Atypical Protagonists: Six Anti-Heroes From Great Works of Fiction

This essay was written by Chris Ciolli.

Everyone loves a hero. Except when we don’t.

Because let’s face it, sometimes heroes are hard to take. In a less-than-perfect world full of less-than-perfect people where right and wrong exist among so many shades of gray, sometimes traditionally heroic protagonists fall flat, even when they triumph against their “evil” foes.

That’s where anti-heroes come in. With fewer redeeming attributes and more Achilles heels than your typical protagonist, anti-heroes show readers another side of human character, however disagreeable.  Inspiring reactions ranging from sympathy to disgust, literary anti-heroes figure among the world’s most famous literary icons.

Who could forget the emotionally fragile but patently obnoxious Holden Caulfield in Catcher in the Rye or creepy but strangely vulnerable Humbert Humbert in Lolita? If nothing else, such characters serve to remind us that it doesn’t take a good guy to go down in history, literary or otherwise.

Scarlett O’Hara in Gone With the Wind by Margaret Mitchell

Scarlett is much lauded as a spunky survivor, and a strong female protagonist by a lot of people who didn’t read the book, or don’t remember her racism, greed or generally thoughtless self-serving antics very well. Let’s face it; she’s exactly the type of ambitious, argumentative and social-ladder-climbing woman that most of us love to hate.

Anything goes to further her ends. Pursuing a married man while married herself, stealing her sister’s intended, anything goes when it serves her purposes.

Ignatius in A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole

By far one of the most unlikeable book characters I’ve ever read about, Ignatius J. Reilly is a masterfully written, if hard to stomach anti-hero. He’s intelligent and educated but lazy and unmotivated, a sweaty thirty-year-old who hides from his numerous phobias in his room and takes advantage of his mother’s goodwill.

Ignatius is arrogant and judgmental and if you can’t laugh at his antics, this book is not for you because more often than not he’s too loathsome for words. Cruel, arrogant, and judgmental on a regular basis, Ignatius accepts no responsibility for his actions or personality. There’s always someone or something else to blame.

Disclaimer: Despite the fact that A Confederacy of Dunces is set in my favorite U.S. city (New Orleans) and won a Pulitzer, I was so revolted by Ignatius that I couldn’t even laugh at the scathing satire and comedy of errors that make the book shine for so many other readers.

Grendel in Grendel by John Gardner

In this retelling of the Anglo-Saxon epic poem Beowulf, monster Grendel is the star. Throughout the book, Grendel whines about…. ahem, reflects on the meaning of life, the nature of good and evil, and the power of literature and myth.

Somehow, despite his bad-humor, grouchiness, not to mention murderous and people-eating behavior, Grendel is a sympathetic anti-hero. We feel bad for him. He was raised by monsters, (okay, his mother) but somehow developed the power of speech. Which is all but useless, as his mother is mute and humans want nothing to do with him. Poor, lonely Grendel, on some occasions admiring the humans from afar, and still others killing and eating them.

Gatsby in the Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald

All that glitters isn’t gold in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s literary masterpiece, and the book’s namesake, Jay Gatsby is far from admirable, despite his great wealth.  Of course the great majority of Fitzgerald’s cast of flappers and their male companions are varying degrees of despicable.

Jay Gatsby is the dark side of the excess of the Roaring Twenties personified. After making his fortune bootlegging, this anti-hero sets out to spend it on lavish get-togethers to impress a vapid and selfish woman (Daisy Buchanan) who is already married to someone else. Even so, Gatsby remains something of a mystery, and despite his many flaws, is much easier to like than Daisy’s husband Tom, or Daisy herself.

Lázaro in Lazarillo de Tormes by Anonymous

In this Spanish picaresque classic by an unknown author, Lázaro is born into a poor family and learns to wheel and deal to support himself from a young age.  Banned for a time during the Spanish Inquisition and later allowed to circulate in a censored version, the book describes the title character’s misadventures in the employ of a cast of outwardly respectable but corrupt masters that include a blind man, a priest, a squire and a friar, among others.  In many ways a victim of his circumstances, Lázaro learns the hard way that to survive, he will have to abandon any vestige of honor, scruples or respectability.

