Understanding Characters: The Anti-Hero

Warning there will be scattered spoilers as I discuss the various aspects of the anti-hero using examples.  The anti-hero is one of the more common characters you will see in a lot of action series.  They showcase a much darker side of the world than the more hope-filled stories traditionally displayed by heroes.  That kind of contrast and nuance in a setting and story is a good thing, however I have one overwhelming complaint directed towards anti-heroes, too many of them follow the same path or make the same mistakes.  The biggest weakness of any individual anti-hero is that they generally restrict themselves too much by being defined by their need for revenge, like Kurapika or Sasuke, or they go so far in the name of their cause they end up looking more like villains than the actual villains, like Lelouch or Light.  I’m not saying these guys aren’t compelling or can’t be interesting, but especially in the revenge case it can make the character a bit too one note.

In general I just find anti-heroes to be less interesting and compelling even though their point in the story should be to make it more interesting and compelling.  Take Kurapika, once upon a time I liked him, he was a good character who tried to balance his need for revenge with his natural disposition as a generally good guy.  But by the end of HunterxHunter 2011, Kurapika is brooding asshole who lacks the basic humanity and courtesy to visit Gon who is one the edge of death.  What the fuck happened there?  Kurapika was good precisely because he wasn’t one note but had to find a balance between a couple aspects of his personality, now he’s one note and I can’t be less interested in him anymore.  He’s a dull, brooding dude in the midst of show full of life and color, even the villains of the show make themselves more interesting than Kurapika.  Likewise Sasuke could have been a great and compelling character if he struggled more with trying to resist Itachi’s taunts and advice versus his need to get stronger.  If Sasuke had stayed in Konoha for most of the story and watched as Naruto outstripped him for a longer period of time, then the bitter brooding bastard that is Sasuke would have been more believable, more interesting and a character I could get behind on some level. Instead he runs from Konoha at the first hint that Naruto might outclass him and becomes a brooding bitter bastard out his own twisted sense of superiority and stubbornness I guess.

The other big problem I have is more applicable to Light and Lelouch.  These two go too far and while that makes them tragic and compelling it also makes a bit too one note.  In later episodes of both Death Note and Code Geass the defining the goal almost seems to be how far their next strategy goes, how much further they make themselves fall.  And I find that a lot less compelling than their initial fall.  Lelouch does a better job than Light because he has moments where he freaks out after killing a relative or accidentally getting one of his friends’ realtives caught up in the conflict.  But towards the end even he stops caring and his ensuing stratagems, while still brilliant are without exception more fucked up than what came before.  This bothers me because realistically I can see the case for someone who just keeps falling further and further but a more compelling character is one who goes back and forth.  An anti-hero who suffers from doubt and trauma for the things they did during their tragic mistake, and continually struggles with the need to go further to win versus the cost of going further will always be a thousand times more compelling than the guy who just falls and falls and falls.  And the weird thing is that these two archetypes I have described are so prevalent when there is another type of anti-hero that I have found to be much better.

I’m talking about the regretful anti-hero, someone who went too far and knows what they did and rather than keep falling, chooses to turn their life around.  These kinds of characters seek atonement instead of revenge, seek to expunge their crimes rather than add to them and I find these kinds of characters to be infinitely more nuanced and compelling than revenge seekers and extremists.  A good example of this type of character is Akame from Akame ga Kill.  She is at the center of some silly gags especially with regards to her gluttony, but work your way past that and there is really something to her.  Where the revenge seeker and the extremist project instability and a  lack of control, Akame appears unwavering, resolute and graceful by comparison.  She does not shy away from the evils she once committed but she does what she can to make up for them.  It gives her a bit more depth, and it allows for different kinds of interactions.  Whereas revenge seekers and extremists are have their dialogue limited to “I’ll kill you”s and “out of my way”s (Korosuzou and Jama da in Japanese), Akame has a lot more options available.  For example one of my favorite scenes in Akame ga Kill is when Akame fights Bols and they stop the fight so that Bols can ask Akame why she betrayed the Empire, and after Akame answers Bols accepts it without recrimination.  This is not something you get to see very often unless the characters are mature, and that’s one of the strengths of the atonement seeker, they are more mature than other kinds of anti-heroes and their character is more interesting because of that.  To me the atonement seeker will almost always be the most compelling anti-hero and the most powerful one as well.  The kind of strength of character it takes to admit major mistakes and then set about fixing them is so much interesting than someone who drives themselves into a corner because they demand power without having strength the strength to use it properly or even understanding what strength really is.  The atonement seeker is solid and graceful and I really wish it was a more common type anti-hero.  Anyway that wraps this one up, hopefully you all enjoyed it and I’ll see you in the next one.

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