“I often looked at myself with furious discontent, which verged on loathing, and so I inwardly attributed the same feeling to everyone.”
―Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Notes from Underground
In college, I signed up for a literature course entitled “Dostoevsky and Existentialism.” The class was memorable for two reasons.
First, the room was small and had three distinct flavors of students. There were the black-turtleneck, pince-nez-wearing, nineteen-year-old pseudointellectuals; the fussy academic fascists; and the breathy idealists who were, in fact, functional nihilists.
Second, we read the standard existential novels and stories: Kafka, Sartre, Camus. What these books had in common besides darkness and despair was the antihero. The classical antihero is a far cry from what we see onstage and onscreen today. Deadpool is a perfect example of what the antihero has become in modern form. Witty, violent, extremely self-centered, and fighting the bad guys not out of any sense of justice but out of a naked lust for revenge. The antihero is an “ends justify the means” individual, which, deep down inside, our lizard brain is darkly attracted to in a world that appears more abjectly unjust every day.
I want to suggest, however, that the best antihero really is just the common person who externalizes our most undesirable internal thoughts and fettered tendencies. From the spaghetti westerns to Robert B. Parker’s creations, the antihero portrays in deeds what every person feels in their gut but is just too timid, risk adverse, or “nice” to act upon.
Reader included. Author included.
Antiheroes do not necessarily need to eat human organs or stack bodies in their basement like cordwood. They can just be burdened with their less desirable human qualities, finding eventually that hope lies only in coming to the end of themselves (in the words of Kierkegaard), which ultimately leads them and the reader to break out of the tiny dungeon of the ego.
For writers, an analysis of our own baser traits can lead to the greatest potential for antihero development because in examining ourselves, we still hold to the idea that we are capable of redemption. And if we hold that we are not completely depraved, then the character we create, as degenerate as we make him, might just be as redeemable as we think ourselves to be. As readers, we want the antihero to do the right thing, beg for him to do the right thing, because in that urge is our own aspiration to do the right thing. If we can believe that the antihero can rise, then perhaps we have the same potential, too.
A quality antihero can be viewed as the externalized angst of the author written on the page. Just as “the bug” was a personification of Gregor Samsa’s internal struggle in Kafka’s Metamorphosis, a writer’s own demons serve up ample fodder for solid character development. Is it really no wonder that Kafka created one of his most memorable characters while he was lying in bed, feeling worthless and defeated by the failure to comple his first novel? Everything he loathed about himself at that given moment was exorcised to the page in the form of Gregor.
The things that embarrass writers—their weaknesses, their mistakes, their guilty thoughts and motivations—fleshed out on the page and taken up by the protagonist in a story make for an incredibly interesting character. But it requires writers to put themselves in a very vulnerable position. They must be willing to expose thoughts, ideas, and emotions that they keep buried deep down inside because there is a part of them that knows these dark thoughts are not socially palatable among the arbiters of public decency.
“Antiheroes can be obnoxious, pitiful or charming, but they are always failed heroes or deeply flawed. Often riddled with paradoxical traits and qualities, they resemble real people more than any other type of fictional characters do, and they are increasingly popular these days in fiction, film and television.”
 Jessica Page Morrell, “How to Create an Antihero That Readers Love,” Writer’s Digest, February 4, 2014, http://www.writersdigest.com/online-editor/how-to-create-an-antihero-that-readers-love.
About the Author
Samuel Parker is the author of Purgatory Road (2017), which was listed as one of the Best Books of 2017 by Library Journal, and Coldwater (2018). Born in the Michigan boondocks, he was raised on a never-ending road trip through the US. He lives in West Michigan with his wife and twin sons.