The hero and the anti-hero.
Back in 2007 a literary agent I was following on Twitter (or was it 2008?) recommended a guest blog post about epic fantasy by some upcoming fantasy author I’ve never heard of and thankfully have since forgotten. He went on and on how Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings did not stand up to the test of time because the works did not hold true to a “grey reality” (or some such words to that effect) and how a happy ending was a false reflection on human nature. Then he plugged his own book with promises of gritty realism and an appropriate ending drowning in a powerful literary message of how fucked in the head we all are.
And I finished the article thinking: this is what happens when emos can wordsmith.
The absurdity of the author’s claim was beyond comment worthy. I laughed. I laughed out loud. A happy ending? To The Lord of the Rings? Really? The ending where Frodo basically realizes he is spent, dead inside, done, finished and basically dies and goes to heaven? Did he think the ending was a simple boat ride into the sunset? How obvious does subtext need to be for this dude? Didn’t the Shire burn not-so-metaphorically in the last book? Yes. The Lord of the Rings. Puppies and Rainbow’s folks! Kittens and Sunshine!
What a dork.
That literary agent, like many who represented science fiction and fantasy, crashed and burned. On one hand, she had a fine appreciation for storytelling which I shared. On the other, her quest for pretentious message fiction, in the end, bit her on the ass. It was like watching a train wreck.
Back to The Lord of the Rings and poor Frodo. I always had a soft spot for his plight and I loved Tolkien’s message where even the smallest of us can persevere against evil and strife, even when the cost of such goes beyond one’s life. Frodo’s quest chewed him up and spit him out. What was left was a certain apathy, a certain grey, he could no longer cope with, hence the so-very-not happy ending to his story.
Frodo was a hero and an amazing character in a trilogy filled with amazing characters.
Let’s take the delicious anti-hero Dexter Morgan from the Showtime series and the wonderful books by Jeff Lindsay. Dexter is a bad man, but we wind up rooting for him anyway. He is, almost beyond reason, a sympathetic character.
Dexter is an amazing character and practically defines antihero.
If we step away from the grim and morbid, another favorite antihero is Han Solo from the first three Star Wars movies. Shooting Greedo first, his freelancer attitude, his disdain for authority figures, trying to plug Darth Vader during dinner–all of those actions were endearing. Han was a scoundrel, but the movie made it clear he was our scoundrel. Quite the antihero indeed.
The false literary promise of grey is an author’s attempt to show us a negative slice of the human condition. Only, this provocation derives from the (thoroughly) elitist and false assumption readers need to be taught “grey.” In order to show the world is (gasp!) complex and (gasp!) interconnected, a sympathetic antihero is born. The author weaves in a pessimistic theme. Heroic and righteous behavior results in a futile death, or worse. Blend your viewpoint, dear reader because the real world is grey, don’t ya know.
Only, those authors’ worlds are not grey at all because the author fails to understand the ambiguous nature of morality. Those characters are not grey. Most of them are simply douche-bags of the highest order. And readers already understand this world. This is the world we live in. The world is filled with kind people, but a reader also encounters douche-baggery from an early age. Grey is everywhere. We get it.
Mandy Pietruszewski in her outstanding article “Moral Ambiguity in Percy Jackson and the Olympians” highlights complex characterization. Luke from the wonderful Percy Jackson books by Rick Riordan, is a true grey character. His motivations are not that he’s a d-bag. He is a tragic character with a heightened sense of right and wrong and he is less of a villain and more of an antagonist. Indeed, the only thing making Luke a bad guy is his behavior. He does some bad things to people who did not deserve it, and thus in his quest for justice and acceptance he becomes a tragic figure because in his campaign for choice, he removes the very thing he holds dear from people who deserved better from him.
That is a worthy “grey” character! He is both the hero and the antihero. The takeaway from Luke is legion and truly is a study in the human condition rather tan a descent in asshole or bitch.
Time and culture will not be kind to the false literary promise of grey. Some of these works are wildly popular, but I believe their popularity will fade. A reader wants the true hero and the antihero, not because he or she has a simplistic outlook in life and doesn’t understand moral ambiguity, but because the world we live in as readers is grey, and the escape and identification with the hero or antihero can be more real than the grey clouds spitting rain.
There is no cure for the human condition. But the human condition can be a wonderful thing, warts and all.
The false literary promise of grey is elitist self-justification.