Sword an sorcery is a genre that's devilishly hard to define. Ask ten people to lay out their personal guidelines for what is and isn't S&S, and you're likely to get twelve different answers.
Examples are easier to come up with, if somewhat less helpful. And like definitions, you're rarely going to get many people that agree. Sure, some examples are more-or less a given. Robert E. Howard's Conan. Fritz Leiber's Fafhrd and Gray Mouser. Michael Moorcock's Elric. But disagreement tends to crop up when people throw up examples outside that established core.
In an old SF Signal Mind Meld, several writers were asked to define what "sword and sorcery" meant to them. Answers were, predictably, all over the board, most of them boiling down to lists of common tropes. But the first answer came from Michael Moorcock himself, and it touched on something elemental:
Basically I see it as a good old-fashioned sword and sandal or cloak and dagger drama with strong supernatural elements. Captain Blood meets Cthulhu.
Folks, that quote may be the closest thing this genre has to a Rosetta Stone. It explains why so many of the "borderline" examples people disagree about feel wrong to those well-read in the genre, even if they seem to contain most of the tropes.
First, re-read Moorcock's statement. Notice the order he puts the two components in. It's no accident that "old fashioned sword and sandal or cloak and dagger drama" gets precedent. The story has to function purely (or almost purely) in those terms, absent any fantastical element.
Conan sneaking into the Tower of the Elephant. Elric of Melniboné leading a pirate fleet against the impregnable port of Imrryr. Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser running headlong through the labyrinthine halls of the Thieves' House, one step ahead of their murderous pursuers.
Any of those moments could be dropped into a historical adventure story, while retaining 100% of its excitement and impact. They speak to something primal in the reader, something that exists independent of the story's magical elements: Courage in the face of certain death. Wit and steel against overwhelming odds. The chase. The hunt.
Next, notice Moorcock's carefully chosen word, supernatural. There's a reason he didn't say "cloak and dagger fiction with magic." Or "sword and sandal drama with elves and dwarves."
Supernatural implies the weird, the unknown, and the dangerous. Supernatural is the fantastic. But it is the unfamiliar fantastic.
In sword and sorcery, magic is rare and terrifying. Monsters are a violation of the natural order. Dwarves and elves, if present, aren't simply another culture in a fantasy melting-pot world. They're a freak survival of some ancient and forgotten age, like Howard's stooped, serpent-like "Worms of the Earth." Or Moorcock's vaguely etherial, Chaos-bound Melnibonéans.
What I like about Moorcock's definition is that it's not just descriptive. At the risk of paraphrasing Johnny Depp in Pirates of the Caribbean, Moorcock's definition doesn't just describe what a sword and sorcery story is. If it did, it wouldn't be much more than a genre dowsing rod.
Rather, Moorcock's definition describes what a sword and sorcery story needs. It can be a map for building one from the ground up.
Sword and sorcery 101. Start with historical adventure. Add the supernatural. It's as simple (and as complex) as that.
I have a long history with The Thing.
One of my earliest memories is watching the 1951 Howard Hawks version with my mom and dad. I was about three or four years old, curled up on the couch in between them, with the blankets pulled up to my chin. I can still vividly remember my horror as I watched the shadow of Will Arness' Thing out in the blizzard, casually slaughtering the team's sled dogs. To this day, that scene of the arctic scientists trying to determine the shape of the magnetic anomaly in the ice—cheesy music sting and all—holds an eerie power for me.
Catching the 1982 John Carpenter version on cable was one of my formative pre-teen experiences. I was already a horror film junkie by that point, well versed in everything from Hellraiser, to Evil Dead, to Alien. I considered myself quite the jaded little gore connoisseur. And if you had told me I was about to watch a movie that would blow me out of the water, one that would genuinely scare me, I would have laughed right in your face.
The Thing, though, was some straight up next-level shit. Everything about it, from the Ennio Morricone score, to the perfect cinematography, to the still-unequaled practical creature effects, was a bar-raising landmark. Combine that with the tight pacing, the claustrophobic sets, the paranoid direction, and the virtuoso acting performances, and you have one of the most perfect horror films ever made.
