Characters in stories inhabit a spectrum of morality that inform their motives. On the one end are pure heroes, like Superman, Captain America, and Marge Gunderson in Fargo, who live by a strict moral code and who always do the right thing for the reasons. On the other end are pure villains, like Sauron, the Joker, and the Witch in Snow White, who can be counted on to always sow seeds of chaos at every turn. Somewhere in between lies the realm of perhaps the most complex characters of them all, the ones we love to hate: the antiheroes.
Antiheroes lack some or all of the traditional heroic virtues, such as honesty, integrity, and morality. They also possess many traits more common to villains, such as greed, bigotry, or violent tendencies, which lead them to make morally questionable choices. An antihero is not the primary villain in a story only because there exists a greater evil that he or she must fight against. And the main reason they are fighting against that evil is because it is affecting them personally. Otherwise, they probably wouldn’t even care. Indeed, if and when an antihero does do the right thing, it’s usually to serve their own self-interests instead of anything altruistic. That, I believe, is what separates an antihero from a “good character with flaws.”
For instance, we shouldn’t want Travis Bickle to succeed in Taxi Driver because he’s a psychopath who wants to kill someone. We shouldn’t want Walter White to succeed in Breaking Bad because he’s making and selling drugs. And we shouldn’t want anyone in The Godfather or Goodfellas to succeed because they’re all mafia members. And yet, we do want them to succeed.
It’s anyone’s guess as to why we continue to enjoy and root for antiheroes. Maybe it’s because they tap into something deep within each of us that wishes we could say and do some of the things they say and do. (After all, isn’t it supremely satisfying to watch Danny Ocean and his pals rob three Las Vegas casinos at once?) Or maybe it’s because we recognize some of their flaws in ourselves, and there but for the grace of God go we. Or maybe it’s simply because a well-written antihero is just so much more interesting to study than a flawless hero or a simple villain.
Examples of antiheroes abound in literature, TV, and movies, ranging from Hamlet to Huck Finn to Holden Caulfield to Dr. House. By my personal favorite example is Max Rockatansky, from the Mad Max films. Over the course of three films (I’m leaving Fury Road, even though I love it), Max goes on “The Antihero’s Journey,” from normal person, to almost villain, and finally to hero. His character arc is inverted, a deep U shaped trajectory. Max is an excellent example to study what makes an antihero.
In the first film, Mad Max, Max is a devoted husband, father, and police officer on the side of law and order in a society that is rapidly crumbling into violence and anarchy. Eventually, Max decides he’s had enough and tells his boss he wants to quit. When asked why, Max replies:
“You want to know the truth? I’m scared. It’s that rat circus out there. I’m beginning to enjoy it. Any longer out there, and I’m one of them, a terminal crazy, except I’ve got a bronze badge that says I’m one of the good guys.”
Max takes his family far away in hopes of finding some peace, but the violence of his world follows him, and kills his wife and son. Max snaps, and spends the rest of the film seeking revenge on the motorcycle gang responsible. Max is well into antihero territory, doing some very morally questionable things, and the film ends on a dark note.
In the second film, The Road Warrior, Max is now a wandering loner who has fallen further. In fact, he is barely distinguishable from the crazed gang members laying siege to a small band of people defending their oil refinery. He sits passively and watches as the terror unfolds, including the violent assaulting of some of the settlers. Only when he sees an opportunity to profit personally does Max intervene, bringing a wounded man back to the compound in exchange for some gasoline. Later, Max makes another offer to bring in a rig big enough to haul away a tanker full of fuel, but again sets the terms, because Max only really cares about himself and his own wants. While it’s a thrilling action packed film, we also see Max at his darkest point where he’s almost a villain.
It’s in the third film, Beyond Thunderdome, where Max’s story comes full circle. It’s some fifteen years later, when the world has been ravaged by nuclear war, and Max encounters a savage settlement called Bartertown, run by a woman known as Aunty Entity. Aunty speaks lovingly of Bartertown, which she built up from nothing, and a place where, in her view, hope exists. It’s a dangerous place, but it’s at least a semblance of society. “I’ll do anything to protect it,” she informs Max, “and today, it’s necessary to kill a man.”
Max, seeing an opportunity to regain his stolen property, agrees to do Aunty’s dirty work. However, Max refuses to follow through with the order to kill the intended victim (who is revealed to be a giant man with Down’s Syndrome). We begin to see Max’s humanity still under the surface. Nevertheless, Aunty exiles Max out into the desert to die. And he almost does die, until he is found by a group of children who have lived for years in a canyon oasis, and who believe Max is their Messiah come to take them to “Tomorrow-morrow land.”
Max, however, knows that no such place exists. From his perspective, these children represent the best hope of humanity that he has seen, and he doesn’t want to leave. When some of the older children decide to leave on their own, he physically stops them by brandishing a rifle—something the children have never seen before. Then, Max says the following:
“Now listen up! I’m the guy who keeps Mister Dead in his pocket. And I say we’re gonna stay here. And we’re gonna live a long time, and we’re gonna be grateful!”
It’s a reasonable sentiment from Max’s point of view, but it comes across as a clear threat. Max it seems, like Aunty, will do anything to protect what he sees as his future, even if that means threatening children with a gun. Max is still the antihero, looking out for his own self-interests, even as his intentions are becoming a tiny bit more altruistic.
Max’s moment of change occurs when some of the children sneak away during the night. Knowing the danger they will face in Bartertown, Max reluctantly agrees to go rescue them. In doing so, Max finally places his own needs secondary to the needs of others, and ultimately redeems himself. His sacrifice makes possible for many people to escape to safety, even as he himself is left behind. He has done something truly heroic at last.
Writing a strong and believable antihero is a challenge, but the payoff can be a incredibly complex character that will resonate with people for years. People will always be interested in characters that walk the line between right and wrong, who sometimes do the wrong things, and who they may love to hate. Tina Turner may have sung “We don’t need another hero,” but it may be that we need all the antiheroes we can get.
Dennis Gaunt has worked as a slushpile reader for Deseret Book and Shadow Mountain publishers since 2000. All those years of reading other people’s words inspired him to take a crack at writing himself. His first book, Bad Guys of the Book of Mormon, was published in 2011, and he has since published other books and magazine articles in the LDS market, and has even recorded talks on CD for LDS youth and young adults.
Though primarily a non-fiction writer (for now), he loves reading and talking about what makes great fiction stories work. His years of wading through the slushpile from the other side have given him a unique perspective on the writing and publishing processes, and he’s excited to be a part of Thinking Through Our Fingers.
Dennis lives in the Salt Lake City area with his wife, Natalie, who still has the text he sent her all those years ago that read “Holy cow–I think I’m writing a book!” In his spare time, he enjoys photography, playing the guitar, cooking (hold the onions, please), going to Disneyland, and Godzilla movies.