Heroes and Anti-Heroes: Have The Characters We Love Changed?

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Annex - Peck, Gregory (To Kill a Mockingbird)_02Two nights ago, Bob and I watched the classic “To Kill a Mockingbird,” for, like, the bazzilionth time. In my opinion, it takes its rightful place on the list of the most beautifully-made films ever. In  Harper Lee’s powerful story,  Atticus Finch, a small town lawyer in the 1930s deep South is charged with defending a black man against the rape of a white woman. In the process, his children witness not only his love for them, but his compassion for the vulnerable, his ethics, and his unwavering commitment to standing up for what he believes in.

For some reason, in my physical and digital space the last couple of weeks, this film was on other people’s minds, too. At the Whidbey Island Writers’ Conference, as we were discussing the development of our stories’ main characters, a workshop presenter posed these questions:

“Are they writing characters like Atticus Finch anymore?”

“Are we moving more toward  ‘anti-hero’ characters?”

The instructor at the conference used Breaking Bad’s main character, Walter White, as an example. (As a disclaimer, I haven’t watched the show myself, but have read a lot about it and heard other people discuss and dissect the episodes, mostly in next-day Facebook posts.)  If I am wrong in anything I say here about White’s character, please feel free to correct me.

I see White as an ‘anti-hero.’ His ultimate sin appears to be loving his family so much that he will do anything to ensure their survival after he dies, presumably from his diagnosis of terminal lung cancer. To achieve this goal, he gets into the business of making and selling crystal meth.

And yet because of his motives, he remains a sympathetic character,  despite his choice to go down a criminal path.

But in the end, is Walter’s top priority still his family, or does he morph from sort-of hero to villain?

Are there any heroes on Breaking Bad?

The Hero and the Anti-hero: Atticus Finch and Walter White

In “To Kill a Mockingbird,” we had a sharp contrast between good and evil, and that is what made Atticus such a powerful character. I instinctively knew who to root for, who to believe in. And while “too good” can make for an unbelievable story character, still I need someone who I want to succeed—against all odds.

I found him in Atticus Finch.

A scene that still moves me to tears takes place in the county courthouse, after Atticus has lost Tom Robinson’s case. The spectators on the second floor, many of them black people, are standing in respect as Finch prepares to leave the courtroom.

One man, hat in hand, tells Scout, “Miss Jean Louise, stand up. Your father’s passing.”

This one scene, only a minute or so in length, tells us so much about Atticus Finch:

On the other hand, the character of Walter White is flawed and conflicted. We don’t always like him. But in order for the story to work, we need to cheer him on, to see him overcome the obstacles in his life.

White reminds me of Jean Valjean’s character in Les Misérables, but on a larger scale. As Les Mis begins, Jean Valjean is faced with a moral dilemma. Stealing the loaf of bread is wrong, but seeing his sister’s children die of hunger is even less acceptable to him. So is he morally justified to commit a crime to save his nieces’ and nephews’ lives?

Perhaps it wasn’t a storybook ending, but through the Breaking Bad series, we come to understand the choices Walter White made and wonder if we would do the same things given the same circumstances.

Is the anti-hero the new hero?

Or has he/she to some degree or another always been around?

In our society today, it is not always easy to sort everything into right and wrong, black and white. It takes more thought, more weighing than that.

Life is more complicated.

What do you think? As a writer, reader and/or viewer, are you more drawn to morally ambiguous characters?

Can you still root for an anti-hero?

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Comments

  1. says

    Judy, I love this post. So much to think about here. I am drawn to the stronger characters like Finch in my reading and movie viewing. I have not watched “Breaking Bad,” just because of the story line. I think comparing White to Jean Valjeans’ characters is kind of like comparing apples to oranges, with Jean Valjeans being the apple. How many people does he hurt by stealing a loaf of bread. Certainly the baker has lost his investment and Valjeans perhaps loses some of his self-respect. But White is making and selling a drug that hurts many people. Family or no family, it’s just plain wrong. What kind of an example is he setting for his children and the rest of the world? Antiheros of that ilk don’t get my sympathy. They may get my pity, but that’s about it.

    • says

      Joan,

      Apples and oranges, definitely. I brought Jean Valjean up because I was conflicted, looking at his character and Walter White. Valjean stole in a desperate attempt to save his sister’s kids. And What did he get? Years and years in prison. When I read Les Mis the first time, as a teenager, I was outraged that the “system”would do such a thing to him. Walter is fighting “the system,” too, as is Atticus, but he (Walter) is, as you say, hurting many more people in much deeper ways in the process. I am not sure I would be able to relate to White’s character, but then again, I have never watch an episode, not even one. So who knows? Thanks for making these excellent points. It’s fun hearing all the different perspectives on this.