Naturally, when I got around to reading the original novella that inspired both films—1938's Who Goes There? by John W. Campbell—I was already predisposed to liking it. And I did. No, it's not quite the timeless masterpiece of horror storytelling that Carpenter's film is. The ending isn't nearly as exciting. The sense of menace doesn't quite build the same way that it does in Lovecraft's better-written tales. Aside from McReady, the characterizations are thin to non-existent.
But as a pulp SF tale of the "men-with screwdrivers" school, it more than delivers. Campbell sets the claustrophobic tone in the story's first lines, describing the queer, mingled smells that choke the Antarctic camp's tunnels. When McReady comes on the scene—here as a meteorologist rather than a pilot—he is described in appropriately pulpy terms, a red-haired giant, a bronze demigod come to life. When the creature is at last revealed in the block of ice, Campbell gives us the almost superstitious reactions of the otherwise coldly rational scientists. The discord produces a fantastic effect.
All in all, the opening scene is a master class in establishing mood, setting, and tone while simultaneously kicking off the story with a bang. I'd even go as far as to say this opening is the one thing that Who Goes There? legitimately does better than either of the film versions, both of which take a little time to orient the viewer before introducing the horror.
Which is why despite my excitement, I have a few reservations about the upcoming release of Frozen Hell, from Wildside Press.
In case you haven't heard yet, writer Alec Nevala-Lee recently rediscovered the lost manuscript for the original, novel-length version of Who Goes There?. A Kickstarter campaign to cover publishing costs met its goal in less than twelve hours, meaning we'll all get to read it early next year.
Admittedly, my first reaction to this news was sheer, unbridled joy. And for part of me it still is. So why the reservations?
According to the project's Kickstarter page, Frozen Hell is apparently 45 pages longer than Who Goes There?, with most of the new material taking place before the novella's opening. In other words, that fantastic, moody first chapter will take place somewhere around page 30-35 or so.
Which brings me to an interesting thought about the novella, and half the reason for today's post.
One of the most common bits of advice trotted out to new writers is not to open a story with the dreaded "info-dump." You should hook your reader into the story first, giving them relatable characters and conflict, before giving them blocks of expository text or dialogue. Otherwise, the reader won't care.
There's plenty of truth to that advice, enough where it's a pretty reliable rule of thumb. But what always struck me about Who Goes There? is how much of that opening scene really is just info-dump. For several pages, we have McReady and the other scientists just standing around in a room, talking about this frozen creature.
What's more, in this same scene Campbell violates another piece of writing advice that's become akin to gospel over the years: having characters talk about things most of them already know, purely as an excuse to fill in the reader. Or "As you know, Bob," dialogue.
Campbell partially sidesteps it here, by having Commander Garry address the assembled men first:
You know the outline of the story back of that find of the Secondary Pole Expedition. I have been conferring with second-in-Command McReady, and Norris, as well as Blair and Dr. Copper. There is a difference of opinion, and because it involves the entire group, it is only just that the entire Expedition personnel act on it.
The rest of the opening consists largely of McReady and Blair explaining the events leading until now, events many of the assembled men were already present for. But because it's presented as a briefing intended to get the station's personnel all on the same page, it works.
Even so, it was a genuinely audacious storytelling choice, particularly in a format as dependent on fast-paced thrills as the pulps. The whole thing is carried by Campbell's moody description and the gradual reveal of the situation through dialogue, both of which give the scene its necessary suspense. More proof that you can break any writing convention, provided you do it with style.
Of course, the discovery of the Frozen Hell manuscript reveals that scene's original placement, which was roughly a quarter of the way into the story. That's much more in line with the standard "hook your reader, explain things later" advice. While I'm genuinely curious to see what hook Campbell uses, something tells me it won't be quite as innovative or memorable as an in-media-res, "as you know, Bob," info dump.
