On a radio interview this week, I was asked about crafting anti-heroes, with the sub-text that Norton Edwards, the eponymous character of Murdering Mr. Edwards, is one. I responded in a vague, general way, but I’ve been pondering more about this, so here is the extended answer to the question! (It’s so much better when an interviewer tells you questions in advance, and you can put such thought into a response before it’s broadcast to the masses!) :-S
So, here are my “Thoughts on crafting the anti-hero.”
I don’t think of Mr. Edwards as the protagonist of the tales, so he is not an anti-hero by the normal definition of the term: a protagonist lacking heroic qualities of nobility, morality, and courage (etc). I think of the staff as the protagonists of their individual tales, with Edwards as the antagonist in each.
Of course, Edwards is the protagonist of his own life, but he would certainly not think of himself as an anti-hero either. He sees himself as the romantic lead. He believes he is dashing, fascinating, handsome and absolutely heroic in his pursuit of intelligent discourse against the apathy and ignorance of society. He imagines he is a great leader, inspiring the youth to connect to the great glories of literature. He sees in himself all the heroic qualities.
He’s right, too.
He is all those things. But just because he is charming and romantic when it suits him, does not mean that he is not also obnoxious, oblivious, and cruel. He behaves abominably to the women he entrances each school year. He has unsavory habits. In other words, Edwards, like most people, has negative qualities that he ignores or minimizes in the greater glory of his identity as hero of his own story.
As an anti-hero (if you must call him that) of the entire book, he is boring, pompous, and self-centred. No one is cheering for Edwards in these stories. We recognize him in the most irritating people we’ve ever worked with. He’s a pathetic creature to the outside world, but he is content in his own class room demesne, well satisfied with his role as benign dictator (or minor nobility, if you prefer) over the students in his purview. He is deluded about his nobility of purpose and his principles, but he is content.
In Murdering Mr. Edwards, this disconnect becomes the central conflict Edwards has between himself and each of the other members of the Canterbury High staff. He is oblivious to how he is perceived by others, and if he were aware, he would discount their perception as foolishly, ignorantly, incorrect.
I was asked how one crafts an anti-hero. My answer after consideration remains the same as I gave in the interview. You craft an anti-hero as you craft everything else in a book. You write the story in your head and then you edit to ensure what you see in your head matches what’s on the page. In a larger work, If you craft your characters well, they are complex creatures whose positive and negative qualities cause conflict within the reader. Even as they dislike the antagonist, they may find themselves feeling sorry for them, recognizing their fallible humanity. We see some redeeming qualities.
After all, in the real world, we don’t actually murder those annoying co-workers, do we?