The Rise and Rise of Anti-Heroes
The anti-hero is an increasingly common trope in literature and can be well-done, when the anti-hero stays within some recognisable moral frame-work and—almost as important—is reasonably entertaining to be around—I'm thinking of Mal Reynolds, Raffles, Arsène Lupin—I've begun to find the anti-hero fad tiresome. I find that a great deal of the appeal of a book rests on the characters—personally, I'm a lot more willing to tolerate plot holes and a creaky prose style than to stick around with characters I don't care about—and the anti-heroes strewn through literature because it's the fashionable thing are not always people I want to stick around with. Which almost invariably ends with my not sticking with the book.
The biggest sticking point I often encounter is when they're just too anti to be heroes any more. I trace this phenomenon back to Frankenstein, in which the monster murders a six-year-old child and frames an innocent young woman, before spending the rest of the novel traipsing around like an injured innocent. I'll just repeat that: kills a six-year-old child and frames an innocent young woman. But that's OK, because he's misunderstood. Er, no thanks. Miss me with the baby-murdering twistedly psychopathic fiend, please. Now, I don't know whether Shelley thought she was being cool and edgy and making some kind of vague but totally profound point about something kind of vague but totally profound, or what she was thinking, but I think she's missed the mark. (And I'm the one keeping the author in food and gas bills by buying the book—although Shelley's dead, but still.) I'm not a Sunday school teacher, I don't ask for saints, but you've got to draw the line somewhere, and I've drawn mine and baby-murdering comes on the wrong side of it.
Critics can play this game with characters retroactively. Note the recent craze for portraying Caliban as some kind of injured martyr, notwithstanding the fact that he explicitly tried to rape a girl who was sixteen and the start of the play and this was in flash-back so she was—what?—twelve? Thirteen? Yeah. Let's not go with the martyr angle, shall we?
Like I said, you've got to draw the line somewhere, what TV Tropes calls the Moral Event Horizon. The fashion these days might be for writing a bunch of depraved lunatics, in order to make some kind of fashionable point about the nature of morality or whatever, but there's only so much I'm willing to take. Some things are on the wrong side of the Moral Event Horizon, and no amount of pleading (from the character, the author, or the critics), whining, pretty speeches or sitting around brooding and looking glum is going to drag you back over. Because nothing can escape an event horizon, not even light.
The second problem comes when the character might not even be particularly morally depraved (or they are, but that's not the worst thing about them), they're just bloody annoying. I can't stand whiny, neurotic, abrasive, obnoxious gits who think that being needlessly rude to everyone they meet is a sign of inner daemons and that their idiotic remarks are cutting cynicism. Reading a character is basically like being locked alone in a room together, and just as wearing to the nerves and temper. And if these characters can annoy me so much just reading, Lord knows what they must be like to write. This character type is common in action, adventure, detective and those ridiculous modern romance/day-in-the-life novels whose authors massively insult their readers by insisting that these malicious, attention-seeking, shallow, selfish, vacuous air-heads are relatable. If I were even attempt to list every example of a hero whose author has shown poor personality choices I would be sitting here until the heat death of the universe, but I can provide a choice few.
Ibsen's Nora merrily waltzes off to find herself, leaving her three children in the care of the obnoxious git whom she (rightly) considers a dismally unfit husband. But presumably a perfectly fit father. This is the sort of hysterical egomaniac who's praised from all sides as a feminist hero. That's downright insulting. She's whiny, childish and a pain.
Highsmith's Tom Ripley, considering he kills two people in cold blood, is one of the most boring people I've ever met. I can't even say that much about him, because there's not much to say. Highsmith apparently considers homicide a substitute for personality. The worst thing is that I wasted days reading the whole damn novel waiting for it to get good, and it never did. This guy sits around, frets a bit, kills two people and that's it. Highsmith: making murder monotonous since 1955.
