The Anti-Hero

by Christine Wells

I'm always fascinated by reader feedback and reviews of books I've written and read, particularly when it comes to differing perceptions of heroes and heroines. The reading experience is always a subjective one; our enjoyment of a particular story is always affected by personal experience and taste. To some, a particular hero might be weak; to others, he's sensitive and kind. Some readers won't forgive a heroine who lies, no matter what the reason; some will not tolerate a hero who sleeps around even if he did it before he and the heroine met, others dearly love a rake.

As a romance writer, I'm accustomed to aiming for the heroic ideal, or at least writing to my own standards of what I find heroic in both male and female protagonists. Of course, my characters have flaws, but in romance, reader empathy and even sympathy for the hero and heroine is as important as the happily ever after at the end.

Perhaps that's why I take particular delight in a great anti-hero when I come across one in film, television or other people's books.

I found a good definition of anti-hero on The principal protagonist of a film who lacks the attributes or characteristics of a typical hero, but with whom the audience identifies. The character is often confused or conflicted with ambiguous morals, or character defects and eccentricities, and lacks courage, honesty, or grace.

One of my favourites is the character of Blackadder, written by Richard Curtis and Ben Elton and played by Rowan Atkinson. Blackadder is a ne'er-do-well scheming for money and power. He's selfish, mercenary and devious and in each episode he devises a plan 'so cunning you could put a tail on it and call it a weasel'. He is never redeemed, he almost never acts courageously or altruistically, and he fails to achieve his goal almost every time. Yet, you can't help but cheer for him on the odd occasion that he has a small win and feel his chagrin when time after time someone foils his cunning plans. That is a wonderful anti-hero.

Another fascinating anti-hero is Scarlett O'Hara. Again, she is selfish and mercenary. She does act courageously on occasion and sometimes altruistically (albeit with extreme reluctance). Despite her obvious character defects, we did hope that eventually she'd see the error of her ways and make a happy life with Rhett. No such luck, but that famous ending cemented her as an anti-hero we remember long after we close the book or the final credits roll.

Philippa Gregory's first (and best, in my opinion) historical novel, Wideacre, is another example of a fascinating anti-heroine. Beatrice Lacy is Scarlett O'Hara on crack. She stops at nothing, not even murder, to get hold of Wideacre, the estate her father owned and which her brother inherited on their father's death, according to the way such things were done in late eighteenth century England. Beatrice is horrible, selfish, single-minded and has very little in the way of redeeming features. And yet, her story is so compelling that I read it in one sitting and years later, I still remember it vividly.

House is another example of a great anti-hero. He might be rude, offensive, riddled with flaws, but his success in saving patients, even by the most underhand and unorthodox means, leads us to cheer for him in spite of it all. He says what many people think but don't dare voice. He is heroic in his competence, but his flaws threaten to destroy him and his work; he hurts people he ought to hold dear. He's a fascinating character and utterly compelling in his own way.

What about you? Tell me about your favourite anti-hero.


  1. Ah the anti-hero! one of my face topics! What I love about the anti-hero is the possibility of redemption. That glimmer that perhaps there is hope for this "sinner". In TV soaps the anti-hero is probably one of the most popular archetypal characters there is - because they are so much fun to play and because eventually they will be redeemed and the audience loves a reformed bad boy.

    As in fiction - esp. romance fiction I adore books where the anti-hero becomes the hero. Lisa Kleypas created one such "anti/hero" - Lord St. Vincent. He is the villain of "It Happened One Autumn" then becomes the hero in "Devil in Winter" - and she really puts him through the ringer to get there.

    And movies thrive on anti-hero stories as well. Rick was an anti-hero in Casablanca. Westerns abound with anti-heroes and Clint Eastwood is at the forefront of those movies. And of course gangster films. Arthur Penn's "Bonnie and Clyde" comes to mind - Coppola and Scorcese created the anti-heroes we all came to love in the Godfather films and in Goodfellas among others. Often times the anti-heroes in movies don't get redeemed - they lose out in the end or they're killed.

    We certainly don't condone what they do in real life but in the world of film/TV/Books we're given the space to understand them. Their complexities attract us and we are fascinated by the lives they lead and the environments in which they live.

    Great post Christine!

  2. House - gotta love it, even if I get squeamish and have to cover my eyes for half the show.

    In romance, the anti-heroes that first come to my mind are Anne Stuart's in books like Tangled Lies, Ritual Sins, Moonrise and Nightfall. Actually, in a lot more of her books. She does those tortured anti-heroes so well, I'm always coming back for more!

    The best anti-heroine I can think of is Sugar Beth (hope I have the name right) in Susan Elizabeth Phillips' classic, Ain't She Sweet.

    Great column, Christine -- now I'll have to go look for more antihero books to read!

