The Gallery of Antiheroes and Villans

What is an Antihero?

The spice of a story, the element that makes it more than simple heroes and villains, lies within the character of the Antihero. The Antihero is someone with some of the qualities of a villain, up to and including brutality, cynicism, and ruthlessness, but with the soul or motivations of a more conventional Hero. The Antihero probably existed first (before conventional Heroes), perhaps pre-dating the sanctifying influence of organized religion. Many of the protagonists of Western and Eastern classical and mythological stories fit into the broad antihero mold, especially those who are shown as having turbulent, violent backgrounds and conflicting motivations. Frequently, it is this mental conflict that serves to link the discrete episodes which compose such stories. (Such a connector was necessary due to the oral storytelling tradition that persisted until fairly recently.)

Resolution of external conflict was tied to attaining internal balance and peace. Odysseus, for example, begins his "Odyssey" torn as to whether to brave the seas and reclaim his throne or to remain on a blissful island in the passionate arms of a woman who is not his wife. Through a truly legendary series of trials, he comes to the conclusion that home is where his heart and mind can be at peace. Certainly, the adventurous journey is alluring to reader-listeners, but the emotional travails of Odysseus (and his wife & son, who have their own problems) is probably what kept Homer's audiences clamoring for more. The push for conformity of stories and ideas that came with the growth of powerful, organized religious movements and reliable, affordable printing yielded less conflicted protagonists, with little of the bloodlust of their assumed predecessors. Although not a Biblical expert, I have observed a certain degree of violence and passion present in the pre-literary Bible stories that has been toned down or eliminated entirely in the later depictions.

On the secular front, the Antihero has fared better, used at times as a mirror for social commentary and political critique. The protagonist's spot may be used, but more often an antihero character is relegated to a secondary or fatal role in the story, skirting potentially negative attention. Swift's Gulliver and Hugo's Jean Valjean both had their fatal personality flaws and yet held fast to their attitudes, but although they could easily represent any person buffeted by life's harshness, they are not exactly characters to model one's future life on.

In later times, authors have been bolder in their use of flawed heroes and even villains as key characters, perhaps as the threat of retribution has lessened somewhat. Mark Twain's Huckleberry Finn was a self-described rascal, causing all manner of trouble and even committing the then-crime of helping Jim, the runaway slave. Coming together with the increased use of emotionally unsettled characters, the propensity to leave a story incomplete with respect to characters' morality also increased. Holden Caulfield, the anti-poster-boy of Salinger's "Catcher in the Rye", flirts with criminal behavior and is both self-absorbed and depressed. Yet his frank portrait of adolescence resonates with many people, despite the lack of any last-minute salvation or even a final resolution of his many conflicts.

Picking up the themes of literature, live and recorded drama (stage productions, radio, movies, television) also make frequent use of antiheroes and complex villains, although there is more resistance to leaving matters of the heart and mind unfinished at the conclusion. The film noir approach relies upon such characters, and the best examples of this technique have few or no cut-and-dry, good-or-evil characters. "The Maltese Falcon", which admittedly began as a book, is all about the deadly waltz of four people with blatantly selfish motives willing and able to lie, steal, and murder for their obsessions. Despite all this, the protagonist and star, Humphrey Bogart as Sam Spade, is so highly regarded by reader-viewers and writers alike that he has practically spawned a new antihero sub-archetype, the grizzled, world-weary, working-class detective.

Outside of noir, the protagonist's role is largely out of reach to any but the most good-hearted, but there is a growing tendency to give villains more complex, even sympathetic, motivations. The line between an antihero and a villain has always been hazy and open to discussion, but lately the distinction has become moot in some cases. In certain long dramas that evoke the epic spirit of the earliest stories, characters that appear as villains initially evolve and develop only to be absorbed into the storyline as antiheroes. The modern author's renewed awareness that readers are likely to be familiar with a story's entire history permits them the freedom to develop more elaborate and complex characters, some of which fit readily into the antihero mold.

In the attempt to spread awareness of these multi-layered and highly interesting characters, I'm assembling this gallery. Each of these characters in some way reflects the antihero ethic (such as it is), and if the examples are drawn largely from Japanese manga/anime, American & British films and science-fiction/fantasy, well, those are my current major interests. I'm certainly open to suggestions for new additions to the Gallery, as long as you can make a good case for why a particular character is an Antihero (or Antihero-like Villain). Potential discussion and debate is what makes this interesting.

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