Best of: Antiheros

Antihero: n. a central character who lacks conventional heroic attributes (such as being morally good, idealistic, and/or courageous)

There is nothing I love more than a well-drawn antihero. In fact, some of my all-time favorite characters fit into this archetype. I’m not sure what it is about watching a morally ambiguous protagonist navigate their way through life that is so captivating. Maybe I can relate to them better than I can a traditional hero? Their shades of gray are endearing and give me reason to root for them? Their redemption is so close I can taste it?

Whatever the case, I’m not alone in my love for this type of character. Turns out, my fellow PubCrawlers are the same. After a very lengthy (and highly entertaining) email thread on this topic, I decided it was imperative to share some of our favorite antiheroes…

FROM LITERATURE:

There’s no ignoring Harry Potter’s Severus Snape! His goal is obviously admirable (protect Harry at all costs), but his methods of doing so toe the line of villain. He goes out of his way to make Harry’s life miserable, plus he’s horrible to a good number of other students in the process. And in many ways, his love for Lily is selfish, not selfless. Still, Snape knows his own errors and lives to right those wrongs. I rooted for his redemption throughout my entire reading experience.

Howl’s Moving Castle also comes to mind, and gosh do I love Howl. He’s vain and shallow and sometimes cowardly, but he carries a heavy burden of responsibility, and for that reason, I cut him slack. (Thankfully, Sophie does too. While also giving him a much needed kick in the pants.)

Us PubCrawlers also talked about Game of Thrones–which is full of so many characters it’s hard to narrow down to a central antihero–and Jaime Lannister and Arya Stark both came up. Jaime for obvious reasons, and then Arya because of her cunning-ness. To quote Leigh Bardugo, “That girl looks like a hero at the start, but she’s a stone cold killer.” Other honorable mentions to the one and only Jay Gatsby (The Great Gatsby), Crowley (Good Omens), and Tyler Durden (Fight Club).

FROM COMIC BOOKS:

Batman, Ironman, Wolverine, Magneto! What is it about comic books that give us tortured antiheroes? All of these characters have a relatively sympathetic end goal, but their methods of getting there are sometimes questionable. They act as vigilantes, cutting down anyone in their way (Batman, Wolverine). They hide behind fronts and drip of arrogance (Ironman/Stark). Magneto is an especially interesting one. As Marie Lu mentioned in our thread, he waffles between antihero and flat-out villain, but Young Magneto is particularly awesome and sympathetic.

FROM MOVIES:

Perhaps THE antihero, at least for me, is Star Wars’s Han Solo. Sarcastic, witty, one to act first and question later. He has questionable morals (he’s a smuggler, after all), and yet his heart seems to be in the right place on the Big Issues, making him easy to root for. The charisma and charm don’t hurt either.

Léon (in The Professional) is a close second. This hired assassin is ruthless and without mercy. He has only one rule–no women, no children–and it’s this small sliver of morality that makes him sympathetic. Once Natalie Portman’s character enters the story, cheering for Léon becomes almost easy. (Sidenote: if you haven’t seen this movie yet, get on it. One of my personal favorites!)

A few more noteable film antiheroes… Deckard in Blade Runner (yes, this movie is adapted from Philip K Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, but I’m lumping it in with the film characters). Clint Eastwood in pretty much any Western he starred in, plus the Dirty Harry franchise. And Jack Sparrow from Pirates. (Somehow, I still love this selfish, cowardly, often-drunk-and-worthless liar, even after all the stunts he pulls.)

FROM TV:

We’re big Battlestar Galatica fans at PubCrawl, so naturally, Kara Thrace (Starbuck) and Gaius Baltar came up in our discussions. These two are both complex and tortured, often acting with very questionable motives. Still, we find ourselves rooting for them both. Same goes for Firefly‘s Malcolm Reynolds. This captain fought for the losing side of the war, and continues to go rogue long after. He’s a smuggler and a thief, entirely unapologetic, bitter and rash. It’s his fight for the little guy, the common man, that keeps him sympathetic.

There’s also Ben Linus from LOST. This guy was the king of manipulation. A liar and murderer, he hides behind a calm and well-spoken shell, and there’s no denying he’s brilliant. Terrifying, but brilliant. And let’s not forget Zuko from Avatar! As Susan Dennard pointed out, he becomes almost a pure hero as the story continues, but at the beginning he embodies many antihero traits: a short temper, little patience, and a downright villainous goal to kill the story’s protagonist.