Narrator in Invisible Monsters by Chuck Palahniuk

The female narrator in Chuck Palahniuk’s Invisible Monsters is hard to sympathize with and even harder to trust, no matter how badly her face has been disfigured or how many ridiculous identities she takes on (Daisy St. Patience, really?). Instead of understanding her parents’ grief when they find out her brother died from AIDS, she acts out for attention.  Even after her face is shot off, she plays fast and loose with the lives of others, stealing and taking drugs, setting fire to houses, and doing as she pleases with no regard for the consequences.

Note: I read Invisible Monsters, not the newer Invisible Monsters Remix, which is said to be closer to the author’s original intentions for the book.

As readers, writers, and human beings, we are constantly surrounded by heroes and anti-heroes alike. For few people are purely one or the other. Thankfully most of us are quite the mix, only occasionally embodying either extreme.


Chris Ciolli is a Barcelona-based writer and a translator. She’s an unashamed book and coffee addict that travels every chance she gets. She also spends a lot of time playing with kitchen tools and art supplies. Read about her travels at, and check out her art at

Photo: Some rights reserved by Marya

In Praise of Clipboards

writing with clipboard

This essay was written by Noelle Sterne.

Clipboards? Those remnants of the writer’s Stone Tablet Age? In this explosive Age of  iPads, tablets, laptops, mensa-smart phones, endlessly propagating apps, and GPS trackers that pin down your editor in the Hamptons and remind him to respond to your latest email?

Whatever your writing genre or specialty, you’re probably wired with at least a laptop and daily upgrade cravings. I know, I know—you tell me you can be connected anywhere. In the ATM line, on your iPad you can visit rival banks for their latest lowest check-cashing charges.

With the mall’s free WiFi, in a department store fitting room you can see which coupons match that divine shirt. In the dentist’s waiting room, you can open wide your computer notebook. Sitting under a tree in the park, you can sit cross-legged with your laptop in your lap, saving paper to boot (or reboot).

So, how can a clipboard possibly supplant such tech-orgiastic wonders? Well, my clipboard quietly visits the electronic superstore, while my husband valiantly tries to understand the grade-school electro-wizard’s explanation of the latest generation of gargantuan gigabytes.

The clipboard unpacks quickly on camping trips, while my husband gets his elbows smacked by the pre-programmed, auto-surefire, guaranteed-to-open tent poles. The clipboard rides serenely to the car repair shop, where my husband’s eyes pop at the mechanic’s dazzling estimate-upping electronic diagnostic panel.

Wherever I travel, my clipboard fits easily into a tote, with no need for batteries, memory cards, cables, adapters, chargers, plugs, backup disks, motherboards, kiddy boards, or chairman boards. The clipboard automatically accompanies me to the coffee shop, library, restaurant, and park. It’s with me on the subway, the Sunday drive to relatives’, and the eternal supermarket line.

My clipboard also immunizes me from electronic anxiety disorder (EAD). I harbor no looming fears of crashing hard drives, suffer no spiraling panic at power spikes, dread the contagion of file-chomping viruses, or watch warily for hackers’ rude affronts. My clipboard never displays puzzling sluggishness, sudden dips in energy, or heart-stopping flutters, gasps, buzzes, dings, or crackles.

And the clipboard is instantly available. At the flip of a pen top, it’s booted up and ready to roll. At the electronics maxi-mart, I find a corner by the stockroom and sit on a carton in the corner. My clipboard opens instantly to the next scene in my current short story.

At the campsite, I curl into a canvas chair, a thermos of faux cappuccino propped nearby in the grass. With the clipboard cozily against my knees, I survey the lush forest and settle into the setting of my novel’s next chapter.

