Once upon a time there was a girl named Jasmine. She was writing a book called The Lucky One in which her main character, Lucky, totally saves the world in a swoon-worthy, intense, heroic way. She joined a role-play called SHIFT where character and author got thrown together in a bunch of shifting universes and met a girl named Elyse, whose character Emily was (quite literally) polar opposite of Lucky. The differences between the two were noted and talked about frequently, until Elyse came up with a brilliant idea to share our discoveries when writing The Hero (Lucky) and The Anti-hero (Emily).
And so we did!
Everyone’s heard of the five-man band. You’ve got the basic character slots: the hero, the lancer, the chick, the smart guy, and the big guy. Together, they make up the squad of unlikely companions that come together to face the big bad, take him down, and live happily ever after.
And for a while, that’s how it always was. You might not have the full band, or you might have the band plus a few, but ultimately, there was always one structure that never went away: the hero and his foil.
But then came 90s Batman. And Daredevil. And other lancer-like characters holding their own spotlight. And all of a sudden, the public could start questioning whether or not the ultimate do-gooder hero, like Superman or Captain America, was interesting enough anymore.
So now, for budding writers, there’s a whole new question. When they start their novel (in any genre other than contemp, which has its own rules for this kind of thing), who is their Main Character? It’s no longer The Hero by default. They could pick the grungy, beat up Lancer. Or they could go even farther, making their protagonist downright villianous. There’s a whole world of options to choose from.
Which is scary.
But fear not! Because for a limited time only, the genius brains of Jasmine (who has this awesome blog as well as twitter) and Elyse (who has a fledgeling blog here and a twitter) will be discussing why each choice has its merits and drawbacks and giving you some insight into which one fits your story.
Now for us, our characters, and two things vitally important we’re going to explain here and at the beginning of parts two and three: our definitions of “hero” and “anti-hero” (often the lancer). Just to be clear, we’ll refer to The Hero with male pronouns and The Anti-Hero with female, to differentiate them and also because the particular characters we’re discussing are male and female.
Quick note: The Anti-Hero is only The Lancer when they’re the foil to The Hero. The Lancer designates a foil, not a personality.
(IMAGE CREDIT: http://images2.fanpop.com/image/photos/10300000/Percy-Jackson-digital-paint-percy-jackson-and-the-olympians-books-10383281-1500-2094.jpg)
The Hero is a guy who’s just unabashedly good. He is morally superior, a good teammate, cares about his friends, and is often right. Even when he makes a bad decision, he always learns something from it and pledges to never do it again. He is usually the leader, because he is fair and just (not to mention likable). He usually gets the girl. In elemental settings, his power will typically be fire, lightning, or light/spirit. If he’s not the protagonist, he usually is crazy popular and steals the spotlight. He is also usually male.
The Anti-Hero is the gal who makes the tough decisions. She’s the combat pragmatist, and might have a case of gray and black morality. She’s cynical, she cares about her teammates but has a bigger goal in mind (in most cases), and is often technically but not morally correct. She makes bad decisions, suffers the consequences, and comes back bitter. She often has a Dark And Troubled Past and may or may not get the guy. In elemental settings, her power is shadow, ice, or in rare cases stone/earth. If she’s not the protagonist, she probably has a vocal fan following. Also often male.
But first, let’s have some introductions. Gals, why don’t you introduce yourselves?
Jasmine: Hello hello! Most of you know me (this is my blog, is it not?), but just in case you don’t: I’m Seattle’s resident teenage author, sixteen going on seven and not ashamed in the least bit. I’m culturally diverse, being African-America/Filipino/Scotch-Irish/Hispanic/Creole and a bunch of other things I dunno about. I’m fairly open minded when it comes to reading, music, opinions and general stuff, but don’t insult my boyband obsessions or we will have words. I’m a junior but I take college classes, so that totally puts me on par in the smarts department with Elyse (HAHAHA I WISH). Despite being generally snarky I like to think I’m a hilarious and outgoing gal, so don’t be too intimidated. –insert sneaky smile here– ANYWHO, my novel THE LUCKY ONE is in its third draft and is the first of a trilogy. I’ve already started on book two, THE LAST SERAPHIM.
Elyse: Hey! I’m a sixteen year old writer from the eastern US, a senior in high school, and an all-around smart-aleck. I love to read all good books, but my favorite genres are science fiction and urban fantasy and my favorite novels are ENDER’S GAME by Orson Scott Card and THE LORD OF THE RINGS by J.R.R. Tolkien. (no, at this point I haven’t seen The Hobbit yet but I’m going to see it tomorrow okay.) My novel SNAP (maybe LISTEN, I have yet to decide) is in the first-draft process. It’s planned for a three part series.
And continuing the intros, why don’t you talk a little about your characters?