But what about the ladies? After typing up this entire post, I was a little appalled to realize all the classic antiheroes that came to mind for me (and my fellow PubCrawlers) were male. Are antiheroines really that rare, or did we just overlook them? Katniss might be considered an antiheroine; she’s pretty reckless and violent, and her selflessness almost always come back to her sibling, and only her sibling. Same goes for Cassie in the just-released The 5th Wave. In TV-land, maybe Kate from LOST?

Who else? Let us know who you’d add to these lists (male and/or female) in the comments. We could talk about antiheroes/heroines all day!

     

33 Responses to Best of: Antiheros

  1. Triona Jul 24 2013 at 7:16 am #

    Hi Erin,

    I absolutely love this post! So interesting as I love movies, TV and the comic legends as well as books! You’re right – I can’t think of many female antiheroes either, which is similar to the lack of strong leading female roles in TV and movies! Once an actress hits a certain age, she tends to appear in the motherly roles, even talented actresses (in my opinion) like Jennifer Garner who went from Alias (which was totally kick-ass) to a mother in Juno…

    Great post!

    • Erin Bowman
      Erin Bowman Jul 24 2013 at 11:33 am #

      Interesting insight re: actress age affecting role (and becoming more motherly)!

  2. Jen Jul 24 2013 at 7:22 am #

    Hmm about Ismae from Grave Mercy she’s an assasin and doesn’t really mind killing people and Sybella in Dark Triumph enjoys killing people. Even though they try to kill for good, it’s doesn’t change that they kill

    • Cassie Jul 24 2013 at 7:55 am #

      And what about Celeana? I think she could definitely be considered an antihero. I also think that you could consider Sam from Before I Fall a sort of antihero that gets redemption, in the end. It’s a stretch, though.

      Great post!

      • Erin Bowman
        Erin Bowman Jul 24 2013 at 11:35 am #

        Yes, I think Celaena could totally fit the archetype. She can be selfish and impulsive, and she toes that line of unsympathetic quite often. Her backstory, and constant inner-battle about just HOW assassin she wants to be keeps me rooting for her though. I haven’t read the Grave Mercy series yet, but now I want to! 🙂

  3. Juliana Haygert Jul 24 2013 at 8:31 am #

    Zuko is my favorite! <3

    • Erin Bowman
      Erin Bowman Jul 24 2013 at 11:35 am #

      Can you believe I haven’t watched Avatar yet?! Eep. Must remedy this!

  4. Eden Jul 24 2013 at 9:49 am #

    I am reading “Destroy Me” by Tahereh Mafi and I have to say that Warner is my new favorite antihero! I was really intrigued by everything he did in “Shatter Me” and “Unravel Me”, and now I get to see it all from inside his crazy but lovable head ^__^

    • Erin Bowman
      Erin Bowman Jul 24 2013 at 11:36 am #

      Warner is definitely a complex character!

  5. Melody Maher Jul 24 2013 at 10:32 am #

    Snape is one of my all-time-favorite characters–never mind just being my favorite anti-hero!

    But if you’re looking for good examples of anti-heroes, I think A Song of Ice and Fire is loaded with complex characters–it’s hard to narrow it down to just a few. George R.R. Martin seems to write very complex, gray, morally ambiguous characters. Jaime Lannister and Arya Stark are good examples that were already mentioned. The Hound (Sandor Cleagane) is one of my favorites from ASOIAF. The Hound can be a bully but he cares for Sansa Stark and protects her from Joffrey. Even though he tries to ransom Arya for his own gain, he wants to keep her away from the Lannisters.
    As for anti-heroines, (besides Arya) I think Asha Greyjoy (Yara for fans of the show), Osha, the Sand Snakes (Prince Oberyn Martell’s daughters) and Arienne Martell would be good examples. I think they’re all strong women who are willing to do hard, (sometimes immoral) things to help themselves and the people they’re loyal to.

    Libby Day from Gillian Flynn’s DARK PLACES would be a good example of an anti-heroine. As a child, she testified (with some coaxing) that her brother killed her mother and sisters, sending him to jail. She turns into a very screwed-up adult who lives off a trust fund and has a habit of stealing things and using people. Even though she was unlikeable, I found her to be like-able in her unlikeable-ness. (If that makes sense). She eventually searches for the truth to see if her brother really did kill her family. Like GRRM, I think Gillian Flynn writes very complex female characters.

    Lestat from Anne Rice’s the Vampire Chronicles would be another anti-hero, in my opinion.

    I could go on and on. I love anti-heroes!