There's no question that I'm going to buy Frozen Hell the second it's available for general release. Maybe it's better than the novella. Maybe the scenes leading up to that tense, wonderful cold open will somehow make it more powerful. Maybe not.
In some ways, I feel like a kid who snuck a peek behind the curtain at a magic show. Now that I've seen all the mirrors and the hidden trap doors, I'm just sitting in the audience, hoping the Astounding Campbell can still wow me.
Here's hoping. Either way, I'll be the first in line.
So I wasn't planning to beat my Last Jedi drum any more than I already have. Bottom line, I disliked the movie. Plenty of other people loved it. Their opinions are just as valid as mine. Live and let live, etc.
But my last post on the subject, detailing my feelings on Luke's character arc, led to a thought-provoking Twitter debate with a random stranger. While defending the movie, that stranger posed an interesting question:
You can read the original thread here if you want, but below I'm going to organize and expand on my original response.
As a side note, I want to say thanks to dvader518, whoever they are. They brought up some excellent points, and were never less than 100% respectful. We ended up agreeing to disagree, but the conversation did force me to think about my own position a little more.
That's the kind of honest debate I can always appreciate, regardless of the outcome. As for my answer to the above question:
Yoda is kind of an asshole
I don't consider Yoda cowardly for hiding on Dagobah, because he was never especially heroic in the first place. In fact, upon closer examination, he's really close to being one of the bad guys.
Bear with me a second while I explain.
Yoda's exile on Dagobah can be summed up in five words: "The ends justify the means."
When we meet him in The Empire Strikes Back, he's the very last holdout of the old Jedi ways. He's also playing a long game against the Emperor and Vader. Yoda's plan (which Obi-Wan has aided every step of the way) is to train Luke specifically for the task of fighting and killing Darth Vader.
Yoda doesn't care about Vader's redemption. He also doesn't want Luke to make up his own mind about the subject, which is why he keeps the fact that Vader is Luke's father a secret. In fact, he insists that Luke needs to "complete his training" before he sets out for the final confrontation.
This is an important detail. Why?
Because among other things, fully-trained Jedi are expected to shun all personal attachments.
In other words, Yoda knows damned well that the truth about Luke's parentage will come out when he fights Vader. He just wants Luke to be so thoroughly indoctrinated into the Jedi ways by that point that he won't care, and he'll complete the mission anyway.
All of this is justified in Yoda's mind, because killing Vader will help restore balance to the Force. He's a character that cares more about his chosen ideal (balance) than than the actual people around him. He's basically training Luke to be an assassin, while hiding information that might cause Luke to question his target.
And no, this isn't some weird, alternate character interpretation I'm pulling out of my ass.
Luke's rejection of Yoda and the old Jedi ways is the entire point of his arc in the original trilogy. Yoda refuses to see any possibility that Vader can be redeemed, to the point where he even urges Luke to kill him on his own deathbed. Luke only wins because he embraces his personal attachments in direct defiance of Yoda's teachings.
Sure, Yoda is wise and powerful. But one of the major plot points of the original trilogy is that Yoda's adherence to the old Jedi dogma is wrong. In fact, Luke's first clash with him is one of the most important character moments in the series.
Which leads me to another important storytelling principle.
Two Wrongs Don't Make a Right (But They Do Make For Dramatic Character Moments)
In his screenwriting book Story, Robert McKee points out that characters are defined by their choices. He also points out that the most powerful choices aren't between right and wrong, because that's really no choice at all. It doesn't reveal anything deep or important about the character, because any right-thinking person would obviously make the same choice.
The truly powerful choices, the ones that really show us a character's moral core, occur when they are forced to decide between two wrongs, or between two irreconcilable goods.
An example of two wrongs is the classic "Sophie's choice" dilemma, where a mother is forced to decide which of her children will live and which one will die.
In The Empire Strikes Back, Luke faces the second kind of choice, between two mutually exclusive good outcomes.
Towards the end of Act II, Luke is training on Dagobah. He closes his eyes, reaches out into the Force, and senses great danger. He has a vision. Han, Leia, and the others are going to die unless he drops everything and tries to save them.
