The Top 10 Fictional Antiheroes

What makes a character an antihero? Certainly, he must be a protagonist who doesn’t display traditionally heroic traits, but there must be more. The reader must truly root for the character; we must be drawn to him despite ourselves. Perhaps his motivations are impure, his choices unconventional, but ultimately he must possess a certain allure that ignites our sympathy and engages our interest. The antihero is complex and unknowable, and because of that, he is fascinating in ways a pure hero or villain could never be.

Below are ten of the greatest antiheroes in literature.

1. Dexter Morgan, Jeff Lindsay’s series beginning with 'Darkly Dreaming Dexter' (2004)

What can be more definitively antiheroic than a serial killer that the audience supports and applauds? While Lindsay’s crime novels make for somewhat insubstantial fare, he created a nuanced and enthralling character in the man who is compelled to kill, yet kills with a conscience. Try as Dexter might to convince the reader that he is without scruples, he cares deeply for those close to him and he only kills confirmed murderers who have escaped justice. He is also profoundly intelligent, working as a forensic blood splatter analyst for the Miami Police Department during the day. Dexter’s dueling purposes make him intriguing and kinetic, and the character is only served by Michael C. Hall’s charismatic and layered performance in the Showtime series Dexter.

Buy Darkly Dreaming Dexter from Amazon.com

 

2. Edward Rochester, Charlotte Bronte’s 'Jane Eyre' (1847)

Rochester is the gruff and enigmatic employer of the governess Jane Eyre, a bewildering character who makes detestable decisions throughout the novel. He locks his wife in the attic; he falls in love with his innocent governess and tries to trap her into bigamy; he then attempts to seduce her into licentiousness once his marriage is revealed; he lies repeatedly; he leads on a wealthy woman and allows her and Jane to believe he will propose; he is proud and will not ask for help when he needs it. When I list it all out like that, he sounds really bad. However, I believe Rochester is one of the first feminist male characters in literature. He locks his wife in the attic because she is mad and he was tricked into their marriage; he provides her with care and comfort rather than throwing her into an inhumane institution as would be well within his rights at the time. He respects Jane, admires her intelligence and talent, and he treats her as an equal. Rochester is deeply flawed, but his worst mistakes—the lying, the temptation—are due to his ardent love for Jane, and he overcomes those sins through Jane’s pure and blameless love.

Buy Jane Eyre (Norton Critical Editions) from Amazon.com

 

3. Hannibel Lecter, Thomas Harris’ 'Hannibal' series beginning with 'Red Dragon' (1981)

Another serial killer! Lecter is an inarguably compelling character, initially making his influence known in the shadows of Red Dragon and Silence of the Lambs before embracing the spotlight as the protagonist in Hannibal. Lecter was a brilliant and successful psychiatrist before his pesky serial cannibalism landed him (sporadically) behind bars. He is engaging because he is elegant, well-mannered and ingenious. But it isn’t until his dealings with Clarice Starling in Silence of the Lambs that Lecter becomes sympathetic. His fascination with and empathy for Starling humanize Lecter, and this provides the reader with an area of common ground. We are also fascinated by Starling, and the more Lecter values Starling’s worth and wants to help her, the more hooked we are. Like Dexter, Lecter’s written character is also helped by a tremendous onscreen performance—two, actually. Brian Cox is quite good in Manhunter, but Anthony Hopkins in The Silence of the Lambs and Hannibal—well, he is iconic.

Buy Red Dragon from Amazon.com

 

4. Holden Caulfield, J.D. Salinger’s 'The Catcher In The Rye' (1951)

Holden is an embittered, apathetic teenager. He’s intelligent and wants deeply to be someone of substance, someone authentic and honest. But as much as Holden detests all that is hypocritical and “phony,” like any teenager, he is a bit of a phony himself. He’s cynical and aloof, often quite mean to the people closest to him, and he spends the entire novel rebelling against the status quo for reasons that are unclear even to him. However, Holden is beloved and understood despite his many flaws. He’s a tragic character, finding himself on an inexorable journey toward adulthood (and thereby corruption) that terrifies and depresses him. We can relate to Holden because, even when he is not honest with himself, his words speak to a truth inside all of us, the part of us that remembers what it means to be a powerless, terrified and enraged teenager.

