In Praise of Anti-Heroes
One thing I noticed in the world of Young Adult fiction is that a character has to be likable and sympathetic within the first ten pages. Editors and agents at writing conferences have told this to me. And you can see this in all the flavors of the week like David Levithan, John Green, and Sarah Dessen, Alyson Noel, etc. With the help of a good marketing focused editor who has read Robert McKee, the writer will give the reader what they need. I reader needs to know that this is clearly the good guy beyond a reasonable doubt in a court of law.
And I get it. No one likes to root for the bad guy. Unless you have anger problems. Plus, in this day and age, a parent doesn’t want their child to be reading about anti-heroes. God forbid the character influences their child the wrong way and makes them do drugs, have sex, or kill someone. (Because if my bad reading habits as a child I am now writing this essay in jail.)
A good character in YA will only influence a young adult to disobey their parents when it comes to dating or picking a school or job, how to sneak out of the house at night, how to go on a cross country road trip, and how to listen to classic rock and watch old black and white movies.
Some have explained that books should be written this way to start an emotional connection between character and reader. After all, all kids are just homogenous by products of the perfect parental system. (I mean that in the most positive way.) Young adults do not relate to bad kids who screw up. In real life, kids don’t screw up. They know everything. Just ask any kid.
To me, I feel this is a cop out and unrealistic. As a teen I was miserable and surrounded my drugs, racism, violence, and classism. I was angry and depressed. If I picked up a book back then by John Green and his geeky middle class protagonist that falls in love with a quirky artsy girl and has to take a road trip or a book by Sarah Dessen where the middle class preppy chick deals with the death of their parent and sits around and waits to be a victim while falling in love with the bad boy, I would have killed myself.
Sure, I had S.E. Hinton who added some honesty to the genre, but mostly I had to gravitate to authors like Bret Easton Ellis, Jim Thompson, and Barry Gifford. (See how I ended up in jail?)
In the real world people are not instantly likable. We have shells, smoke screen, and costumes. Those are horrible things to like off the bat. We can never show our true selves…at least not right away. It takes time. Like dating. That girl or guy is hot, we want to bang them, marry them, but after time we see that they’re off their fucking nut. They like to kick puppies or take your money.
Storytelling should be the same way. Yes, I know. Storytelling is not supposed to be realistic. It is supposed to help us forget our problems and create an alternate world where we can live out problems in the safety of our head. Or at least make us want to sing and dance.
But so can anti-heroes. (It’s true. Every time I read The Killer Inside Me, I want to boogie.)
There’s nothing more beautiful than hating a character the first time you meet them, or getting a weird feeling about them and keeping a safe distance, but still have that attraction to their costume that you want to follow them into danger and just take a peek at a life you’re glad you’re not having.
Another benefit is that it exercises our ability for compassion. We learn to have sympathy for the anti-hero. At least if you’re an emotionally well-balanced person you will.
People are complex. The secret of creating a brilliant character is placing them in different situations, especially getting them out of their comfort zones. When you see that anti-hero who was just smoking pot, beating the shit out of a kid, and stealing a car go down the street and save a kitten from being burned in a trash can from a bunch of preppies, you get this weird feeling that there’s so much more to this person than you thought and it increases your attachment to them, exercises your compassion. You yearn for them to be better than they appear to be in that first meeting in page ten. Sometimes they do succeed and you want to cheer and sometimes they don’t and you’re left with this sad feeling.
Getting the picture? When done right, a great anti-hero can make you FEEL SOMETHING. Anything which is more than what those safe and likable protagonist who go through life by the numbers.
So to help celebrate the Young Adult anti-hero, here is a small list to see what I mean:
Thief by Brian James
33 Snowfish by Adam Rapp
Queen of Cool by Cecil Castellucci
Almost Home by Jessica Blank
Out of Order by A.M. Jenkins
Burn by Suzanne Phillips
A Black Deeper Than Death is out now on paperback and Kindle