The Unique Challenge of Writing an Anti-Heroine

One of the common questions for authors to answer in interviews is something along the lines of “What inspired you to write this book?” When it comes to No Rest for the Wicked, it was one part a love of the 19th century as a setting and the maverick women who defined it, one part love of the paranormal, and one part a desire to see a complex female character in her 30s come to life on the page.

I have always found myself drawn to the scoundrels and the rogues, the Han Solos, Jack Sparrows, Deadpools, Punishers, and Peter Quills of the fictional world. Though they occasionally do heroic things, they are NOT heroes (just ask them). They are clever and often devious, and only once in a blue moon do they use those powers for good. There is something so delicious about these characters, especially in those moments where they overcome their own foibles and do the right thing (even if it isn’t always for an unselfish reason).

And I am definitely not alone in my love for them. In the (admittedly less than scientific) rankings on, for instance, there is a ton of overlap between the list of anti-heroes (see below) and the list of favorites. Five of the top 20 are on both lists.

When reflecting on this affection for the less-than-hero, it struck me in that moment I couldn’t come up with a SINGLE example of an anti-hero-ine. I checked Wikipedia and it does slightly better. But of the 211 entries in their anti-hero page (note there is no standalone anti-heroine page) in the literature, TV, and movie categories, there are 12 women. 12. That is just over 5% of the canon. The ones I was familiar with include Veronica Mars, Rebecca Bunch, and Scarlet O’Hara, and then there were a few more. But that didn’t seem like nearly enough. So, I set out to write my own.

Polarized Readers

Even though I believe my first novel, Riftmaker, is a strong novel, I didn’t think there was any question that No Rest for the Wicked was stronger. I’d learned a lot more about the craft of writing in the meantime, and ironically, I had been told that I shouldn’t write multi-POV because readers only wanted to get to know one character and found big casts confusing. (Then of course, Game of Thrones took off like gangbusters. I don’t think anyone would say that now.) I have trouble staying put in just one POV, so I knew I had to create a conflicted character who juggles her flaws in order to keep myself from wandering.

Despite what I thought, Riftmaker has basically only received praise, while No Rest for the Wicked has both lovers and haters. No one has lukewarm, 3-star feelings about it. I was runner-up in the Maxy Awards (woohoo!), but No Rest also received some harsh and long-winded criticism. And while some of the detractors mention stylistic choices I made, mostly they are talking about my anti-heroine.

Historical “Inaccuracies”

When the third 2-star review rolled in on Netgalley, I vented my frustration to my husband. One aspect of Vi that people don’t seem to like is that she is “shockingly modern” for a 19th century woman. As someone who has made it my business (quite literally) to know about the 19th century, I have to disagree. I regularly give lectures on the culture and society of the late 1800s, and it turns out it could be far more progressive (and often downright wackier) than most people believe.

Vi may not be altogether average for an 1870s widow, and she is certainly not the stereotype people “know”, but she is not so far outside of the bounds of reality to be a “mistake.” For instance, in 1872 (a year after the events of No Rest for the Wicked) the first woman ran for president of the United States. (To find out more about the amazing figure of Victoria Woodhull, check out this article.) A few years later, Annie Oakley became famous. Burlesque crossed over from France to the US around 1868, and one of its defining characteristics is that the women largely managed their own troupes and careers. California especially was a place where women had more latitude in how they lived their lives, and this was the main reason I chose Sacramento as Vi’s home.

Vi is also stalwartly anti-religion and anything but pious, and considering the life she’s lived and her experience with the dead, I think it’s understandable. Spiritualism (the tradition that grew out of mediums like Vi and took hold in the second half of the 19th century) and other faith systems weren’t necessarily mutually exclusive, but it did have its own tenets and worldview that was extremely progressive. Voting rights and abolition were high on their list of causes. Most mediums were women who were independent and made their own way in the world. The stereotype of the totally buttoned-up, Victorian style woman with a household to run was definitely not the only type of woman you could be.

What She Says vs. What She Does

The negative reviews have also said Vi doesn’t deserve the loyalty of the people around her, and Vi would completely agree with them. She thinks she’s a terrible person, and often says things in order to shield herself from emotions and shield others from getting too close. Though she rarely says thank you and would rather die than say “I love you”, she regularly chokes on her own gratitude and has to change the subject to keep from letting people see how they’ve moved her. (It’s safer that way for everyone, or so she believes.) So in some ways, I’ve succeeded in conveying the lie Vi tells to herself and the mask of callowness she shows to the world rather than her true face. Yay for me.

But actions also speak so much louder than words. In as spoiler-free as possible, these are things she does or has done within the first 100 pages: saves a maiden, refuses payment for a job, adopts an orphan, beats up a pair of would-be rapists, is indulgent to her staff and their young love, accepts mirrors instead of money when her clients can’t pay, defends her own honor, swindles a swindler (TWICE), and sets out to solve a murder. And this is without getting more of her back story, which will trickle out as the series progresses.

Are her motives for doing all of these things always for the pure reason of being “good” and “doing the right thing”? Heck no. But if you do the right thing for the “wrong” reasons, does that mean the thing itself is no longer right? To me, that’s what makes her and her antihero brothers and sisters so interesting.