Back home after the weekend, I push into the crowded subway for an errand downtown. Squeezed among alien elbows, I press the clipboard against a pole, and before lurching to my stop, manage to scribble out a few almost legible lines for my latest poem.

Granted—handwriting has its drawbacks. It doesn’t store your body of work, rough as it may be, for later major surgery. It doesn’t show off sixty-five alternates for the precise word that maddeningly eludes you. And it doesn’t cut, paste, delete, or redo your revisions with mind-boggling speed.

Nevertheless, I defend the clipboard’s virtues. For one thing, to arrive at the right word isn’t like choosing from a Chinese menu. Often you must stop, probe deep inside, and ask yourself pointed questions (“How would she really feel?”). Only as you quiet down and listen does the right word emerge from your own internal database.

For another, sometimes speed is the last thing you want. You need to sit, stare, ruminate, groan a little, and chew on the pen top. At your computer you can sit and stare, but how can you chew on a keyboard, and who wants to chew on a mouse?

When you use a clipboard, much of the pleasure springs from the sheer physical act of forming the letters. As I write, watching the words become real on paper, the process, like drawing, carries an irreplaceable sensuality.

The pens alone provide no small part of the pleasure. My favorites are felt-tipped, always stashed in my tote in a delicious assortment of colors, like freshly showered fruits at the outdoor market. In comparison, sterile typewriter keys, soundless and fleet as they may be, feel like canned spray cheese to aged Vermont cheddar.

Lest you think I’m the only throwback to the AnteDell-uvian Age, I assure you I’m not alone in my praise of handwriting. Listen to writing guru Natalie Goldberg in her classic Writing Down the Bones (1986, Shambhala):

Writing is physical and is affected by the equipment you use. In typing, your fingers hit keys and the result is block, black letters. Handwriting is more connected to the movement of the heart. . . .You are physically engaged with the pen, and your hand, connected to your arm, is pouring out the record of your senses. (pp. 6, 7, 50)

Multi-award-winning mystery writer Phyllis A. Whitney, who published her last book at 93, agrees: “I believe there’s a connection between the brain and the fingers, and there should be as little interference between the two as possible” (“Tools of the Writer’s Trade,” The Writer, August 1992, p. 29).

The poet Charles Simic in The New York Review of Books corroborates: “Even a scrap of paper and a stub of a pencil are more preferable for philosophizing than typing the same words down, since writing a word out, letter by letter, is a more self-conscious process and one more likely to inspire further revisions and elaborations of that thought.” (October 12, 2011).

Even science agrees. The London Daily Mail reported on a study with children who learned better with handwriting than computer typing: “Something is apparently lost in the brain process when switching from pen and book to computer screen and keyboard” (January 21, 2011).

This visceral connection is at the core of creativity. When I’ve finally settled down with my clipboard, and the writing flows from heart-mind to arm to pen to page, I sigh with a feeling of greater fullness than kissing an infant or diving into the dripping hot fudge sundae before me.

Despite these paeans, though, I cannot deny the merits of today’s technological marvels. Handwriting addict that I am, I have to admit using the computer for after-first drafts.

Many writers have successfully weathered the fearsome ocean from the safe harbor of pen and paper to the wilds of unknown electronic shores. Both, I’ve found, have their place in our navigation of creativity’s fickle waters. Nevertheless, my devotion to clipboards remains steadfast, and for all the reasons I’ve marshaled above.

Doubtless part of a fast-vanishing breed, I’m still in excellent company. Who else writes or wrote with clipboards, or at least by hand, on stalwart, reliable yellow pads? The distinctive roster sparks confidence. To name only a few, Jackie Collins, Hemingway, Toni Morrison, William Styron, Henry Kissinger, J. K. Rowling, Maya Angelou.

So, if you’re a closet clipboardholic and find yourself gaped at, giggled at, noticeably avoided by other writers, or feeling inexplicably guilty in our post-cursive era, remember that you belong to a proud elite. Ride out the ridicule, stand tall, look ’em in the web cam, and flourish your pen—in praise of clipboards.


