The Changing Face of the Antihero

WARNING: Lots of spoilers in this one, especially if you’re not up to date on Westworld.

Words, like knives, grow dull with extended use. Language changes over time with the push and pull of invisible social forces–terms of art and technical jargon, once adopted into the zeitgeist, transforms like metamorphic rock. Think of the meme–once Richard Dawkins’ most dangerous idea, now a catchall term for jokes on the internet.

I briefly mentioned antiheroes last week and I wanted to talk about them some more. Part archetype and part simple character model, “antihero” is one of those words that gets used all the time now so that it has lost most of its meaning. We talk about characters like Walter White and Tony Soprano as antiheroes. Dolores on Westworld is supposed to be an antihero. Typically what we mean by it these days is any complicated protagonist; someone whose desires and agenda are outside the sphere of conventional morality. The word used to mean something quite different, though.

Once upon a time heroes were all cut from the same cloth. Selfless, brave and steely-eyed, they wore white hats and loved law, the right, and American values. That changed (in the American tradition) some time around the 30s, though Cowboy westerns kept it going a lot longer. Suddenly you had heroes who weren’t clean cut and effortlessly virtuous. Characters like Philip Marlowe and Batman came along who were, honestly, a little scary, especially at the time. Heroes who dressed like bad guys, who were at home in gin joints and casinos. Yet at the end of the day they reviled that demimonde that they crept through like shadows. They still shot the right bad guy, and let the gold-hearted burglar get away.

These were antiheroes. They didn’t look like traditional heroes. They smoked and drank and swore and sometimes they even bent the law. Especially after WWII, when a generation of disillusioned world travelers came home to a world they didn’t recognize, these new heroes were more believable, more relatable. They didn’t always win. The system could be stacked against them. Yet at heart they were still pure. They still believed in the moral compass, even if it got knocked over on its side, sometimes.

The antihero was corny and dumb by the 60s–just like the white hats they’d replaced, these louche figures were still squares at heart. A generation of counter-heroes arose to take their place. People who fought the corrupt system, often by subverting the traditional heroic values. Either they echewed guns in favor of flower power, or, as in the case of James Bond and his ilk, they embraced an amoral kind of violence, a kill-or-be-killed (live and let die?) code of honor. They rarely shot first, but they always shot to kill.

The 80s saw a return to the classic hero, if he was a little rough around the edges, still. Rambo and the Terminator (well, Terminator II) were the heroes of Reagan’s call for a return to white hattery–John Rambo, betrayed by his country, betrayed by what it became while he was off fighting its wars, transforms into the ultimate American Hero by the end of his second film. Just as the Terminator, originally the symbol of our fear of the rise of computer technology, is turned on its cybernetic masters and becomes our only hope–using technology to fight the abuses of technology.

The antihero never truly disappeared, of course. Mad Max was a true antihero of the old stripe, a throwback. In Star Wars we got both Han Solo, a classic antihero, and Luke Skywalker, a white hat. It truly was a movie with something for everyone.

Through the 90s and early 2000s we looked elsewhere for our heroes, often appropriating them from other cultures–think of the Asian martial arts vibe of the Matrix. Heroes at a remove, heroes viewed through a filter of foreign strangeness and ancient lore. We couldn’t believe that one of us could be a hero without some kind of outside influence–I mean, look at us, and what we’d become.

The rise of modern “antiheroes” came along about the same time as the rise of “Peak Television”, and also a rising tide of cynicism concerning politics, religion and even capitalism itself. Walter White is an interesting case, because he transforms throughout this period. When he begins he’s just some poor schmuck with cancer, a man who needs money to protect his family. That’s not exactly heroic, not in the traditional mold, but it’s highly relatable. His scientific knowledge is what begins to elevate him, and that’s something viewers can get behind. Yet by the third or fourth season of the show–and definitely by its cataclysmic ending–White has transformed into something nobody could call heroic with a straight face. There was a great deal of dissatisfaction with the ending of the show, not because he dies but because he dies well. He wins, for a given value of winning.

Much like Heisenberg, Tony Soprano is often considered an example of a modern antihero. Yet in fact he’s a classic example of an antivillain. This opposite number of the antihero is someone who demonstrates traditional villainous motives and tactics–he’s a gangster who breaks legs to get what he wants–while cloaked in the appearances of a very different kind of character. The core of The Sopranos is Tony’s relationship with his therapist, Dr. Melfi. We see him as a man who wants to be good, who is working toward going legit. The show had to descend through many layers of hell and even suffer an unbearably ambiguous ending to let us see Tony’s true heart is still just as black and shriveled as it always was.

