Hero Worship

February 1, 2012 in Character & Plot Analysis, Eric Northman, Sookie & Eric, Symbolism & Motif

 

You’ve heard the argument a million times – “Eric is bad!” “Even Charlaine says so!” “Charlaine says some fans aren’t reading the same books she’s writing!”.

But what if being “bad” wasn’t such a bad thing after all?
This is a guest post by krtmd.

 

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It should come as no surprise to frequent visitors of Sookieverseblog that I am an unashamed Eric lover. I prefer him to all other characters in the series outside of Sookie, and truly believe he will end the series firmly entrenched in our beloved telepath’s life as her HEA. We’ve explored at length on this very blog lots of ways the books reveal things about Eric that lead us to this conclusion, most notably SVB’s “Loved by a Vampire” series. Charlaine Harris has said that ‘it’s all in the books’, but are there other things about the books that could lead us to the same conclusion? I would argue that it’s Eric’s very role in the series that tells us a lot.

So, step into my Wayback Machine, boys and girls, because Professor Krtmd is taking you back to high school English class. Let’s explore some themes in literature, shall we?

Q: Ms. Harris, You’ve continually said that the SSN are not romance novels, and I would add that Eric Northman is a bit of an antihero. Are you surprised by the reader response to his character and the intense interest in Sookie’s HEA?
A: Yes, very surprised. Some readers are sure they see a traditional romance hero in Eric, but he’s anything but that. He’s a murderer, many times over, and pragmatic. But he does love Sookie. However, romance novels always end with everyone happy except really bad guys, and that’s not the way I write.
(source – Washington Post online chat)

When I asked Ms. Harris this question online several months ago, I myself labeled Eric an antihero, and not to my surprise, she didn’t disagree with me. I was surprised, however, to find that some readers were disturbed by that characterization.

Why?

I’m here to tell you that not only is Eric very much an antihero, but also why you, as an Eric and Sookie shipper, should be happy about that.

So… what is an antihero?

According to our trusty friend Professor Wikipedia, an antihero is “generally considered to be a protagonist whose character is at least in some regards conspicuously contrary to that of the archetypal hero…”

Wait, back up. What’s an archetype?

Again, our friend the Professor defines an archetype as a “universally understood symbol or term or pattern of behavior, a prototype upon which others are copied, patterned, or emulated. Archetypes are often used in myths and storytelling across different cultures… Archetypes are likewise supposed to have been present in folklore and literature for thousands of years, including prehistoric artwork. The use of archetypes to illuminate personality and literature was advanced by Carl Jung early in the 20th century, who suggested the existence of universal contentless forms that channel experiences and emotions, resulting in recognizable and typical patterns of behavior with certain probable outcomes. Archetypes are cited as important to both ancient mythology and modern narratives”.

Huh?

It’s not that bad. Simply put, an archetype in literature gives us a framework for agreed upon behavior – the mother, the child, the trickster, the gambler, the hero, etc. We expect the archetypal characters to act in specific ways. The hero will be selfless, and always thinking of others. The villain will be devious and evil, seeking the destruction of others. These are purposeful simplifications of human behavior, but useful in literature or movies, for helping the audience to identify and understand a character’s behavior. Of course, in real life, seldom are humans so predictable. Which is precisely why the antihero is so attractive. The antihero has shades of both black and white, exhibiting non-hero qualities, like selfishness or even committing immoral acts, while simultaneously acting in a heroic fashion.

The antihero is often considered selfish, or judged harshly by his peers. He is surrounded by people who don’t value him, so he is distrustful of others, assuming the worst. He’s been betrayed, or misused, in the past, so he protects himself first. But that doesn’t mean that the antihero doesn’t have a moral compass. In fact, it’s precisely these past experiences that give the antihero a rather strong moral sense of what’s right and wrong, even if they act in ways outside of societal norms. “The ends justify the means” might be their motto.
The antihero, however, is not a villain. He or she will commit acts of a heroic nature, often at great personal risk. The antihero’s story will often be a journey, not necessarily one of redemption, but certainly one of change. And it’s because of their past experiences that when they come across someone of significance, worthy of notice, of their help, that they can recognize it and are willing to act accordingly.

Okay, then. Who are some other antiheroes?

