- Between the hero and the villain lies the anti-hero.
- The anti-hero is a protagonist who is not a hero.
- Flashman was a successful anti-hero, if only because he was unapologetic about his villainy.
- Many villains would become anti-heroes if their stories were told from their perspective.
Last week, Toby Jones’s podcast on the fictional Villain in Six Chapters inspired me to pontificate on villainy. Today, I’m looking at the grey area between heroism and villany where the anti-hero is free to lurk. Jones and his guests get there at around 37:15 into the podcast.
We need to define the anti-hero before we can discuss it, and the podcast does so in the most fool proof way possible: they refer to the Oxford English Dictionary:
A central character in a story, film, or drama who lacks conventional heroic attributes.
So what does that mean in practice? As you’re here, I presume you’re interested in my interpretation, so here we go.
By central character, we can only be talking about a protagonist. The sanguineous Count Dracula doesn’t qualify. He is central in the sense that all the other characters are reacting to him, but we’re given very little insight into what goes on in his mind. All we know is that he plans to trap London in the thrall of a vaguely defined evil, while helping himself to some wholesome English maidenhead when he has a spare moment. He is more a force than a character.Jones’s guests use the example of Tony Soprano, the mafia boss played by James Gandolfini in The Sopranos. Tony orders beatings and murders and has a rather warped sense of justice. He is not a man that many of us would aspire to be, yet we can understand why he makes the choices he makes. He is a protagonist in a way that Dracula is not. Jones and his guests credit Tony with pioneering a host of anti-heroes on TV.
While he is violent and may appear amoral at times, he does not lack every possible heroic attribute. He has a measure of courage and he cares about his family. He still qualifies because the definition does not state that the anti-hero can have no heroic or admirable attributes at all. If he’s only missing a few of them, he still qualifies, especially as they’re balanced with attributes that are downright villainous.
Is it possible to have a successful anti-hero who lack any heroic or noble attributes at all? If a protagonist opens a novel by introducing himself as ‘a scoundrel, a liar, a cheat, a thief, a coward – and, oh yes, a toady’, and then spends the rest of the novel confirming his own assessment, will anyone care about him enough to finish it?
That description appears in the opening paragraphs of Flashman, in which the eponymous character did exactly that and continued to do so through eleven novels set across theVictorian era, then reappeared as a secondary character in Mr American. Author George MacDonald Fraser left Flashman demanding entry to Buckingham Palace as it contained the only toilet he could get to while his carriage was hemmed in by crowds celebrating the outbreak of the First World War.
Flashman is as successful an anti-hero as has ever been printed on to the page, in spite of acting like a villain most of the time. He’s no lovable rogue, but a man who thinks nothing of sending a man to his death to protect his own reputation and the less said about his treatment of women, the better.
Yet loved he is by generations of readers. If it’s possible for such a varlet to become a successful protagonist, it’s worth taking a moment to ask why. The ultimate source of Flashman’s popularity lies in George MacDonald Fraser’s authorship, but we can learn a few things from his technique.
A matter of perspective
The light tone has a lot to do with it: it’s easier to forgive Flashman his sins when we’re continually reminded that they are fictional and not to be taken too seriously. Weightier prose would remind us that if we met Flashman at a party, we’d probably punch him on the nose after five minutes, especially once we realised he’s too much of a coward to hit us back.
It’s hard to see that Flashman would have worked if Fraser hadn’t written it in the first person. For one thing, it allows Flashman to be disarmingly honest about his motivations. He never whines or tries to justify himself. He is as honest about his pursuit of survival, comfort and lechery as he is in his disregard of common decency.
In the podcast, actor Emily Raymond suggests another reason why we may find ourselves cheering villainy: the difference between a villain and an anti-hero is a matter of perspective. Raymond was cast in a stage version of Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca, playing Mrs Danvers, the housekeeper from hell. In the novel, Mrs Danvers torments the unnamed narrator, who she sees as an intruder who has taken the place of the deceased Rebecca.
Raymond found that to don the skin of Mrs Danvers, she had to understand how she came to loathe the woman who has taken Rebecca’s place in the household. In an interview with a local newspaper:
Mrs Danvers does not think she is nasty. She thinks she is misunderstood. You have to go back to what she has been through. She is in deep, deep grief for Rebecca. She has lost a woman who was the centre of her life.
Viewing Rebecca from Mrs Danvers’s perspective does not make her a hero. If Mrs Danvers were endowed with conventional heroic attributes, her grief would not make her vindictive toward the second Mrs De Winter who did not even meet Mr De Winter until after Rebecca’s death.
Professor van Helsing vs Walter White
Raymond may not make her character a hero, but she show us Mrs Danvers as an anti-hero rather than a villain. In Mrs Danvers’s mind, she is not hounding an innocent woman but ousting an usurper. As Raymond puts it, Mrs Danvers has a lot in common with Hamlet: she has his anger and his grief, but she’s better at making the decision to do something about it.Raymond’s process of understanding Mrs Danvers illustrates another point, which is that anti-heroes tend to need a little more explanation than heroes, if only because they tend to be more complex characters. The courage, honour and loyalty of the heroes of Dracula need little explanation, if only because they are not particularly complex characters.
Speaking of his character Walter White of Breaking Bad, a TV anti-hero in the mould of Tony Soprano, actor Bryan Cranston descried how his own anti-hero became an anti-hero in the first place:
When people are in deep depression, there are two basic ways it manifests; either externally or internally. Externally: that son-of-a-bitch boss, he screwed me otherwise my life would be completely different. Ready to fight, ready to blame my ex-wife or this jackass over here, you know. Or it’s me. I missed it, I go into a shell.
And that was Walter White.
Nobody would have cared about Walter White if he’d just fallen out of bed one day and decided it might be fun to cook some meth. Even Flashman devotes a page or two to explaining his motivations, if only to make it clear that they’re as base as they appear to be.
Yet three years shy of Flashman’s 50th anniversary, he still flies off bookshop shelves with the same alacrity with which he fled every battle he found himself embroiled in from Jalalabad to Isandlwana.