    • Erin Bowman
      Erin Bowman Jul 24 2013 at 11:37 am #

      Gillian Flynn *absolutely* writes some of the best female characters (imho). Twisted, complex, dark characters…but I love them!

  6. Megan Duff Jul 24 2013 at 10:40 am #

    I think Melina Marchetta writes some of the best antiheroes. Just in the Lumatere Chronicles along you have multiple. Evanjalin always has good intentions but her ways of achieving her ends put others in danger, she lies, she manipulates and she is actually quite blood thristy. Froi does something quite despicable in the first book (no spoilers!) that many readers have said is unforgivable but Marchetta shows his growth in the next books, making his humanity undeniable, and forgiving him near impossible to avoid. Then there is Quintana who can be downright savage, willing to sacrifice anything necessary to save her people, down to her own self and anybody who comes in the way.

    Marchetta’s heroes and villains are always complicated and they always have depth. Obviously I’m a big BIG fan 🙂

    • Erin Bowman
      Erin Bowman Jul 24 2013 at 11:38 am #

      I still haven’t read the Lumatere series, but Finnikin is sitting on my bookshelf, just calling my name. And after this comment of yours highlighting all the complex, layered characters, I really need to bump it up my TBR list 🙂

  7. Claudia McCarron Jul 24 2013 at 11:16 am #

    Snape is a great antihero, one of my favorites. I also like Holden Caufield and Katniss Everdeen, and Eugenides from Megan Whalen Turner’s Attolia books.

    • Erin Bowman
      Erin Bowman Jul 24 2013 at 11:38 am #

      Eugenides! YES! I’m still making my way through this series, but I totally love him.

  8. Amy Jul 24 2013 at 11:18 am #

    LOVE this post!

    The antihero can steal the show sometimes, they can also have a larger fanbase than the main characters. Snape is a great example, I’m so glad you included him.

    “Katniss might be considered an antiheroine”I agree. In the third book, Mockingjay, when she’s in a closet and Haymitch gives her a reality check, it’s one of my favorite moments of a ll the books. Which also makes me think Haymitch would be considered an antihero as well throughout the books.

    • Erin Bowman
      Erin Bowman Jul 24 2013 at 11:39 am #

      How could I forget Haymitch?! I think you’re right, he could be considered an antihero as well. He’s indifferent, drunk, and an ass for much of book one, but his relationship with Katniss and Peeta becomes so complex (and sincere) by the end of the series. LOVE.

  9. elena Jul 24 2013 at 11:52 am #

    YES to Zuko from Avatar!!! He is my favorite anti-hero because his journey is so freaking great. He makes terrible decisions but he’s always understandable and he went through the greatest change. I’m trying to think of more anti-heroes but I’m stumped because all I can think of is how much I want to re-watch Avatar right now, ha.

  10. Rowenna Jul 24 2013 at 12:00 pm #

    I’ve been watching a lot of BBC period dramas lately…lol! But a couple of antiheroines from those: What about the Dowager Countess from Downton Abbey? Questionable motives, absolutely acidic, huge faults, but often is the only person capable of doing what’s best/right in a given situation. And from the new Upstairs Downstairs, Lady Percy is a spoiled, self-centered, narcissistic Nazi sympathizer, but you can’t help but empathize with her and root for her to be a better human.

    Has anyone ever noticed that there are often great antiheroes hiding as secondary characters? I wonder if in some ways it’s easier to present a questionable character when you have a solidly likeable hero character out front. But I always end up loving those secondary anti-heroes, often even more than I like the heroes (like Snape 🙂 ).

  11. Tess Jul 24 2013 at 12:26 pm #

    The one female character I can think of is Emily from the TV show Revenge. I love how they make her likeable despite what she’s done and plans on doing.

  12. Alexa Y. Jul 24 2013 at 12:30 pm #

    This is such a fascinating post! I liked reading about everyone’s favorite suggestions for antiheroes. Snape, of course, is my favorite antihero of all time (and just thinking about him makes me feel warm/fuzzy/weepy). The references to Howl’s Moving Castle and Avatar are great too as they make me want to watch all over again!

  13. Jes Jul 24 2013 at 12:58 pm #

    How about Golum, from LoTR, or, for that matter, Thorin in The Hobbit? I feel like fantasy has been so overrun by Game of Thrones at this point that the classics needed a bit of attention too! 😛

    I think that it’s really interesting that so many antiheroes are male. Females that could have antihero tendencies tend to just be all-out villains instead, following that “wicked witch” fairytale mentality (thanks, Disney). And how many female villains redeem themselves at the end (becoming antiheroes)?

