bookmark_borderAntihero: The Ambiguous Protagonist?

I’ve long been confused by the definition of “antihero”. My daughter uses the term to describe characters in movies but I’m never quite sure what she means.

Wikipedia says:

An antihero, or antiheroine, is a protagonist in a story who lacks conventional heroic qualities and attributes such as idealism, courage, and morality. Although antiheroes may sometimes do the right thing, it is not always for the right reasons, often acting primarily out of self-interest or in ways that defy conventional ethical codes.


  • Sometimes does the right thing, but
  • not from idealism, courage, morality
  • often acting primarily out of self-interest

I think Dexter, of the novels as well as the television series, is a good example of an antihero. Dexter is a serial killer, a sociopath with no inherent morals. When Dexter’s cop father discovered his adopted son’s predilections, he told him he can only kill those who deserve to be killed; other killers on the loose. Dexter is doing “good” for society by removing other serial killers but only because he is following his father’s rules while satisfying his own needs; needs which society might find objectionable.

In my mind, a protagonist does not have to be either a hero or an antihero. Or maybe he does, in the traditional definition of the term. Wikipedia seems to think so. Based on their list it looks as if any important character who is morally ambiguous is an antihero, including the Lannister boys from “Game of Thrones” and Snape from Harry Potter (who is not the most, second most, or even third most present character in the series). And I don’t see Micheal Corleone of “The Godfather” or Gordon Gekko of “Wall Street” as antiheroes. They’re protagonists, but they never come out the other side of the hero’s journey like Kurtz of “Heart of Darkness”/”Apocalypse Now”. They are anti-hero, as in the opposite of heroes.

Wikipedia also has Frank Drebin from “The Naked Gun” in the list. Does that mean Mr. Magoo is an antihero even though his good deeds are accidents that he stumbles into because of his extremely bad eyesight?

For my purposes, I take issue with the “may sometimes do the right thing” part of the definition. They don’t have to try to do good all the time, but must always do something hero-like at some point. Heroic, for me, meaning working for the good of others beyond oneself and struggling or sacrificing to achieve it. Otherwise, they’re not heroes, just protagonists or main characters.

Morally ambivalent leads of spaghetti westerns may or may not do something hero-like. And morally ambiguous characters who wander through the world in an existential or alienated funk are fine protagonists but that doesn’t make them antiheroes. At least not in our modern world of Marvel and DC movies.

Struggling internally for ones own peace of mind may benefit those who read and learn from the struggle, but if the results are only internal for that character I don’t know that it fits the same category of heroic action. Perhaps I’m not seeing all the ramifications though: is the struggle to maintain sanity not heroic, and how is that different from a character that is deeply and profoundly moved by societal issues?

But in the 21st century we have a clear definition of hero: Superman, firefighters, good Samaritans. And, I think, antiheroes are the ones who do heroic deeds unwillingly (the Marvel character Jessica Jones, who gets dragged into her fights) or primarily for selfish reasons (Dexter, who kills killers to satisfy his own need to kill, or Dr. Gregory House, whose need to solve puzzles usually results in curing the illness), or freely breaks rules in order to accomplish their journey (Jack Reacher, who doesn’t go looking for battles but once he’s decided he needs to right a wrong never hesitates to break laws or lie or to pulverize a few bad guys).

These antiheroes have dark sides, shadowy pasts, and struggle with themselves and their morals as well as with the villain and evil forces. Most interesting heroes have similar characteristics though: that’s what makes them interesting, human, relatable.


Apparently, my definition of a protagonist is not the same as a hero. Rather:

  • hero is a category of protagonist where the protagonist is at some point or on some level is trying to do good, and,
  • antihero is a subcategory of hero, not the opposite, so an antihero could also be a protagonist. Also,
  • the difference between hero and antihero is in the values of the character. Doing good needs to be an explicit priority for the protagonist to be a hero. If he or she ends up doing good primarily for other reasons (selfish, coincidental, forced or blackmailed into it), they are an antihero. They are doing good but not for heroic reasons or due to heroic values.

In some ways this doesn’t make sense. I’ve defined antihero as a type of hero whereas it should refer to the opposite of a hero, but I think this is closer to the current use of the term.

Especially in a world where the heroes are often superheros, or at least humans with super abilities.

bookmark_borderWriting in italics

I’ve heard some discussion about the use of italics, and today I ran across an example of what I think it a good use of italics in my current reading. This excerpt is from A Wanted Man: A Jack Reacher Novel by Lee Child.

McQueen waited. Reacher looped around the trunk. He paused, gestured, right-handed, open palm: Go ahead. After you. A precaution, not politeness.

A precaution, because Reacher wants McQueen to go toward the building first. He knows that McQueen has a gun but McQueen doesn’t know yet that Reacher knows. Reacher wants the man with a gun in front rather than behind him.

The italicized text is meant to stand out, to be obvious that it is not normal text. Child wants to be very clear what Reacher is trying to communicate visually so that he can contrast it in the normal text and tell us that Reacher is not doing this out of ordinary politeness.

