do you want to do the Talented Mister Ripley who murders a guy and takes his place just because he can or do you want to do Wolverine who kicks butts and slices people in half?
[Howard] Or do you want to do the one that isn't really an antihero? That's just the guy who starts out despicable and ends the story being wonderful. A hero with a really steep character arc.
[Brandon] I think most people who are wanting to write antihero stories, they're kind of getting either Punisher or that one. If you really do want to write a classical antihero, you've got to remember what is going to pull people through these stories. You always want to be asking yourself that. Why are they going to turn the page? Come up with what it's going to do. Is it... is the question what is he going to do next? What terrible thing is he going to do next? Or is it going to be how is he going to fail? How is he going to be caught? Is it plotting, is it character? What is driving people to read? If you're not going to have a sympathetic protagonist, that's going to be really tough and you're going to have to be very careful about it.
[Dan] I also think that if you set out to write an antihero, you're going to have to know ahead of time how you are going to work the ending. We're going to talk about this more with tragedies, when we do that episode, but most antiheroes do not have happy endings. Any of those three kinds is not going to have a happy ending. It's either a good hero who fails, or it's a jerk hero who can't end happy because Punisher is never happy, or it's a serial killer who even if he is happy, the reader is not going to be happy, because why would I be sympathizing with this serial killer? You need to know how you are going to end it without disappointing your readers.
[Brandon] I guess it builds upon the promises you make. That's one of the things we keep bringing up.
[Howard] I am so glad I haven't read any true classical antihero books, because they just don't sound fun to me.
[Brandon] Your writing prompt is going to be to write a true classical antihero and make it fun for Howard.
[Howard] I don't actually have to read what they write, do I?
[Dan] Yes, you do. And you have to grade them.
[Brandon] And you have to eat dinner at their house.
[Dan] And you have to dress up as a clown for their first date.
[Howard] All right. Schlock mercenary at gmail dot com. Go ahead and send me...
[Brandon] I want you guys to do this.
[Howard] Oh, dear.
[Brandon] This has been Writing Excuses. You're out of excuses, now go write.
[Howard] Something awful.
[Brandon] [laughter and then choking...]