Who here hasn’t gagged when Snow White waltzes into a story, singing to everyone around her, traipsing through the forest without a care in the world, doing everything basically wrong (seriously – who answers the door and just lets strangers do whatever they want without question?), and still ends up married to a prince? Those goody-two-shoes characters make me sick, and they crop up outside of fairy tales, I’m sad to say. People seem to be enamored with protagonists who are intrinsically good and manage to stumble through a couple of minor mistakes before reaching the other end of the forest, mostly unscathed.
Who wants to read that drivel?!
Luckily for those of us who want a bit more bite in our reading, the antihero was developed. An antihero is a protagonist who lacks the fundamental characteristics of a hero. This isn’t a new invention to the literary world (F. Scott Fitzgerald, Charlotte Bronte, and Shakespeare all had antiheroes in their works), but the characters definitely weren’t popular (save that people do love to portray Macbeth onstage). Why should they be? Antiheroes are the antithesis of admirable protagonists by their very definition. They don’t smile at everyone they meet, they don’t sing and dance, they don’t give all of their money or food to charity, and the actions they undertake make people shudder.
So what changed?
Well, for one, the comic book industry came along and took antihero to the next dimension. Characters such as Deadpool, Venom, and the Suicide Squad were born, and people responded positively. There’s no question that the characters lacked true heroic tendencies, but they failed the villain test, too (and they were clearly the protagonists of the volumes). Check the Box Office numbers – not to mention the fan base – and there’s no question that people like these lovable misfits. They aren’t in the mold of the typical superhero; their motivations are questionable, their actions are suspect, and their behavior lands them in front of the “true” superheroes often enough. None of that matters, though, because people still love them.
The literary world is starting to catch on, and more and more antiheroes are emerging on the shelves. Holly Black’s Folk of the Air Trilogy is a beautiful example: Jude is one of the best antiheroes out there. Rin Chupeco’s Bone Witch Trilogy is another example, where you spend the majority of the series viewing Tea as an antihero, from her perspective as well as from the perspective of the Bard recording her story. Marissa Meyer’s Renegades Trilogy is a classic hero versus antihero, pitting Sketch against Nightmare. While Meg IS a standard protagonist in Anne Bishop’s The Others series, Simon is a classic antihero. It’s a breath of fresh air to see the emergence of these antiheroes amidst the stock of so many ho-hum, standard protagonists.
It’s easy to cheer for the person who’s good. It’s even easy to cheer for the person with a fatal flaw they have to overcome (mostly because you know they’re going to). It’s HARDER to cheer and root for the person who is the OPPOSITE of everything you expect! When they do things that make you blink, that make you set the book down, that make you scream at the pages, that make you feel sympathy for other characters in the book…THAT is a character worth rooting for. You start to relish the challenge, and you start to realize how difficult a task it is to write that character. You gain admiration for the author and the work they set for themselves.
Anyone can write the doe-eyed princess getting rescued by the prince; children in pre-school do it without batting an eye. It takes guts and genuine talent to write about a smart-mouthed thief with a plan to assassinate the king and usurp the throne for herself. So my challenge to you, if you have not done so already, is to check that back copy and find something that makes you hesitate, that clenches your stomach a little, that makes you think the protagonist might be a little off the beaten path. You just might find that you LIKE those antiheroes after all.