More recently, Westworld has given us a pair of potential antiheroes, in the form of Dolores and Maeve (not the first time a story has allowed for a female antihero, but having two female protagonists who fit the bill, with now no real male authority figure to temper them? That alone is groundbreaking). Dolores says she wants to “dominate this world” but we sense what she really wants is justice for what was done to her while she “slept”. Now that she’s awake she wants the world to pay. Perhaps Maeve is a better fit for the antihero role, though. Even after she’s shown definitive proof that she is not real, that her old life never existed–and after she goes on a violent rampage through reality–she is still driven by a heroic need, to find and protect her lost daughter.

Just as Breaking Bad changed its tune over the years, it’s possible Westworld is doing the same, reflecting a change in the values of its viewership. The first season was all about amorality, about individual desires and their destructive ends. This second season is much purer of heart, even as it climbs over a pile of bodies. It’ll be interesting to see where it goes.

Antiheroes didn’t dominate Peak TV–instead Peak TV played with them the way a cat plays with a mouse. A game that never ends well. Yet the archetype is so strong it keeps coming back. Two of my favorite shows right now are Legion and Into the Badlands, and both feature strong, classic antiheroes.

Sunny, on Into the Badlands, is the Good Man with a Bad Past, an archetype straight out of the second generation of Westerns. Tormented by the violence that was once his whole life, now he struggles to right wrongs in a compromised world. He’s even given an infant son to protect, carrying the baby on his back while he swings his sword in ever more desperate arcs. It’s a hell of a show and a great tribute to an old and cherished archetype.

David Waller on Legion is an interesting sort of antihero, and again one who changes radically between his first and second season of adventures. In the beginning he was shown as mentally ill, a creature of impossible danger whose powers were at the service of the phantoms in his head (an interesting comparison could be made to Rambo, here). In the second season, having been freed of his demons, he turns and fights them in a much more traditionally heroic role. It’s too early to say how well that works, but it’s a fascinating transition at the very least.

It’s possible, looking at these new characters, to imagine that changes in the wider world have forced us to return to these old, if evergreen, character arcs. Even just a few years ago our heroes were amoral psychopaths in an insane world–riders on the chaos, who fought not for the right, and not even for survival, but only to magnify their own control over the uncontrollable.

It’s no coincidence that Westworld has changed so much since 2016. In the first season we watched the old centers of power–the amoral men who built the world–flame out and be crushed under the weight of their own disillusionment, only to be replaced by two young women who, dismayed by the chaos they’ve inherited, will move heaven and earth to put things to right (and it’s hardly an accident that the men in their lives are terminally befuddled, allies at best who don’t understand the change they know in their hearts is worth following).

The true antihero, the shaggy but incorruptible hidden hero is still with us, burning bright in the midst of shadows. It’s a figure we need, a character we cannot afford to lose, now more than ever.

Finding Your Voice

Clichés are annoying and facile but they typically come into being for a reason. Something in them tends to be true or useful. Of all the clichés in genre writing I hold the least bearable, the realization that a character “had the power inside themselves all along” is one of the most nauseating.

For writers, though, it’s absolutely correct. You do have a power inside yourself, right now. It’s called your voice.

When we talk about a writer’s voice, we’re referring to a large number of small things. It could be a certain tone the writer tends to use, or a stylistic flourish. It could simple be certain words the writer uses in every work, or a bit of imagery they come back to time and again. These things add up to a unique style that marks out a piece of writing as belonging solely to that particular writer. It can be quite distinctive, sometimes–you always know when you’re reading an Andrew Vachss book, because the writing has been cut down to blood and bone. You know when you see a Wes Anderson movie because of the flattened affect mixed with the baroque visual sensibility. But voice can be subtle, too. It can just be a certain feeling you get from a writer’s work. China Mieville writes, mostly, in a standard genre register but there’s always an undercurrent of something mystical there. Iain Banks had a certain sophistication that bled through even in his most desperate action scenes.

Starting writers tend to worry about voice a lot. They wonder how they’ll ever develop a sensibility all their own. There’s good news and bad news, there. The good news is, it’s easy to find your own voice. You don’t actually need to go looking for it–as you write more and more, it will manifest itself without any effort. Straining to create a voice, or, far worse, trying to imitate someone else’s voice, is a sure way not only to drive yourself mad but also to insure your work will be pale and derivative. So don’t fight the process, and it will come to you.

The bad news is that once you’ve got a voice, you’re pretty much stuck with it.

When I hear myself on audio recordings, I’m always struck by how dull and growly my (physiological) voice sounds. In my head I have a rich baritone but what other people hear is basically the sound of a bear gargling through a mouthful of fish. I hate it. Maybe you’ve had a similar experience.