Buy The Catcher in the Rye from Amazon.com

 

5. Jay Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s 'The Great Gatsby' (1925)

Gatsby is bright and glamorous, exuding charisma and power. But his success is built on an empire of lies; he is a bootlegger and an imposter, born the impoverished James Gatz. So much of the tragedy of the novel is due to Gatsby’s dishonesty, but we cannot blame him for his lies. His greatest sin is that he dreams big; he strives for wealth, for success, but most fervently, for the love of a woman who will never give it to him. Gatsby may be an imposter, but what he is most of all is a dreamer. And that is something the reader can understand.

Buy The Great Gatsby from Amazon.com

 

6. Lady Macbeth, Shakespeare’s 'Macbeth' (~1603)

Possibly the first antiheroine of all time, she is also the most difficult to embrace: the cold, hard Lady Macbeth. Her ambition guides her; she convinces her husband to murder the king and she is rewarded by becoming Queen of Scotland. Yet guilt haunts her, and she is never able to celebrate her achievement. She commits suicide after one of the most memorable monologues of all time: “Out, damned spot!” Lady Macbeth may be ambitious, but love for her husband and desire for his success are also behind her actions. She fears he is “too full o’ the milk of human kindness” to ever achieve power. Lady Macbeth is a challenging, complicated woman, but she is not fragile or retiring. She’s a ruthless, powerful woman who later proves to have a conscience, and that is an intriguing character, indeed.

Buy Macbeth from Amazon.com

 

7. Lisbeth Salander, Stieg Larsson’s 'Millennium' series beginning with 'The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo' (2005)

Lisbeth is a socially inept computer hacker with few scruples and an unequivocal sense of vengeance. Lisbeth’s rules are unlike those of normal society: you rape her, she’ll rape you. You steal from her, she’ll steal from you. You piss her off, she will tase your ass. But she is brilliant and fiercely loyal; she defends those who are not as capable of defending themselves as she. Lisbeth is complex and compelling and absolutely unlike any other character in literature, but boy, she is scary.

Buy The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (Millennium Series) from Amazon.com

 

8. Michael Corleone, Mario Puzo’s 'Godfather' series beginning with 'The Godfather' (1969)

Corleone begins his life as a man of unimpeachable integrity. He is attending Dartmouth University, intending to go into politics, steadfastly avoiding the life of crime to which he was born. But after his father, Vito, is nearly assassinated, Michael is drawn back into the family business, and he soon discovers that his criminal inheritance comes more easily to him than he ever predicted. After his father retires, Michael steps into the role of Don to the Corleones, and circumstances and greed slowly work their way into Michael’s soul, ultimately corrupting that unimpeachable integrity. We are shown every inch of Michael’s descent, and so we understand it. We regret it, but we relate to it.

Buy The Godfather from Amazon.com

 

9. Roland Deschain, Stephen King’s 'The Dark Tower' series beginning with 'The Gunslinger' (1982)

Roland is the hard-assed old gunslinger on a quest since time out of mind to reach the elusive Dark Tower. On this quest he betrays friend after friend. He allows loved ones to die; he kills others himself. He is cruel and cold because he must be, but once we grow to know Roland—know him as well as we know our own friends, after spending thousands of pages with him—we discover that each betrayal, each cruelty, cuts him far deeper than he will ever reveal. We forgive Roland for any breach of faith because every act of treachery is in service of his paramount quest: to save the universe. That’s pretty solid justification.