In an article for The Cornell Daily Sun, Kory Mitchell had this to say about antiheroes:

Antiheroes are protagonists who, contrary to the Supermans and Atticus Finches of yore, display conspicuous personal flaws. Indeed, many are defined by their chronic lack of conviction, gruff demeanor, reprehensible behavior or general moral shortcomings. Often those around them perceive them to be ne’er-do-wells or outcasts until they perform a contradictory heroic deed. Yet, despite these chinks in the armor, or perhaps because of them, we as readers or audience members root for these characters. Though many antiheroes have unrealistically exaggerated “bad” characteristics, the presence of both a light side and a dark side still brings them closer to the truth of human character than the traditional hero. Plus, people with a little edge are just more fun. Thus we love them more deeply because they are more relatable.

He goes on to cite several examples from literature, movies and television, including Sydney Carton from Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities, Dexter, and my personal favorite, Fight Club’s Tyler Durden.

“All the ways you wish you could be, that’s me. I look like you wanna look, I fuck like you wanna fuck, I am smart, capable and most importantly, I am free in all the ways that you are not.” – Tyler Durden

According to Listserve, the top 10 movie antiheroes are The Crow, Mad Max, Snake (from Escape from New York), Dirty Harry, Tyler Durden, Clint Eastwood’s ‘man with no name’ from the westerns, The MacManus Brothers, D-Fens, Leon from The Professional, and Travis Bickle from Taxi Driver.

Obviously, some of these famous antiheroes are pretty nasty indeed, but they also have some very real and likable characteristics that make them sympathetic to the audience. Leon is a cold-blooded assassin and yet he takes tender care of the young girl he befriends. Travis Bickle is an outright psychopath, but we find him endearing enough to worry about his outcome. All of the movie antiheroes cited have one thing in common – they’ve been hardened by the world around them and their circumstances, until something comes along to shake their foundation.

Oh, hey there! You sure are…attractive

Through Sookie, Charlaine Harris goes to great lengths to remind us how physically attractive Eric is – he’s all man, his hair long and blonde, his body built for swinging a sword. Sookie is tremendously attracted to him physically, and they have a good sex life.

Although there are many of us who fantasize about such a man, and such a sex life, for ourselves, I think there are other things about Eric, or any antihero that make them attractive characters – and I don’t mean in the physical sense.

Author of the ASOIAF series (which is riddled with antiheroes – Jaime, Sandor, Tyrion, etc.) George R. R. Martin, recently interviewed Bernard Cornwell for the Amazon blog Omnivoracious, and they talked a little about the attractiveness of the “grey” characters.

GRRM: A familiar theme in a lot of epic fantasy is the conflict between good and evil. The villains are often Dark Lords of various ilks, with demonic henchmen and hordes of twisted, malformed underlings clad in black. The heroes are noble, brave, chaste, and very fair to look upon. Yes, Tolkien made something grand and glorious from that, but in the hands of lesser writers, well … let’s just say that sort of fantasy has lost its interest for me. It is the grey characters who interest me the most. Those are the sort I prefer to write about… and read about. It seems to me that you share that affinity. What is it about flawed characters that makes them more interesting than conventional heroes?

BC: Maybe all our heroes are reflections of ourselves? I’m not claiming to be Richard Sharpe (God forbid), but I’m sure parts of my personality leaked into him (he’s very grumpy in the morning). And perhaps flawed characters are more interesting because they are forced to make a choice . . . a conventionally good character will always do the moral, right thing. Boring. Sharpe often does the right thing, but usually for the wrong reasons, and that’s much more interesting!

Antiheroes are attractive to audiences because they are relatable. I’d venture to say that most of us could easily find and point out our most undesirable characteristics. We are all flawed. To read about the selfless hero, who always acts morally or responsibly is not only a bit boring, but it points out the very things about ourselves we don’t like.

The antihero can also save the day, so to speak, but he can do it in a way that’s much more intelligible to the audience. Perhaps he does so grudgingly, or for more than one reason. Maybe he acts in spite of himself, or commits a heinous act for the greater good. Whatever the case, this grey area leaves us more to chew on, more to think about – and it’s considerably less boring to read, or watch.

Eric is attractive to us, not just because he’s hot and has amazing sexabilities, but because he’s a grey character. We wonder at his motivations. We can’t always predict what he’ll do next or how he will react. We ponder, at great length and often around these parts, why he does what he does. This is what keeps us waiting, year after year, book after book, dying to know what happens next. And despite her “surprise” at fan reaction to Eric, Charlaine Harris damn well knows it.

Ok, so show me how Eric is an antihero…

Actually, this part is easy. Let’s start with the bad, shall we?

