Thursday, February 19

Jack's Beanstalk of Anti-Heroism

Beans are a magical fruit, as the immature song tells us. Full of protein and complex carbs, they can be used in anything from a simple appetizer to a hearty soup—even a delicious brownie. And while they're easy to grow, none are as cool as Jack's. They're his ticket to a new life. Without the gimmick of his magic beans, Jack would still be a down-on-his-luck farmer's son.

Or the village criminal, who sneaks in through your back door to “borrow a cup of sugar.” Your call, young writer.

Jack needs the beans, though, to make his story work. Most fairy tales can be told without the magic. Countless revisions of classic favorites attest to that. Jack without his beans equals a kid with his hand in the cookie jar. If he's going to sell anyone his ocean-view resort in Nebraska—I mean, his story about how a nobody broke into a fabled, wealthy kingdom—he must dazzle the audience.

If Jack were to simply say that his family needed the money and he took up a life of crime to help his ailing mother, it would read more like the Michael Keaton crime spoof Johnny Dangerously. Funny, but still wrong. And Jack wants your good opinion, so that's not a venue that works for him.

A recent story that mimics Jack's story pretty well is the film 21. Our Jack, Ben, is asked to “dazzle” a prospective employer in an interview, so he spins a tale. He is a wanted criminal, who pinned all his crimes on the man who first dragged him off the straight-and-narrow. A double life, between his normal life at MIT and his wild one in Vegas. A beautiful girl out of his league. A twist at the end, as Ben works to outsmart powerful con men.
And all the cooler, because it's a true story.

Anti-heroes have been making the rounds a lot in current fiction. Some writers think “good guys” are boring. Some writers think there's no such animal as a genuinely good person. Some writers identify more with the antagonists. All of these writers must then jump through hoops to convince the reader to side with their anti-heroic protagonists.

This is where your spin control comes into play, young writer. You are not required to make a protagonist all good. Nor must you trick your reader into loving an anti-hero. But you should be well aware of what you are doing, and know what tricks are at your disposal.

Human nature can be deceived by looks, so if you have a man who is rich and good-looking, your reader will excuse him for a multitude of sins. Yes, really. The Harry Potter fans who love Draco Malfoy. The girls who swooned over a certain sparkly vampire. And even the Jews, who wanted a human king instead of divine governance, who liked Saul for his great height and mafia-like family connections (I Samuel 9 and 10).

If wealth and looks seem too cliched a way to sway your readers over to the side of your anti-hero, you can put Stockholm Syndrome to good use. This has become a common practice in post-modern story-telling, actually, so don't fear that this will seem far-fetched for your readers. It's a fairly simple process:
1. Capture your reader. Hook the audience on the absolute importance of finding out what happens next. This can occur almost instantly, or it may take a long while. Don't rush the process.

2. Hurt your reader. Whether this is accomplished by harming other characters or by writing a foreign worldview is up to you, but the reader needs to be intimidated and hungry for an emotional connection.

3. Make your reader vulnerable. A desire for an emotional connection is a good start, but it's not enough. The reader needs to open up and share in the hopes that the anti-hero will care. Characters in the story who have been victimized by this character can share their fears, pasts, or dreams in order to facilitate this step.

4. Hurt the reader again. Perhaps there is a misunderstanding, or perhaps the anti-hero hears the sob story but responds in an unexpected way. The vulnerability needs to be reinforced by more damage.

5. Share a little. The anti-hero isn't all bad, and here the reader learns about his abusive childhood or the trauma of prison. One piece of information, painting the anti-hero in a sympathetic light, will attach the reader to him. Or her, if you happen to be writing an anti-heroine.

6. More pain and/or violence. But this time, the characters who have been victims of the anti-hero are now fighting alongside their captor. The reader should be swayed enough to want to defeat “the real villain” rather than escape the captor.

If this sounds cruel or manipulative to you, GOOD. It should. Harming and tricking innocent people takes a lot of work and a certain amoral bent. Modern stories are often developed along these lines, and it has normalized a lot of dangerous behavior in popular culture and fiction.

If you've seen Disney's Frozen, echoes of this can be found in the film. Anna is the fun little girl who wants to play with her sister. Who hurts her. Yes, it's unintentional, but that only increases the audience's sympathy. Anna grows up cut off from her sister, starved for affection and attention. Her sister explodes with icy sorcery, stomping on Anna's fledgling romance and rejecting both family and kingdom. Anna chases her, only to have her sister hurt her again. Anna is desperate to be healed and be loved, and her race home reveals unwelcome news: her sister was right to doubt Anna's suitor. (Anna is unaware of her sister's imprisonment and fears for the family, though the audience is kept up to speed.) Freshly sympathetic to her sister, Anna would rather die defending her than break free of her sister's spell.
That's a specific, slanted take on the story, I know. It is, however, a retelling that does not mention by name the anti-hero of the story: Elsa. Hans is a bad guy, no doubt, but Elsa is the anti-hero who is spun to be a victim of her own ignorance and just as hungry for love as her little sister. Much like Jack is only trying to save his family, or he never would have robbed (or killed) a giant.

Anti-heroes have their place in story-telling. Sometimes they are necessary because nothing else will work for a story. In spinning a tale so that the anti-hero “gets better,” the author runs the risk of doing something scary: normalizing evil. Jack makes it okay to steal, as long as the victim is already bad. Elsa makes it okay to neglect loved ones, as long as the intent is to protect. The more normal any evil becomes, the farther an author has to reach to find a new edge to that envelope he/she is pushing. Violence, abuse, and outright horror become increasingly gray areas for the reader, the more excuses the writer provides.

Young writer, use your anti-heroes with care. How you weave a story is between you and your conscience, but have a care for what it will open inside the reader. Some of the thoughts you put in your reader's head cannot be unthought.

Keep in mind, Jack isn't all bad. There are sweet and delightful variants of the story, full of his pluck but without his kleptomaniac tendencies. But that's a story for another day...

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