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3/6/2012


Heroes and Antiheroes
Fleetwood Robbins


        The letter H!
      eroes are all alike; every antihero is heroic in his own way.


First, excuse me for using a masculine possessive pronoun, especially because the antihero I'll get around to writing about is a woman... Well, maybe not a woman, but she is certainly female. And forget the grammatical gender of hero. A hero is a hero—man or woman, beast or beauty. Perhaps I should just move on.

What we have above is a fantasy version of the Anna Karenina principle—the idea that the factors contributing to a successful interpretation of a state of being (in this case, being heroic) are both limited and very specific. The factors contributing to the opposing state (in this case, what it means to be an antihero) can be varied and wide ranging. Heroes are morally good, courageous, honest, and self-sacrificing. There are perhaps a few more characteristics, but you get the picture: A deficiency in any of those characteristics will not result in a hero. Everything has to be just right, like it is with Superman or Tim Tebow.

The antihero, on the other hand, has the luxury of being a lying, morally-ambiguous coward. Was I right to kick that puppy? he might ask (to use an intentionally exagerrated example). It had a look in its eye like it might bite me, or maybe chew my supple new boots. They're a gift from the gods, you know... so new that they probably still smell like the unicorn hide they were made from.

Okay, we're obviously crossing the line into villain territory, but just to make a point. Maybe this figure has a deep-seated fear of intimacy, and even the unconditional love of a dog causes him such psychological pain that he reacts in the only way he knows how. It could be that this antihero comes from generations of cat-shifters that war with other lycanthropes, and hating dogs is literally part of his genetic makeup. The point is, a lot of things can make a person do bad things. It doesn't mean they are bad. In my opinion, it makes them more real.

It's generally easier for me to understand a character like Thomas Covenant—a cynical, dissociative pariah who defines himself as an actor in the center an epic struggle—than it is to understand the absolute heroism of a character like Galahad, whose purity of spirit and purpose are part and parcel to his quest for the grail. I might grow a little restless along the way if I were Galahad. I just don't get the lily-white-soul thing. I mean, I like my coffee black—just like my magic.

These are the things I talk about with authors: black coffee and straying knights. No, I'm kidding. Really, it's more along the lines of questions like: Who do you want to write about? What does the character care about? What does she want? If an author has a good grasp on these things, it really comes through in the story they tell. With those questions answered, actions take on context. The story moves from character motivation rather than from plot necessity.

So, several months ago, when I first began corresponding with Tim Pratt (whose debut Forgotten Realms novel, Venom in Her Veins, comes out today), I was excited that he proposed a nature versus nurture experiment—in particular, a traditionally evil humanoid raised among humans, as a human. It's okay; I know what you're thinking. R. A. Salvatore has pretty well covered the antihero-from-an-evil-race thing already. Of course that's true, but everyone in those stories knows that Drizzt is drow. It's kind of obvious to those around him. The thing that separates Pratt's character is that she doesn't know who (or what) she is, and neither do many of the people around her. She looks and acts like a human.

At this point I should tell you that I am spoiling nothing. Even an inattentive reader won't be surprised by Zaltys's lineage. You see, Zaltys is a pureblood yuan-ti whose snakelike characteristics are even more subtle than normal. She's found as a baby in the jungle, orphaned like the last line of a paragraph on a new page. She has a future but no past. And that future is with a caravan of traders searching the Southern Lluirwood for the exotic wares they peddle in the city of Delzimmer. In short, her racial identity is hidden from her. As she gets older, growing up in both the city as a merchant and ranging the jungle for the materials her family trades, she begins to be visited by dreams of snakes and has curious encounters that make her wonder just how different she might be.

Ultimately, the story is about the search for identity and all the uncertainty that comes along with it. It's a book about understanding oneself, and it's about coming of age. But it's also about kicking ass, and that's what important. Zaltys is one tough. . . er, snakelet? And she is most certainly heroic in a way that only could be considered antiheroic. Tim Pratt has done a great job breathing life into the character. Hopefully this is just the beginning for Zaltys. For Tim, as a writer, it's less a beginning than it is full stride. He's a great author with a nice bibliography under his belt—and he's an avid D&D fan who I am proud to bring to the Forgotten Realms.

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