Antiheroes, Self-Destruction, and the Ugly

There’s this point in Fight Club by Chuck Palahniuk where the narrator beats the shit out of “Angel Face” and as an explanation for his act of near annihilation says, “I wanted to destroy something beautiful I’d never have.”

The full quote is this:

“What Tyler says about the crap and the slaves of history, that’s how I felt. I wanted to destroy something beautiful I’d never have. Burn the Amazon rain forests. Pump chlorofluorocarbons straight up to gobble the ozone. Open the dump valves on supertankers and uncap offshore oil wells. I wanted to kill all the fish I couldn’t afford to eat, and smother the French beaches I’d never see. I wanted the whole world to hit bottom. Pounding that kid, I really wanted to put a bullet between the eyes of every endangered panda that wouldn’t screw to save its species and every whale or dolphin that gave up and ran itself aground.”

I’ve had a nose ring for more than 12 years.

Me.

To spite the face.

I don’t know if I’ve ever told anyone this, but the real reason why I got it pierced wasn’t because I thought I would like the way it looked. I got it pierced because I never particularly liked my face. I’ve hated the look of my nose for as long as I can remember. So for me, getting this piercing was an act of destruction. I wanted to defile my face with metal. This was back before every other woman you saw had a nose piercing, and when they did have one, they had a nose stud.

I always meant it to be ugly.

That’s not to say that body modification is destruction, but for me, in that moment, it was.

I’ve gotten used to my nose ring over time, and now it’s just a part of my face.

But all of the stupid, reckless things I’ve done in my life have been willful acts of self-destruction.

I’d love to tell you that my obsession with nutrition comes from a “treat my body as a temple” mentality, but that would be a complete and utter lie. It’s not for health. It’s the only defense I have against my competing desire to destroy myself.

It’s not just physical, of course. It’s not just that desire to scream at the top of my lungs and wipe everything off my desk with a swipe of my arm. Or to take everything I own and set it on fire. To run away and start over. I understand destruction on other levels. I understand what the narrator in Fight Club means when he says he wants the whole world to hit bottom.

Not to the death, but to the pain.

I gravitate toward the ugliness inside myself. I like it. I like my dark thoughts about the crushing futility of hope. I like disturbed things, broken things. I like the ugly bits in other people. I like the destructive bits, if not the consequences of that destruction. I like seeing people twisted up on the inside and how that manifests itself on the outside. Some people end up lashing out at others, being cruel or critical. Other people look inside themselves and create pretty things out of the ugly.

It’s not fair of me to prefer them, but I like people who have struggled more than people who spout happiness clichés ex nihilo. I have no interest in people who have coasted their way through a charmed life. They’re boring.

The fictional antihero was birthed out of this ugliness that lurks inside us, and these are the protagonists I’ve always gravitated toward.

Meursault. Black Widow. Sherlock Holmes. Tyler Durden.

It’s not easy to write antiheroes, I’ve found.

The reader has to like the character but be suspicious of them, to know they should probably be punished, or at least face consequences, but to not want them to be. You have to give them a dark back story or a window into their turbulent inner life without losing the action of the story. A well-written antihero forces the reader to turn inward and look at that ugliness lurking inside themselves, so as a writer you have to make that ugliness relatable without a gimmick.

I love a story about redemption—I do.  I love rooting for the underdog. I like the unexpected hero, too.

But I find more of myself in the antihero.

I find myself wanting to destroy something beautiful.

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