Earlier this week, I wrote about the most famous “Boy Scout” there is–Superman. In case you’ve never heard that descriptor before, “Boy Scouts” are characters whose moral compass always point true north. They know right from wrong and they never waver. They epitomize hope and valor, and you know that, no matter what the odds, they will manage to save the day. If literature’s main goal is to hold up a mirror to humanity, then these characters show us what we can–and should–be.
Obviously, I’m a fan of Superman and characters like him. But there’s another type of character that, while on the complete other side of the spectrum, is just as important when holding up a mirror to humanity.
I’m talking about the antihero.
As much as I love my Boy Scouts, I’m a sucker for a good antihero. Characters you hate as often as you love. Characters that leave you shaking your head over their decisions. Characters that inspire cheers when they become better and groans when they backtrack to their old ways.
But why are these characters important? Well, the mirror they hold isn’t about ideals. It’s a bit more realistic. How? Well, for starters….
Severus Snape (Harry Potter)
Snape, Snape… Severus Snape. (Sorry, couldn’t resist.) But where do I even begin with this character? Loved by some, hated by others, he’s everyone’s worst nightmare of a teacher. While seemingly villainous on the outside, he spent years secretly protecting Harry and fighting against Voldemort. Snape was fueled by guilt and unrequited love. Does such motivation make him a good person? Were his actions ultimately heroic, if they did in fact help lead to the defeat of the Dark Lord? Honestly, there’s a lot of debate in the “Potterhead” community, and Snape is one the most polarizing characters. But here’s one thing I do know: Whatever else he might be, from the day he realized that all of his choices had led to nothing but destruction and despair (the day that Lily Potter was murdered)–from that day forward, whatever his motivations… his actions were always better. Not always nice. Far from perfect–but better. He fought for the light, rather than dark.
In short: The choices of your past do not determine your choices in your future.
Good old Sherlock Holmes. How many times has this character been revisited and interpreted throughout the decades. (My favorite is Benedict Cumberbatch’s “high-functioning sociopath.”) Whatever incarnation you prefer, however, one thing remains: Sherlock isn’t just a detective; he’s a mystery himself. Aloof and consciously separate from the rest of humanity, Sherlock is never quite able to relate to others. He could be a conniving mastermind, but instead… he solves mysteries. He finds justice.
Basically: You don’t have to be like everyone else to still help everyone else.
Red Hood (DC Comics)
Since I’m the one writing this blog, you know a comic book character had to be coming, right? Red Hood: Jason Todd, the second Robin who came back from the grave with revenge in his heart. Who couldn’t understand why Batman hadn’t killed the Joker–why the clown was still alive when Batman knew that there was no chance of reform within his heart–and, worse, why he was still alive when he had beaten the teenage Jason to death. Jason is one of those characters who is constantly evolving: He began as an antagonist and has grown into an antihero. While he and Batman have very different philosophies, Jason still strives to protect the innocent and punish corruption. Batman refuses to kill; Jason on the other hand…. not so much. To paraphrase what he tells Batman: He takes out the ones who aren’t afraid. That’s not to say, however, that he always goes with that option. Often, he finds a way that doesn’t involve killing–usually letting his “I’m even worse than Batman” reputation precede him. He’s even started to come back into the Bat Family fold. In short: He may be the black sheep, but he’ll still always be there for back-up.
So: There is always opportunity–and ability–to grow and change.
These, of course, are only a tiny sampling of the wonderful world of antiheroes. Other characters that force us to look at the shades of gray, both in the world and within ourselves, are: Robin Hood, Gru, Holden Caulfiled, Jay Gatsby, Captain Jack Sparrow, Han Solo, Wolverine (one of my favorites!), Artemis Fowl, Deadpool…. The list can go on and on–just like these characters! Somehow, despite their mistakes and flaws; despite the worst that the world can throw at them; despite everyone telling them “no,” again and again–they keep going and going and going….
From classic literature to television hits, from heartwarming children’s movies to edgy comics–we can’t escape antiheroes.
And why would we want to? Sure, it’s exciting when a knight in shining armor wins the day, but there’s something about watching someone fall and get back up–someone who is far from perfect but who is at least trying–that is undeniably relatable. We all have a little bit of antihero in us (and, if we’re being honest, a bit of Boy Scout, too).
So what do we do with all of this? As writers, we create characters that people can relate to: Whether because they’re what we want to be or because we understand their struggles. As readers… well, as readers we hold on tight to see what’s coming next. Life is rarely predictable… and that is especially true in any story starring an antihero.
So, buckle up, buttercup. We’re in for a wild ride.
Rowling, J.K. Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince. USA, Arthur A. Levine Books, 2005.
Doyle, Sir Arthur Conan. The Further Adventures of Sherlock Holmes. United States of America, The Reader’s Digest Association, 1993.
Lobdell, Scott. Red Hood and the Outlaws, Vol. 1: Dark Trinity. Burbank, CA, DC Comics, 2017.