Guest Post: Antiheroes … or Not by Betsy Dornbusch

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Betsy Dornbursch at Red Rocks

Emissary coverAntiheroes … or Not
by Betsy Dornbusch

Betsy is the author of a dozen short stories, three novellas, and three novels. She also is an editor with the speculative fiction magazine Electric Spec and the longtime proprietress of Sex Scenes at Starbucks. You also can follow Betsy on Twitter.

Her most recent novel in the Books of the Seven Eyes, Emissary, hit shelves Tuesday, April 7:

WHAT IT’S ABOUT: A religious uprising in the peaceful land of Monoea threatens its ruler, Draken, and his new Queen, thus forcing Draken to return to his homeland.

WHY YOU MIGHT LIKE IT: The plot one-ups itself by introducing a twist that reveals ulterior motives with much more devious intentions.

You can find it at: Tattered Cover | Powells | Amazon | Barnes & Noble

After writing a different blog post on a completely unrelated subject, I came to the conclusion that well-written characters are so often the products of their worlds. Disclosure: I kind of lump backstory and worldbuilding together as a Thing. The past and current world around them not only inform character but are integral. As in, you can’t really remove a character from her past or her world.

This is important to Exile and Emissary, the first two Books of the Seven Eyes, because Draken is very much removed from his own life, not once, but twice. Because I’m mean and like to keep my characters on their toes. What he cannot escape are his past and the culture he’s presently operating in, whatever culture that may be.

And so when I had it pointed out to me that I like to write dark characters (my heart, it is goth) and that Draken of my books Exile and Emissary is an antihero, I started putting world and character together and wondering… Do I? Is he?

In our analog world antiheroes run the gamut from a fairy tale Robin Hood with arrows that never actually pierce flesh to Jax from Sons of Anarchy who bears his mother’s blood on his very white tennis shoes. The mostly likely way to describe an antihero is someone who does bad things for … reasons. The reasons themselves don’t have to be good or bad, necessarily, just believable and relatable. Generally, antiheroes are often likeable, or at least admirable. It seems the more unlikeable and rough they are, the more admirable their reason might be for doing the awful things they do.

In Draken’s world, I could argue that the ugly things he does, mostly killing people in the way of his next goal, aren’t always awful actions. Sometimes, like in war, they are just required actions. The killing he does is made necessary by circumstance and culture. There’s a reason people carry weapons in all the countries under the Seven Eyes; killing is a regular, ordinary necessity. He also feels guilty as hell over it. Not a typical antihero trait.

I guess where Draken might fall more into the antihero camp is when it comes to his magic. He’s got quite a lot, it manifests in weird ways, and he keeps it secret. His reasons behind the secrecy are understandable. He was raised in a country that had outlawed it. He’s never going to be comfortable with it. He doesn’t really like or trust the gods (the Seven Eyes) who gave it to him, either. He views the magic not as a gift, but a curse. His magical power, and the responsibility that comes with it, scares him. That he has so much blood on his hands doesn’t do much to ease that fear.

I’m not sure his secrecy around the magic makes him an antihero. But his use of magic might. He doesn’t use it in the ways the gods intended, but mostly to serve himself and satisfy his own motivations. Bad boy, Draken.

Or is he, really? His past, worldview, and culture all serve to direct his instincts. Make no mistake, he does terrible things with his magic. But Draken may know things we don’t. He certainly is gaining an understanding of his world and how to realize his needs within it. Often people die, but often people benefit. I could argue, from the effects of his magic, he slides over into the “hero” category pretty easily, all things considered. But of course, I can only consider what I know about the world, what I know about my character, and the influence of my own, real worldview.

But I’m not writing in a vacuum, not anymore. The worldview of the reader is paramount, involves their own world, their own experience, and frankly, trumps mine. Readers have to take what they will from his actions, piece them together with what I give them of his world, and label him their own way. No story is the same for any two people, and where some consider Jax, for instance, a pure antihero (or just purely bad…the argument could be made), I consider him a classic tragic figure. You might be a pacifist but able to accept story violence in some occassions and not in others. You might be a feminist who can accept murder as a plot device, but not killing. You might be a reader who doesn’t mind killing, but thinks Draken is a little wack based on his world and motivations.

So sure, lets call Draken an antihero, even if people from his world might consider him a pure hero. Or better yet, You, reader over there! You call him what you want. I’ll be over here fussing in the grey areas, watching readers watch Draken slide from one label to another.

I guess that’s the real allure of the antihero. They won’t be pinned down, they can’t be taken at face value, and they behave in unexpected ways. Antihero is a fluid term, encompassing as much or as little as the reader assigns it. The Antihero just might be the new Classic Hero of today’s worldly, thinking reader.


If you’re a fan of antiheroes, check out some of our podcast interviews:

AISFP 287 – Janet Morris and Chris Morris

AISFP 259 – Grimdark Character Arcs with Ragnarok Publications

AISFP 234 – Scott Lynch, Republic of Thieves

And reviews and interviews:

ROGUES by George R.R. Martin and Gardner Dozois

Fantasy Writers — What Class Are You?


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