An Unexpected Insight

After I was done with my little rant, my husband brought up an interesting point. He speculated that perhaps there was some sexism at work. As I said, the misconceptions about the 19th century in general and women’s roles specifically are fairly widespread. On top of that, Vi is certainly not a warm, nurturing, affectionate type of woman. Though she has adopted a little boy (or more accurately, allowed him to adopt her), she is distressed when someone implies she’s his mother.

This isn’t to say the critics who don’t like her are all men, quite the opposite in fact. Which is also very interesting to note. Readers can certainly forgive a lack of traditional femininity in our female characters, but it’s easier to do when that woman is doing something undeniably heroic. I’ve been watching a lot of Marvel movies lately, so Gamora and Black Widow come to mind. Gamora is tough as nails and has a dark past, but she is also on the quest to stop her father from destroying half of life in the universe. That’s quite an act of heroism. Black Widow has done a lifetime of terrible things, but is now reformed and fighting the good fight.

Vi, on the other hand, is still working her way toward redemption. Her decisions are fraught with her own self-loathing, her belief that she doesn’t deserve the love and support of the people around her. She has selfish impulses and though she may entertain them for a minute or two, she mostly refrains from actually acting upon them. But her darkness doesn’t hold a candle to someone like Arya Stark, who everyone roots for even though she’s a serial killer.

The entire Mistress of None series centers on questions of redemption – Does she deserve it? Is it even possible? How vulnerable will she allow herself to get in her pursuit? And what would it mean for her already fragile self-image if she fails? Can she go back to being the “bad guy” again once she tries to do better? Or would that shield be destroyed in the process, too?

Is Falling in Love in Front of Us a Prerequisite to Redemption?

Another thing that struck me about my list of heroines above is that each of them also has a love story. Black Widow’s is subtle and she never physically acts on it, but it’s definitely there. Gamora’s relationship with Quill is central to the Guardians of the Galaxy films. Han Solo and Leia are likewise an axis for the emotional journey of the original Star Wars films. (For the record, Han also says one thing then does another, such as when he refuses to help the rebels then shows up at the pivotal moment.) Deadpool kills out of revenge, but also a means to find his way back to his one true love. Their chemistry and the way their “weird curvy edges” fit together drives the entire film.

Of the characters I’ve talked about so far, only Arya and Jack Sparrow (more or less) escapes the love trap. But she’s a child and more or less a psychopath, and even Jack and Elizabeth have a certain chemistry. That potential triangle and the jealousy Will feels comes into play in a big way in the third Pirates movie. In the fourth, we meet a former love of Jack’s, and it inspires him to do selfless things. Without the Will/Elizabeth storyline, Jack stands on his own and the writers clearly thought he needed something like love to make him do the “right” thing.

In No Rest for the Wicked, Vi definitely doesn’t have romance on her mind. Or at least, she does her best to keep it off her mind. In 19th century America, especially in the time surrounding the Civil War, death was a facet of life. Even before the fighting broke out, Vi had already lost both of her parents and was raised by an emotionally distant and mentally disturbed (or so she thought) aunt, but managed to open her heart to Patrick. Then she lost him, too. For fear of being hurt again, she pushed Peter away, only to find out he not only died, but did so protecting her secret. No, she definitely isn’t in the market to fall in love. Not again. Not when it hurts so much to lose. She doesn’t fall in love “on screen” because she is already in love, and resents how much pain it causes her.

But despite the walls she builds around herself and the unlovable persona she tries to create, she actually can’t help but do the “right” thing the majority of the time. And the people close to her recognize this and love her for it, whether or not the reviewers do.

Only 5%

Perhaps all of these reasons is why we don’t see more anti-heroines, especially not ones set in a previous era. Beliefs about what it means (or meant) to be a woman or a hero interfere with characters’ abilities to be people. We like to see their sharp edges blunted by love, and if that’s missing, we have a harder time seeing them as worthy.

Humans are deeply flawed, often selfish, and occasionally beautiful creatures. I am not interested in writing a heroine, at least not in this series. I am interested in writing a human who happens to be female.

It would be fascinating to try a gender-swap and see if people were more receptive to the same character traits and arc in a man. Vi treats people much better than Benedict Cumberbatch’s Sherlock Holmes, yet no one questions John Watson’s loyalty. She is far less selfish than Han Solo or Jack Sparrow in even this first installment of her five-book arc, and she’s got a lot of time to continue to grow.

Where to Go from Here?

Much like her creator, not everyone is going to like or “get” Vi, and I accept that. I certainly don’t rub everyone the right way, so I guess it’s no surprise that my character isn’t everyone’s favorite, either. I’ve never been a criminal, but I have done and said stupid, hurtful things in order to feel like I was in control, in order to shield myself from harm. I think we all have.

Vi is an extreme version of these impulses, and maybe that’s what makes people uncomfortable about her. Though there are dark forces at the play from the outside, Vi is really the antagonist of her own story and will ultimately have to come to terms with and overcome herself. And maybe, just maybe, someday she’ll find the strength to let down her guard and find the redemption she seeks. And maybe I’ll find more readers who were looking for the elusive anti-heroine, too. Only time will tell.

What do you think? Can you name other anti-heroines? Do you enjoy anti-hero characters, or do they bug you? Share in the comments 🙂 

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