Of Villains and Antiheroes

Christian Fantasy Fairy Tales

While antiheroes and villains share some commonalities, they’re distinctly different types of characters, and they evoke different emotional responses in readers.

An antihero often serves as the protagonist of a story, but one that fails to display the virtuous traits of a traditional hero. He has the potential for redemption, and we may see hints of underlying goodness, but his actions and the exterior he presents to the world don’t display typical heroism.

He might take “heroic” action like boldly confronting danger, but he’s often self-serving, many times lacking a traditional moral compass, and sometimes downright cruel.

On the outside, the antihero has few appealing traits, but he’s often compelling despite this fact. From my perspective, this draw comes from the possibility of transformation. In general, people identify with flawed characters, and antiheroes are more flawed than most…yet we’re moved to care as we hope for change.

Some antiheroes may be so repulsive that we disengage, but we often have a degree of sympathy because we see how past sufferings have darkened their natures, how they’re trapped in their own pain and the hardness of heart that builds up over time. Yet a skilled writer can reveal some underlying desire for change, and a readers we want to see these antiheroes transformed.

Moreover, antiheroes are interesting because they’re unpredictable. Sometimes they may act for good and other times merely in their own interests, regardless of the hurt their actions cause. Because we never know what to expect, our curiosity helps engage us with the character.

In Arrow and Swift by RJ Anderson, a male fairy takes on the antihero role (potential spoilers ahead). Although he’s not the protagonist, he plays a significant part in both novels. When we first encounter him, it’s difficult to tell whether he’s good or evil and several apparent reversals take place through the course of the story, firmly hooking the reader with curiosity.

As Arrow continues, we find that he’s only looking out for himself. This causes him to take actions that endanger and even harm those around him. Yet in the midst of it all, the author shows his motivations and gives hope that he may change. In Swift, he begins to demonstrate heroic qualities–endangering himself for the sake of others and so forth. The change isn’t instant or dramatic, just a gradual transformation which gives a very satisfying story arc.

On a different note, in the television series Once Upon a Time, Rumplestiltskin falls into some category between villain and antihero. When he first appears on screen, he seems villainous, but we gain more sympathy for him as time goes on. He’s a significant part of every happening within the fairy tale world and the real world, and we watch as he falls into darkness, the reason behind his choice quest for power (to protect his son), and the way these dark powers become ever more consuming. Yet we also see that he’s still capable of love, which gives hope for redemption.

Both these examples illustrate that antiheroes have a different sort of potential for growth than traditional heroes, and I find both intriguing. And when transformation of an antihero does occur, there’s something intrinsically satisfying about it, in large part because it echoes the redemption God offers us.

Do you like or dislike antiheroes in the books you read? And why do you find them compelling or distasteful? Do you use them in your own novels (if you write)?

By the way, you don’t have to answer all the questions–you’re welcome to share any thoughts you have on the topic.

Part Two: What happens when an antihero refuses to change, when he comes to the point of no return and decides to keep going? There we begin to travel into the territory of villains, which I’ll explore more on Friday.


  • Kessie
    June 13, 2012 - 9:29 pm · Reply

    I love it when antiheroes get redeemed after a long, arduous journey. In my old series, I think exactly half the cast were antiheroes in some way.

    In Grimm, Monroe sort of plays an antihero character, just because he’s a Blutbad (big bad wolf) and should be Nick’s enemy. Except that Monroe is reformed and a vegetarian. Which automatically sets up for all kinds of hilarity.

    When an antihero turns out to have chosen the wrong path, I’m always sad, a little. I always hold out hope that they’re faking.

    • Sarah Sawyer
      June 18, 2012 - 5:06 pm · Reply

      I love it when antiheroes get redeemed after a long, arduous journey.

      So do I. It feels right to have redemption after all that suffering, and it’s a beautiful thing to see a character transformed, not in a cheap, instantaneous way, but in a manner that feels right and true.

