A guest post by Steven Ramirez
My zombie novel, Tell Me When I’m Dead, has been out a while. Overall, it has received good reviews. But when you read them, you begin to understand how readers react to antiheroes. They get mad. Why? Because antiheroes don’t behave the way you think they should. They have no superpowers and they are not noble. In fact, sometimes they are downright horrible.
Here are some recent examples from the movies
Tony Stark is a jerk. It’s maddening how in love with himself he is. Yet he often does heroic things, despite his personality defects. And guess what—we can’t stop watching him.
Bruce Wayne is borderline psycho, in my opinion. But, despite the tragic murder of his parents when he was a child, he strives to do heroic things. We want to be Batman.
James Tiberius Kirk is a piece of work. Annoying and self-absorbed? Yes. Fearless? Yep. He’s impetuous, has a mean temper, and doesn’t suffer fools. Yet he too does heroic things, and his sense of friendship and loyalty run deep.
Now, let’s try a literary example.
Dan Torrance bleeds imperfection. The way King has written him, he is a self-destructive drunk who, haunted by his “talent” for seeing things you really shouldn’t, struggles to make it through another day without hurting too many people—including himself. Yet, by the end of the book, Dan is a hero.
Stephen King has written a lot of antiheroes in his time. I believe it’s the main reason he has such a following. These characters are real, people. And we can’t help but identify with them.
Creating the Antihero
Which brings me back to the antihero. I’ve always been drawn to this type of protagonist in my stories. Maybe it’s because I’m so flawed—who knows. Anyway, when I created Dave Pulaski for Tell Me When I’m Dead, I wanted someone who would experience a real arc. Let’s face it, I took a helluva chance.
In screenwriting, they warn you to always make sure that the protagonist is likeable. Typically, you establish this at the beginning with a “pet-the-dog” beat. When the movie opens, the main character—no matter what kind of schmuck he is, does something nice. He gives a hungry kid his ice cream cone, maybe mumbling to himself that he doesn’t really like strawberry anyway. Or he foils a purse-snatching. Or, yes, he pets a dog.
Well, I really didn’t go that way. Dave is not a despicable person, but he’s got some real problems. I won’t reveal any spoilers here but you’ll see what I mean, should you read the book. And in rereading those reviews I found that, as a result of my choices, lots of people didn’t really like Dave at first. But, God bless them, they stuck with the book. I like to think that by the end they were rewarded with a character who figures it out and does the right thing.
A friend of mine started to read my book. When he saw the kinds of mistakes Dave was making in the beginning, he became disgusted and stopped reading. I didn’t hold it against him, though. Readers react honestly from their gut. If I had it to do over again, I would still write Dave exactly the same way.
Now, if you haven’t written a character like the ones I mentioned, be careful. They cannot be without any redeeming qualities. If they are, then all you’ve done is to create a detestable character that no one wants to follow. (Are you listening, Bad Lieutenant?)
Of course, there are always exceptions. One that comes to mind immediately is A Christmas Carol. Ebenezer Scrooge had nothing to recommend him. He isn’t charming, nor does he have good looks. He is a miserly old poop who loves money and hates everyone—including himself.
Then why do we follow him? I think it’s because we want to see him get his. Jacob Marley scaring the crap out of him? Great! The Ghosts of Christmases Past, Present and Yet to Come? Bring it on! Fry the bastard so we can have the pleasure of seeing him destroyed in the end.
But guess what. Dickens gave him a doozy of an arc. And he threw in the guy’s miserable childhood and loss of his beloved sister Fan in the bargain. You actually end up feeling sorry for him. Damn you, Dickens! Somewhere along the line, you don’t want to see him destroyed. You want him to be saved. And Dickens is happy to oblige, after having manipulated us until we are giddy with love and forgiveness.
Scrooge becomes a hero when he makes up with his nephew Fred and vows to look after Bob Cratchit and his family—especially Tiny Tim. And he becomes a role model for how Christmas should be observed every day of the year. But don’t forget, he wasn’t always heroic.
The Dude has loser written all over him. As played by the incomparable Jeff Bridges, he is funny, insightful and resilient. And he knows how to survive with no money, wearing a cheap bathrobe and sucking down White Russians. Laid back as he is, though, he ends up solving a mystery that involves a fair amount of danger. What’s great about this character is that he remains an antihero to the end, having done one heroic thing.
There probably isn’t a more unsavory character than Jack ( Jeff Bridges again). He is a mean, egotistical talk radio host who spews venom with every on-air affront. When one of his longtime listeners goes berserk and kills a bunch of people in a restaurant—purportedly at Jack’s suggestion, Jack has a huge meltdown.
As impossible as it seems, the screenwriter, Richard LaGravenese, takes Jack from attempted suicide to redemption. It’s a brilliant film.
Ron Burgundy is an idiot. But, thanks to Will Ferrell’s inspired performance, he is loveable. And, though not a person you’d think of as having any kind of depth, he plays a mean jazz flute. Oh, and he loves his dog.
Though we dislike Ron in the beginning for his self-absorption and antediluvian attitudes concerning women, he does end up rising to the occasion, saving Veronica Corningstone, and even winning the admiration of his worst enemy, Wes Mantooth.
Don’t Write Heroes
That’s my advice and I’m sticking to it. And by that I mean, don’t write characters who don’t ring true. Write about real people with real problems.
Your characters don’t have to be slobs or drunks or violent, but they should be nuanced and flawed. The arc happens when, in spite of their shortcomings, they do something great. Read Gilgamesh sometime. That guy has problems. But when a hero is needed, he rises to the occasion.
About the Author
Steven Ramirez is an author and screenwriter, with one produced feature film. He lives in Los Angeles with his family and a Shih Tzu who insists that bananas are a major food group. Steven enjoys Mike and Ikes with his Iced Caffè Americano, doesn’t sleep on planes, and wishes Europe were closer.
Steven’s website and blog can be found at http://stevenramirez.com/.
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