#WorldBookDay: The Ten Greatest Anti-Heroes In Fiction

Protagonists are never more interesting than when crossing over to the dark side. Here are the finest examples literature has to offer, from American Psycho Bateman to Satan himself. Enjoy the madness this World Book Night...
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The F.Scott Fitzgerald estate released a new short story this year, Thank You For The Light, to titters and huzzahs from his worldwide band of devotees.  Fitzgerald is set to undergo an ongoing renaissance, with Baz Luhrmann’s version of The Great Gatsby hitting cinemas next year.  Personal opinion, after watching the trailer, is that it needs to be toned down and be a bit more ‘Blue Velvet’ than ‘Moulin Rouge’.

The American writer is one of the great depicters of flawed individuals bedevilled by past demons, money and booze (or often a combination of all three). Regardless, the subject of his most famous novel remains ones of fiction’s most powerful anti-heroes, a character-type that despite rhyme and reason we can’t help but root for. Most of the best books have someone in this role; here’s some of the most memorable…

Satan- Paradise Lost


If you’re looking at things in a metaphysical sense, this guy is quite clearly the biggest anti-hero of them all. Turfed out of heaven despite being the top dude there, he’s charismatic, brave and generally more appealing than God. Leads a band of angels into an eventually futile war against his former boss, blights humanity forever, and ends up a washed up shadow of his former self back in Hell, his fate forever sealed by his actions. In terms of themes regarding the anti-hero, it’s safe to say Milton set the standard.

Yossarian- Catch-22


In reality, not many of us want to fight in an actual war.  Unfortunately, for some this decision is taken from them and it is this internal battle that informs Yossarian’s likeability in Joseph Heller’s ultimate anti-war novel.  He deploys every ruse in the handbook to get out of flying missions (repeated fake trips to the hospital, poisoning his entire squadron), is a big drinker, fornicator and shirker and-on the surface at least- represents everything  despised by the American military.  This, of course, is what makes him so appealing to everyone else.

Arthur Dent- Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy


Arthur Dent drinks a lot of tea and wears a dressing gown, which more or less tells you everything you need to know about him. The definitive ‘Who-Me?’- Hero, he is a drop of normality in an ocean of weirdness, and provides the human fulcrum around which Douglas Adam’s sprawling series of characters revolve.  Finds out the meaning of life at the end of So Long, and Thanks For All The Fish; I’m obviously not going to tell you what it is, but if it is what Adams writes, we might as well all pack up now.

Patrick Bateman- American Psycho


Hilarious and terrifying, shallow and intelligent, if there is anyone’s couch you don’t want to accidentally drop your fag ash on, it’s Bateman’s.  A genuinely awful man who rapes, tortures and kills everything in sight; with this in mind it would seem impossible for him to garner your sympathy, but the genius of the novel and what stops it from being uncomfortable is that we understand him, if not his actions. He’s in a mid-80s banking world he hates, surrounded by yuppies who, in their own ways, are more callous than him. Whether this justifies his decision to murder half of them is debatable, but we can at least understand his issues with a world around him that continually disappoints. Bale’s interpretation of him in the film is one of the great book-to-film performances.

Raskolnikov- Crime And Punishment


A murderer like Bateman, though that is where the comparisons end.  The protagonist of Dostoevsky’s classic wilfully kills an immoral pawnbroker, and- after she walks into the flat in the aftermath- her somewhat slow half-sister. Plagued by fear, he doesn’t use the money (intended for charitable use) but instead hides it under a rock, and afterwards is plagued not so much by guilt, but by whether his actions are justified. The central conceit of the book is concerned with his theory of the extraordinary. An extraordinary man is justified in all actions, even if it causes pain and suffering to others.  Whether or not Raskolnikov can eventually be viewed as such a man is left ambiguous, but he’s definitely the (anti) hero of the tale.


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Billy Pilgrim- Slaughterhouse 5


A perpetually useless and funny-looking solider who bumbles his way through the second world war, he shares none of Yossarian’s tact.    Vonnegut’s skill was in marrying both the horrific (the fire-bombing of Dresden) with the ridiculous (Alien abduction), telling it through the eyes of the innocent Billy and making it all so affecting.

Steven Stelfox- Kill Your Friends


A Patrick Bateman for the post-internet generation, though Stelfox would probably find himself the subject of Bateman’s ire/chainsaw.  An A n’ R man at a label in the late-90s who hates  his business,  his colleagues, his acts and his customers, he races through a series of familiar settings (The Brits, Glastonbury) in a haze of booze, drugs, sex and indiscriminate murder.  Gloriously soulless and relentlessly acerbic, he’s much more likeable than Simon Cowell, especially when he’s saying stuff like:  “One thing you'll learn when you're in the business of selling utter shite to the Great British Public is that there's really no bottom to where they'll go.”

The Priest- The Power And The Glory


Demons attach themselves like Blu-Tac  to the so-called ‘whisky priest’,  who is on the run from the police in an early-20th century Mexico state where Catholicism is outlawed .  A father of an illicit child and liker of the booze, he finds himself spiralling into an inevitable downfall.  The novel is a meditation on the ability of the Church to march on no matter what its opposition, and though it’s not clear whether Greene is supportive of this, through the character of the flawed-but-decent priest we can’t help but think the God mob can’t be all bad.

Eddie Coffin- The Thought Gang


Goes without saying that this is a bit of a personal choice and that the likes of Candide and Winston Smith have had far more wide-ranging literary influence, but the unkempt, cod-philosophising slacker from Tibor Fishcer’s novel is a genius piece of modern characterisation.  Along with a one-armed robber called Hubert, Coffin goes on a bank-robbing spree across France, along the way dropping self-effacing soundbites like “I'm thinking of writing a book on the millennium  but I can't think of anything to say.”

Gatsby- The Great Gatsby

For the purposes of this piece it would seem churlish not to refer to Fitzgerald’s creation as the greatest of all time, though I prefer Dick Diver in Tender Is The Night (also by Fitzgerald, though probably less deserving of anti-hero status).  At the centre of the story we have Gatsby, a reclusive millionaire from humble Midwest beginnings, trying to win the love of the girl that stole his heart (Daisy Buchanan).   He becomes famous around Long Island for throwing lavish parties, which are an unsubtle attempt to win back the heart of his now-married beloved who lives across the bay with her new husband.   That’s a simplistic synopsis but things spiral out of control and it’s safe to say we don’t get treated to a When Harry Met Sally finale.  A hugely autobiographical character that we support despite his foibles and lawlessness; he’s the ultimate depiction of the fallibility of the American Dream.


Follow David on Twitter- @Gobshout