      Monroe sounds like the sort of antihero (or reformed antihero) that would add excellent spice to a story.

      And I’m also with you in always hoping an antihero will change. If transformation fails to occur and the character engages me enough, I’ll mentally write a new ending for him/her that’s more satisfying (perhaps that makes me weird). 🙂

  • Bethany A. Jennings
    June 13, 2012 - 10:34 pm · Reply

    I love it when an antihero finds redemption, but generally I find them pretty annoying until they finally turn a corner and show themselves to be either good or evil. It depends on the character’s personality, though. Some antiheroes are mean, cruel, or rough, doing the opposite of what heroes do and hurting people; others are antiheroes in the sense that they just don’t do what heroes do: serve others, face danger, etc. They are self-serving not in a cruel sense but in a cowardly one, doing whatever it takes to stay out of danger and avoid pain, even betraying their own friends. Oddly enough, I find that I root for the wimpy ones, hoping they will find their courage before the end and do something worthwhile. The unkind ones are clearly already bold people – they are just cruel, and they are the ones I find fit better if they end up on the “dark side”.

    • Sarah Sawyer
      June 18, 2012 - 5:08 pm · Reply

      It’s intriguing the different ways we all relate to characters. Antiheroes tend to fascinate rather than annoy me, because I’m so interested in the ultimate outcome…and I’m interested in what makes them tick in the process.

      I like your further exploration of antihero “types.” If the author plans to show the antihero redeemed, I think he/she has to work doubly hard to make the cruel antihero (as opposed to the self-serving one) sympathetic, so that we actually want them to change–and we care about them instead of intensely disliking them. Either way, I think the intrigue factor still applies, since we (or at least I) want to know what will happen and figure out how the antihero will respond when he does come to a turning point.

    • Sarah Sawyer
      June 18, 2012 - 5:14 pm · Reply

      Very true. It’s been years since I’ve watched Star Wars, and he is one of the characters that remains most vivid in my memory.

  • sally apokedak
    June 14, 2012 - 9:31 am · Reply

    I think Artemis Fowl, particularly in the first book, would be called an anti-hero. He’s a nice boy down deep and we all know that. But on the surface he’s a criminal mastermind. And he’s definitely looking for the fairy gold for his own purposes. We only find out later that he’s trying to save his father. I loved him. But he was never evil. He thought of himself as a criminal mastermind, but the reader could see that he wasn’t cruel. So maybe he’s not a real anti-hero.

    I have heard Forest Gump called an anti-hero and I didn’t find him repulsive or evil. He simply wasn’t heroic. He lucked out, is all.

    And then there are reluctant heroes. Is a reluctant hero always an anti-hero, or sometimes a anti-hero, or are they two difference animals altogether?

    • Sarah Sawyer
      June 18, 2012 - 5:16 pm · Reply

      Artemis Fowl sounds like an antihero that would be easy to identify with, at least from your description. He deeds might be “unheroic,” but he also has lovable traits. Characters with that sort of conflict are always interesting.

      I agree that Forest Gump wasn’t an antihero. I know he had some distinctive traits, but he was bland and unmemorable to me. He didn’t emotionally engage me, and that’s what I want a character to do.

      In my opinion, the reluctant hero isn’t necessarily an antihero, but the two can overlap. I’ve heard Bilbo Baggins described as a reluctant hero, because he’s dragged into adventure almost against his will…but he’s certainly not an antihero. I’m trying to think of a specific example of a reluctant hero who is also an antihero, but nothing is coming to mind right now. I know I’ve seen them though. Maybe somebody else will weigh in. 🙂

  • Jennifer Hallmark
    June 14, 2012 - 9:43 am · Reply

    Hi Sarah,
    For me, it depends how the anti-hero is portrayed. If he or she is too rebellious, anti-social, disagreeable, it turns me off to the whole thing. But someone like Rick, in Casablanca (yes I love the old movies) I can deal with. You learn enough about his past to have empathy.