So Child is using italics as a separate level of communication; different from dialogue, different from Reacher’s thoughts (Reacher novels are always first person, past tense), special compared with other physical actions, and in this case as superficial communication and as a lie, since Reacher is not doing this for the usual reason of politeness.


The discussion about the use of italics was initiated by a writer of, I suspect, limited reading experience, who criticized another writer for not italicizing the inner thoughts of his characters. He was very adamant about this, saying that he found the submission very hard to read because of this omission. (I’ve had similar reactions to cases of extremely poor grammar and no control over tenses, but that’s another story) I’ve heard this type of complaint before and find it hard to understand, but I suspect my lack of comprehension is due to not limiting myself to specific genres or writers. In other words, I think that there are specific genres and writers who always italicize the inner thoughts of characters but I don’t limit myself enough to believe that the rule is the norm. I can only vaguely guess that it was in some science fiction, perhaps some issues of Asimov’s, where I’ve even seen this rule used.

Interestingly enough — perhaps not to anyone but myself — the last use of italics for inner thoughts that I remember is “Fifty Shades of Grey”, that atrocity of writing that shouldn’t have made it past Wattpad. I know of writers who have adopted Dan Brown as their personal whipping boy, the writer whom they lash out at because his writing makes them cringe, and I may adopt Fifty Shades as mine. But I didn’t have a problem with her use of italics, other than the fact that it was always the same sort of things that came out of her italicized thoughts; “Holy shit.” “Crap.” Mental ejaculations.

And of course anything is possible if you have a reason for it and it works. Before the Reacher story I read a novel where the author did not use quotation marks for dialogue and I didn’t have an issue with it. Writing without quotation marks and in first person requires extra care to be clear when the main character is quoting and when he is thinking, but it’s definitely doable. It has the potential to make the story more intimate, to instill a dream-like quality, but another author who used that writing style said that she felt as if her characters were always mumbling.

If you can write clearly without quotation marks around dialogue, I don’t see why you can’t write without using italics for inner thoughts. And, personally, I’d rather follow the lead of Lee Child over the author of Fifty Shades, though I have a rather large list of authors I’d put ahead of Lee Child too.


bookmark_borderPost-NaNoWriMo 2011, or, Begining the second version of the 3DayNovel

So I didn’t make the 20,000 words in eleven days to total 50,000 for my manufactured NaNoWriMo for this year, but I did manage to come up with close to 15,000, and have kept at it since then, though at a much slower pace.

But after spending two weeks since then trying to add scenes to my original 23,000 word 3DayNovel I became aware that most of the new material added new characters, something that I had a slight inclination to try to avoid at first because I felt that I had enough characters for the length of the story. I tried to add scenes using the existing characters but found that difficult to do because I was also trying to avoid writing the scenes that I had already identified as missing and needed; I was trying to focus on fresh material only and it was difficult to do so without adding characters.

Is there any point in having the MC have dinner with his friend again? If they go somewhere, do something, does that add anything to the story? These are some of the things that I tried, but came up with dead ends in most of the time.

Then I looked at pushing one of the secondary characters, taking the POV and seeing some of his story. The next two most important characters have to remain mysteries so any POV done from their perspective would have to be deliberately obtuse, and that might be difficult given their secrets; they have huge secrets that they’re hiding with almost everything they say or do. (But then there’s great conflict hiding there! ) And given that it’s a short novel, shifting of POV can’t be treated casually. It’s not ‘War and Peace’ where it makes total sense to spend some time seeing the world from Pierre’s eyes, from Natasha’s eyes, even from Petra’s eyes.

So I may do some POV shifting to tell more sidestory or backstory. But the important thing that I realized is that:

  • My MC is boring when he’s not doing something that he’s good at

He’s also not awful at anything, so I can’t show him screwing things up, which also might be entertaining. But trying to generate more scenes with him by adding scenes that do not have anything to do with the mystery that he will solve is really difficult, which is why I added characters as I tried to spin out more material. Imagine Jack Reacher going for a walk to kill time and not meeting thugs or Kinsey Milhone sitting in a movie theater for no plot reason. I did manage to show more about his history, his personality, and a lot about other perspectives and attitudes about the story that he’s researching so these additional characters add something to the story.

But this is where it ties back to the second charater’s POV for this particular story that I’m working on. There is a huge chunk of material that’s key to solving the mystery that the second character digs up and dumps on the lap of the MC. On one hand this is like material supplied by Garcia to the rest of the BAU in ‘Criminal Minds’ and you don’t want to sit there and watch her trying to hack into systems and then querying databases and then cross referencing her materials, but that’s where the a large part of the information to solve the mystery comes from. The result is that there’s a lot ‘telling’ rather than ‘showing’, or in this case ‘discovering’ this material, which is a fundamental fiction writer’s error.

How do you write about research and turn it into an activity? Especially when it’s all done from a wheelchair?