The anti-hero is an age-old archetype—a protagonist we root for, in spite of their flaws—and male anti-heroes, from Michael Corleone to Don Draper, are cultural staples. But with few
exceptions (Madame Bovary perhaps among them), we’ve been slower to embrace dark, complex female protagonists. Though female novelists through the ages (think Kate Chopin, Virginia Woolf, and Toni Morrison) have been writing women with full, complicated psychologies, a new kind of anti-heroine has emerged in popular fiction in recent years.
Gillian Flynn has made a career depicting the anti-heroine. Her first two novels, Sharp Objects and Dark Places, feature multi-dimensional women, but most will know her for Gone Girl—the book that centres around Amy Dunne, who turns lying into an art form. Still, Amy’s motivation for all her trickery, including framing her husband for murder, ends up being surprisingly less evil than it first seems. “Libraries are filled with stories on generations of brutal men, trapped in a cycle of aggression,” Flynn wrote. “I wanted to write about the violence of women.”
Stieg Larsson’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo comes to mind, of course. Although protagonist Lisbeth Salander helps the hero, Blomkvist,
solve the novel’s central crime, she’s not the detective’s stereotypical helpful secretary. “Don’t ever fight with Lisbeth Salander,” says one character in The Girl Who Played With Fire. “Her attitude towards the rest of the world is that if someone threatens her with a gun, she’ll get a bigger gun.”
Canadian author Amy Stuart’s Still Mine joins the club with Clare O’Day, who flees addiction, trauma and abuse to become a pseudo-detective, tracking down a missing woman in small-town Ontario. But when Clare develops a relationship with the local drug dealer, readers see a woman who is simultaneously strong and weak. “I’ve heard from readers, including my friends, that Clare is frustrating,” Stuart has said. “And that was a choice I made, knowing it was a bit of a risk, to have a protagonist that the reader isn’t necessarily going to like.”
You may not love this new breed of anti-heroines, and they may not be not role models, but they challenge readers and defy expectations.
Claire Messud said it best when asked if she would be friends with Nora from The Woman Upstairs: “If you’re reading to find friends, you’re in deep trouble. We read to find life, in all its possibilities. The relevant question isn’t ‘Is this a potential friend for me?’ but ‘Is this character alive?’”