Antihero vs Unlikable Hero

Hello, friends! Today I’m excited to share that I’m writing to you from my completed writing room! We’re getting settled in our new place and I finally have a space that is decorated and dedicated to my writing. It couldn’t have happened soon enough and within the next few days, I plan to start rocking out the last 20K of my WIP, NightWind.

In the midst of all of the unpacking, reorganizing and purging, I’ve been thinking about antiheroes and unlikable heroes. And the question I’ve been asking myself is, are they the same thing? Honestly? I don’t think that they are. Please read on, but I’d also be interested in reading your take on my question too. So, if you have any thoughts, please send them my way via the comments!

Before we dive in, defines the antihero as: a protagonist who lacks the attributes that make a heroic figure, as nobility of mind and spirit, a life marked by attitude or purpose, and the like. An unlikable character, on the other hand, doesn’t necessarily go to that extreme (in my personal opinion).  I couldn’t find an actual definition for this term, so I don’t have an official source to offer you. But, when I think of an unlikable hero, I think of characters similar to Ove in A Man Called Ove. Ove, a grumpy sort of man, just isn’t on the same level as an antihero, which essentially answers the question above. Let me show you.

I’ve just finished reading Six of Crows and the followup novel, Crooked Kingdom, by Leigh Bardugo. The main characters in this tale are Kaz, Inej, Nina, Matthias, Wylan and Jesper and they are part of a horde or gang called the Crows who rule territory in the Barrel of Ketterdam. They each represent a shade of the gradient of antiheroism and some might fit hte bill of unlikable character. They are each flawed in their own way. Kaz, whom Matthias refers to as demjin (demon) is clearly the worst of the group and the extreme in the antihero arc. But, he is still one of the good guys. Each character has a sad backstory, either having been separated from their family by death, by distance and kidnapping or for other reasons. Left to their own devices and possessing a will to survive, they do what they can which lands them with the Crows working as spies, thieves, murderers and more.

An antihero differs from a villain, though the line between the two gets a little hard to see. But that is one of the attractions to the antihero. They do what needs to get done and aren’t hindered by morality or how their actions affect others. The Crows from the Barrel may sometimes wonder about the consequences of their actions, while their incorrigible leader, Kaz, isn’t.  One of the most fascinating characters from this story is Inej, a Suli who is the religious character of the group and who relies on proverbs to express her perspective. (One of my favorite things she says is: There will be no echo. The Suli people do not apologize for their past actions. They don’t look back. Instead, they look to the future and promise not to repeat said action.) She has killed people, possibly in the most intimate of ways as she chooses to wield knives and is thus in close proximity to her victims.

One of the things that most fascinates me about villains and what it means to be evil is the other side of the coin. The guy whose pocket gets picked might view one of the above six as evil. But, the hand that those characters were dealt was pretty abysmal. Many of them are simply trying to get by and a lot of the picket pocketing turns out to be very targeted, turning the situation into a revenge scenario, thereby making it harder to hold the assailants culpable for their actions.

The antihero could be a way of addressing the villain’s perspective. Think about the movie Maleficent from a few years ago. This film takes the most notorious bad guy in the Disney litany and gives her a back story. The result? She’s not so evil as it turns out.

Just so this post isn’t too antihero dominant, let’s return to the unlikable hero for a moment longer. Good guys have their draw, of course. But, they’re just SOOOO good. And sometimes that’s annoying because no one is that nice or that good all the time. At least, not a real human being. Reading about a grumpy old man or another less-than-nice protagonist can be such a relief. This character appears in response to the idea of accepting who we are and being realistic about it. Usually this concept is professed under the umbrella of body image, but I think it can apply to accepting who you are as a person, too. We can’t all be as nice as a saint or as smart as Einstein. This plays into post-post modernism because once we entered the post-modern era and everything became fractured, it only continued to become more so. The individual is at the height of celebration right now and our literature is definitely showcasing that.

The unlikable hero and the antihero each add a special element to our literature and say a lot about where we are as a society and our understanding of ourselves as a collective and as individuals. I would argue that the unlikable is a more recent development in characters, though unlikable characters have always existed, and I think at times it is a bit overdone. The antihero has been in existence for a very long time too. It’s a trope, but it can definitely be done well, like when you get characters like those from Six of Crows!

I think in a future project, I’d like to try my hand at writing about scoundrels and devious people with alternative motivations. It sounds fun!

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Check out my book: Withered World