J: Ah, Lucky. What is there to be said? He’s The Hero, Taken Up to Eleven. Blonde-haired, gray-eyed, totes adorbs as far as looks go, and he paints. As if his human-as-they-come personality doesn’t do it in for you, he’s got a dark side—that is, he’s half angel, half demon. And a seraphim. And cursed with extreme unluckiness. And the bearer of the light half of the Ivory Amulet. And the subject of a prophecy in which he saves the world from total destruction by stopping the infinite war between angels and demons, but really, who’s counting? Despite all the pressure on his shoulders, Lucky manages to maintain his happy-go-lucky attitude, his acute sense of right and wrong, and his powers—for the most part—and that’s what makes him this post’s example of The Hero.
E: My main character is Emily, and she’s the antihero supreme. If you know the Sliding Scale of Anti-Heroes, she’s type III or type IV. As for a little background – Emily, also known as Genetic Finale, was born a test-tube experiment on what the human mind was capable. She’s tiny, blonde, cute, cynical, and a powerfully manipulative empath. Adopted by Ethiopian lightning-generator Lt. Colonel Jasmine Powell at the bequest of her daughter, Grace (also Emily’s best friend) at age ten, Emily’s childhood was pretty good (if odd – she was raised in her mother’s military academy). That is, up until her eighteenth year, when her sister was savagely murdered in front of her supposedly as a recompense for Emily’s lack of power and arrogance. Bitter and grief stricken, Emily swore revenge against Dr. Karl Eknon and his associate Morning River, and is willing to do absolutely anything to reach her goal. She doesn’t believe in traditional morality and instead aligns herself on an axis of loyalty versus betrayal. She would most likely be considered chaotic neutral. Emily shows signs of paranoia and obsessive-compulsive personality disorder, but her main demons come in flashbacks and guilt based in the anxiety disorder PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder, also called shell-shock).
Okay. This bit is mainly going to be about heroes (even though you just got Elyse’s antihero spiel). We already talked about what a hero is. Now we’re going to talk about what a hero means. Let’s start with a hero as a protagonist.
When your MC is a hero, what does that mean to you as an author? How would you describe your relationship with him?
J: Being the hero means being right. All the time. You don’t get to make mistakes because if you do, your leadership is questioned, your judgment is questioned, and your choice-making is questioned. The good news is the hero doesn’t usually make mistakes. He has a rigid moral compass and the instincts to act on and things always work out in the end. It’s an author’s job to make sure he gets there. There are a million different ways a plot can go to turn out okay but not so much for the hero. The path they take is the one of least repercussions, least consequences. When things happen that make the hero question himself as a person, that’s when the confidence slips. Then he’s not so sure his way is the right way. Sometimes the world isn’t always straightforward, the bad guys aren’t the bad guys, the good guys aren’t the good guys. In a hero’s eyes, the world is perfect except for this and this, and this is what he can do to fix it. But of course, the real world isn’t like that.
Lucky’s a tough guy to write. For one thing, I’m a girl and writing guy personalities isn’t the easiest thing in the world. And then there’s Lucky, who’s not like most guys at all. Actually, he’s not even human. But he grew up in a human world, basically isolated from anyone except Dom, his best friend. Taking these factors into consideration helped me write him better, make him come to life. He’s likable because he’s a bit innocent of the world and you can’t help but want to shield him from the bad things, to let him keep that. As for our relationship, it’s mostly evident in the roleplay SHIFT that Elyse and I are a part of. To sum it up, the two of them get along pretty freaking well. Most of the time.
As a reader, how do you react to a heroic MC?
E: Well, automatically I like him because he’s a nice person. In Lucky’s case, he’s just this sweet kid, he’s got a lot of potential, I think he’s just great. I want to see him succeed. When he doesn’t, it makes me feel like something’s wrong with the universe. Like, what’s the deal, world? Just let the kid be! And I like seeing him use his powers, I laugh at his lame battle humor, because he’s the kind of person I might want to be friends with because I know he’d help me out in a pinch; I know he’s just going to be a great friend. I instinctively like him, so I want to care about him, which gives you an edge up because the ultimate point of a novel is to get you to care about the MC.
But in the same way, there’s this danger with a heroic protagonist that they’re way too perfect. Even with Lucky, who Jasmine was smart enough to give flaws (like he can really be an idiot sometimes, I swear), you sometimes get this Superman-esque feeling like he can do no wrong. And that’s not endearing. So with a hero, you really have to be careful, because although they’ll automatically care about the cute, good kid, make them too good or too competent and they lose their adorable status and plummet straight into annoying. Give your Superman a “World of Cardboard” feeling. (If you don’t know what that is click on the link because it’s fantastic.)
