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I’ve been wanting to blog about this topic since last summer but I was just too busy to get it down on paper so I tucked it away for later. But I’ve been seeing quite a few posts about what makes a strong female character lately, and while some of this fits into the anti-hero trope, really the anti-hero is a horse of a different color. My favorite possibility for anti-hero status is Kara Thrace (AKA Starbuck) from the remake SyFy series Battlestar Gallactica. She’s awesome! She smokes cigars, she plays poker with the boys, she flies a freaking fighter jet! (Not only that, she kicks ASS in that fighter jet.)
But while Kara is definitely a super-bad-ass female character – I’m not convinced she’s really an anti-hero. An anti-hero is, by definition, someone who lacks morals and virtue and only rises to the occasion when they are pressured and/or are about to get a big pay-off for doing so. Kara works for the “good-guys” and her whole life revolves around risking herself to save others. That’s pretty heroic if you ask me.
The anti-hero rejects doing things for others simply because it’s the right thing to do. They don’t risk their own life for someone else unless there is a powerful personal reason to do so. The best anti-hero I can think of in science fiction is my old friend Takeshi Kovacs. I love this guy – he’s anti-everything, except maybe Kovacs. He does do the right thing occasionally, but only because he’s gonna get something out of it – be it revenge, or money, or the privilege of screwing around with a girl.
I wrote Junco to be the female version of Kovacs so I paid close attention to her inner character. She has morals, she was raised with values, with religion, with a Stag Camp version of an attentive father. But she was also raised to do horrible things and not feel remorse. She doesn’t do things because she’s a good person – (she may or may not be a good person, actually. That quality is certainly still very much up for debate.) She completes certain tasks because it’s a means to an end, or sometimes, just because she was given an order and she tends to take her duty seriously if she’s playing for a team at the time.
But there’s a reason why females aren’t big in the anti-hero department. It makes them extremely unlikable. It’s hard to like a woman with no womanly qualities. Men are supposed to be tough and violent. We hardly blink when they act like, well – men. But women cannot get away with that. It somehow takes away all the things that make women special when they totally turn their backs on their gender “responsibilities.”
One female protagonist who absolutely is an anti-hero, although not a SF one, is Lisbeth Salander of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. Lisbeth is as cold hearted as they come – she has NO reservations about doing what needs to be done. I have never read the books, only watched the movies (both languages), so I cannot comment on how she was written. But she was portrayed with the perfect mix of sympathy, hate, fear, and psychosis.
And this, I think, is how you develop a female anti-hero.
She must kick-ass. That’s a given. She doesn’t have to be violent in her ass-kicking. Take Lisbeth for instance – she was a kick-ass hacker before she was a kick-ass ass-kicker! We were impressed with her abilities to circumvent security protocols for major banks and corporations and conceal her identity while she did it. That’s pretty hard-core. But Lisebth had a past and that past, once revealed, showed her to be more than just a kick-ass hacker. She was a bad ass killer.
Well, we learn later that she actually failed to kill that one particular person. But her efforts were heroic in their scope (if nothing else), and then – when she comes back for vengeance? Now that is what I call an anti-hero! She’s also horrifyingly effective in her violence – setting people on fire is not the most benign way to off an antagonist, after all. And that is just the beginning of the horror she is capable of. What she does to her rapist is another level of psycho altogether.
But Lisbeth was crafted with extraordinary care because we feel sympathy for her. Against all odds, we root for her. We want her to get those bastards because there’s no way in hell we’re gonna be able to stomach the gore or be able to live with the guilt after, if we have to do it ourselves. Plus, she’s a fighter till the end. And I mean that literally. She gets back up when you are screaming in your head – Stay down! Stay down! You gotta respect that.
And this pretty much defines what an anti-hero does. They do what’s necessary. The stuff we find revolting but still needs to be done. They play the part of bad-guy for the sake of the good guys – but only if they get something out of it in the end.
In the first two books of the Takeshi Kovacs series, Kovacs wants things. Things like money, or needlecast to another planet, or a chance to save his partner in crime. He’s still very much the bad guy in both books, there’s no denying that – even though he gets bad guys in the end – he’s no hero – not even of the anti persuasion. He’s just doing his job – plus, there are no “good guys” in either Altered Carbon or Broken Angels.
But in the third book (Woken Furies) he’s a different guy because his anti-hero status comes out in full force. He wants to get the “bad guys” (even though that term remains ambiguous), and now it’s personal and in between it all, he’s got honest-to-God legitimate concerns about science, politics, religion, and the future of his home world.
If you read to the end of the series you can fully appreciate and feel sympathy for him – especially at the end of book three. But lots of people who might’ve taken his side fell away in book two (Broken Angels) and I think it’s because he wasn’t sympathetic enough to compensate for the horrible piece of shit he actually is.
Male characters can get away with this and still be successful, but for female characters this is a fail. They must be sympathetic in some way from the very start. You must root for them, not only based on their ability to inflict violence, but because their violence is justified. We root for Lisbeth to torture her rapist because, well, that asshole raped her! He deserves her violence. She crosses the line, sure. But it’s her party and we’re not about to do the job ourselves – so we turn the other cheek, walk away with our hands clean, and feel secure in the fact that justice was done and we took no part in it.
This is the purpose of the anti-hero.
I created Junco with the past she has for a reason. Yeah, it makes her more believable and it explains how she acquired her skills. But more than that, it gives you a chance to take a moment and ask yourself if her actions are justified. She’s not saved anyone yet – and Tier doesn’t count in my opinion. That was, as she admits to Gideon in book three (Flight), pure selfishness on her part. In fact, Junco has done a lot of horrible things. They are certainly piling up and by the end of the fourth book you should seriously be wondering if you’re rooting for the right girl.
So it’s a fine line with females who seek anti-hero status. They must be capable of unthinkable things but they must also be justified. And that implies a certain degree of ambiguous morality on both the part of the anti-heroine and the reader. In order to accept that they will do the job the rest of us refuse to do, you must not only believe they are capable, but also that there is no line they will not cross. And through it all, there’s one more thing you must never forget about the anti-hero.
No matter what team they’re playing for, they are most definitely not one of the good guys.