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Enter the Antihero

by Sean Hillman
Jan 15,2003


Wanted Dead or Alive: Heroes

Enter the Antihero

Well I apologize for missing December, things came up, including the Holidays and other personal matters. Thanks to Aeon and all my readers for being patient. Also, the promised column on Eastern Heroism is not fully one yet. Again I apologize but it will be pushed back to February. I did not have as many specifics as I wanted to and wanted to treat the subject with the respect it deserved. Ok 'nough said on those subjects.

So today we are going to continue our series with everyone's favorite subject: The Antihero. Why is he so popular and how the hell do we define such a person, who by name is the very antithesis of what we have been trying to define this whole time. The Antihero in role-playing (and in popular culture) is in reality a confusing mess of contradiction and opinion, even more so then the Hero. Thus as we redefine the Hero so must we redefine the Antihero.

From our last episode, we expanded our equation to the following:

Hero = Action2 * (Unconventional Wisdom) * Performance

Now, thanks to Merriam Webster Online (1), we have the following definition of Antihero.

Main Entry: an*ti*he*ro
Pronunciation: 'an-ti-"hE-(")rO, 'an-"tI-, -"hir-(")O
Function: noun
Date: 1714
: a protagonist or notable figure who is conspicuously lacking in heroic qualities

Now is that not interesting. A "protagonist or notable figure who is lacking in heroic qualities. " Well it seems you first have to define what a Heroic quality is before you can define those that are anti-heroic. It's a vicious circle especially since we have used many of what can be considered antihero adjectives to describe heroes themselves.

Ok so stepping away from the equation for the moment we need to refine exactly what an Antihero does and who he or she is. Per example, we have the Man with No Name. This Clint Eastwood character appeared in 3 films, which are widely popular Spaghetti Westerns. He is a mercenary who goes around helping both the good and bad guys out from time to time and making money as he does so. The character is the personification of actions coming back to haunt you, as he always remembers what you did even if for a time he was doing equally nasty things right along side of you. Still he ensures the good guys (as it were) win through in the end. Eastwood's other famous character, Dirty Harry, is a cop who dispenses justice in roughly the same way.

So what is the difference between the Punisher and Daredevil anyway? Other then of course the Punisher is far cooler and not played by Ben Affleck? Honestly, we revere these people because they choose to fight our cause in an Unconventional way and we say "Gosh, wish I could do that." So how are they Antiheroes if we idolize everything they stand for? Where does the anti come from?

An Antihero is an extremely selfish type of Hero. Either because she or he is coerced or perhaps because there is really some altruistic thread in their being that pushes them to help out the underdog. Regardless, they are not changed by this act of Heroism, because when it's all done they want to go back to their old life of looking out for number one.

An antihero is NOT just some bad boy who refuses to follow the rules. We have already discussed that as part of the previous Columns. A very good, in my opinion, example of an Antihero is Vin Diesel's character in Pitch Black. This guy has no redeeming values but the other males in the group are so weak or undesirable, that its no wonder the female Hero and the others turn to the murdered to escape. He has a plan and helps them believe they can escape. There is that criminal arrogance, the Serial Killer's I will never be caught, and he uses that to get them through. Well ok so only two others live but blame Hollywood for that.

In Literature one of my favorite Antiheroes is Polgarra the Sorceress. What? Polgarra is a good guy right? Yeah right, not. She is beyond head strong and is violently determined all the prophecy will be done her way, regardless of who has to die. All others are stupid and shortsighted idiots who have no business messing with her prophecy. She has real issues.

So both characters take BAD or even EVIL traits and turn them into something good. They submerge, to one extent or another, their unscrupulous needs for what might be considered a greater good.

They take what is bad and instead of changing, they instead use their raw... Badness? Lawlessness? Chaos? and turn it to the cause of righteousness or Heroicness without changing their methods. Antiheroes are not good people who do bad things. They are selfish or bad people who occasionally do good things. Often they are unglamorous and many are frankly ugly people (their character not their appearance) who nonetheless choose to do what is considered the right thing.

Yet that brings even more confusion. What motivates an Antihero? How do they decide when and where to apply their few moments of scrupulous behavior? What brings the Antihero to the table? First there's being selfish and then there is standing to up something Earth shattering events. What gives an Antihero his or her thin veil of respectability is that fact that even for them, there is a line they refuse to cross. "I will rob a bank, maybe shoot the sheriff but hey I am not gonna shoot no babies." Sometimes their self-interest and belief in self preservation comes into play as well. After all, the 'good guys' are not likely to slit your throat in the middle of the night so staying on their good side can be a positive career move.

Revenge may be one of the greatest motivators for the Antihero. They have been so wronged that the desire to extract revenge burns away most, but not quite all, of their sense of morality and belief in order. Related to this is a vision of the future (or past) that seers the Antihero's mind or so scares them that again almost all sense of morality falls away in their determination to prevent the inevitable.

So is a Dark Hero and an Antihero one in the same? I do not think so. Where a Dark Hero is a basically good person forced to take a right turn in life because of outside forces (Batman), the Antihero is someone who the choice to do the wrong thing is very easy and indeed doing the right thing is often a nearly insurmountable struggle.

So where does that leave the Heroes from our previous Columns? I won't try and coin any new language here but I think what separates the Hero and Antihero is whom they are before and after. Their sense of scruples and how they see the universe divides these erstwhile allies. Yet I think they all fit the base equation that we have so far come up with. Though for the Antihero maybe we can alter it thus:

Antihero = Action2 * (Unconventional Wisdom) * Performance / Selfish Desire

The Antihero can never escape their base desires and so it colors their Heroic acts more then the regular (if such a thing exists) Hero.

One last point related to all Heroes, is that insanity and being out of their mind or characters who do not have any choice, in my opinion cannot be considered Heroes (or Antiheroes). One must chose to act (or not act) and as such those who are coerced or controlled or simply lunatics are more victims to be pitied then Heroes.

Ok, next time I do promise and Eastern Perspective and more insight on how we can apply the term Hero in our games.

(1) Courtesy of Google and Merriam Webster Online.

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