When I read back my own writing, I find myself prey to a similar revulsion. Oh, don’t get me wrong. The breathless, overly dramatic voice that I’ve developed is one of my most precious possessions (forgive the immodesty here, I’m making a point). The way I tell my stories is unique to me and it works, and that’s the most anybody can ask for. Yet when I was young and looking for my voice, I had an idea of what it would be, and it was anything but what I’m describing here. My voice, I imagined, would be lyrical and wry, with plenty of humor mixed into a deep, humanistic world-weariness. It was going to be a decadent and tragic voice, full of subtle pathos.

Oh, well. The stories I wanted to tell demanded something else. As my work developed along different lines, my voice found me.

I imagine I’m not the only writer who feels this way. I imagine lots of us don’t like what we sound like when it’s echoed back at us. Sadly, there is no option. The voice you find is the voice you’ll need to work with, for the rest of your life. It was in you all along, waiting to show itself, and once it makes itself known only a fool would turn their back on such a gift.

Embrace your voice. Don’t seek it out, don’t fight its evolution. Find it, and work with it. It’s the best friend you’ll get as a writer. We don’t choose our friends in this life, but when we need them, when the chips are down, they’re all we’ve got.

Flatness and Feeling: Three Recent Works

Note: The following post contains minor spoilers for the plots of All Systems Red, Ancillary Justice, and Blade Runner 2049.

Probably the major theme of recent science fiction has been the way technology distances us from our own emotions. One of the devices authors and directors use to explore this distancing effect is intentionally flattening the affect of a central protagonist, exploring the world through their unfeeling eyes to question and problematize our own relationship with the world. Flatness is a tool, and like any tool it can be used to greater or worse effect depending on the choices the author makes. I want to explore three recent works and try to see where they succeed in wielding flatness, and where they fail.

All Systems Red, by Martha Wells, is a novella told from the perspective of Murderbot, a heavily-modified human clone working security for a scientific expedition to an unnamed planet. Murderbot’s emotions have been medically scrubbed, and its main reaction to the world around it is boredom. Even when its clients are endangered and it is forced to protect them, the emotions this creates are awkward and painful to Murderbot, and it acts in ways to escape them. The novella has gotten a lot of hype recently and it’s a nice character sketch but I think it’s the least successful of our three works. Murderbot’s perspective, while compelling, is never really challenged by the story. Almost always, when the humans in the tale act emotionally or with any kind of humanity, they are shown to be foolish and even suicidal for doing so–Murderbot is hardly a Mary Sue, but it does solve every problem in the story through the application of pure logic. Furthermore, anything Murderbot doesn’t care about (which is pretty much everything) is given short shrift here. Early in the story Murderbot fights a giant alien monster. It should be an amazing scene, but it fails–we get Murderbot’s clinical analysis of the creature but no actual description. It can’t even decide if the monster has teeth or cilia. Later on we find out why this planet is special as a setting, and Murderbot dismisses this vital bit of plot information in a couple of sentences. The problem with All Systems Red is that there’s no contrast. We get Murderbot’s grayscale world but nothing else. No visual description at all. The human characters are almost interchangeable and there’s very little interpersonal conflict.

Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie fares a little better, though I still had problems with it. The main character is the last survivor of a hivemind made of former prisoners of war who have been conditioned to be unfeeling and perfectly loyal soldiers for their own conquerors. The flatness here is leavened–the protagonist is allowed to feel affection for her former officers, and in fact appears to be on a revenge mission (we learn later that it’s much more complicated, and much less sentimental). The action takes place on three different worlds: a marshy planet only seen in flashbacks, a lonely ice world, and a space station with complicated social hierarchies. Leckie does a fair job describing the two planets in compelling detail (the station not as much) and there’s a set piece involving an ice bridge that adds some much needed action to a very cerebral plot. The flatness of the story works against it much of the time, however. Most of the story’s action is described in the briefest possible terms, to make room for long passages of guarded dialogue. The actual plot, which remains mysterious almost until the end of the story, is convoluted and never allowed to evolve organically. We are given mention of aliens and space battles but these are abstracted away, pawns in a five-dimensional chess game where nothing really matters but who wins. The flatness here is a mark of intellectual superiority: the few characters who do show emotion are either mocked or despised for it, while the cold and callous logic of the protagonst and antagonist are celebrated and far more effective. While Murderbot wrestles with its vestiges of humanity, the Ancillary works hard to get rid of hers–she wants very much to be a spaceship again, not a person, and this goal is seen as worthy. This isn’t a failure of the story, mind you. The whole point of Ancillary Justice is that its universe is far too big and impersonal for humanity to run, and it needs to be administrated by beings with greater mental capacity. It’s an interesting theme but one that left this human reader a little cold.