    • Sarah Sawyer
      June 18, 2012 - 5:18 pm · Reply

      Yes, it seems like there’s a fine line between an antihero that you can care about and one that sets you on edge. At that seems to differ person to person. I like to get a progressive glimpse of their motives or their better side as the story unfolds. That makes the transformation (if it comes) believable.

  • Maria Tatham
    June 14, 2012 - 10:31 am · Reply

    Liked this post, Sarah! It’s got me thinking about antiheroes.
    Rumplestiltskin of Once Upon a Time is by turns rivetting/sophisticated/complicated, and then pitiable/repulsive. Quite a mix put together in two worlds.

    • Sarah Sawyer
      June 18, 2012 - 5:20 pm · Reply

      Thanks, Maria! Good description of Rumplestiltskin. He’s a complex character, and I’m interested to see how the writers develop him. 🙂

  • Skadi meic Beorh
    June 14, 2012 - 11:02 pm · Reply

    I might be wrong, but I think the latest greatest anti-hero is Heath Ledger’s version of the Joker. I am stunned by this character, and at the same time horrified because he is evil for evil’s sake, because he’s filled with hatred, and not because he has any particular monetary goal to attain. He inspires me to write characters who are socially ‘cooler’ than him–huge shoes to fill in today’s anti-hero-worshiping culture. I’m not sure I’ve done it quite yet, but I may be close to trouncing the latest Joker with the lead character Sionnach in my novel ‘The Place Where Infinity Blooms.’ In the sequel ‘A Thousand Wrong Dancers,’ I have an anti-hero that friends have found it difficult not to adore and identify with. She’s nine, she’s outspoken, she’s hilarious, and she’s a serial killer.

    • Sarah Sawyer
      June 18, 2012 - 5:21 pm · Reply

      Based on your description, the Joker sounds like a villain (as you concluded Friday). Anyone who is purely evil falls into that category, in my opinion. However, a well-drawn villain can still make an impression, if only because of the extremity of his nature. And since that kind of evil (sadly) exists in the world, it feels very real–sometimes scarily so.

      Your serial killer sounds more like a villain too (although perhaps you plan her redemption, in which case she would be an antihero, I suppose). Given what you said, I assume she’s going to be a hard villain to bring down. Who wants to believe such evil exists in a nine-year-old child?

  • Janeen Ippolito
    June 17, 2012 - 8:26 pm · Reply

    I love an antihero. They make me happy. They add depth and layering to a show, and a nice bit of cold breeze when a moment gets too cute and cuddly.

    In my Cinderella retelling, the prince character starts out as a self-serving antihero. It’s a product of his upbringing, but still, it’s really annoying. However, the interesting thing is because he’s not vested in trying to keep some kind of peace or make someone else happy, he’s free to point out obvious issues that the main female protagonist tries to ignore. And of course, when he is ultimately redeemed (I am writing a fairy tale), it still gets to be in a quirky, blunt way that’s hopefully going to be a refreshing change from the “light suffused, crying on one’s knees” stock image.

    • Sarah Sawyer
      June 18, 2012 - 5:23 pm · Reply

      Janeen, I have a soft spot for antiheroes also. They can say and do things that other characters can’t get away with, and subsequently add conflict to a story. As you said, it’s a matter of depth and layering.

      And it sounds like you’ve used that to good effect in your Cinderella story. Your description of your male protagonist promises some good story conflict, plus an interesting redemption arc.

  • Jamie T
    June 22, 2012 - 4:27 pm · Reply

    Thank you for writing this; I’d never really understood what a ‘anti-hero’ is exactly, so this cleared some things up for me. And, I guess I like anti-heroes, at least certain ones. 😀


    • Sarah Sawyer
      June 28, 2012 - 5:19 pm · Reply

      Jamie, it’s good to see you back! And I’m glad this cleared up the mystery of antiheroes. They can be very compelling characters. 🙂

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