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Jul 9, 2010

Villains, Anti-heroes and Unlikable Heroes

I've been reading Les Liaisons Dangereuses. The protagonists are hardly likable, and though by the end one feels a certain sympathy for them, what drives the reader through the book is not the hope they will succeed in their scheming, but that they will fail disastrously. The ending satisfies because they reap the harvest of their own cruelty. A similar dynamic governs the duology Jean de Florette and Manon De Source. The characters you root for are not the protagonists, but their opponents/victims, Jean and Manon.

Are these protagonists anti-heros? I don't think so. I'd call them, rather, villains who happen to be protagonists. I would distinguish between different kinds of Main Characters (MCs):
Villains - Villainous MCs aren't necessarily unlikable, at least not completely. The Marquise de Merteuil and the Vicomte de Valmont are so fiendishly clever and hypocritical, it is a guilty pleasure to watch them spar. They have enough faults to outweigh their good features, so they are true villains, yet enough good features to let the reader take their POV without tedium or nausea. No matter how charming, the reader still roots for their downfall.

Anti-Heroes - Flawed heroes uses questionable means to achieve noble ends -- or, more rarely, noble means to achieve questionable ends. Or perhaps they begin as a villains, but unlike the true villain, redeem themselves in the end. Since we are supposed to root for them, anti-heroes are tricky. One advantage of anti-heroes is that they are usually more interesting than heroes because their motives and capabilities are ambiguous. Their victory and redemption is less assured than the traditional hero. However, since the charming rogues are already cliche, some authors try to push the anti-hero into less trite, but less likable, avenues, and this can backfire if the MC loses the allegiance of the reader.

Unlikable Heroes - Heroes can be unlikable for all sorts of reasons. If they are too "perfect," they are dull. Villains and side kicks easily upstage them. Or maybe the hero has too many annoying characteristics, and not enough endearing habits to make up for these foibles. The problem is that unlikable heros are seldom unlikable on purpose. An author might not be aware that the character is coming across as whiny, passive, pushy, entitled, vain or too-stupid-to-live.

I began some re-writes on the mss I mentioned yesterday. Essentially, every single sentence in Chapter One needed adjustment, additions or erasure. Other than changing every other word on the page, though, I left the chapter as it was.

Ahem. What I mean is that I made no changes to the plot or characters. I tightened POV from a distant to a more intimate Third Person, I added sensory description and deleted overwrought phrases. I knew the characters well. All I needed to do was draw them out more clearly, not change them.

Chapter One begins with side characters, however. (Possibly not a good idea.) When I arrived at Chapter Two, which introduces the MC, it hit me.

This guy bores the brickabrack out of me.

Ouch. Cliched phrases are easy to redress, but a cliched hero spells doom for a book. Quick! How can I fix him without sacrificing the entire story?


Make him an anti-hero?

I don't want him to leap from the Great Frying Pan of Cliches into the Furious Fires of Cliche. Yeah, he's the Chosen One, leader of the raggedy band of slaves and rebels against the evil Powers, yadda yadda yadda, but this comes with the territory of Epic Fantasy. If his character is painted with a fine enough brush, I don't need anti-hero bells and whistles.

Still, he deserves to stand out from the herd of Chosen Ones somehow, doesn't he? What if he's not a real Chosen One. Yes, he's a slave, but to save his own heart from the knife, he agreed to work for the villain. And the villain wants him to pose as a leader of the oppressed, to lure would-be rebel slaves out into the open....

I'm still wrestling with it, but I like this better than what I had before.

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