On Anti and Flawed Heroes

by Mike Loader

Following a discussion on KawaiiMuck?, I thought it would be entertaining and useful to air my opinion on two sorts of characters who are often mistaken for each other - the Antihero and the Flawed Hero.

I confess to a certain fondness for both. Why? Well, different reasons for each.

We'll discuss the Antihero first; he's the most common and easily identified in film, anime, and literature. UnS's Kuonji and Rurouni Kenshin's Saitoh are all Antiheroes, with certain ingredients that make them so:

A) A separate moral code. This is one of the important elements of the classic Antihero. They have a very clear 'code' that they cleave to, one that is different from that of society. This code forms the basis for their behavior and their self-opinion; as long as they remain true to it, they don't care what society thinks of them. On the surface this seems to make them better than most villians; I am inclined to think it's merely an elaborate form of self-justification, myself. Regardless, the code is vital to the image of the Antihero, and most of them would rather die than break it.

B) On the side of the Angels, sort of. The Antihero generally works towards the same ultimate goal as the heroes. Saitoh wants to stop Shishio, Kuonji is out to kill off the Heralds. However, unlike the heroes, they are willing to commit evil acts to bring this goal about. The Antihero will happily kill off his 'allies' or innocent bystanders, lie, manipulate, or backstab as long as doing so does not cross their particular moral code.

C) Power and style. The Antihero has to be ready for just about anything, unflappable, capable of setbacks but not of defeat. This is because Antiheroes rely on a flawed 'might makes not only right, but cool' image. An incompetent or flustered Antihero is no longer cool, but pathetic. Kuonji's failure at the close of UnS is one of the triggers that start his change from Antihero to Flawed Hero; it not only proves his methods wrong, but indeed makes his persona dramatically impossible.

D) Secondary role. The Antihero cannot be the protagonist of the story. He lacks the moral depth for it. Very few people would be interested in Rurouni Kenshin if Saitoh was the star of the show - we may admire Saitoh's style, but we do not like him. To be successful, the hero must affirm the morals the audience identifies with, or at the very least not offend them. In a secondary role, the Antihero can actually prop up these morals - nonviolent Kenshin succeeds where ruthless Saitoh fails, Kuonji is ultimately forced to realize that his methods aren't effective or right. By showing the limits of appealing but immoral behavior, even in a 'good' cause, a secondary Antihero can reenforce the strengths of the protagonist. However, he cannot assume the role of protagonist himself.

The Antihero is a lot like a bag of junk food; tasty, but ultimately not very nutritious or satisfying. Our attraction to Saitohs and Kuonjis mostly has to do with their image. What's behind the image is ultimately pretty hollow and unappealing.

The Flawed Hero, while sometimes mistaken for the Antihero, is something quite different. Zelazny's Corwin, F9R's Chloe, Pastpresent's Kiritsubo, and IMBS's Mariko are all examples of the Flawed Hero, and share the following similarities:

A) Societal moral code. Unlike the Antihero, the Flawed Hero does value how their peers see them. They may not care what EVERYONE thinks of them, but all of them have at least a few people whose opinions and respect are important to them. In a similar fashion, they operate largely in the moral code espoused by most of society, with the same definitions of good and evil as 'normal' people.

B) A largely good person. The Flawed Hero tends towards the light in most of their personality. They are typically kind, have strong loyalties towards their friends, and will try to do what they perceive to be the right thing, even if doing so hurts them.

C) Presence of evil. There is generally a severe moral defect in the character. Kiritsubo dealt drugs and hurt people for money, Mariko ignored basic human decency and friendship in an obsession for revenge. This is VERY different from the Antihero's condition. The Antihero is generally an amoral person secure in their own code and unbothered by their own evil. The Flawed Hero is a basically moral person with an immoral aspect, and even though they may cover it up internally, their own evil bothers and pains them. Their fundamental nature rebels against it, but it is kept in place by either weakness, circumstance, upbringing, or their own darker side.

D) Redemption through growth. The Flawed Hero starts the story (or game) at the mercy of their flaw. However, good is ultimately stronger than evil, and this is reflected through the development of the character. Through a mix of hardship, having to make hard choices, self-examination, and the love of friends and companions, the character is able to grow and strengthen their moral development. By the end, they have usually managed to master their flaw; while still present, it is powerless and contained, or at the very least weaker.

E) Acceptable as the protagonist. We may not always be comfortable with the Flawed Hero, and certainly not with all of their actions, but in the end we want to see them win. We have sympathy for them, like them, want to see their better nature prevail. They are a legitimate standardbearer for Good in the story despite their failings.

I am very strongly attracted to the Flawed Hero in my fiction, which includes my online roleplaying. Part of this is because I find perfect characters to be boring. If I always know that Bob will do the right thing, then I have very little interest in following Bob's progress, no matter how many dangers he faces or how many fearsome monsters he fights. This is because to me the true fights are ones of morality, and mere physical combat is a poor substitute. It's too easy for Bob.

A Christian worldview and experience also influences my preference for the Flawed Character. Christianity teaches us that evil is inherent to all of us; no-one can claim to be completely good. Superior to this, however, is the Christian message that we do not have to give in to our own evil, but can, with help, struggle against it - and win. The Flawed Character to me is a microcosm of the true nature of the war between good and evil. This war does not take place between 'Good' men and 'Evil' men, but rather inside the souls of men, period. Seeing a Flawed Hero fight and conquer his or her flaw is, to me, uplifting.

Finally, as a writer I enjoy conflict and drama, and the Flawed Hero offers that in spades. I like a good angst-fest just as much as the next man, at times and in moderation.

Anyway. I hope that this little rant has been instructive or entertaining on some level, or at least helpful to understanding my mindset.