  2. says

    I saw a few episodes of Breaking Bad, and, from what little I know, you’re right about Walt being an anti-hero.

    I had hoped the show would explore the psychological conflicts more than it did in the few episodes I saw, so I quit watching.

    I think I could root for an appropriately nuanced anti-hero. It’s nice to think we’d all do the right thing in the a tough situation, but if I’m the one with a gun to my kid’s head and being told I have to do some terrible act to save my child….I don’t know.

    • says

      Christy,

      My daughter, who is an actor in NYC and a lover of analyzing characters and stories, just started watching the Breaking Bad episodes,starting with season one. So far (she is on episode seven), she is raving about the development of the character— especially Walter White— and the relationships and choices they make as the stories unfold. She claims that BB is one of the best television shows she has ever seen. The problem I have is when a character does something for his children but in the process wrecks so many other peoples’ lives. Perhaps I am still looking for “heroes.” : )

  3. says

    This is an interesting article, I personally love Breaking Bad and feel that Walter White is the epitome of a hero (but I am biased). He is not quite such an obvious hero and goes about saving his family in a very different way, but the sentiments are the same to me.
    I am an author who writes non-fiction but would love the opportunity to write myself a fiction book. I haven’t decided yet if mine would be a classic or anti- hero?

    • says

      Teena,

      It is so interesting to hear the different perspectives and viewpoints on this. The question I am left with is, “Can you be a hero to some people and a villain to others?” Makes us do some deep thinking, which is what a good story does. Yes, the “fiction bug” hits some of us non-fiction writers from time to time. It would be fun to try one.

  4. says

    I think we’re a bit into apples versus oranges territory here. Walter White is a character on TV which is a cool medium as Marshall McLuhan called it. We are more at a distance from him than we are with book characters or even big screen movie ones because those are much warmer media. We clutch a book close to our hearts physically as well as emotionally. A film story surrounds us and invades us. A television character is at more of a remove and we can tolerate more from him in his cool place at a safer separation from our innards. That’s my opinion anyway. BTW another TV character this anti hero/hero divide applies to is Don Draper in Mad Men. That boy-slut dances on the down side and is definitely no Atticus Finch who happens to be my quintessential good man model. And could anybody possibly have played him better than Gregory Peck?

    • says

      What a thought-provoking comment, Alice. It is very interesting that you feel more of an emotional separation with television/film characters than with book characters. I had never thought of it that way and I’m not sure that is true for me. As a writer, I tend to see them all as stories, without differentiating a lot when it comes to the medium. But you give me more to think about. (Love it when that happens!)

      Since we pulled the plug on cable TV 7+ years ago, I regret that I haven’t seen Mad Men. But my daughter tells me I would love it, so perhaps I might rent some. And yes, Peck was the perfect Atticus Finch. Our anniversary edition “To Kill a Mockingbird” DVD came with a documentary on the making of the film and when interviewed, Peck said that he read the script once, then called Harper Lee and said, “I must make this movie.” I can’t imagine any other actor in that role.

  5. Elaine Meigs says

    Atticus Finch vs. Walter White? I only saw the final version of Breaking Bad (after an on-line crash course of the series). Though it could be argued it is more interesting and “realistic” to create ambiguous characters, I find cleanly defined characters very satisfying as well. When I compare these two men I see three main differences: their reaction to loss, their measures of success, their avenues to monetary gain and their differences with regard to idealism vs. cynicism. Atticus chooses to defend an underdog against impossible odds and in a town and at a time in which he is likely to be ostracized for it. He loses his case with heartbreaking dignity, then looks after those who are hurting in the aftermath. His success is not measured by a court case, but by his faithfulness in carrying out his duty as a lawyer. He uses his education to defend the weak and chooses a conventional and ethical path in which to do that. He makes personal decisions that require hard work, character, humility and honor. All very idealistic aims. Walter White, on the other hand, does the reverse. He learns he has an illness and even though he is well educated and very intelligent, he decides to take an unlawful path to quick money in order to support his family. His measure of success is dollars earned, so any shortcut will do, regardless of the price paid by those he hurts. His is an angry and cynical orientation. He was skillfully written as sympathetic, but what does that say about us? That we know we are complex beings, containing both angels and demons, but also, sadly, that we are able to root for a destroyer if we can be convinced the means are justified. And that’s what I find most disturbing.

