Anti-heroes, Anti-heroines, and the Sympathy Factor
Isobel had a great post a few weeks ago about anti-heroes. The fascinating follow-up discussion on Isobel’s post took me back to a question I've pondered in the past. What exactly makes an anti-hero or anti-heroine? Is it the behavior or the motives?
I’ve heard the term anti-hero used to encompass a range of characters. There’s the Talented Mr. Ripley, who commits murder for his own advancement. There’s Don Draper, who has principles of a sort and is remarkably loyal to some of the people in his life, but seems to have no concept of romantic fidelity–(or at least no ability to be faithful. (One of the things I love about Mad Men is how all the characters are flawed and yet all of them have sympathetic moments.) Francis Crawford of Lymond does all sorts of seemingly horrible things, and yet he inevitably proves to have done so for the noblest of motives. Is he an anti-hero? Or is an anti-hero someone who acts out of selfish motives and doesn’t have a core of principles? Both Han Solo and Rick Blaine claim to only be out for themselves fairly early in their respective stories. And yet neither of them does anything remotely approaching Lymond’s actions (burning his mother’s castle, being responsible for the death of his son).
Isobel described Lady Barbara Childe in Georgette Heyer’s An Infamous Army as “a benchmark anti-heroine.” Lady Barbara’s behavior is certainly destructive and causes pain to a number of people. On the other hand, I don’t think she does anything as morally questionable as my character Mélanie Fraser (entering a marriage on false pretenses, lying to her spouse for years, being responsible for deaths because of information she passed along). But Mélanie is acting out of loyalty to a cause and comrades, whereas Barbara’s behavior is driven by being discontented and unhappy. Does that make one more an anti-heroine than the other?
And, as Isobel asked, what makes an anti-hero/ine redeemable or not? I've also been pondering the question of what makes a character sympathetic (and blogged about it recently one my own website). My book The Mask of Night has a secondary couple who's marriage is in crisis. I had a number of comments from readers who were very sympathetic to Isobel, the wife, and disliked Oliver, the husband. Which surprised me, because while I was quite sympathetic to Isobel as I planned the book, when I actually wrote it, I had a hard time with her. I’m not sure what it was precisely. But though I felt sorry for her, it was though her coolness held me at a distance as wel. I often found myself sympathizing more with Oliver. Perhaps because he’s an outsider? Mostly, though, I felt sorry for both Bel and Oliver and the way their marriage eroded. In any case, I was intrigued and quite relieved by the reaction of these readers to Bel, because it means that even if I had trouble sympathizing with her myself, she didn’t come across as unsympathetic the way I wrote her.
Princess Tatiana in Vienna Waltz (who would certainly be an anti-heroine if she was the protagonist of a book) was something of the opposite case. I didn’t particularly sympathize with her when I plotted the book, yet I found myself sympathizing with her more and more as I wrote it and saw sides of her beyond the schemer. I also found myself quite sympathetic to Talleyrand, despite the fact that he was a schemer par excellence, with questionable motives both in the novel and in the historical record..
I recently got revision notes from my editor on my Waterloo book, Imperial Scandal. There’s one action of the heroine's my editor suggested I take out, because she’s afraid it goes too far and could destroy reader sympathy for her. I confess I was worried myself that that scene pushed the envelope too far. I’m glad I got to write it the way I did (and that’s the way it happens in my mind), but I don’t mind changing it in the revisions. It might be a scene that tilts the heroine into anti-heroine territory. Though it's difficult for me to judge, as I still can't define what that territory is :-).
What makes a character sympathetic to you? What makes a character lose your sympathy? Are their anti-heroes or anti-heroines for whom you've felt more sympathy than more conventional heroes and heroines? How do you define anti-heroes and anti-heroines? Is it their actions or their motivation or both? What are some of your favorite examples? What does it take for you for such a character to be redeemed?