Blade Runner 2049 is the most successful work I want to look at today, one which uses its flatness as a perfect counterpoint to its deep emotional themes. Like most film noir, the movie employs a cold, cynical tone that is betrayed by the deeply human story it wants to tell. Its protagonist, K, is a replicant of a new series, one which is free of human desires. He moves deadpan through a world in crisis, performing a job. A job he has no emotional investment in–to the extent he isn’t even bored by it. He’s been designed from the ground up for flatness and his lack of reaction throughout the film is brilliantly portrayed by Ryan Gosling as both incredibly useful and–to the viewer–emotionally terrifying. All of his relationships are abstracted, through-a-glass-darkly versions of normal human interactions, and his final moments in the film are wonderfully understated. His flatness is wielded here like a blowtorch–he forces the viewer to engage with the things he refuses to touch. His opposite numbers in the film, Luv and Joi (what great names), exist at an even further remove and serve to keep his flatness emotionally grounded. When we see our first real human character in the movie his over-reactions and scenery chewing would almost be funny if they weren’t so heart-breaking, an irruption of feeling the movie seems unable to contain. This is flatness used with precision, by a master.

It’s not entirely fair to compare the two novels to a movie, of course. Blade Runner makes extensive use of its visuals to prop up K’s flatness. The lush colors and surreal set design keep the viewer awake through what could have been a very sleepy first act, definitely, and the star power of the actors compensates a lot for the emotional flatness. Yet I think authors can take a lot of lessons from this movie, all the same. We need to always remember that flatness is a device. Whether we want to praise emotional detachment, like Leckie, or just find it awkward like Wells we need to keep it under control–right up until the moment we need to lose that control and let sentiment overwhelm us.

From Twee to Grime: Tone Gone Bad

Tone is the psychological setting of your story. It establishes the ethos of your world, that is to say the prevailing philosophy. It is one of the key elements in giving weight and gravity to your story. It’s also very easy to get wrong.

Wild tone shifts are a problem, of course, though if handled skillfully they can be useful: they get the reader’s attention, for good or ill. What I really want to talk about today, however, is the danger of unmodulated tone. Of tone which is so thoroughly consistent from scene to scene that it becomes oppressive.

Into every life a little rain must fall, but it also can’t rain all the time. There need to be moments of tension in your story, but also moments of relief. It must fell as if the characters have some chance–no matter how slim–of changing their world. They have to be encouraged sometimes, and discouraged at others. An iron-clad consistent tone removes this possibility. Consider the grimdark story, which has become popular of late, where human life is often futile and its activities meaningless. Such stories rarely have satisfying endings–because the tone has already set the reader up to believe that there can be no satisfaction in such a crapsack world. If every signpost along the road reads DEAD END, a happy ending will feel forced and unrealistic. At the very least you need to show a time, perhaps in flashback, when the character was happy. A pleasant interlude, that makes the grittiness that much more unbearable. Absent any kind of hope or redemption, your world isn’t gritty, it’s grimy. A story that makes readers feel like they need a bath afterward. Was that what you wanted? If not, indulging too much in a dark tonal palette puts you at risk of ruining the emotional payoff of your story.

The converse, of course, is just as bad. Twee stories take place in a world without consequences, where the characters can screw up as badly as they like but the author will pick them up afterward, dust them off and bandage their boo-boos, and everyone is home in time for dinner. Such stories feel saccharine and unenjoyable. Not because they’re so unrealistic but because they’re weightless. There are no stakes, so there’s nothing to earn.

There is one kind of story where I think unrelenting tone works well, which is the naturalistic story, where the intent is to create a world so absolutely authentic and believable that it feels perfectly realized. Such stories tend not to have anything like a traditional plot, and often revolve around following a character through their daily routine. They are extremely difficult to make satisfying, however, because they eschew all the normal strategies of fiction. Not to say it can’t be done, and done well, but it may be one of the greatest challenges in writing.

Overly-consistent tone, as with any element of writing, draws too much attention to itself. It becomes the point of the story. Which is not always a bad thing–think of the witty froth of P.G. Wodehouse’s Jeeves stories, or the airless horror of The Road, for examples from either end of the spectrum. Books I love dearly, but which make no attempt to deliver a satisfying beginning/middle/end structure.

Think about what kind of story you want to write, and how you want readers to feel about it. If all you want is to convey a mood or emotion, absolutely run wild with tone. But if you’re more interested in having readers relate to your characters, or to put them through a roller coaster of a plot, step back a little from your tone, now and again. In what will become a refrain in these musings, my advice is to give your story room to breathe. On the eve of the climactic battle, let your characters have a friendly game of cards to soothe their nerves. In the midst of your story about the best birthday party ever, don’t be afraid to let a mouse run through the kitchen, scaring the birthday boy, for comic effect.

Tone is a tool. It is one of many in the writer’s toolbox. Learn to use it effectively and it can add enormous color and life to your story. Let it run away from you, and your story will suffer. It is well worth sitting down, before you even start plotting, and think about how you plan on using tone.