    • says

      Elaine,

      Wow. You have said so much here. I hate to think that our definition of “hero” has changed so much between Atticus and Walter. I think that Atticus would defend his children in a minute, stand up for them, even give his life for them. But I am not sure he would commit crimes in their name. I cannot really define the differences between the two, since I have never watched even one episode of “Breaking Bad.” One thing I know: These two characters certainly sent different messages to their children. You have nailed the ultimate question here: does the end really justify the means? Lots to think about.

  6. Elaine Meigs says

    One additional thought…We root for Walter White’s cunning and cleverness, but with Atticus we root for his decency.

  7. Kellye Rowland says

    I have so much to say about this but I want to corral my thoughts in a coherent way. Part of me thinks the comparison of these two characters as if they are the same is indeed apples and oranges but I want to be succinct in my analysis before I speak. I just finished that last season that is available on Netflix for Breaking Bad, so I feel I am qualified to speak about it, having seen both “shows” as it were; although it seems some on this thread (and even the author!–hi mom!) have not even seen more than a couple episodes of Breaking Bad. Which I find kind of weird if you’re going to form an opinion about it but…at any rate, I’ll be back. :)

  8. Kellye Rowland says

    Ok, I’ve thought a bit about this and these are my random wonderings. I wonder if anyone is really seeing Walter White as a hero-anti or otherwise. Maybe this show was made to show other aspects of the human psyche besides our “best” aspects, in order to show facets of who we could be, given certain circumstances. I think it’s common for us as humans to say, “oh I would *never* do that” or “I would *never* kill anyone no matter what the circumstances” (outside of self-defense), and I think we have to say this to ourselves because entertaining the alternative is pretty disturbing. As an actor though, I think I have a little bit different a slant on what I may or may not be capable of, and I have a chance to explore it through embodying characters with my very body and self and soul, really. I wonder how difficult it has been for Bryan Cranston to get into this role, but I read the other day that Sir Anthony Hopkins, arguably one of the greatest actors of our time, wrote Cranston a fan letter basically, saying that it (Breaking Bad) is some of the finest acting he has ever seen. That’s some praise I’d say! But I digress…

    Atticus Finch’s story also came in a completely different era, which I think is an important point of divergence in this comparison. His actions could indeed be called heroic, especially for that time in our history and Walter White’s actions are really incomparable to his for this reason and for other reasons as well. White never positions himself as a savior of any kind, morally at least. When he is diagnosed with cancer, he simply wants to leave his family taken care of. His actions feel more personal than Finch’s, whose actions feel larger to me, a taking a stand in a moral, big picture kind of way. But having six episodes left to watch in the entire series I can tell you that White completely breaks down into a person who is no longer recognizable. I am trying to pinpoint the point where it happens, and it’s definitely in seasons 4-5. But again, I have seen the gradual transformation of his character in a way that someone who has never seen the show, or only a couple episodes, can’t possibly take into account. An important question that comes to mind for me at this point is: “how much has a character changed in the arc of their story?”

    Atticus Finch is a pretty steadfast character is he not? It has been a while since I’ve seen the film so forgive me if I’m forgetting something major, but does he really go through any kind of big, life altering transformation of spirit in the way that Walter White (good or bad) most certainly does? This is an important question to ask when talking about characters I think, as of course all the writers will know! I guess I may have digressed a bit from the original question of whether the heroes we root for have changed, but I think at the end of the day, comparing these two characters as equivalent in very many ways is very difficult. But I love talking about characters, as they are reflections of what humans can be. When we see the choices a character makes, we see a little bit further into our own humanity, and I believe this can only be a good thing. Thanks for listening to my thoughts!

    • says

      I might have known that you would have some thought-provoking things to say in this conversation. I think I was just looking at two characters, admittedly from two completely different eras. You make a lot of sense with your comment about the disintegration of White’s character that can only really be seen over time. I knew it was dangerous to propose this topic, this comparison, without full knowledge of Walter White’s ambitions and motives.

      But what struck me even more about what you said was the part about the character arc. For sure, Atticus is a major character in “To Kill a Mockingbird,” but the main character is Scout. It is she who changes during the story as she learns that her “safe” life in a small southern town is perhaps not the norm. That other people suffer and sometimes only from having a different color of skin. Atticus looms large in the book (and film) but he is who Scout is watching—for cues about life, and justice, and compassion. Scout is the real protagonist. But Atticus is a hero in his own way, a hero in his young daughter’s eyes. So perhaps it was wrong to compare the other two (Atticus and Walter). I do think that overall, though, that we accept (even embrace?) more flawed heroes these days. Great discussion!

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