• Eric has committed immoral acts, including murder. Eric is a vampire. He has existed for centuries, long before there was synthetic blood to drink. “Young vampires are so hungry; at first, I killed even when I didn’t mean to.” –Eric, Dead and Gone
• Eric can be selfish. In Club Dead, he sends Sookie to Jackson, Mississippi to look for Bill to save his own skin with then Queen Sophie Anne. He also admits he will be friends with Sookie as long as it’s in his best interest to do so.
• Eric threatens others, including Sookie, with violence in order to get what he wants. As early as their second meeting in Dead Until Dark, when Eric summons Sookie and Bill to Fangtasia to help find the thief, Sookie knows that Eric will use those she loves against her in order to get her assistance.
• In Dead as a Doornail, he even threatens to kill Sookie himself, in what I would argue is the sexiest murder threat ever, in order to rid himself of having to think about her anymore.

But, like the other antiheroes I mentioned Eric is slowly and subtly changed by his relationship with Sookie. He begins to do things for her that might not be in his best interest.

• In All Together Dead, Eric steps in when Andre tries to force Sookie into a blood exchange in Rhodes. Now before anyone jumps all over this, I will state unequivocally that, yes, Eric benefits personally from having Sookie bonded to him. But it was also at great risk to himself that he stepped in against Andre’s wishes.
• In From Dead to Worse, Eric surprises Sookie with marriage, vamp style, in Fangtasia. Does Eric benefit from tying Sookie to him, yet again? You bet. But he also makes an enemy of his new boss, Victor Madden, in the process. And Sookie doesn’t have to go to Las Vegas.
• In Dead and Gone, Eric wades into a conflict between the fairies to protect Sookie, the woman he loves. In fact, he and Pam further anger Victor Madden in order to render aid to Sookie when she’s caught in the fairy war.
• Even Pam has noticed that the usually pragmatic Eric has changed. “Truly, Eric’s a great vampire, and very practical. But he isn’t practical nowadays – not when it comes to you.” -Pam, Dead in the Family.

Compare and Contrast Time

A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away…

George Lucas wrote a little series of movies that changed cinema forever, yadda, yadda, yadda. But he also gave us one of the greatest popular culture antiheroes of all time.

In a nutshell, when we first meet Han Solo, he’s a mercenary for hire. A smuggler looking out for number one – himself. He’s not in it for the ‘revolution, sister. He’s in it for the money.’ But something comes along that slowly changes his mind. Hmmm. Could it be a woman?

It can be argued that Han sticks around the Rebel Alliance for so long because, against his better judgment, he befriends both Luke and Leia. Their lives begin to matter to him. He starts to risk his own life in order to save theirs. And to show his commitment to Leia, he joins the Alliance in the final movie and eventually admits his love for her.

Is this starting to sound familiar?

I’ll go one step further. The object of Han’s affection? Leia? Yep, she’s an orphan. A princess, in fact, with some strange, secret relatives. Oh yeah, and she’s got some special powers. Other people want her dead, and she needs to be protected, although most of the time, she ends up rescuing herself or the hero. (Yeah – it’s a little creepy isn’t it?)

Now I will say this. While in both cases, these men make changes in their lives, in neither case is at the behest of the woman involved. Eric isn’t changed by Sookie, or even wants to change because of Sookie, nor does Sookie really have a desire for Eric to change. Rather, Eric is changed by the love he feels for Sookie. In fact, both Eric and Han resist their feelings for a long time, choosing to push away rather than embrace the woman they are so conflicted about. But once they’ve made their peace with how they feel, well then it’s game on.

So, in conclusion…

I think a strong case can be made for Eric as a classic antihero. While demonstrating several conspicuous character flaws, Eric can also behave in a heroic fashion – at least when it comes to the woman he loves. He might have gained significant political power by marrying Sookie, but he also prevented Victor from carting her off to serve Felipe de Castro in the process. Most importantly, I think we will see Eric make some choices (*cough* Queen of Oklahoma *cough*) in the final two books that will show unequivocally how he feels about Sookie, and how much of himself he’s willing to risk. Perhaps we will even see a fulfillment of the promise he made way back in Dead to the World.

Popular culture contains numerous examples of antiheroes, and we’ve examined only a small sampling in this post. Many of these classic antiheroes share several character flaws with our Viking; acting in one’s own best interest, threatening others with harm in order to get what they want. These are not necessarily the ideals of society, but certainly effective motivators all the same.

And I’ve also admitted I have a Star Wars obsession in a public forum.

Oh, and by the way…

In the end, Han Solo gets the girl.

Image: Blue Milk Special

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