  3. Christine - do I even have to mention Sir Guy of Gisborne from BBC's Robin Hood?

    This character has actually made me uncomfortable with the fact that I care deeply about him. He left his infant son in the woods to die; he stabbed four people to death when his boss the sheriff nodded his head to do it; he tortured his sergeant, one of Little John's men and Alan a Dale personally; he terrorized the town with physical anguish for tax money; he appropriated a treasured heirloom necklace from a villager - twice; he grabbed Lady Marion by the arm at the altar and blackmailed her into going on with the ceremony (only momentarily succesful) - I could go on, but really...

    Meanwhile, who did I care about the most on this show?

    Guy of Gisborne. He's the most compelling character I've come across in ages.

  4. Easy -- the Phantom of the Opera, especially when Andrew Lloyd Webber got done with him. LOL The Phantom is a stalker, murderer, liar -- but dang it, we want him with Christine instead of that lousy, good for nothing Raoul. LOL Even the original book version that started it all, you still feel for him. . . and then of course, like I said, Andrew Lloyd Webber really fixed it for 99.9% of us at the end of that musical. I certainly wish he's hang Raoul one of these days! LOL :)


  5. 2 words: Mr. Darcy

    Great article, I really want to read Wideacre now...I've read almost all her other books. :)

  6. Julia - notice I didn't mention Sir Guy from Robin Hood - I was leaving that for you. And of course Richard Armitage had a lot to do with why we can't help but love Sir Guy and want him to be redeemed (but just enough ;)

  7. Scarlett O'Hara is my all-time favorite anti-hero--she has been since I was about 7.

    I am also quite fond of the character I believe is Scarlett's inspiration: Beck Sharp in Vanity Fair. I guess I just love a gal who is a survivor.

  8. What a great topic! I have to root for Captain Jack Sparrow, of course, the hottest anti-hero of all time. *grin*

    Wonderful article. Really enjoyed it!

    --Chiron O'Keefe
    The Write Soul:

  9. Oh I'm split between Jack Sparrow and Sir Guy, although I suspect Sir Guy would attempt to walk the straight and narrow if only Marion would love him, whereas Jack loves being a ne'er do well a little too much.
    Great post, Christine!

  10. Hi all! I'm loving these suggestions and wondering how I could forget to add many of them to this post!

    Guy of Gisborne. Sigh. Swoon. I really don't care if he razed villages and murdered his own dear mother, I was totally in love with him. He was soooo tortured and gorgeous. RA really showed his internal struggle amazingly well.

    Oh, and Becke Sharpe. What a fantastic character she was! Note how so many of the women who are anti-heroes are largely attempting to survive in a world where the cards are stacked against them?

    Jojo, I lent out my copy of DEVIL IN WINTER and I want it baaaaack!!! You made me want to read him all over again.

    Thanks for commenting, everyone!

  11. PS, did anyone notice a common actor in two of those pictures? I put it in for fun:))

  12. Great post, Christine! I absolutely love House! He's always been a fave of mine. And Tony Soprano is another good anti-hero.

    I love all these suggestions! Now I want to read Wideacre and Lisa Kleypas' two books with Lord St. Vincent and also (see) Sir Guy on BBC's Robin Hood!

    Great topic.

  13. yup! Hugh Laurie was also in Blackadder. I took a closer look at that pic. Nice one! ;D

    P.S. Get your Devil in Winter back!

  14. Hi Laurie! Glad we've given you some suggestions:)

    Jojo, good one! Shows what a versatile actor HL is, doesn't it?

    I'm going to have to buy another copy of DIW. I have this habit of lending my faves, never to see them again!

  15. Wow, Christine. Great post! I LURVE a great anti hero. There's an author who wrote in the early 80s called Teresa Denys who wrote two of the most fantastic anti-heroes I've ever read in romance. They're so AWWWWWFFFULLLL to the poor heroines and yet somehow you can't help reading on. And when they crack, they crack big time. House is a great example of an anti-hero - however I wonder if some of his fascination is that he's so unbelievably competent. Which is definitely a hero characteristic. And that competence somehow makes up for the anti-heroness. Hmm, think it's time I went back to my revisions. Making no sense at all here.

    Actually just thought of the absolutely classic anti-hero - HEATHCLIFF!!!!

  16. Anna, maybe my brain is cracked on revisions, too because you made perfect sense to me.*g* I think the anti-hero must have one admirable feature to keep you reading on, even if it's sheer determination and ingenuity in getting their own way, as in Scarlett's case.

    Oh, yes...Heathcliff. Sigh.

    The Teresa Denys books sound interesting. Oh, and I love the hero/anti-hero in Elizabeth Peters' Vicky Bliss series, John Smythe. He pretends to be a scoundrel and a coward, but he always comes through for her when she needs him.

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