In the first chapter of Sascha Rothchild’s mesmerizing debut thriller, Blood Sugar, five-year-old Ruby Simon grabs the ankle of a boy struggling in the Atlantic Ocean and holds on until he drowns. Flash forward 25 years to a Miami Beach interrogation room, where a detective confronts Ruby with photos of four murder victims, including the boy. Ruby says she killed him because he had bullied her beloved older sister, and recalls the circumstances of two other killings before the detective gets to the crime she’s been arrested for: her husband’s murder. In this vividly written page-turner, Rothchild does a terrific job keeping readers wondering about Ruby’s reliability and pulls off the considerable challenge of engendering sympathy for an unrepentant killer.
When I was on a family vacation many years ago, my five-year-old nephew befriended another child at the hotel pool. They began to play pretend, some sort of convoluted superhero scenario, and I heard my nephew say, “I want to be the bad guy!” He then paused and thought about what he had so excitedly exclaimed. And then he pensively said, “I’m fucked. I like the bad guys.” The shocked parents of the other child quickly pulled their offspring away because the f-word was used, and I sat down and discussed why exactly my nephew likes bad guys. I understood him completely and what we determined is that bad guys are more fun because they have more options. Like Tolstoy’s famous quote about happy families all being alike, good guys are always good in the same way, bad guys are bad limitlessly.
So, we can be entertained by the bad guy, but can we in good conscience root for the bad guy? Not exactly. Enter the antihero. A deeply flawed character who—despite their misdeeds—we want to win in the end. And winning can mean anything from getting the girl to escaping the law. I wrote for the Netflix series GLOW and in the second episode, Marc Maron’s Sam tells Alison Brie’s antiheroine Ruth, “Relax, the devil gets all the best lines.” True! The term “devil” is used loosely there, as is the term “antihero” in my list of captivating characters.
10. Rodion Raskolnikov: Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoevsky
In one of the greatest novels of all time, Dostoevsky creates an antihero who himself struggles with being an antihero. Talk about meta! The man commits one little murder in order to better himself and his situation. He is destitute, the victim is an unsavory pawn broker—justifications abound. This is the saga of a man who cannot live with his decisions, until he admits his guilt to others.
9. Lestat de Lioncourt: The Vampire Chronicles by Anne Rice
Selfish, beautiful, and charming, this alluring and illusive bad boy is timeless. Literally. He is often misunderstood, because how could us mere mortals relate to his depth of experience? Lestat is such a jerk, yet when he loves, he loves completely. So he in turn is easy to love.
Before I read the first book in this phenomenal series, I couldn’t imagine being on the same side as a stalker. But Joe is so intelligent, thoughtful, and capable, it’s difficult not to side with him in all things. Even things that seem unspeakably evil, like kidnapping and murder. He is deftly written and his victims are cleverly likable when he is obsessed with them, and cloyingly annoying once he is over them. So even when it’s wrong, I find myself on Team Joe.
7. Emma Woodhouse: Emma by Jane Austen
How can an entitled, meddling, and smug lady capture our hearts? She can also be relatable and compassionate and have the inexperience of youth on her side. Emma goes about her life certain she is right about everything, especially others. She makes a mess of things, yet in the end grows without losing any of her special brand of moxie.
6. Carrie White: Carrie by Stephen King
The classic tale of a teen bullied to the brink. Carrie is so alone, so misguided, and so abused by her evil mother that when she unleashes her wrath on the entire town, I’m proud of my girl! I wish Carrie didn’t die, and instead created a special school for others to help harness telekinetic power and anger into something good.
5. Harriet Welsch: Harriet the Spy by Louise Fitzhugh
When I was little and first read this indelible novel, I knew it was supposed to be a cautionary tale. Spying is bad! Writing things down can come back to haunt you! But instead of learning from Harriet’s mistakes, I was inspired to emulate her. I was always an eavesdropper, but after reading about Harriet I took it up a notch and absorbed information around me, especially information I was not supposed to have, in a more formal manner. I began taking copious notes in my diary and have never stopped.
One marker of fantastic antiheroes is extreme intelligence. One can understand why a genius might easily get bored and behave badly, even eat a person every now and again. Hannibal is a supreme antihero because his admiration for Clarice Starling, our heroine, helps us give him a pass. Also, as evil as Hannibal is, there are other, worse monsters lurking, making him seem likable in comparison.
3. Howard Roark: The Fountainhead by Ayn Rand
I consider Roark an antihero because his biggest flaw is also what also makes him exceptional. He believes his vision and his greatness are far more important than making others happy or comfortable. Buildings and politics and the age-old debate of the one versus the many sit on this character’s strong shoulders.
2. Roy Basch: The House of God by Samuel Shem
This young doctor is alarming and satirical and despicable. He cheats on his girlfriend, makes fun of his patients, and is disgusted by the look and smell of old people’s flesh. He calls elderly patients “gomers,” meaning “Get Out of My Emergency Room,” and by the middle of the book, it’s easy to understand this disrespectful acronym. Dr. Basch is part hero because he gives us a horrific yet humorous and extremely honest perspective of a doctor’s experience working in a hospital.
I grew up learning the basics of Greek mythology and it wasn’t until I read this incredible novel that I questioned the fact that like so many other things, Greek myths are all told through a male lens. Madeline Miller gives this historically maligned lesser goddess an origin story and a voice and a painful, worthy struggle. The girl she accidentally turned into a monster had it coming! Those men she turned into pigs had it coming! Of course, the songs men have sung for thousands of years, the sagas they’ve written, are exaggerations and misrepresentations of Circe’s evil deeds. Once you hear from Circe herself, she is a strong, sympathetic survivor doing all she can to stop being a victim. She is glorious and my absolute favorite of all antiheroes!