In that moment, his choices are:
It's important to note that, in universe, from the characters' perspective, neither of these choices are wrong.
Completing the training will help to restore the Jedi Order, creating an opposition to the Dark Side's near total domination of the galaxy. With Vader dead, the Emperor's power will be weakened, giving the Rebel Alliance a chance to overthrow the Empire, restore the Republic, and usher a in new era of peace.
And it makes total sense for Luke to want that, and for him to be torn about his decision. After all, he and his friends have fought and suffered for that exact outcome.
But here's the thing.
All of that stuff up there, about balance and the Dark Side? From the audience's perspective, it's abstract. Viewers don't care about it.
Viewers DO care about Han, Leia, Chewie, and 3PO.
That's why Luke's decision is such an important character moment, one that cements him as a hero in the audience's eyes. When given the choice between an abstract ideal and the people he cares about, he chose people.
There may have been no "right" answer from the character's perspective. But from the audience's perspective, there was. Luke made the choice we identified with, and a generation of viewers loved his character for it.
Luke's Karma Ran Over Yoda's Dogma
So why did so many people (myself included) have a hard time seeing that same hero in Rian Johnson's take on the character?
It goes back to the importance of character choices, and how the powerful choices show us their moral center.
In The Last Jedi, Luke faces the exact same choice he did in Empire. Rey, R2, and Chewie land on Ach-to, where Luke lives in self-imposed exile. They tell him the Resistance needs him, that Han is dead, and Leia is leading a desperate fight against the First Order.
Luke's choices in that moment are:
Once again, an argument can be made that, in universe, neither of these answers is wrong. I actually disagree, but that's a tangent that distracts from the point.
For the second time, Luke is given the choice between an abstract ideal and the people he cares about. This time, Luke chooses the abstract ideal.
But where his choice in Empire painted him as a selfless hero in the minds of the audience, this one painted him as the opposite. Most of the audience doesn't care about Luke's need to see the Jedi Order end, and its teachings disappear. We certainly don't care more than we do about Leia, a character we've been following for over 40 years.
Just like with The Empire Strikes Back, in the audience's mind there was only one right answer to this dilemma, and it was the one Luke didn't take. He made the choice we can't identify with.
The results are evident in the divided reaction to the film. Audience scores on Rotten Tomatoes are below 50%, the lowest for any film in the series.
So as a writer, what's the takeaway here?
For me, it's a sort of caveat to keep in mind while applying McKee's principle about powerful character choices. You can give a character a dilemma with no "right" answer from his or her own perspective. Just remember that audiences might disagree. They might see only one right choice.
And like your character, you'll have to choose wisely.
The following is a transcript of the first story meeting between Rian Johnson and Lucasfilm, probably:
JOHNSON: What if we took one of Luke's most heroic moments and changed it? Like, what if he leaves his friends to die instead of helping them?
LUCASFILM EXEC: My God, that's brilliant! This movie will be a universally beloved hit for sure! I think I smell a trilogy in your future, sir!
I'm kind of a late comer to all this Star Wars criticism, but a couple of weeks back I gave my initial impression of The Last Jedi. I focused mainly on the stupid plot dynamic between Poe and Holdo, and the fact that most of the movie's tension would evaporate into thin air if Holdo were an even halfway competent character.
That was far from the film's only flaw, although it was definitely a fatal one. The much bigger issue for me, however, was the film's treatment of Luke Skywalker.
This is one of The Last Jedi's most divisive aspects. Luke's arc is a love it or hate it thing, and how people feel about it tends to be a pretty good predictor of whether or not they liked the movie.
The people I know who loved it were impressed by the unexpected story direction, and the realism of Luke being unable to live up to his own legend. One friend described the broken, burnt-out Luke seen in The Last Jedi as a perfect mirror image of his younger self in the original Star Wars.
I don't disagree. I just think it's a complete misfire, one that justifiably pissed off a lot of fans.