Buy The Gunslinger (Revised Edition): The Dark Tower I from Amazon.com

 

10. Scarlett O’Hara, Margaret Mitchell’s 'Gone With The Wind' (1936)

Katie Scarlett O’Hara Hamilton Kennedy Butler is a petulant, self-serving antiheroine of singular status. She uses her beauty and charm as weapons, marrying again and again for jealousy, for money, for land—for every reason but love. She wears out husbands, backstabs friends and sisters, embraces carpetbaggers, hires convicts in dire working circumstances and breaks the hearts of many, many good men. But we love her for it—we love her because Scarlett does these things for one undeniable purpose: to survive. While the rest of the genteel South crumbles under the dismal weight of the Civil War, Scarlett endures. What she lacks in old Southern honor, she makes up for in strength and fiery temper, and they serve her through the lean and mean years of her life.

Buy Gone with the Wind from Amazon.com


Writing this list struck me with the revelation that there are far too few female antiheroes in literature. More abound in comic books (Catwoman, Mystique, Black Widow), film and television (Nikita, Faith, Beatrix Kiddo), but I had trouble coming up with many antiheroines in literature. Give me your picks for antiheroes in the comments—and particularly any antiheroines I may have missed.

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Comments

Marv's picture
Marv February 10, 2012 - 2:45pm

Where's The Joker :) ?

Dwayne's picture
Dwayne from Cincinnati, Ohio (suburbs) is reading books that rotate to often to keep this updated February 10, 2012 - 3:30pm

Were is Hari Michaelson from Acts of Caine!?

XyZy's picture
XyZy from New York City is reading Seveneves and Animal Money February 10, 2012 - 3:34pm

What about Madame Bovary? Or Hester from The Scarlett Letter? Or Estella from Great Expectations? Or Blanche DuBois from A Streetcar Named Desire?

Okay, so maybe Estella wasn't really the one you were ever rooting for really, and well... Hester.

But certainly Madame Bovary is a woman you hate to love, and Blanche is a woman you love to hate.

Skinny's picture
Skinny February 10, 2012 - 3:34pm

How about Stephen King's "Carrie" for a antiheroine?

 

Skinny's picture
Skinny February 10, 2012 - 3:36pm

I was very surprised that there was no tom ripley in the top 10

Boone Spaulding's picture
Boone Spaulding from Coldwater, Michigan, U.S.A. is reading Solarcide Presents: Nova Parade February 10, 2012 - 3:45pm

Lou Ford of Jim Thompson's The Killer Inside Me. This is the story Stanley Kubrick called "probably the most chilling and believable first-person story of a criminally warped mind I have ever encountered." Problem is: although Lou is the protagonist, he's such a sadistic bastard that even "anti-hero" barely sticks to him...

Boone Spaulding's picture
Boone Spaulding from Coldwater, Michigan, U.S.A. is reading Solarcide Presents: Nova Parade February 10, 2012 - 3:47pm

Oh - Norman Bates of Robert Bloch's Psycho too...

CBH87's picture
CBH87 February 10, 2012 - 3:56pm

Hm. I agree Blanche Dubois in Streetcar.

Achnazoor's picture
Achnazoor February 10, 2012 - 4:34pm

Well, unless we're shunning graphic novels/comics for some reason, I'd like to see John Constantine from "Hellblazer" and possibly V from "V for vendetta" included in the list.

The first one is (or  does his best to seem) egotistical to the extreme and yet, for all his vile and oftentimes depraved acts, you can usually catch a glimpse of good intentions behind them. He is, in a twisted way, the product of a corrupt society and a hard upbringing in a Britain of harsh realities - the man with the (often dirty) trick up his sleeve and the sharp tongue that usually manages to "save the day" through cunning, and, although he tends to do it at the expanse of others, there are usually grander stakes than merely, say, the life of a friend.