J: Don’t get me started on Lucky’s flaws. They seem mundane—his inability to see the wrong in anyone, his block at learning how to harness his other powers (not just the pyrokinetic side of him, since he tends to rely on that one the most), how horrible he is at lying, how he blushes every time someone compliments him… He’s infuriating, let me tell you. Elyse is right though—Lucky doesn’t do wrong, and every mistake he makes tears him up inside. It’s so easy to break him and, as evidenced in the first book after he nearly takes out Ava towards the end, it’s easy for him to break things too.
As a reader or writer, what are the major benefits of having a hero for your protagonist?
E: Well, like I mentioned above, you have this automatic likeability. Everyone loves him. So, as long as he’s not annoying, you have less work to do in the “make me identify with the protag” department. The girls want to date him, the guys want to be him. Even if he doesn’t have all the luck in love and war (yes, that was intentional), he’s still a role model. And better yet, as an author, you like him. I’ve worked with Lucky. Not written him, but I’ve interacted with him, and I get him to an extent. And I’ve never really not liked him, or felt like I was going to give up on him. That goes for the heroic supporting characters in SNAP. I can’t say the same for all the antiheroes I’ve written.
J: He’s usually the one who makes the speeches. Lucky’s terrible at speeches. His are notoriously cheesy and usually spoken with more heart than a guy should have, but it’s sweet enough to make you smile even when you don’t want to. For the characters in the story it’s good, because you know he will always stand by your side and is pretty difficult to corrupt, unless you’re Alistair (big bad in TLO series… let’s just say things go seriously downhill for Lucky at the end of the second book). For the readers, he’s usually the one who makes you melt or go “awwww” because not only is he so stinkin’ likeable, he’s also incredibly real. You can imagine falling in love with a guy like Lucky, because as unrealistic as it is he’s the person you want to fall in love with.
How about detriments?
E: Again, like I said, heroes may be easy to like but in a lot of cases they’re hard to write well. You can go both ways with them, and that’s the problem. You can make them too likeable, and then you lose that connection they have with the reader. The instant a reader feels like they aren’t good enough for the protagonist, they lose interest in the book. You won’t have this problem with supporting characters as much. Also, you can have the problem of making their awesome their ONLY defining characteristic. Again, Cinder executes the hero well with Lucky, so this isn’t a problem with him, but again, nobody likes a flat character. Even when they’re cool. That’s part of the reason I never really connected with Luke Skywalker. He was nothing but good. Give your hero doubts, give them demons (who aren’t their girlfriends), give them downfalls.
But be careful. You can end up going the opposite direction and giving your hero too many flaws. This turns them into antihero material, except you’re still writing them like a hero. So the reader is confused. The work treats the MC like you’re supposed to like them for their virtue, but virtuous moments come few and far between. That’s frustrating, disconcerting, and it just screams “bad writing.”
Since Lucky’s our example, I’ll talk about him again. See, Lucky has loads of moments where you go “Attaboy! You get ‘em!” but an appropriate number of moments where you’re like “Dude, what are you doing?” or “Gosh, he is a moron.” Too many of either and you lose your hero into perfecttown or baffleville.
J: *snorts* DEMONS. I SEE WHAT YOU DID THERE.
I can explain Lucky’s character arc to give you guys a bit of an idea how to be careful with your hero. Lucky’s insanely fragile. All he needs is to break his own rules and he spirals into darkness. He does this a couple of times: the first time at the end of the first book, when he loses control of his powers and almost kills Ava; the second at the end of the second book, when his grief of losing Dom makes him lose control again and causes him to nearly burn an entire forest down; after he wakes up in Alistair’s clutches in the third book and realizes that Alistair had been using him and his powers to basically take over the world; and a few times in SHIFT, the most noticeable one being when he kills Demi while brainwashed under a computer’s control.
There are good moments too, of course, and the climax where he dies and ends the war between angels and demons and saves the world and all that jazz. The point of those horrible things was to give Lucky a wake-up call. Lucky has this bad habit of thinking things are black and white, and when you break the rules you get punished for it. He has yet to find out that sometimes you don’t have a choice, and sometimes the right decision three days ago isn’t the right decision now (to borrow something from SHIFT). These things teach him—the hard way, of course. There are times when the hero needs to take a step back and look at what he’s been doing, evaluate whether it’s for the greater good.
Of course, if he loses confidence in himself then he becomes the anti-hero, the one who does what he does because he has to and not because he wants to. Lucky’s spirit may be fragile but it sure is resilient, bouncing back as always no matter what happens to him. He matures, he grows up, he’s a little wiser to the world each time, but he knows in his heart the right thing to do and he does it because he has irrefutable faith that everything will turn out alright in the end.
The next part, The Anti-hero, will be on Elyse’s blog next week.