Luke the Antihero
Last week, I wrote a post about the corruption of the word "antihero" away from its original meaning. That original meaning has nothing to do with the amoral badasses it constantly gets applied to, like the Punisher or Deadpool. In its original meaning, an antihero was "a central character in a play, book, or film who does not have any heroic qualities, such as courage."
And while that definition doesn't apply to Deadpool or Punisher, it's a dead-on description for Luke Skywalker in The Last Jedi.
When we meet him on Ach-to, Luke is living the life of a solitary hermit. He's cut himself off from the Force, fled to a place nobody will find him, and chosen to spend the rest of his days wallowing in misery and contemplating his failures.
When Rey shows up, seeking to learn the ways of the Force and to enlist him in the fight against the First Order, two things happen in relatively short order. The first is that he learns about Han's death at the hands of Kylo Ren. The second is that he realizes Leia is involved in this fight.
His response to learning that his closest friend is dead, and that his twin sister is in mortal danger?
He rebuffs Rey. He refuses to go with her, and he refuses to teach her about the dangerous power growing inside her. "Go away," he says. "It's time for the Jedi Order to die."
At last, R2-D2 plays on his sympathy, using the old hologram of Leia asking Obi-Wan for help. He agrees to train Rey, but he still adamantly refuses to leave Ach-to to personally intervene.
All of this is, of course, before the flashback scene where Luke admits to a "moment of weakness" in which he contemplated murdering a teenaged Kylo Ren in his sleep. All because he "sensed a great darkness" in him.
You know. Just in case we needed any more reasons to see this version of Luke as a pathetic, cowardly loser.
The thing is, none of that really squares up with what we know about Luke from the original trilogy.
In The Empire Strikes Back, Luke abandons his training and knowingly flies into a trap because it's the only way to save his friends. After failing to defeat Darth Vader, he spends time training himself for a second confrontation. But he has no intentions of killing Vader in their second encounter. Luke senses good in him, and believes he can be redeemed.
Then, to help ensure the success of the Death Star mission (as well as his personal quest to redeem his father), Luke surrenders to Empire troops and faces both Vader and the Emperor alone in the throne room. And he does it on the freakin' Death Star, a battle station he has every reason to believe is about to be blown up.
Luke in the original trilogy is a hero in the classical sense, a man of great strength and courage. He puts his life on the line time and again to protect his friends and fight against the threat of the Empire. He's also a hero in the more modern sense, displaying a strong moral compass in addition to his physical prowess.
Luke in The Last Jedi completely lacks those traits. He doesn't even have any vestiges of them left.
And yes, I've seen the argument that Luke staying on Ach-to was a "courage of his convictions" thing, a dedication to pacifist Jedi principles that no one else in the movies ever had the strength to adhere to.
I think that's bullshit. And in order to explain exactly why, I'll need you to bear with me a second.
Coward is as Coward Does
In his wonderful screenwriting book Story, Robert McKee outlines an idea called "taking a character to the end of the line." In brief, he points out that the positive and negative forces in a character's life don't exist in a binary. He says they're actually on a four-point scale with a positive (+), a positive/negative (+/-), a negative (-) and a "worse than negative" (-/-) expression.
So, if the struggle is life and death, the four point scale is:
That fourth point on the scale is what McKee means when he talks about taking the character to the end of the line. It's the "fate worse than death," the thing that the character cannot allow, no matter the cost. In Return of the Jedi, Luke faces this when the Emperor goads him into fighting Vader. Luke nearly betrays his friends and his values by giving in to the Dark Side. He stands on the edge of that personal damnation, finds the strength to pull back from it, and tosses away his lightsaber. He tells the Emperor he has failed.
"I am a Jedi," he says. "Like my father before me." In that moment, Luke knows he will die by the Emperor's hand, but it doesn't matter. He faced that personal damnation and defeated it. He's already won.