There's Hamlet, of course. Oh, Lord, there's Hamlet. It's been asserted by critics, probably sympathetic to Hamlet, that he's a representative man. As a man (well, woman, anyway), I'm insulted. When tasked by the ghost of ones father to murder ones uncle one has two options. One can wreak ones bloodthirsty revenge for the wrong committed to ones family, or, if one is a pacifist or pious Christian (as Hamlet occasionally claims to be) one can say in a firm and manly voice "No". And then stick to it. One does not spend the entire play trundling around the house whining and being needlessly rude to ones girl-friend. What reason does this guy have to feel sorry for himself? He's not the one who's been murdered. If he had done the murder in Act I and the rest of the play were the fall-out, Beau Geste fashion, of the deadly deed, then he might have reason for a bit of sighing, as he flees into exile or awaits execution or whatever. But not now. Not when nothing bad's even happened to him. I honestly can't understand the appeal of Hamlet, but I seem to be in the minority, because I read once that someone is always performing Hamlet somewhere in the world. I think the character with the better claim to be the hero is Laertes. When his father's killed, he storms the house to kill Claudius, whom he considers responsible. When he finds out that Hamlet's in fact responsible for the deaths of both Polonius and Ophelia, he challenges Hamlet to a duel. I'm not saying that Laertes is a good man, because poisoning the blade of his rapier is cheating and I find cheating dishonourable, but he is at least a man, a man of action. Hamlet hasn't any time for anything but fretting. And yet he's the one who gets the play named after him.
I abandoned the Hunger Games trilogy half-way through Mockingjay because, despite having stuck with the series determinedly through two-and-a-half books, I couldn't stand another page watching Katniss trying to decide between her two handsome swains. As far as I was concerned, they were both idiots, and even more idiots for falling for the sort of selfish little drama queen who would lead two guys on in the first place, and the whole plot was getting ridiculous. Katniss exhibits some of the traits I hate most in a hero—whining, self-centredness, toying with others, self-indulgence—and I tired of her. I've gathered through cultural osmosis that she ends up with Peeta. I couldn't care less.
I single out K.J. Charles' The Henchmen of Zenda for special attention because it turned one of the best villains I've ever read—the charmingly wicked Rupert of Hentzau—into one of the most tiresomely clichéd heroes I've ever read. I needn't say too much about this book, because I've written a whole essay about it—if you're interested, you can find it here on FictionPress—but I'll summarise. Charles' Hentzau's least likeable quality is his shying away from his own villainy. She's very, very determined to wrangle moral righteousness into this guy, not by giving him any dazzlingly moral traits, but just by making everyone else even worse. Clear hall-mark of lazy writing. The sob story childhood is even lazier. Does it never occur to authors that sometimes people do things the author/readers/society thinks are bad because they want to, for one reason or another, or no good reason at all, not because they had a sad childhood and a horrible dad? It's actually kind of insulting to people who have sad childhoods and horrible dads.
So after that discussion of how—in my opinion—not to write a hero, how does one write a hero?
This is necessarily a question of the reader's individual feelings and tastes and values, and often characters whom one fan loves another fan hates, but personally I look for some combination of the following in a hero.
Sticking by their moral code: (Note that I say their moral code, because even if I don't necessarily agree with it, I can respect their determination to stick to it. Otho Bellème in Soldiers of Misfortune is one of the most insufferable snobs I've ever met, but sticks to what he believes through thick and thin, and, however much I rolled my eyes, I didn't put down the book.) Firefly's Simon Tam is aware that no one in the wilds of space cares about the nice manners he was brought up with, but he sticks with them. Beau Geste's Michael throws up the love of his life, his entire family (until two of them join him), his nice house in Devon and his entire future life plans in pursuit of his principles. In Beau Ideal,Otis goes back to marry the Death Angel, because he said he would, even though everyone else thinks he's insane, because "it's not about what she is, it's about what I am".
Stoicism: Unlike some authors, who seem to think reader sympathy increases with the character's tears, I find the characters who grin and bear it much more sympathetic—and heart-breaking— than the wallowers. One of the most tear-jerking parts of Beau Geste is when the three Geste boys sit in the court-yard joking about their situation.
Decisiveness: The aforementioned Laertes. Not a saint, but a man who was willing to act and to face the consequences. I can see why others might disagree, but to me, that counts for something. Similarly, the aforementioned Otho, whose family motto is "I say and I do" and who sticks by it, however devastating the consequences for his life and his family's fortunes.
Charm: Sometimes, as in Beau Geste, over-laps with stoicism in that characters never let the grimness of their circumstances make them lose their cool. Sometimes the hero earns forgiveness for an anti-heroic streak by being fun to be around, as with Raffles. Sometimes it's a redeeming feature for a villain, as in (Anthony Hope's) Rupert of Hentzau. Being polite, amusing and genuinely witty just makes a character easier to get on with than a grouch.