I have a problem.
What do these names have in common?
If you say they’re all fictional characters, well, yes, you are correct.
If you’re reading the list and you’re seeing a correlation between some of them, but you don’t know who William Pratt or Gabriel Gray are, would it make any difference to you if I added their more commonly-used nicknames to the list? Here. Here is an amended list. Just for you.
William “The Bloody” Pratt, a.k.a. Spike
Gabriel “Sylar” Gray
(And yes, I realize that Heathcliff, not actually being an Earnshaw, doesn’t ever get the surname, but the list looked weird if he only had one name, like Cher or Madonna. And also, I’ve always assumed he was Mr. Earnshaw’s bastard son, and therefore very much an Earnshaw, and also therefore, making his relationship with Cathy ever-so-much-more disturbing, if that’s even possible.)
Yes, they’re all fictional characters.
They’re also all complete dicks.
And I’m completely in love with all of them.
I have an addiction to the anti-hero.
Not just the anti-hero, either. The dickiest dick of an anti-hero, that’s the one I want. The one that would sell out his own mother and kill your sister and sleep with your best friend and eat all of your Teddy Grahams AND NEVER EVER BUY YOU ANY TO REPLACE THEM OR APOLOGIZE FOR IT.
There are heroes, there are anti-heroes, and there are these kind of guys. The Byronic anti-heroes. The broken ones. The ones that have been so scarred by something in their past that they’re never going to be any good or at all trustworthy but maybe, just maybe, you can be the one who fixes them. You can be the one person that uncovers the treasure, that unearths the jewel hiding behind the grime and filth, that reaches in and fixes what’s been broken and they’ll be loyal to you, and only you, for all time.
In fiction, it’s easy to see what’s so compelling about characters like these. They’re a hell of a lot more readable/watchable than the boring heroes or even the less ambiguous anti-heroes. They’re evil. They do evil things. But if they were just evil, they’d start being boring. We keep coming back because they have hidden motives, they have a rich interior monologue, and every once and a while, a bit of humanity will peep out of their dark places.
Bender will torment a bullied student, but then tell the story of how his father burned him with cigarettes.
Logan will force homeless men to fight for money, but then be forced to walk to the closet to pick out the belt that his father will beat him with that night.
Spike will stalk and kill people in the bloodiest fashion imaginable, but then remember people mocking him for having a crush on a popular girl when he was young.
And you can’t hate them. You can’t, because you see that humanity, and it softens you on them. You just know you could fix them, if given the chance. You see how loyal they are to the few people they let in behind their very high walls and you love them, despite their wrongdoings, no matter how bad they are.
The problem is, this doesn’t hold true in real life.
Let’s take Heathcliff. I assume most of you have read Wuthering Heights, either on your own or as an assignment for a class, or watched one of the million movie adaptations. In case you haven’t, or need a refresher, here you go:
Heathcliff is adopted by the Earnshaw family, and is supposedly a gypsy child (but it’s slightly hinted at that he might be the bastard child of Mr. Earnshaw, which makes for a much better backstory, in my opinion.) He falls in love with his foster sister, Catherine. Catherine and he have a tumultuous relationship, which is characterized by mental and physical abuse on both sides. When his foster father dies, his foster brother forces him to become a servant to the family. Catherine decides she wants to become a lady, and begins hanging out with a higher-class family and spurns Heathcliff, who is now her servant. She marries into the higher-class family despite loving Heathcliff, because he is too low-class for her. He is obsessive and furious and there is a lot of hitting and throwing and such. He runs off, makes a lot of money in shady ways, comes home rich, and seduces Catherine’s sister-in-law and marries her as revenge on both Catherine (who he knows still loves him) and her husband. Catherine is furious and dies not long afterwards in childbirth. Heathcliff abuses his wife in every way possible, for the simple reason that she isn’t Catherine, yet she still loves him completely. He then, over the years, continues to get revenge on everyone who has slighted him, while obsessing over his dead lover, by playing their children against one another. Eventually he dies because he is haunted by Catherine’s ghost.
This isn’t a very good recap, because it leaves out the simple fact that, no matter what Heathcliff does, and no matter how awful he is, and no matter how he treats the people around him (especially the women) like pawns on a chessboard, HE COMES ACROSS AS COMPLETELY JUSTIFIED. I don’t know how this works but it totally does. I have had a crush on Heathcliff and his obsessive love for his possible half-sister since I was twelve. No, it’s not a crush. I am head-over-heels for Heathcliff. I read it, and the intelligent part of me KNOWS what a dick he is, but the stupidly romantic part of me is very squishy and foolish and thinks “I WANT SOMEONE TO LOVE ME LIKE THAT.”
Here’s the problem.
I had a Heathcliff, once. I was young, and it seemed very romantic. Phone calls at all hours. Declarations of love after knowing one another for a few days. Threats of bodily harm if we could not be together forever. But come to find out, there’s nothing romantic about dating a Heathcliff. Heathcliff, whose passion and fury seem very good on paper, in real life, is scary. Really, really scary. Restraining-order scary.
You do not, under any circumstances, want a real-life Heathcliff, or Damon Salvatore, or John Bender. They are broken. YOU CAN’T FIX THEM. They have to fix themselves, or get professional help for the fixing. Maybe, once they’re fixed, they’ll be up for public consumption again, but until that day, they are off the market. Don’t even try to fix them. It’s a losing proposition. You’ll just frustrate yourself and you also run the risk of getting seriously hurt, in one way or the other, in the process.
I walk the fine line of loving my fictional anti-heroes and keeping away from anyone who shows signs of being this person in real life. There’s nothing inherently bad, I suppose, in loving the fictional anti-hero. Like I said, they’re a lot more watchable/readable. They’re richer, fuller characters. I am bored to tears by the traditional hero who swoops in with motives pure as the driven snow to save the day. The reluctant slacker anti-hero, drawn into service without any desire to be there, is a little more interesting but not much. I want the twisty anti-hero. I want a backstory full of shadow and substance and a character molded by forces that did not have his best interests at heart. I want a nature versus nurture struggle. I want a twirly mustache and a big black hat hiding a heart of gold.
The problem is when you let that bleed over into real life.
In real life, even when I think that’s what I want, I now know it’s not. I know what Heathcliff really looks like, when he steps off the page. A petulant child. A broken pouting bully. Someone who wants to take everyone around him down with him. I don’t want that or deserve that. I’ve had that. I did my time with that. No more of that.
Things are always prettier in fiction. I’ll keep my anti-heroes there, where they can wreak havoc safely for my entertainment purposes. I’ll stick with my fictional dark and twisty guys. I can close the book or turn off the television when I’m done with them. A twelve-step program (“Learn to love the bland! Learn to embrace the safe!”) probably wouldn’t do me much good. I’m not ready to give them up quite yet.