I’m really excited to read Julia Gray’s debut The Otherlife, published by Andersen Press, so it’s fabulous to have her on the site today talking about her favourite literary antiheroes!
There is nothing I love more than a morally ambiguous narrator, or a main character for whom mischief is more compelling than manners. It probably has something to do with the fact that I was an exceptionally well-behaved child – reading about the exploits of those who were unafraid to be bad sometimes was a kind of diverting escapism. The ‘sometimes’ is key: antiheroes are not villains. They are not straightforwardly evil. Perhaps they plan to be good, until something distracts them. Perhaps it is just that the line between right and wrong is harder for them to perceive. Or perhaps they just choose to ignore it. In creating my character Hobie Duvalle for The Otherlife I thought about many different antiheroes from books that I enjoy. Here are five of my favourites.
William Brown from Just William by Richmal Crompton
Richmal Crompton’s endearing schoolboy, William Brown, was probably the first antihero I encountered, via the fantastic audiobooks narrated by Martin Jarvis. Apart from his trusty Outlaws – Ginger, Henry and Douglas – William generally finds himself at odds with the expectations of society. His dull siblings and placid parents are perplexed by his constant skirmishes and squabbles; William, meanwhile, often adopts a tone of righteous indignation, forever convinced that his actions, no matter how outlandish, are justified.
Calvin from ‘Calvin and Hobbes’ by Bill Watterso
A comic-strip creation of unparalleled genius. Calvin is a 6-year old boy in some unnamed suburb of America; Hobbes is his stuffed tiger, who is brought to life by Calvin’s rich imagination. Rejecting his father’s attempts at ‘character-building’ activities such as camping in the wilderness, Calvin prefers to eat Chocolate Frosted Sugar Bombs and watch television, and make mischief of various kinds. He engages in a battle of wills with Miss Wormwood, his schoolteacher, and undermines the authority of his hapless babysitter Rosalyn. I especially like his love-hate relationship with Susie Derkins, a girl in his class. There’s a real humanity, as well as hilarity, in the ‘Calvin’ books, and they stand up to years of affectionate rereading.
Tom Ripley from The Talented Mr Ripley by Patricia Highsmith
Unquestionably, Tom Ripley is my favourite antihero of all time. I’ve read the ‘Ripliad’ many times – ‘The Talented Mr Ripley’, ‘Ripley’s Game’, ‘Ripley Under Ground’, ‘Ripley Under Water’ and ‘The Boy Who Followed Ripley’, and it is my fervent hope that someone someday will discover an unpublished addition to this magnificent set of books. Highsmith’s great achievement – apart from the tightness of the plot-lines, the evocative European settings, the moments of dry humour – is to keep the reader on Tom’s side through his many exploits, which range from forgery to murder. Somehow, no matter what he does, we want Tom to get away with it. And he does.
No list of antiheroes would be complete without Loki, Norse Mythology’s dark-hearted trickster. Most recently depicted on the big screen by Tom Hiddleston in the Thor and Avengers movies, Loki is another fascinating and complex figure. Rather like Lucifer, the fallen angel, he is counted among the Gods, yet not quite one of them, and his actions – sometimes playfully mischievous, sometimes downright evil – certainly set him apart. I first read about the Norse Gods in ’The Saga of Asgard’ by Roger Lancelyn Green, which is based on the Old Norse poems known as the Eddas. In ‘The Otherlife’ I draw on a particular tale involving Loki – the death of Baldr the Beautiful.
Richard Papen from The Secret History by Donna Tartt
Everyone has books they reread once a year; for me The Secret History is one of those. Five students of Ancient Greek at a small fictional university keep a terrible secret between them, one that ultimately threatens everything they hold dear. It’s a big and ambitious book, and it’s held together by the narration of Richard Papen. From the outset it is made clear that Richard has an ambivalent relationship with the truth: he’s an easy liar, able to work out how to act and what to say in order to achieve his goals. His chequered morality is essential to the plot and makes for compelling reading. Richard also utters one of my favourite introductory lines ever, in the opening chapter: ’This is the only story I will ever be able to tell.”