Tag Archives: anti-hero

Gillian Flynn and the Case of the Unreliable Narrator

There are few things I like more than unreliable narrators, reluctant heroes, dark protagonists, dogs, and Taco Bell. Some of my favorite characters on television shows, in books, and in comic books are the anti-heroes and villains that have deep, spanning character arcs. I just hate to love Gul Dukat from Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, the perpetual heel no matter how hard I root for him to turn into a good guy. Who can say no to The Hound in Game of Thrones? All beefy, reluctant, melty-cheese-face goodness right there. And who isn’t charmed/terrified by Negan in The Walking Dead comics and his filthy, filthy mouth? Kim Coates’ portrayal of Tig on Sons of Anarchy? C’MON, man. The best! And the king of anti-heroes, from which my love of anti-heroes began: Conan the Barbarian.

What most of these anti-heroes and villains have in common is this: their behavior is somewhat predictable from early on. Gul Dukat gonna be Gul Dukat, even if he does some good things on occasion. The Hound looks out for himself until paid to do otherwise, with only a few exceptions. Negan tells his enemies exactly what he’s going to do before he does it. He also loves Lucille, and he’s gonna bring her out to play and he’ll talk some poor character’s ear off while doing it. Tig’s always going to be weird on a supreme level, but he has his soft spots. Conan the mercenary, the pirate, the thief, the treasure hunter, the nomad, still lives his life according to a code.

As a good rule of thumb, the reader has to trust a character to do just one thing: act like him/her/themselves. 

Gillian Flynn either didn’t get the memo, or doesn’t care about your fragile expectations of her characters. And boy is that ballsy. But if you know anything about her success, it’s turning out pretty well for her.

In the first half of Gillian Flynn’s bestseller Gone Girl, I was amazed. Flynn’s ability to communicate small issues in a marriage, how they can appear and fester just under the surface, was revelatory to me. I sure didn’t pick up Gone Girl expecting such an accurate and subtle commentary on American marriage and the differences between blue-collar and white-collar partner philosophies.

But I also didn’t pick up Gone Girl expecting the twist, either. Soft spoiler ahead, so cover your eyes for this and the next paragraph if you plan on reading the book or seeing the movie. As it turns out, BOTH of our narrators, married couple Nick and Amy Dunne, are unreliable to an extreme. Just when we start feeling sorry for Nick, and think he’s getting played by a master, we find that he’s been living a secret life all on his own.

What Gillian Flynn accomplishes in Gone Girl is to take the concept of an unreliable narrator and anti-heroes to another level. When we understand that Nick and Amy can’t be trusted (the first unreliable narrator twist), Flynn twists the narrative knife even further, taking their story to depths most people couldn’t dream up in a million years.

Similarly, in Flynn’s novella The Grownup,  the reader is presented with an anti-hero that, at first blush, seems honest and straight forward about who she is: a fake psychic. I’ll not mention her former job so you’re surprised when you read the short story yourself (I’ll just say this: the first two lines of the story are some of the best opening lines I’ve ever read. Talk about a hook! Winky wink). Now, as we, the readers, follow this opportunistic woman, we fall into a haunted house/evil stepson-type scenario. Nothing too surprising here – they are common horror movie tropes. And our protagonist, although a con artist of sorts, still has some admirable attributes, and it’s easy to slip into the story from her perspective. We’re even on her side. (Big spoiler here, so skip to the next paragraph if you want to read this story.) We’re on her side, that is, until we realize too late that she’s not an anti-hero – she’s the villain, and became so under our very noses. And this is Flynn’s trademark. Unreliable narrators to an extreme. Characters that seem like unreliable narrators and anti-heroes who become the villains before the reader can put two and two together.

As much as I drool over and admire Gillian Flynn’s storytelling, I must admit I don’t come away from her books feeling particularly… good. I feel uncomfortable, ill at ease. I certainly don’t need every book to be a happy ending, but I’m used to anti-hero stories ending in a different way (Conan always accomplishes the quest and gets the girl, after all).

What I take away from Gillian Flynn’s expert storytelling and success is this: do what you do, and do it well. If you’re good at pulling the wool over your readers’ eyes, do it. But always do it well. Flynn creates characters we can empathize with, she can humanize extreme situations, and then she slowly crumbles the foundation of what we thought we knew about those characters and their situation. Flynn uses our very fundamental trust of character (that the character will act like himself/herself/themselves) against us. And it is masterful.

Readers don’t always like to be deceived. In fact, a writer pulling a fast one often makes a reader feel betrayed. But looking at Gone Girl‘s success, it doesn’t appear the readers minded the deception because of how artfully Flynn pulled it off. Don’t be afraid to deceive your reader, but only if you can pull it off, too.

