Imperfect heroes aren’t just ok, they’re the most interesting ones.
I may have been a little hard on Grimdark. Sure, sure, we’re all tired of Dark and Gritty Realistic worlds where everything sucks. But Grimdark did get one thing right: heroes aren’t perfect. Cyberpunk frequently acknowledges this as well; sometimes criminals and misanthropes are the only ones far enough outside the system to fight it, and they’re rarely misunderstood alter boys.
Where they frequently go wrong is not overcoming the hero’s imperfect past. It’s ok to have a vice at the beginning of the story. It’s ok to have a character who takes the easy path, or who falls from grace. But then they have to correct. It’s the big difference between the hero and the villain: the hero overcomes his flaws, atones for his sins, and ends on the path of righteousness. The villain, on the other hand, embraces evil. He may enjoy it, he may simply try to justify it, but he is unrepentant.
The true antihero, an unrepentant and evil protagonist, leaves us unfulfilled. Sure, he took on the bad guys, but he’s still a bad guy. The best of them are heroes in waiting, we just meet them before they begin their redemption arc. But the key to the happy ending is the redemption, that sunrise where the antihero starts his new life. Or, alternatively, that glorious moment where he overcomes his nature and sacrifices himself to go out a hero.
I also want to take a moment to delineate between flaws in general, and sins. Flawed characters are everywhere: the scared kid, the greedy mercenary, the bitter veteran. But do they give in to temptation and act on that flaw? If so, we need atonement for redemption. Han Solo never actually leaves the rebels to fight without him, so we’re ok with him as a roguish hero. It’s his nature to look after number one, but we really never see him do it. But imagine if Han took his money and ran, leaving the rebels to fight and die, and Luke just somehow made the shot and got away. It would take one hell of a redemption arc for us to like that money-grubbing mercenary again. We have a natural aversion to sinful behavior, it puts us off. To reconnect with the character, we need both contrition and a proportionate act of atonement. Without it, any future attempts to make them heroic feel hollow. We don’t believe the character growth.
Hmmm, almost like those old dudes were onto something. To use a non-Christian example, the ancient Greeks illustrated this via Nemesis: those who offended the gods were eventually undone, and usually in a way that comported with their offense. (Occasionally, a character did overcome and find redemption, Hercules being the most prominent example.) Not to get too Joseph Campbell, but we know what is right, we want heroes who do the right thing, and when they don’t we want them to show us that they’ve changed and will make things right. None of us are perfect, and it’s good to have characters that reflect that. But none of us are irredeemable, either, and our heroes should be redeemed in the end, or they aren’t really heroes at all.
“We could be heroes
Just for one day.”
– David Bowie, Heroes