Pop culture is rife with anti-heroes. You can’t swing a dead cat in a movie theater or bookstore without hitting one. According to Wikipedia, the anti-hero dates back to Lord Byron’s The Corsair (1814). The pirate hero knows he is of questionable character, but has an especially strong dislike for hypocrites, allowing the reader to accept the character as a protagonist. A more modern anti-hero is J. K. Rowling’s Severus Snape. His conduct in the seven book Harry Potter series is anything but heroic: a nasty disposition, unhesitatingly plays favorites, a murderer and always saves his worst for Harry. Only at the end of the seventh book do we see the character’s true motivation and how he was protecting Harry the entire time.
An anti-hero can be a protagonist with a tragic flaw. Marvel Comics’ Stan Lee created several anti-heroes in the 1960s. Each of these heroes struggles with some aspect of their being, yet try to make their mark in the world by doing good. Spider Man was the first; his selfish act of not apprehending a thief resulted in the death of his Uncle Ben. Tony Stark/Iron Man struggles with alcoholism. Bruce Banner becomes a hermit to keep his alter-ego, the Hulk, at bay. These tragic characters are compelling and we root for them in spite of their flaws.
Another type of anti-hero is the world weary cynic who does questionable things because of their jobs or their circumstances. Die Hard’s John McClane, John Riggs in the Lethal Weapon film series and Philip Marlowe’s hard boiled Sam Spade are all excellent examples of this class of anti-hero. Each character has to do things that they know are wrong, but are doing them to protect innocents and themselves. Other cynical anti-heroes include Ian Fleming’s James Bond, Daniel Silva’s Gabriel Allon and Tom Clancy’s John Clark.
My favorite anti-hero is Jim Butcher’s Harry Dresden: tough, cynical, and will draw upon his darker nature without hesitation to protect someone close to him. Wearing his leather duster like a cape of sorts, he even quotes comic book superheroes and makes Star Wars pop culture references to the Dark Side of the Force. Harry has a strong sense of right and wrong, but will commit heinous acts to protect the innocent. He even killed his former girlfriend in order to prevent the Red Court vampires from taking over the world, because he saw no other way out of the situation. His sidekick, wizard apprentice Molly Carpenter, becomes an anti-hero in her own right during Ghost Story. She protects Chicago’s magical community as the Raggedy Girl, relying on fear to keep the forces of dark at bay.
All of the characters mentioned above are interesting and engaging. Gabriel Allon merits his own blog post because of the character’s depth and complexity. That said, I like Harry the best because even though the stories and settings lean toward the dark, Harry as a character is fun. He has a sense of humor, laughs at his own jaded viewpoint and has no sense with regard to women or relationships, which is a constant source of amusement. You can’t help but like him, and likeability is an important quality for any protagonist, be they a hero or an anti-hero.