In traditional storytelling, the brave male hero acted honourably, defeating his foe in battle, and winning ‘the prize’ of a beautiful princess. His identity was defined by notions of chivalry—the Knight’s code—and his belief in God. All these things were part of the same divine framework, the natural order of things in a God-given world.
In Chaucer’s The Knights Tale Palamon and Arcite compete to win ‘the prize’ of princess Emily’s love (she demurely submits herself to marrying whichever of the two wins her in battle). The story describes a society with a fixed and ridged social hierarchy. Here everything is as it should be, designed by the almighty: the monarch ruling by divine right; the landed gentry obediently serving their monarch; the knights, in turn, serving the local aristocracy; and the peasants, toiling in the fields. In this world, every man, woman and child knew their place, and their responsibilities within the divine order. Even some modern day characters like Frank Serpico in the film Serpico are absolutely virtuous, never compromising their values, never tainted by wrongdoing.
Chaucer gently humours the Knights’ woodenness—this was, after all, the author of the bawdy Wife of Bath’s Tale (a companion piece to The Knights Tale that also appears in The Canterbury Tales). In reality people tend to cut corners. They cheat a little, say ‘white lies’, and do dumb things. That’s how people are—doing what they have to do to survive in a hard and complicated world. Contemporary storytellers try to create characters who act out of necessity, because it makes them more believable and realistic, showing them with a range of flaws, paradoxes and ironies. People tend to bend the rules in times of economic hardship. Parents and leaders do what they must do to protect their families and communities, striving to pay their rent and bills, keeping the system happy, hoping to live with decency and respect. Characters may face difficult choices, or be forced into situations without any choice in the matter. A ruthless enemy might force them to do things they’re ashamed of. They may end up motivated to do the ‘wrong thing’, even if it’s for the ‘right reasons’—to protect the innocent, to bring criminals to justice—to achieve these goals by causing the least amount of harm.
These ‘rule benders’ might be law keepers like Harry Callahan in Dirty Harry who find it necessary to circumvent paperwork and bureaucracy, doing what it takes to capture violent criminals, or parents ‘stealing’ or doing awful things to feed their children, like Katie in I, Daniel Blake. These characters live with the tension of trying to be the ‘good guy’ while also carrying out their responsibilities—hopefully, without turning into ‘the monster’ (a version of themselves without a moral core). Unlike the classical heroes of old, with their chivalric codes and absolute notions of honour, most people cannot afford to be completely virtuous.
Finally, there are the characters who are neither virtuous nor willing to only do just what is necessary to restore the balance. They wilfully desire to upset the balance, to prod and provoke the world, to be depraved and cruel. These characters can do terrible things. They have twisted motivations for their dark actions. They may be crazed or deluded, leading them into pointless fights, or fuelled by unhinged emotion. Or they might be possessed by evil or greed. They choose to cause maximum harm, to create chaos, to maim and destroy. They think nothing of cheating and stealing, it probably comes naturally to them. They feel no remorse, guilt or shame.
These callous characters may have arrived at a forsaken place of perpetual wrongdoing through a gradually descent, or suddenly, either born into it or quick learners. Whatever the cause, they have lost their values and are beyond redemption, lost to common sense, consciously choosing evil, or unable to recognise their callousness. This disconnect from our common humanity is a core trait of ‘the monster’, the crazed beast, or the mindless machine that wreaks havoc. Whatever it is, it’s incapable of guilt, shame or remorse—incapable of empathy. Some fascistic heroes like Judge Dredd walk a fine line between necessity and callousness.
The classical hero valiantly does what is ‘right’, while the contemporary hero does what is necessary to beat injustice and repression. The anti-hero also does what they must to discovery who they are, to fight the system, or find freedom and inner peace. Callous characters are usually less complicated, monstrous beings—psychopaths, or tragic characters drawn into darkness. And yet the absolutely ‘virtuous’ chivalric knight also feels alarmingly fascistic with his objectification of women and his fixed, masculine view of the world.