Noelle Sterne is the author of Trust Your Life: Forgive Yourself and Go After Your Dreams You can also read more about her and her book here.

Photo: Some rights reserved by Abbey Hendrickson

The Allure of the Traveling Book

travel reading book

This is an essay by Sarah Li Cain.

Exhausted and lonely, I checked into my hostel in Malaysia. I had just gotten off a 10-hour bus ride and was looking forward to some decent rest. Not the one I just had while sitting in a broken chair in a squeaky bus.

I opened the door to my room, threw my backpack on the floor and flopped on the bed. My back lands on something bumpy. No, it’s not the bed I thought. I could have slept on this foreign item I was that tired. Instead, curiosity got the better of me and I flicked on the lights.

There it was, sitting there in the middle of my temporary lodgings was Shantaram by Gregory David Roberts. It was as though someone has left a gift specifically for me. There was no wrapping paper to tear up, no thank you to be dispersed. I opened up the book and read for a few hours before finally drifting off to sleep.

I will be forever grateful to the person who left me this book. I had many more bus rides before I reached my final destination three weeks later. Gregory David Roberts never left my side. Even though I was alone I never felt lonely. When I was done reading the book, I did the same thing the last traveler did. I left it in the middle of the bed for the next person. It was now my turn to give a gift.

These traveling books are simply not books. They are our long lost friends. They are also our excuses to meet new acquaintances, and a chance to ignite our imagination about the people around us. Some travelers may not understand the impact they have when they leave a book for others.

They may be simply unloading their backpacks because they have too many items. Others do think of the next person staying in the room. It’s weird, there’s an unspoken rule around the traveling community about leaving books. Why throw away a perfectly good book when there could be someone else who can find just as much, if not more value out of it than you did?

Not only are these people sharing a book, they are sharing the love of the written word. It doesn’t matter who the next person that receives the book is, as long as they read it and leave it for others. It’s quite fascinating to think how far a book can physically travel just by passing it along from person to person.

If those books could speak I wonder what kinds of stories they might tell, other than the words between its covers.

These traveling books can help break the ice with fellow travelers. If you see them reading a book in a language you understand, chances are they speak that language too.

You can break the ice by asking them how they like book so far, how long they have until they are finished, and if they want to trade.

Not only will you gain a potentially new book, you will possibly gain a new friend. So the next time you travel, make sure you leave a book for a weary traveler.

Be confident in the impact that you and the book will have.


Sarah Li Cain is an international educator, freelance writer and blogger. She has a lifelong love of the written word and is an avid reader and writer. She is working on reclaiming her fearlessness at Sarah Li You can follow her on Twitter.

Photo: Some rights reserved by Moyan Brenn

Andropause for Thought: Writing to Relieve a Mid-Life Crisis

andropause mid-life crisis writing

This essay was written by Christian Green.

Sometimes you just have to take a leap of faith.

You see, I’m trying to be a successful writer, but keeping the news to myself during this precarious early phase, so I won’t look too foolish should I fall flat on my face.  Sure, there have been plenty of acceptances. In fact, for two months now I’ve been making a living as a full time freelance writer, having been laid off from my manufacturing job last March.

The Beginning of a Crisis

I’m bursting with pride and an almost overwhelming need to tell the world all about it, but this urge is currently offset by a superstitious dread that such a display of hubris could make the whole delicate structure collapse.

There I was, five years ago, easing into a comfortable middle-age, yet feeling restless and vaguely dissatisfied. There was a nagging suspicion that I was not doing what I should be doing.

The disconcerting realization gradually dawned that what I was experiencing was the legendary male mid-life crisis. The phenomenon for which some wag coined the term, ‘the andropause’.

I proceeded with caution. I’d heard of men reaching this difficult age. Suddenly realizing that the clock is ticking, many panic and start to indulge in reckless or simply embarrassing behavior as they vainly try to recapture a long-lost youth to prove they are still virile and dynamic. Such attempts often seem to consist of chasing after girls young enough to be their daughters, or dressing in wildly inappropriate teen fashions, or acquiring a Honda Fireblade and hurtling off to become another road traffic accident statistic.