Another example in McKee's book is the scale below, outlining the possible expressions of "Courage versus Cowardice":
Cowardice Masquerading as Courage (-)
I believe that fourth point on the scale is where we find Luke in The Last Jedi. For all of his high-minded prattle about how "it's time for the Jedi to die," and cutting himself off from the Force to keep the galaxy safe, what he's really doing is hiding.
He's hiding from a mess he helped create in Kylo Ren. He's hiding from danger when his friends need him the most. And in cutting himself off from the Force, he's even hiding from having to feel any of the consequences of his inaction.
That's simple cowardice, no matter how you frame it. Only Luke has somehow managed to convince himself that it's the noble course of action.
Audience Expectations Can Suck It
All this ties into an important storytelling principle, one that Rian Johnson deliberately violated for shock value: keeping the promises made to the reader/viewer.
I'll go into more detail about this principle in a future post, but for now the easiest way to explain it is this: If you start out telling one kind of story, don't shift gears in the middle and deliver a different one.
If Act I of your story is a taut cat-and-mouse game between the police and a killer, don't deliver a climax that hinges on a tearful confession between husband and wife, and a commitment to learn what it means to love one another again. Act I promises a thriller, and the audience had better get a climax worthy of one.
Like it or not, this same principle applies to characters, especially in long-running series. If you don't believe me, try to imagine the flak J.K. Rowling would get if she penned a sequel depicting Harry Potter as a burnt-out loser who flatly refuses to help his old friends Hermione and Ron. Or if Ian Fleming wrote a Bond story in which 007 suddenly finds himself clumsy and flustered around women, and having panic attacks at the prospect of having to use his gun.
In both examples, fans would justifiably see it as a betrayal of the character they'd come to know over the years, a violation of the promises made by the beginning entries of the story. In Harry's case, that promise is that he's a brave and resourceful boy who would never shy away from helping his friends. In Bond's case, it's that he's a cool, suave agent with a License to Kill.
Of course, Rowling and Fleming would have every right to subvert audience expectations and tell those stories. Just as Lucasfilm had every right to take Luke in a subversive new direction in The Last Jedi.
But most of the core audience isn't looking for subversion. To them, the thrill doesn't come from seeing the ways in which creators can tear apart their assumptions about the character. It comes from seeing that character tested to the limit, and still coming out on top.
And that's really the crux of the problem. At some point, subversion became an exalted ideal in storytelling. It's like there's a school of thought that dictates a story isn't "serious" unless it tears down the audience's expectations. That simply meeting those expectations is a lesser form of storytelling, one that's inherently childish and naive.
I don't mind subversion, as long as it happens in a satisfying way. I think Rogue One did it brilliantly. In delivering a Star Wars story where all of the main characters die, it made a powerful statement about the human cost of the Rebellion. It's satisfying because we know all that suffering means something, that the stolen plans will eventually lead to an important victory for the "good guys."
But Rian Johnson's blatant character assassination of Luke doesn't give any satisfaction. In showing us our old heroes are nothing but burnt-out losers and cowards, he doesn't make any powerful statements about the cost of the conflict. He's making a nihilistic declaration that the conflict meant nothing, and that our admiration of those heroes was stupid and misplaced.
Johnson's treatment of Luke is nothing but subversion for its own sake, an attempt to shock the audience by tearing down one of the icons of the story world. And worse, he doesn't give us anything worthy of taking that icon's place. The end result is Rian Johnson's Star Wars is reduced to being a galaxy without heroes.
And sure, maybe that's "serious" storytelling. Maybe it's more "realistic." But I never watched Star Wars for the realism.
Play us out, Twisted Sister:
One of the online discussion groups I belong to is dedicated to the life and works of the late Karl Edward Wagner. Wagner, in case you're unfamiliar with him, was a World Fantasy Award-winning editor and author. Among his most enduring and famous creations is Kane, an immortal, ageless killer cursed by a "mad, idiot god" to wander the earth. Kane is amoral, killing both the innocent and the corrupt in pursuit of his goals, and sometimes he's only cast as the hero in relation to the greater, more ancient evils opposed to him.