    At least comics, despite their own brand of sexism (let’s not talk about the clothing. I’d be here all day on that…), have actually given us some iconic female antiheroes: Catwoman, Elektra, Black Widow, and Mystique, just to name a few who ride that line.

  14. Janita Jul 24 2013 at 3:15 pm #

    So glad you mentioned Zuko haha. After watching the three season, you realize who the real protagonist is, and it’s the anti-hero! Wooh! That show is just so amazing. I’m always attracted to the anti-hero in any show, movie, or book (I mean, come on, Han Solo? hellsya). It must be the bad-boy-esque personality.

  15. Claire M. Caterer Jul 25 2013 at 9:39 am #

    Great post, Erin! Antiheroes are some of my very favorite characters. And one of my very fave antiheroes is Spike from BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER (TV show, not movie). Even after he’s good, he’s bad–you gotta love it! And of course, Snape.

  16. Alyssa Jul 26 2013 at 2:27 pm #

    Oh, Howl. He was my very first literary crush. Even though he was vain and arrogant, I couldn’t help but love him. I LOVE this post. There are so many good characters on this list, all lovable despite their flaws!

    As far as antiheroines go, the first one that popped into my head was Lisbeth Salander from Stieg Larson’s Millennium trilogy. She’s a hacker with somewhat questionable morals, and she can be downright murderous, but I cheered my heart out for her throughout all three books (and movies).

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  18. Renee Suzanne Jul 29 2013 at 7:51 am #

    Amazing post! I think Scott Westerfield’s “Midnighters” trilogy has a really great antiheroine in Dess, who really strays from helping the rest of the cast by trying to accomplish the same goals through sometimes selfish, unsympathetic and reckless means. Smallville also has this in Tess Mercer, Chloe Sullivan and Lana Lang in the later seasons, and, to begin with, Lex – Lex originally helps Clark out but with ulterior motives and questionable means, while Tess slowly starts to help him out but sort of always does things to a different tune than the others. Lana and Chloe both seem to work for the same goals but in independent ways that often endanger those around them. Good antiheroines are out there! They just gotta be dug up… 🙂

  19. Heather C. Myers Jul 29 2013 at 5:53 pm #

    I am so glad you guys included a list of female antiheroes. It’s refreshing to see that females can be antiheroes too (even though I completely regard antiheroes as a male thing – something I want to change). I think another interesting character is the villain who is completely irredeemable but somehow conveys reader sympathy.

  20. A.J. Race Aug 3 2013 at 3:19 am #

    One of perhaps my favorite anti-heros would have to be Olivia Pope from Scandal. It seems like in a lot of ways she wants to try and do the right thing, but the way in which she goes about it is a bit suspect.

  21. Heather Dunn Aug 6 2013 at 1:55 pm #

    Comic books are rich ground for anti-heroines. In the mainstream you’ve got Catwoman, Electra, and Mystique, who all change allegiences according to their personal moral codes. Although it’s interesting to note that they’re all bad girls gone (temporarily) good–maybe the black and white morality of superhero comics would have a hard time maintaining sympathies with a “good” character turning. There’s deadly little Miho, ninja defender of the working girls of Frank Miller’s Sin City, and further out in indie land, Gilbert Hernandez’s epic, amazing, anti-heroine Luba.

  22. Angela@Reading Angel Aug 8 2013 at 11:23 am #

    The girl that comes to my mind is Katherine from the Vampire Diaries TV show.

  23. McKenna Mar 20 2014 at 4:56 pm #

    One of my favorite antiheroes is Sam Spade in Dashell Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon. He is the protagonist and one thinks at times that he has some moral code, but then he goes and does something completely unexpected and all of your previous thoughts about him are blowing in the wind. His character actually reminds me a lot of Firefly’s Malcolm Reynolds.

  24. Lovegood78 Jul 1 2016 at 11:54 pm #

    Mare Barrow from Red Queen, anyone? Her deeds are sometimes questionable, she’s a bit selfish, and she eventually she begins to lose any sort of remorse for committing murder. In fact, she begins to feel comforted by the blood of her enemies. It’s slightly reasonable, yes, but she becomes almost a villain. Yet, we still root for her.
    Celaena and Katniss are my favorites! The others are cool too, but these two are my babies 😍. Also, do you think Tris would be considered an antihero? She does make some poor choices, but other than that.She’s pretty virtuous.

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