Fortunately, my crisis didn’t seem to be advising me unwisely. To my great relief I concluded that I was being nudged in a more responsible and creative direction. The direction that led to my unfulfilled ambition to be a writer. Since childhood I’ve enjoyed writing. Over the years my efforts had appeared in various amateur publications but, held back by a lack of confidence, I’d never tried to climb higher. As the years passed my vague longings had been placed firmly in the background by life and all its attendant responsibilities and distractions.

The Beginning of a New Career

Then, a few years ago, I wrote and submitted an article to a semi-pro journal devoted to my favorite writer. The piece was published and I was paid. It felt good, and something long dormant awoke, yawned and stretched in the dusty recesses of my mind.

I realized I wanted to build upon this unexpected success but didn’t know how. I felt gauche and naïve, lacking any clear idea of how to develop and present my work. With impeccable timing it was then that I happened across a flyer listing a new course at a local college: Professional Writing. It seemed that a benevolent fate was giving me a little shove in the right direction. The prospectus intrigued me and I signed up.

I’d realized that my restlessness wasn’t necessarily about a yearning to write. I was doing that already for my own amusement. No, it was about wanting to be a writer.

To produce work good enough to be accepted and published and to get paid for it. I didn’t want to write for the trunk, hoping for posthumous recognition as a genius. I wished to succeed while still breathing. I wanted the satisfaction of learning a skill, to enjoy applying that skill, and to make money out of it; a secondary income which might, if I was sufficiently hard-working and fortunate, become a primary income. A heady prospect indeed.

I plunged right in, and found to my delight that the course suited me well. It was completely practical, offering an unpretentious nuts-and-bolts approach to getting published. The aspiring writer was given the tools to do the job; how he chose to apply those tools was then solely up to him. Before the course ended I began to place my work.

I found that writing for publication rather than for myself reinforced some general life lessons; patience, reliability, self-discipline, organization, analytical thinking, objectivity.

I learned that, although effective communication is obviously important, the second most vital aspect of writing is marketing; presenting a professional plumage, and displaying to attract an editor. I also discovered, the painful way, why it’s not good practice to pester editors, even when I’m haunted by visions of my submissions yellowing in some dusty in-tray.

I learned to sever any emotional ties to a piece of work after submitting it. After all, you may have carefully raised and tended your flock, but once they’ve been packed off to the butcher their fate is out of your hands and all you can do is get on with raising the next litter.

I toughened up and gained the nerve to offer my work in the marketplace. The results were encouraging. Of the first sixteen unsolicited articles submitted, fifteen were accepted. On the back of these efforts I began to receive commissions. Often the wait for a response is long and frustrating, but I have the satisfaction of knowing that I’m capable of producing work to the required standard. That’s a real confidence booster.

Each acceptance is like an injection of rocket fuel; I can’t wait to get to the next project. It’s addictive.

Looking back over the last few years, I can see that I’ve developed in both capability and outlook. I find that I’m seeing the world in a different way, paying more attention, noting details I might once have overlooked.

The Beginning of a New Future

So I’m forging something useful out of my mid-life crisis. It’s pushed me into attempting something fresh and challenging which can actually earn me a living. Fulfilling and profitable, it’s a useful crisis, a handy andropause. It’s given me a second wind at a time when it’s all too easy to flag.

Soon, when my still shaky business is on firmer ground, when I’ve picked up a few more clients, I’ll feel able to blow my trumpet about what I’m doing, heedless of any superstitious fears about jinxing the outcome. I’m too thrilled to keep it to myself much longer. It’s the excitement of possibilities. The broadening of horizons. The feeling that I’m only just beginning to see what I’m capable of.


Christian Green is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in a number of U.K. magazines and online.  He lives with his wife in picturesque Lincolnshire, England. Check out his website.

Photo: Some rights reserved by Isaac Torrontera