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.