Panel report: Antiheroism Defined

This Wiscon panel was held at 4:00 on Friday, early in the con. I personally felt fresh and rested, and also totally unprepared, both at the same time.

The room, when I got there, wasn’t set up yet for panels. Me being me, I started setting up all the chairs.

The Mod was Victoria Janssen, with panelists Rosemary, Lesley Hall, Chris Hill, and Kelly Sue DeConnick. (I didn’t always attribute remarks in my notes.)

From the outset, I disputed some of the assumptions of the discussion. Heroes were labelled unflawed, antiheroes flawed. Antiheroes were described as easier to identify with, heroes more difficult or distant. Antiheroes were described as the ones who get to be snarky and witty, heroes not so much.

As the panel progressed it became clear that these were a, a gloss, not the actually deeply-held premises of the panel. Whew.

Antiheroes, it was discussed, break the social compact. They are transgressive. Think Anya of Buffy the Vampire Slayer — she doesn’t know the social rules, and largely has no interest whatosever in following them. She’s not breaking them to make some sort of point, she just can’t be bothered.

This led into a line of thought that I like — antiheroes are largely orthogonal to heroes and villains. Antiheroes are the characters who simply have different goals than heroes.

The example used for a great deal of this part of the discussion was Rick from Casablanca. Rick is selfish. That is his motivation — Rick looks out for Rick and Rick’s Stuff. He performs action in the films that might be mistaken for heroism. But they are not in service of justice, or right, or good. They are in service of being left alone to continue on as he wants. Towards the end, when he gets involved with larger issues, it’s for entirely personal reasons. He never supports the cause.

The Sliding Scale of Anti-Heroes from TV Tropes was brought up. If one is looking to define individual characters on a Villain-Antihero-Hero scale, TV Tropes really has that entire conversation wrapped up. There’s not much to add to it, unless you want to go join TV Tropes and fall down the rabbit hole. The panel discussion, therefore, didn’t much go in that direction. (I highly recommend the TV Tropes conversation. But give yourself a few hours to explore it all.)

At some point it became clear that the panel was using two very different definitions of antiheroism at the same time. The first was the orthogonal antihero — the self-interested or selfish character who does good as a side effect of what they actually want. The second was the character who has good in mind as the end goal all along, but commits bad acts to get there. I pointed this out, everyone kinda nodded and agreed that, yes, those are two valid definitions.

I think writers and editors should be aware of this in their antiheroes, and know what sort they intend to be using when they are contemplating a work.

I asked what the difference was between an antihero and a hero on a redemption arc. When we meet Malcolm Reynolds in Firefly, he once was a hero. By the end of the extant stories, he’s a hero again. But at the time we meet him? Not so much. This, to me, is very different from a true antihero. Mal is pretending to be an antihero, or even a villain, because he’s so hurt and angry about what happened the first time. No-one had a really strong answer, but the intial thought was that the difference is in how they develop as a character.

A final note, near the end of the time, was that the Heist Genre is populated almost solely by antiheroes. If they are your cup of tea, that’s where to look.

7 Responses

  1. You know, that strikes me as an uttlerly bizarre reading of ‘Casablanca.’ Unless that’s meant to be Louis, not Rick? Louis to me is the antihero; Rick is a hero at a low point who poses as selfish, much like you say about Mal. . .. Sam Spade is an antihero (and should totally team up with Louis) but Rick’s ‘I stick my neck out for no man’ always seems to me to come with a giant ‘wink wink’ to the audience.

  2. What about antiheroes who do selfish things with no sense of good? I’m thinking of examples like the Parker series — Parker is an underworld heist-guy, totally in it for himself, and completely violent. We root for him because the people he fights are trying to screw him over, but he doesn’t seem to have any “heart of gold” tendencies.

  3. Somehow, I’ve always thought of an anti-hero as a protagonist who is pointedly not just non-heroic, but an-heroic, like Flashman ( Flashman isn’t a good guy and doesn’t want to be a good guy. He’s not blatantly evil, but he’s ultimately selfish. He ends up doing or seeming to do good things by accident, and is acclaimed as a hero despite never having done anything out of any motivation other than his own safety or his own profit.

    I read the Flashman books in my, oh, early teens, I think? I enjoyed them, but I couldn’t read very many in a row — they leave a sort of bitter and cynical taste in my mouth. :/

  4. I think there’s a LOT of noodling around to be done with defining specific characters as different types of anti-heroes! Flashman and Parker were both mentioned as examples during the panel, if memory serves.

  5. Thank you for this writeup! I remember when you brought up the contrasting definitions and we were sort of running out of time then, but I’d wanted to point out that yea, the anti-hero definition is broad enough to contain contrasting definitions – hence the sliding scale…

    And to commenter Caroline, I had trouble with some of the discussion of Rick for similar reasons. Some people were talking about him as basically self-interested and only doing good insofar as it helped the woman he loved, and my memory (haven’t seen the movie in a few years) was that he was kinda secretly doing good all along but was sort of grumpy about it – which fits one of the definitions of anti-hero that we were using, but not the one that my fellow panelists were using.

  6. Thanks so much for the writeup. (I found it via Rosemary.) My main takeaway from the panel is that we need to have a similar panel next year, working off the best ideas from this one.

    I had hoped not to spend the entire panel arguing definitions, but as the panel went, I realized a definition of some kind would have been helpful. Maybe next year a definition in the panel description would work.

  7. @ Rosemary @Victoria Thank you both for the panel, it was lovely! I do think there’s room for another such panel next year.

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