Pop culture has presented us with some marvellous characters over the years. Whether your poison is film, TV, books or video games, we’ve had more than our fair share of icons that we’ve fallen in love with.
There is one particular sub-category of character that we have fallen for more than any other however – antiheroes.
What we are talking about here is essentially any central character possessing qualities that lie beyond the realm of what you would typically expect to see from a protagonist. In layman’s terms, any character who ultimately stands for good, but has questionable morals and methods, qualifies as an antihero.
But why, given the obvious shortcomings that these types of characters have by default, do we love them so much?
Perhaps the answer lies within the fact that the characters we are most willing to root for are neither simply good nor bad, but both, with a mix that often leans more towards making them a villain than a hero on paper. Let’s face it, there are times when it’s hard to name the redeeming qualities of some of our most beloved characters, yet we can’t help backing them because deep down, we know that they are the way they are, or are doing the things that they do for the right reasons – or at least reasons that are right to them and the code that they live by.
Life isn’t black and white
And to put it bluntly, people are never just good or bad. So why would we expect the characters we consume in media to be that way? Well… we don’t. We like complexities – we love them, in fact. There is something magical about being torn by a character and their actions; to have them earn our affection rather than being owed it just because they are the hero.
Certainly my own experiences sparked this train of thought. As someone who sides with the villain rather than the hero in most stories where the two are set miles apart from each other, there is nothing better than meeting a protagonist slightly muddied by the path they’ve taken because they challenge us. Antiheroes stir up an inner conflict and make us question ourselves and our own morals. The character that really got me thinking about all this was the protagonist of a video game, and it is this that caused the matter to weigh so heavily in my mind.
Outlaw state of mind
October 2018 saw the release of Rockstar’s Red Dead Redemption 2, an absolute masterpiece of a game. I’m a sucker for a western, so it was a given that I was going to spend some time playing it. I was blown away by how much the game actually managed to take over my life for roughly six months after getting hold of it. There’s a lot to talk about when it comes to Red Dead, so it would be unfair to pin its success entirely on just one of its many golden aspects. However, one thing that stood out to me more than anything else was the writing, not just in terms of the narrative, but the characters as well.
The game centres itself around the exploits of the Van Der Linde gang, a group of outlaws trying to make their way in the twilight of the Wild West era, but ultimately succumbing to the fact that their way of living is more or less through. You play as Arthur Morgan, a founding member of the gang and leader Dutch’s right-hand man. He has to be one of the greatest video game characters of all time because of how you come to feel for the guy as the game plays out.
Arthur is basically a bad guy with a chance to turn things around, and he does this whilst also bearing a heavy personal cost. More is revealed about Arthur and where his head is at throughout his journey as a character, and it becomes clear that he knows times are changing and the way of life he and all those around him have led for so long is pretty much finished.
There is a lot to be said for the Arthur’s character development. There is a stark contrast between the character at the start of the game versus who he is once you’ve reached the end of his arc. A lot of growth occurs throughout the course of the story, and it is this that sums up one of the reasons why we connect with antiheroes more than any other character type. No one wants to believe we’re defined by our past, and characters like Arthur Morgan show we can always be better no matter what we’ve come from.
Cracking the code
But that’s not all that draws us to these characters. One very common quality that many antiheroes share is some kind of moral code. This is most apparent in the protagonists we so often see in old school gangster films. However, more recently, there is a very good example of this kind of thing also.
Omar Little from The Wire, much like Arthur is in the world of video games, may just be one of the finest characters to ever grace our TV screens. The guy, played by Michael Kenneth Williams, absolutely had a swagger that enraptured viewers. But that wasn’t all. What became clear as the show unfolded was that he had a strong set of principals, and he stuck by them no matter what. For lack of a better phrase, Omar had a real ‘don’t fuck with me, I won’t fuck with you’ vibe. He was rarely involved in any conflict that he was the instigator of.
The Wire was a legendary bit of television when it came out, and that is still very much the case. It showed the War on Drugs in Baltimore from every perspective imaginable, and introduced us to many characters that broke the mould, but none of them stuck with us quite like Omar did. Maybe this was because he was just trying to get by. He went to great lengths not to drag people into anything they were not involved in, and didn’t relish in the more unsavoury tasks he was forced to carry out as much as his cohorts did. There were also occasions where many people wouldn’t be able to dispute that he did the right thing, such as when he was called to testify in court, or sought justice for those close to him who met untimely ends on the streets.
Omar’s methods might have raised eyebrows, but when you think about his motives for doing almost everything he did, it was always with good reason. He also never went after anyone who didn’t already have it coming. He had a code and he had integrity – something that is always admirable, but is even more so against a backdrop where a great number of characters lack such qualities.
Cruel to be kind
Then there’s those characters forced to be the bad guy as they work towards something better. In their hearts and minds, they’re trying to safeguard those closest to them and earn them a better future. However, they are often misguided in their methods. This could technically be almost every villain to ever exist. From a purely protagonist-perspective though, one of the first characters to come to mind is Breaking Bad’s Walter White.
By now, pretty much everyone knows the deal with Walter, and as far as antiheroes go, he’s a pretty fine example. He’s a high school chemistry teacher who has to find the means to ensure that his family will be okay after being diagnosed with terminal lung cancer. That means just so happens to be cooking crystal meth alongside one of his former students.
Whilst it could be argued that Walter rather enjoyed cooking meth, it’s important to pull focus with why he initially started. He really only wanted to make sure his wife and kids wouldn’t be left high and dry. They were the only thing in the whole world that mattered to him, after all. It is with that observation, however, that one could make the follow-up argument that it was when things went south with his family that Walter fully became Heisenberg, his criminal alias. Without his family, Walter literally had no reason to get out of bed in the mornings it would seem. That’s why he was willing to do whatever it took to make sure they were looked after no matter what. It is also why he went fully off the deep end towards the end of the show.
Walter’s response to such unfortunate circumstances made the audience think about how far they would go for their loved ones. The show also showed the flip-side of where we’d be if we were suddenly without them. Breaking Bad had a lot to say about a lot of things, but what it said about how loved ones ground us was a topic with universal appeal. The way this saga unfolded over a five season arc allowed for a full exploration and enabled Walter to assume legendary character status, flaws and all.
So why do we love antiheroes?
For all of the specific reasons for why we are so drawn towards antiheroes, I think ultimately it all boils down to the fact that they represent real people in the way we see ourselves. Nobody sees themselves as the villain in their own story. Most of us are just doing things, good or bad, for what we believe to be the right reasons. We all have our justifications for doing the things we do. They aren’t always the ‘right’ things in their individual parts, but as a whole, it at least becomes clear that all of those singular things were done for the greater good.
We admire these characters because of their flaws, and to some extent their self-awareness of those flaws. Antiheroes never seem to be under any illusions about who they really are. Often, they appear to be a lot harder on themselves than anyone around them is. It’s in this sense that they provide us with something of an outsider’s perspective on ourselves. We see the good in them, as well as the bad things they do, but we never forget the overall good they strive for.
Ultimately, they validate us. In the real world, there isn’t simply good or bad for the most part. Instead, it’s just real people doing real things with the best intentions. We try to live a decent life, but sometimes that involves doing things we’d be less than proud to admit. We are all antiheroes in our own story, and that’s why they have such strong appeal to us in the media we consume.