This leads some to describe Kane as an antihero. But according to Wagner's longtime friend John Mayer, Wagner himself would strongly disagree. He always preferred to call Kane a villain-hero.
This wasn't just an author playing pedantic games. Wagner would stress that "antihero" was a word with a specific meaning, one that was slowly being corrupted and lost by misapplying it to characters like Kane.
I agree with him.
When someone says antihero, the first thing that probably comes to mind is the tough, morally grey outsider. A character like Deadpool, the Punisher, or the Man with No Name. By any reasonable metric, these aren't people to be admired. They're criminals, outlaws, and mercenaries. They don't reflect the values of society. Under other circumstances, they'd be considered villains.
Yet we admire them anyway.
Despite their moral failings, we're drawn to their strength and courage in the face of overwhelming odds. Their outsider status gives them the advantage of being able to ignore society's rules in pursuit of their goals. And because those goals often serve some greater good (either by accident or on purpose), they're moved a step closer to "heroism" on the morality scale.
Here's the thing.
All of that stuff up there, about the grey morality and the admiration solely for strength and courage? That's not antiheroism.
That's just straight, garden variety heroism. At least in the classical sense.
The English word "hero" comes from the Old French word "heroe," meaning "man of superhuman strength or physical courage." The Old French is in turn derived from the Greek and Latin "heros," meaning "demigod" or "protector." Its original meaning in English was "man who exhibits great bravery."
What all of the above definitions are lacking is a moral component. There's nothing in there about right and wrong, serving the greater good, or any of the other "traditionally" heroic qualities. That's because the basic concept of heroism (having great strength and personal courage) predates dualistic notions of good and evil. It isn't rooted in any specific morality, dualistic or otherwise.
This is readily apparent when you look at some of the Greek myths. Heroes like Achilles, Theseus, and Odysseus exhibited some genuinely awful behavior. Their stories are filled with betrayal, murder, kidnapping, and forced marriages.
So if these characters were such shit-heel human beings, why have they been admired for thousands of years? For that matter, why were they admired by the ancient Greeks?
Answer: They were admired because they faced the enemy in battle, risking death and crippling injuries. Because they challenged monsters spawned by the gods. When their own people or lands were menaced by outsiders, they stood on the field and fought tooth and nail to protect them.
Their strength, their skill, and their willingness to put everything on the line when it mattered is what made them heroes.
And as bitter a pill as it can be for us to swallow with our modern sensibilities, it's possible to exhibit all of those qualities and still be a reprehensible human being.
So, if heroes can be awful people, where do antiheroes come in? Why does the word even exist?
The Cambridge English Dictionary defines an antihero as:
"the central character in a play, book, or film who does not have traditionally heroic qualities, such as courage, and is admired instead for what society generally considers to be a weakness of their character"
In the original meaning of the word, an antihero is a very specific kind of character. The weak, nebbish leads in Woody Allan's films are antiheroes. The henpecked, buffoonish husbands in most sitcoms are antiheroes. The resigned and listless characters in Franz Kafka's work are antiheroes.
And just as heroes can be rotten piles of human garbage, antiheroes can be good people. In the case of Everybody Loves Raymond, Ray is a loving father and husband. He honestly tries to do right by his family. But he lacks almost any kind of courage or strength. Which means he will never, ever be a hero. Not in the classical sense.
Which brings me back to Wagner's original point. It's really not possible to apply this definition of antiheroism to characters like Deadpool, the Punisher, or Wagner's own Kane. Reprehensible actions aside, all of them display physical courage in spades.
Of course, language evolves. At some point, "heroism" picked up a moral component, one that seems to have completely replaced "strength and physical courage" in most contexts. This, in turn, bled into the idea of an antihero being someone who lacks that morality. But with that evolution, we're losing an important distinction. We don't have another word to replace "antihero" as it evolves away from its original meaning.
Considering how many characters in modern fiction are antiheroes in that original, classic sense, it's a loss the language can't really afford.
I'm an award-winning science fiction and fantasy writer based out of North Carolina. This is where I scream into the digital void. I like cookies.