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25 May 2011

Anti-heroes, Anti-heroines, and the Sympathy Factor


Isobel had a great post a few weeks ago about anti-heroes. The fascinating follow-up discussion on Isobel’s post took me back to a question I've pondered in the past. What exactly makes an anti-hero or anti-heroine? Is it the behavior or the motives?

I’ve heard the term anti-hero used to encompass a range of characters. There’s the Talented Mr. Ripley, who commits murder for his own advancement. There’s Don Draper, who has principles of a sort and is remarkably loyal to some of the people in his life, but seems to have no concept of romantic fidelity–(or at least no ability to be faithful. (One of the things I love about Mad Men is how all the characters are flawed and yet all of them have sympathetic moments.) Francis Crawford of Lymond does all sorts of seemingly horrible things, and yet he inevitably proves to have done so for the noblest of motives. Is he an anti-hero? Or is an anti-hero someone who acts out of selfish motives and doesn’t have a core of principles? Both Han Solo and Rick Blaine claim to only be out for themselves fairly early in their respective stories. And yet neither of them does anything remotely approaching Lymond’s actions (burning his mother’s castle, being responsible for the death of his son).

Isobel described Lady Barbara Childe in Georgette Heyer’s An Infamous Army as “a benchmark anti-heroine.” Lady Barbara’s behavior is certainly destructive and causes pain to a number of people. On the other hand, I don’t think she does anything as morally questionable as my character Mélanie Fraser (entering a marriage on false pretenses, lying to her spouse for years, being responsible for deaths because of information she passed along). But Mélanie is acting out of loyalty to a cause and comrades, whereas Barbara’s behavior is driven by being discontented and unhappy. Does that make one more an anti-heroine than the other?

And, as Isobel asked, what makes an anti-hero/ine redeemable or not? I've also been pondering the question of what makes a character sympathetic (and blogged about it recently one my own website). My book The Mask of Night has a secondary couple who's marriage is in crisis. I had a number of comments from readers who were very sympathetic to Isobel, the wife, and disliked Oliver, the husband. Which surprised me, because while I was quite sympathetic to Isobel as I planned the book, when I actually wrote it, I had a hard time with her. I’m not sure what it was precisely. But though I felt sorry for her, it was though her coolness held me at a distance as wel. I often found myself sympathizing more with Oliver. Perhaps because he’s an outsider? Mostly, though, I felt sorry for both Bel and Oliver and the way their marriage eroded. In any case, I was intrigued and quite relieved by the reaction of these readers to Bel, because it means that even if I had trouble sympathizing with her myself, she didn’t come across as unsympathetic the way I wrote her.

Princess Tatiana in Vienna Waltz (who would certainly be an anti-heroine if she was the protagonist of a book) was something of the opposite case. I didn’t particularly sympathize with her when I plotted the book, yet I found myself sympathizing with her more and more as I wrote it and saw sides of her beyond the schemer. I also found myself quite sympathetic to Talleyrand, despite the fact that he was a schemer par excellence, with questionable motives both in the novel and in the historical record..

I recently got revision notes from my editor on my Waterloo book, Imperial Scandal. There’s one action of the heroine's my editor suggested I take out, because she’s afraid it goes too far and could destroy reader sympathy for her. I confess I was worried myself that that scene pushed the envelope too far. I’m glad I got to write it the way I did (and that’s the way it happens in my mind), but I don’t mind changing it in the revisions. It might be a scene that tilts the heroine into anti-heroine territory. Though it's difficult for me to judge, as I still can't define what that territory is :-).

What makes a character sympathetic to you? What makes a character lose your sympathy? Are their anti-heroes or anti-heroines for whom you've felt more sympathy than more conventional heroes and heroines? How do you define anti-heroes and anti-heroines? Is it their actions or their motivation or both? What are some of your favorite examples? What does it take for you for such a character to be redeemed?

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8 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

For me, it's nearly impossible to separate the characters from the story and its purpose--to achieve an HEA. If, within the story, a hero's/heroine's actions at any particular moment bring disapproval, I wait. For the nature of romance fiction is such, I think, that the author will more or less be forced to write something to ameliorate that action or at least provide a partial or complete explanation for it, one that I can accept as valid. If there is none, in my mind, the book simply isn't a success, at least for me.

7:35 AM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

That's a good point, Anonymous. Some of the most satisfying endings come from characters working past actions one would think they couldn't get past. I think the question becomes a bit more complicated in historical fiction and/or suspense, when there isn't necessarily a HEA yet you still want the reader to be engaged with the characters.

7:56 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think in Pride and Prejudice Darcy has his anti-hero moments and millions have forgiven him. I think the thing that makes anti-hero redeemable is that they do not make excuses just acknowledge said flaws and grow as a person. I myself love a character driven story so an anti-hero doesn’t bother me in the least because I like the complexities as the character evolves.

1:53 PM  
Anonymous Isobel Carr said...

No hurting kids, kicking puppies, or rape. That's pretty much it for me, everything else is pretty much fixable and/or forgivable (basically it comes down to you can’t hurt or harm things/people that are weaker than you). Lie, cheat, swindle, if I understand your motivation, I’m likely to side with you.

My exception is Scarlett O’Hara. I always wanted Melanie to run that bitch over with a wagon and dance on her grave (but I think this circles back to Anonymous’s point about acknowledging flaws and growth, things Scarlett never does).

3:41 PM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

Such a good point, Anonymous. I tend to love reading about flawed characters because character growth is interesting (Mr. Darcy is a great example). As long as the character *does* believably grow.

4:14 PM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

Ditto on hurting/harming those weaker than than the character in question. I was going to say I couldn't think of case where I'd got past that, but then Lymond orders the death of a his toddler son and watches it happen (granted he's boxed into a corner).

I actually like Scarlett O'Hara, but I think she does grow. She certainly becomes tougher and more resourceful. And I think at the end she may becomes a bit more compassionate and insightful.

4:18 PM  
Anonymous Isobel Carr said...

I had a hard time getting past Dr. Who ordering the death of his grandson, but like Lymond, he didn't have a choice. Something like that I think can actually be very sympathetic in the long run, though it’s hard to forgive at the time.

7:27 AM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

I think putting characters through wrenching (and morally problematic) choices can be fascinating to explore. And that's a great point that in the long run, as one watches the character wrestles with the aftermath, it can add to one's sympathy for them. It's occurring to me that a big part of what makes a character sympathetic, or not, is not so much what they do, but how they cope with what they've done after the fact. Do they feel remorse, do they grow, etc...

10:42 AM  

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