V belongs to an entirely different breed. He's focused, controlled, and he has a thorough plan. The fact that the main point of his plan is to crumble a totalitarian regime makes one wonder whether or not to actually consider him a true hero, rather than an anti-hero, but true heroes (so the american media teaches us) behave in a moral manner, whereas V does whatever needs to be done in order to get to his objective. If, in order to make a point, he needs to starve and torture his one single friend in the world, so be it. The plan is greater than any other consideration, even his own Self. I believe this is why we love him.

Nicole Galipeau's picture
Nicole Galipeau February 10, 2012 - 5:31pm

I guess Tyler Durden didn't want to talk about it.

horrorshowjack's picture
horrorshowjack from Arkham, MA is reading The Other Victorians February 10, 2012 - 6:56pm

While most of the South were indeed Gentiles, I'm pretty sure you meant genteel in number 10.

#corrections

Ryan Schmidt's picture
Ryan Schmidt February 10, 2012 - 7:22pm

If you're looking for truly classic anti heroines, Becky Sharp from Vanity Fair should definitely make the list.

Rick Parker's picture
Rick Parker February 10, 2012 - 8:04pm

Great list, but I would have like to have seen Severus Snape on it somewhere.

Skinny's picture
Skinny February 11, 2012 - 6:18am

Steven Stelfox from John Nivens brilliant "Kill Your Friends"

Rachel Harris's picture
Rachel Harris from Cumberland Basin is reading mindless fluff (god, its so hard to get through, ugh) February 11, 2012 - 3:15pm

tha author of this post is beyond any brain dead person and yet still "alive": fuck all to anyone who reads this post, and, i dunno, what does a writer who is full shit does.. writes an article like this.

Dale Thomas's picture
Dale Thomas from Swansea is reading The Day Watch by Sergei Lukyanenko February 12, 2012 - 6:33pm

Gotta love the twerp above me who slags off the OP. If that wasn't sarcasm then you're in the wrong place.

Good shout on Lou Ford. I read that book last year and that character is brilliant, seemingly a precursor and influence on so many unreliable nutcase narrators.

I'd also like to add that it's debatable Roland sacrifices so many people for the sake of the universe. To paraphrase a character in one of the books regarding his intentions - "Save it? He doesn't want to save the Tower. He just wants to see it."

.'s picture
. February 12, 2012 - 7:18pm

Walter White.

Utah's picture
Moderator
Utah from Fort Worth, TX is reading Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurtry February 13, 2012 - 8:36am

I lately get the impression that Dear Rachel has a bit of a drinking problem.

The Key Lime's picture
The Key Lime from Staten Island is reading The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy February 13, 2012 - 10:24am

Good call on Blanche.

I know he's not a lady, but Alex from A Clockwork Orange is a pretty definitive example of an anti-hero. Poor, deplorable Alex...

Don Hamilton's picture
Don Hamilton February 13, 2012 - 11:27am

Another excellently written piece, Meredith.  Dexter immediately came to my mind also, but of course, he is rather obvious.  I agree with The Key Lime that Alex from A Clockwork Orange is an excellent call.  

I think Rachel Harris is being misunderstood by some of the other posters.  She does not say to whom she refers, when she says, "the author of this post...".  I believe she is referring to herself, and the post she has written.

Jacob Engel's picture
Jacob Engel April 8, 2016 - 4:23pm

I can't back Lisbeth Salander. She's about as blatant a wish-fulfillment character for the author as ever existed. Also a total Mary Sue. Like most Tin Burton films, she seems interesting at first, but when you scrub the black makeup off, there's precious little of merit that remains.

CS's picture
CS from Biloxi, MS is reading Zen in the Art of Writing: Essays on Creativity April 12, 2016 - 1:10pm

Karl Edward Wagner's Kane is who I think of when I see the word antihero.

Dwayne's picture
Dwayne from Cincinnati, Ohio (suburbs) is reading books that rotate to often to keep this updated April 13, 2016 - 8:52pm

Has anyone here read Dexter is Dead? If so how was it?