Last weekend in South Carolina one of the more thought-provoking questions for the panel members at the Mystery in The Midlands surrounded the topic of whether the protagonist must be likeable. Underlying this question there was a presumption of the mainstream moral code of right and wrong being part of a good guy’s persona.
Most authors at the conference agreed the ‘good guy’ wins in fiction because he follows the rules, or bends the rules only for the common good in extreme circumstances. Even Detective Inspector Fred Thursday in the BBC series Endeavor, allowed a murderer to go free when she killed her abusive husband.
War would be another example of a reality where the lines of right and wrong become blurred, or temporarily suspended because survival depends on actions aimed at bad guys, but many times during the execution of the mission innocent people are killed. Using military terminology these people are considered collateral damage.
Wow, that is heavy stuff. Back to fiction.
Should fiction give us a break from the harsh realities of life, or does it reflect real life in complex characters and plot lines? Make us think, see another point of view, or disturb our illusions?
The philosophical questions I considered before I wrote about my anti-hero character, Clara Shannasey McDougal, in my upcoming novella Stranded in Atlanta:
If your subculture developed because your Roma people were isolated and starved in a ghetto in Russia, would you think stealing from your oppressors was wrong? If millions of your people were killed in concentration camps, wouldn’t the persecution of your great-grandfathers and great-grandmothers influence your worldview and inform your modern choices in America?
Of course, I think literary and excellent genre fiction can incorporate whatever the author’s imagination can conjure.
This is my answer to the original question. Yes and no. An anti-hero must be interesting and have a particular moral compass for the reader to overlook their deviation from societal norms long enough to empathize with the character. For example the Taken movies sequels with Liam Neeson work because planning revenge would be a natural reaction if someone took, or killed a member of your family. For most people the fantasy wouldn’t be acted upon. In fiction the protagonist can stalk and extract the just punishment. Eventually, we like some parts of the anti-hero because we see the underdog win. We have lost, and it didn’t feel good.
However, we can suspend reality, read an anti-hero story, and let the character get even for us. In the end we may feel a guilty pleasure, and ask ourselves why we like the almost irredeemable character, but we do. Why? We want to believe in justice, despite the odds, for everyone including ourselves.