So what’s an antihero? Counter-intuitively, an antihero isn’t a villain, they’re just a regular character with regular (and sometimes major) failings. We’re so used to reading about perfect characters in novels (see for example Peekay in The Power of One by Bryce Courtenay) that when we find one that’s kind of human they can sometimes seem worse than they really are. Personally, I find antiheroism a much more rewarding read. Here are some goodies:
- Sir Percy Blakeney in The Scarlet Pimpernel by the Baroness Orczy. “They seek him here, they seek him there, those Frenchies seek him everywhere. Is he in heaven or is he in hell? That demmed elusive Pimpernel”. Poor Lady Blakeney; she thinks she’s married to the biggest, most cowardly git in Europe. Little does she know! The Scarlet Pimpernel is an absolute classic novel set in the reign of terror following the French Revolution.
- Howl from Howl’s Moving Castle by Diana Wynne Jones. The best antihero since Percy (see above), I think. Never has a man worried more about his hair and his clothes in the midst of imminent disaster and an incredibly messy home.
- Victor Frankenstein in Frankenstein by Mary Shelley. Poor old Dr Frankenstein, all he wanted to do was create life. What he got was a (largely misunderstood) monster, and several generations of people who think that Frankenstein *is* the monster, not the creator. There are really two antiheroes in this novel; Dr Frankenstein, who gets more than he bargained for and reacts badly, and the monster, who really only wants to be loved (a nature versus nurture-type thing plays out to a grim conclusion). If you haven’t read it, Frankenstein’s great.
- Ed Kennedy in I am the Messenger by Markus Zusak. Ed’s an underage taxi driver living with a very smelly dog who plays a lot of cards with his mates (Ed, not the dog). At the beginning of the book he almost accidentally apprehends a bank robber, and his life takes some really weird twists and turns from there.
- And on the subject: Death in The Book Thief, again by Markus Zusak. I was thinking it’d be a bit unfair to call Death a villain, so if Death’s not a villain then perhaps antihero is a better label? Check out Death in the Discworld series by Terry Pratchett as well.
- With death on the brain now; Gabe Nevins in Paranoid Park by Blake Nelson (this has been made into a movie by Gus Van Sant). Here a young skateboarder “gets mixed up in a fight that leaves someone dead”. How do you handle that sort of secret guilt when you’re just an average teenager? If you like this you should give Right Behind You a go (Gail Giles): Kip McFarland accidentally sets someone alight; they die, and this is his huge and terrible secret.
- Holden Caulfield, narrator of The Catcher in the Rye by J D Salinger. All that whining and moaning: honestly, who could put up with it? But The Catcher in the Rye is a great read mostly because of old whiny, moany Holden. If you like The Catcher in the Rye, try King Dork by Frank Portman.
- Ender Wiggin in Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card. Can Ender save the planet?
- Troy in Fat Kid Rules the World by K L Going. Making fun of the fat kid’s an obvious and tiresome sort of thing to do, and being made fun of can turn you into a most interesting antihero. This book’s got some good reviews and if you’re into music it’s worth a read.
- Gen in The Thief and The Queen of Attolia, by Megan Whalen Turner. Cocky, brash and extremely uncooperative, Gen is incarcerated for stealing from the king himself. But what happens when the king is the one in need of his services? In The Queen of Attolia, Gen rots in an Attolian prison awaiting his comeuppance… with unexpected results.
Okay, so they’re all male. Why is this, I wonder? Maybe the expectations of a patriarchal society hinder women from revealing their flaws? Maybe female writers can’t bring themselves to admit that girls do have the odd flaw? But that doesn’t make any sense. Would a female antihero work? Are there female antiheroes out there? Will keep investigating.
p.s. if you’re looking for a challenge then read The Astonishing life of Octavian Nothing, traitor to the nation, Volume 1: The pox party by M. T. Anderson, set in Boston in the 18th century during the American Revolution.