Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Up the anti

When does the anti-hero become too anti? Are there some actions or behaviours that put a would-be hero right out of a job? Or is it all a matter of the author's skill?

This question comes to mind because of a book I finished last week. Part of a series where each book was written by different authors, it was noticeably different from other books I’ve read by this particular writer. In my experience she doesn’t do alpha heros per se, and that came across in this story where the hero ended up a combination of alpha and beta that just didn’t work for me. His alpha actions seemed forced rather than flowing out of the story, and struck me as being there more for the sake of plot than anything.

I know I’ve read books like that before, and who among us hasn’t? I would have put it in the trade-in pile without finishing if I hadn’t wanted to find out if the author could redeem it (and herself) at some point. I definitely didn’t like the hero (I'll call him Hero A), and questioned whether it was just my irritation with the author, or if there was more to it. In this story the hero wasn’t really a classic anti-hero, and his on-again off-again behaviour confused me. For example, he and the heroine had a heavy backstory and now, after ten years apart, she’s working for a relative of his but under the hero’s direction. In one scene they kiss for the first time since being reunited. Although he initiated the kiss, Hero A takes exception to it as part of a seduction plan on her part and tells her she’s fired. He means it. And though he later thinks to himself that he was being a jerk (he was right about that at least!), he doesn’t apologize or do anything about it until his relative finds out and tears a strip off him. You may have guessed that as far as I’m concerned he was the one out of a job, fired from the position of hero in my mind.

Not long ago I had no trouble with a hero (I'll call him Hero B) who deliberately left an inmate in prison in a state of fear from threats issued by said hero during his unsupervised questioning of the inmate after said inmate tried to have the heroine killed. Hero B knew he wasn’t going to follow through, but the inmate didn’t. So I’ve been wondering what it was about Hero A's behaviour that made it unacceptable for me? I didn’t think it could be just his actions, so was I influenced by my opinion of what I considered plot manipulation? Maybe the lack of just cause?

After turning that over in my head for awhile I’ve decided it was lack of “justified” cause (not quite the same as “just”, a very subjective concept). In the first example the behaviour wasn’t justified even in the hero’s mind, yet he did nothing to mitigate it until he was forced to. In the second, the hero believed his actions were completely justified, even if others might not. But that left me wondering again: what wouldn’t be acceptable even if in the hero’s mind it was? Given the arguments that went on in my head, we could be here all year on this one. Ultimately I concluded that for me it would be a combination of my understanding of the motivation behind the anti-heroic behaviour (in the author's control) and the actual behaviour (does it go beyond my personal line in the sand as it were).

So what’s your experience with anti-heroic behaviour in romance either as a reader or a writer? Are there any guidelines out there about absolute no-nos, or is it a matter of the approach taken on a story-by-story basis?

Now, having said all that I have to advise that I'm travelling for the day job today and tomorrow and unable to access the blog. I plan to check back tomorrow night though so if you have any questions you want me to discuss in particular I'll do that then.


Ban said...

Hey Molli - posted along this line last week and got some wonderful responses. how far are you willing to let your hero/heroine go ? obviously we're willing to let the 'villian' do bad things but what about the 'good' guy ? As for me, I believe circumstances play a large part. No one knows what they will do in a situation 'till they find themself in it. That said, one will almost always be true to their nature. As a writer I believe we can allow our characters to do 'bad' things, so long as we can show it is an extension of their nature/personality AND we show them grow through their actions as well as let the reader (and character) know there are consequences for them. That's a biggie for me.

Jana Richards said...

Hi Molli,
Interesting post. I think ban has a good take on this. How far you are willing to let your hero take a walk on the "bad side" must make sense for the kind of character he is. Even a mild mannered character may react strongly if he or someone he loves has been hurt or wronged. But I think you can make this behavior believable, or "justified" as you say, if you show the hero to be passionate about justice, and also passionate about about protecting the people he loves. If you give proper motivation and background, you can make a lot of behavior believable.


Karyn Good said...

ditto what Jana and ban said.

Erika said...

As a reader I don't remember a hero that I had a hard time accepting his anti hero actions. I haven't run across anything that sticks out in my mind as being unjustified or understandable. It's a good question though.

Janet said...

It sounds like Hero A was being manipulated by the author to move the plot along - to give conflict between the characters. I've read stories that do that - where the hero (or heroine) do something so out of character that I automatically chalk it up to the author 'needing' him to act that way in order for the story to get complicated.

And I always have to ask myself that when I hit a spot in my WIP - my answer is usually "Go back and fix!" Or as ban says - show his growth so that such an action is organic.

Great post, Molli :)

Hayley E. Lavik said...

Very nice topic Molli, and ban has certainly set the precedent for insight on this. I agree that it has to fit with the growth of the character, and either feel expected or feel like a new (and valid) insight into another side of the character, rather than a complete contradiction.

I've read books like that as well, where the hero and heroine had rash, arbitrary changes of mood for the sake of plot and nothing was ever resolved. Realistically speaking, there was no way those two could have had a happily-ever-after. Also in terms of thresholds crossed, I think the hero I read committed one of those 'unforgivable actions', things which general society shuns. In this case, the book's first sex scene was fueled by so much anger and malice as to essentially wind up a rape. Not the best way to start a relationship, and something that wiped away any possibility of 'alpha' from the hero's actions, and made him someone I didn't want anything to do with. Then again, I didn't like the heroine much either, so I wasn't too upset at how they were treating each other.

Another thought on your Hero A and B, in relation to that. I think Hero B's actions respond to something more primal, because he's doing it because of the woman he loves (which prompts a reader sigh). I think an anti-hero can go further into bad actions if we accept the motivations for them (Wuthering Heights always being my example for villainous, Byronic awesomeness). Hero A, on the other hand, did a bad thing to the woman he's supposed to love, and did it without enough build up to establish some sort of intimacy or trust issue, or something that could explain it. It wasn't motivated by something basic and primal, just by a superficial action, which makes it feel pointless, and thus calls our attention to the author moving the characters about like Ken and Barbie.

Silver James said...

Great topic, Molli. Be safe in your travels. Hero A is a putz. In real life, if the heroine stayed with him, she's got a bad case of low self-esteem.

I guess that's my bottom line. I want characters who act like "real people" - as defined by me. LOL. Hero A is a jerk and I'm not sure he can be redeemed and if the heroine stays with him, I'm going to be disappointed in her. Hero B let his chest-thumping get out of hand but his actions were based on protecting the heroine. So...yeah. Pretty much what everyone else has said. *goes BICHOK once again*

Anita Mae Draper said...

Drive safe, Molli.

This post, along with Hayley's research over on my eharl blog, reminds me of the alpha heroes of the Harlequin Presents series. They aren't so bad now when we are presented with the hero's point-of-view and know what he's thinking. But years ago, you didn't. And when you take a strong, domineering male determined to get his way no matter what, well, he seems to employ anti-hero tactics.

In fact, they had a lively discussion over there one time about 'bodice rippers' and whether a hero who loses himself in passion so that he rips the clothes off the heroine really respects her as a woman. Would that be considered anti-heroic behaviour?