By Jason Hewitt
London, England, UK
When I was a young boy at a small school in Oxfordshire, deep in the English countryside, every lunch hour we used to play make-believe games of Star Wars in the schoolyard. The girls always fought over who was going to be Princess Leia. The boys always fought over who would be Hans Solo. No one ever wanted to be Luke. Hans Solo was cool. Whereas Luke Skywalker was…well…he was just a bit dull. The term "anti-hero" had not yet entered my vocabulary then but if it had I might have known that Hans possesses many of the traits that we might expect not in a hero but in an anti-hero. He was a ladies' man, some might say a toe-rag, he flew his ship too fast, was a gambler, a drinker, stayed up too late, got into scrapes, and probably left the toilet seat up. In short, he was trouble. As a grown man, of course, I no longer condone this behavior. But given the opportunity to shoot up a few stormtroopers with my nephews and I'll still be gunning to be Hans.
I'm a writer now and, for me, anti-heroes still hold their appeal – those central characters that lack the normal heroic attributes and yet whom we still root for. As I left the playground and ventured into the pages of books I found that Jay Gatsby was way more appealing than Nick Carraway; I fell hook line and sinker for Patricia Highsmith's Tom Ripley (yes, even when he was bludgeoning someone); and, let's face it, who in their right mind would want to be Chuck Palahniuk's whining narrator, Jack, from Fight Club, when you could be Tyler Durden? In short, heroes are good (read: dull); but anti-heroes are fun, or at the very least, much more interesting. But I wonder why that is?
I tried to get to the bottom of this conundrum whilst writing my debut novel The Dynamite Room. I won't give the story away but essentially it's set in Suffolk, England, in the summer of 1940 when all eyes were on the beaches, expecting the imminent German invasion; and is about two characters, an eleven-year-old runaway evacuee called Lydia and a German soldier called Heiden who arrives on the English coast, breaks into a boarded up house and, finding Lydia there, takes her hostage. Heiden shows almost no heroic traits at all. He is not the stereotypical "bad" Nazi. But nor is he the equally stereotypical "good" German who sees the errors of Hitler's ways. He has carried out many atrocities that the reader might think unforgiveable and throughout the novel remains morally ambiguous but I still wanted the reader, come the end, to be rooting for him; for him to be a character that we deplore but empathize with.
Anti-heroes are not villains. Instead they sit in that grey area somewhere in between. Villains are fun to watch, to hiss and yell at, but readers or viewers rarely get behind a villain like they do the hero. The late Heath Ledger's portrayal of The Joker in Christopher Nolan's The Dark Knight was an iconic performance in which he stole almost every scene, but, let's face it, you can't root for him. We still want Batman to win, no matter how much fun The Joker might be with his razor-sharp witticisms and lust for mayhem. Rooting for The Joker would be akin to rooting for the Devil. If The Joker had been victorious Gotham would have ended up in pieces, chaos would reign and Batman would have been carted off in a body bag, which, to be frank, would have ended the film on rather a bum note. The difference is that despite The Joker's fun and charisma, we have no sympathy for him. We don't understand him (which is what I guess makes him such an unpredictable and terrifying antagonist) but not a good anti-hero, and there is a distinct difference.
Some anti-heroes win us over by their wit, Tyler Durden or Patrick Bateman in Bret Easton Ellis's American Psycho to give a couple of examples. But the best anti-heroes we root for because there is something within their character that we can empathize with. They are not entirely cold to the world, but possess a softer edge that makes them more endearing. Tom Ripley has his indelible charm, as does Jay Gatsby. Whilst Alex in Anthony Burgess's A Clockwork Orange is a classical music aficionado, something that sets him apart from the stereotypical thug that he might otherwise have been. I decided that I needed to give my own anti-hero lighter shades too, and so, like Alex, Heiden is also a lover of classical music. In fact he is a talented cellist, having played in an orchestra in pre-war Berlin and that provides him with a softer side that otherwise might not have been there. It gives him an extra layer and depth that in some ways offsets the crimes he has committed during the war and like Alex, Tom Ripley or Tyler Durden before him, hopefully makes him more appealing.
He also possesses another quality, however, that many of the anti-heroes I have loved also share: something inherently tragic about them that will explain how they think and behave. Shylock in Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice will go to almost any length to have his pound of flesh but only because Antonio has mocked and slurred him for so long in what, by today's standards, we would call racial harassment. Lady Macbeth, one of our greatest anti-heroines, drives her husband to commit murder in order to secure the crown, and is herself driven by her own hard-hearted ambition, and yet it is the perils of her ensuing guilt which lead to her eventually taking her own life and ultimately proves that she is not a cardboard cut-out villain at all but, in fact, much more human than that, a victim of her own undoing. We might not like her reasoning but we certainly understand it. I began to realize that it is this justification that is required to create a believable anti-hero, something that gives weight and purpose to their actions. We might not like what they do but we need to believe and understand the motives that drive them. Nick Carraway in F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby says of Jay Gatsby: "I couldn't forgive him or like him, but I saw that what he had done was, to him, entirely justified." It is this that makes Jay Gatsby so tragic. Like Nick we see the error of Gatsby's ways but can do nothing about it.
Anti-heroes therefore possess a complexity that we can all relate to, even characters such as Tolkien's Gollum who has few redeeming qualities but exemplifies the inner struggle that we all go through on a daily basis between being good or bad. I wonder then if it is this that is the key element that appeals to us, that lures us back to the anti-hero again and again and makes them so perennially fascinating. They are not perfect. Far from it. They lie, cheat, are selfish and cruel. They have characteristics that we ourselves are all capable of, because they are human. They do things that our own moral compass – I hope – would not allow us to do, but that we understand. Why? Because we see a bit of ourselves in them. Because we empathize. We ourselves are all flawed. We, like them, are complex. We may well all want to be the hero, but – let's be honest – in reality we are all far more human than that.