Bad Boys and Anti-heroes: Why the Gals Love Them

buffy and spike
From: scorchingflame.deviantart.com

So, you killed someone? You have a dark past, present or future? That’s okay. You too, can still get the girl and find love!

Don’t believe me?  Let’s look at what makes a character a bad boy or anti-hero and see if we can discern why the women swoon for them. Because they are, I promise. And your flaws are part of the attraction.

First, what defines a bad boy, anti-hero or what some call Byronic Heroes. We know the bad boys – the guys you can’t bring home to meet the parents. They may wear too much leather, have a disregard/disrespect for authority (and that includes dear old dad), brood, be rebellious, or be one of those long-haired music types.  We know them by their clothes, their hair, their motorcycle, their attitude, their criminal record. And damn if they don’t draw us in with their sexy bad boy ways. Think James Dean in Rebel Without a Cause, Judd Nelson in The Breakfast Club, or Brad Pitt in Fight Club.

Anti-heroes are those characters who lack conventional heroic qualities. They possess both good and bad qualities. They show us what real human nature looks like. We root for them to redeem themselves and though they are not someone we can look up to, we like them and fall for them anyway.  These guys are also the ones you may not want to bring home, but we want them despite their flaws.  Think Vin Diesel as Riddick in any of the Riddick films, Johnny Depp as Captain Jack Sparrow in The Pirates of the Caribbean, or Harrison Ford as Han Solo in Star Wars.

Byronic Heroes are those who are proud, moody, cynical, vengeful, miserable and yet capable of deep emotion and strong affection.  They can be obsessive, tortured and arrogant, yet we have to believe that our love can change them.  Think Mr. Rochester (too many great actors have done this role – take your pick) from Jane Eyre, Hugh Jackman as the Wolverine from the X-Men, Laurence Olivier or Tom Hardy as Heathcliff in Wuthering Heights, or Gerard Butler as the Phantom in Phantom of the Opera. And let’s not forget Tom Hiddleston as Loki in Thor. They’re all just so irresistible!

So, why do we women-folk want them? I think it’s that we like a bit of the dark with our sweet.  Too much nice can get cloying. Too much bad is not healthy for us. They may be murderers after all. But, if you can find that perfect balance, or kid yourself into thinking that you have, then voilá – love.

Something caused these guys to be like they are, we reason. They had rough childhoods. Some girl tap-danced all over their heart. They were orphaned, beaten, had bad role models… whatever. But something caused it – they weren’t born bad. We have to believe that if we want to believe we can help them on their road to redemption or believe that we will be the catalyst that spurs that redemption. It’s terribly romantic.

Okay, I may sound a bit snarky on this, but really I’m not. I buy into this all the time. I love these characters. I love these guys. I love the pure optimism and hope in it all. Jane Eyre totally saves Mr. Rochester and they live a long happy life together. Yes, they go through their share of tragedy and heartache, but still… at the end, they’re together, in love and she was the reason for his redemption. What isn’t to love about that?

In Buffy the Vampire Slayer (don’t roll your eyes – that show rocked!), Spike is a villain through how many seasons? He kills humans without remorse. Kills slayers with glee and much future boasting. He’s cruel, sarcastic, and if he can mess with you in any way, he will and smile while doing it. Even at his rottenest, we like him. He’s funny, sexy, and gets away with doing all the awful things we wish we could. But he cares deeply for Drusilla (who’s a total wacko) and later, Buffy, so we know he isn’t all bad. And who of us didn’t have a thing for him the minute he showed up in Season 2, Episode 3? Later, he becomes Buffy’s sex-toy, and then friend and at the end of the series, Spike is a hero of sorts. He and Buffy aren’t always nice to one another, but ultimately they bring about change for the better in each other.

Han Solo is a mercenary. He’s selfish and self-serving. He’s a sexy space cowboy with the coolest wingman ever.  He’s a womanizer, street smart criminal, and hangs with the wrong crowds. He is not Dudley Do-Right, but under that gruff exterior beats the heart of a romantic softy who was willing to give up the love-of-his-life to his best friend when he thought that was what she wanted.  Yes, indeed. This is a guy I can fall for. With ease. And don’t friendship, a worthy cause and the love of a good woman bring about a better Han? Yes they do. Love scores again.

Characters – the moral here is that even if you’re a killer, cruel, selfish, broody, and have loads of flaws, you can be redeemed and there’s a gal out there just waiting to be your salvation! Mind you, not all of the bad boys and anti-heroes can be redeemed, but that won’t slow the women down from trying.

Writers – characters don’t have to be perfect for readers to love them, want them, want to be them and find them emotionally relatable. Flaws add depth and are more interesting. Perfect characters are boring, so explore the dark side a little and see what happens.