What is it about fantasy anti-heroes that makes them so much fun to read?
Maybe it’s the fact that they don’t have to worry too much about morality or “crossing a line”—they’re the sort that don’t bother with lines!
Maybe it’s that their exploits are always filled with lots of action, violence, and intrigue—the stories we love to dive into!
Maybe it’s because they give us a chance to experience life outside all the rules and strictures of polite society—a bit of harmless wish fulfillment for our innate aggressive natures.
Whatever the case, there’s no denying it: fantasy anti-heroes are, without a doubt, some of the most enjoyable characters in fiction. PERIOD!
With an anti-hero, you can never really predict what they’ll do or which way their story will go, so it adds an element of “What the hell is going to happen next?” If you like heart-pounding, page-turning, non-stop novels, you can always bet that’s what you’ll get with fantasy anti-heroes.
Want a few of the best?
(I had so much fun with the Fantasy Assassins post I had to do it again!)
Behold, a veritable whos-who of the ass-kickingest anti-heroes in fantasy fiction:
A grim, hulking Cimmerian with the agility of a panther, Conan was born on a battlefield and raised to war. His lust for travel and adventure takes him across all the kingdoms of the Hyborian Age, leading him to battle evil wizards, terrible monsters, and even ancient gods. The strength of his arm and his unbounded courage are all he needs to bring him through even the toughest battle alive.
His deeds of heroism are usually done out of a desire for gain or to survive impossible odds. He is also strangely chivalrous, with a strong drive to save damsels in distress—often sacrificing his own desires to do so.
His nature is to subvert and supplant (the usually evil) leaders of the warbands and criminal crews he runs with, but he is always a magnanimous and respected leader in his own right.
The Bloody Nine, so named for the missing finger on his left hand, is a physically imposing and badly scarred brute of a barbarian from the icy North. He is a force of nature, quick-tempered, fierce in battle, and lives a lust for blood that leads him to fall into murderous blackout rages—rages that can lead him to kill friend and foe alike.
He is also an expert warrior, cunning in battle and strategy, and proficient in myriad weapons beyond his sword and the many daggers he carries. Thoughtful, even philosophical at times, he is a genuinely decent person when he is not in a murderous rage.
Some believe the blackouts are his manifestation of magic, or that the magic takes control of him. Yet, despite his attempts to be a better man, he can never truly escape the violence within him.
You can’t have one without the other! Locke, master thief, confidence artist, false-facer, and king of deception. Jean, thief, scholar, gentleman, and deadly-efficient killer with his hatchets, the Wicked Sisters. Together, they are the Gentlemen Bastards, the cleverest sons of bitches to ply their thieving trade in the cities Camorr, Tal Verarr, and Karthain.
Locke is daring, cunning, assertive, and a wild risk-taker—his silver tongue and rapier wit lead him into trouble, but he’s always able to finagle a way out. Stubborn, arrogant, and brazen beyond belief, he will face up to any challenge no matter how daunting.
Jean is quieter, softer-spoken, with a passion for romance novels, but woe to those who threaten the ones he loves. His fiery temper and merciless nature make him a terrifying foe—and has earned him a reputation even among the thugs, thieves, and criminals of the underworld.
Drow mercenary, swashbuckling leader of the Bregan D’aerthe, Jarlaxle of House Baenre is unique among the dark elves: he wields considerable power in the matron-ruled society of Menzoberranzan.
Slender and handsome, he wears bright and gaudy colors, high shoes, a feathered top hat, clacking bracelets, and an ornamental (and magical) eye patch. He is quick-witted, clever, calm, and graceful, yet an opponent that no one in the Underdark or the World Above would face without a second thought.
At a young age, he determined that the only way a male drow could survive would be to operate outside drow society. Thus, he formed his company of exiled and believed-dead drow to aid him in his back-stabbing and double-dealing. His insatiable curiosity and desire to know everything remain undimmed despite his cynical nature, and his light-hearted, gambling nature conceals a frighteningly intelligent mind. His skill with his blades—magical and mundane—rival that of Artemis Entreri and Drizzt Do’Urden.
With skin the color of a bleached skull, milk-white hair, slanting and moody crimson eyes, lean and lithe, Elric is the last emperor of Melniboné, a stagnating civilization threatened by humans.
Though he is physically frail, he takes special herbs to survive. He is also an accomplished summoner and sorcerer, calling upon a Duke of Hell to accomplish his tasks.
When he finds Stormbringer, the enchanted sword confers upon him strength and skill, but demands the souls of intelligent beings. Elric grows dependent on Stormbringer just as he once depended on drugs, and that addiction to power is what ultimately leads to the destruction of Elric’s life, but also the erasure of his own soul.
A legendary assassin among the people of his city, the Hunter kills without hesitation or mercy—but only those who deserve it. Big men, little men, strong men, weak men, cowards and brave fools, heroes, villains, rich men, beggars—all are his prey. His dagger, Soulhunger, consumes the souls of his victims, feeding him power and healing his wounds.
He is immortal and possesses superhuman speed, strength, and stamina. He is incredibly skilled with a variety of weapons, though he prefers a handheld crossbow (tipped with poison) and his sword-and-dagger combination. He wears masks of alchemical “flesh”, which allows him to adopt various disguises to hide in plain sight.
He is fiercely protective of those who cannot protect themselves. He has taken beggars, lepers, and outcasts into the building he owns, and he feels responsible for caring for them in his own way. He also has a firm, if cynical, sense of right and wrong, and will fight to his last breath for any cause he believes is truly right. He has become an assassin out of necessity, for the voice of Soulhunger echoes in his mind and drives him to kill. Yet he fights its demands and refuses to be ruled by his “inner demons”.
Anasûrimbor Kellhus is a warrior and philosopher with sorcerous abilities and a presence charismatic enough to convince anyone to follow him. A prodigy raised in a fortress lost to time, he is a master of the ways of limb, thought, and face.
Tall and strong-featured, he is the model of a “messiah”—a charade that is completed by his extraordinary powers of persuasion, manipulation, and deduction. He is also believed to be among the most powerful wielder of the Gnosis on the Three Seas.
His sorcerous powers and Dunyain abilities give him the ability to bend anyone to his will: from the lowest-born beggar to barbarian chieftains to emperors. He lies his way into a position as a Prince by claiming he dreams of a Holy War, then one by one uses his powers of verbal and mental manipulation to pull every warrior, general, king, and emperor in the Crusade under his sway, until he finally becomes the Warrior-Prophet and leader of the Holy War, and ultimately High King and Aspect-Emperor of the Three Seas.
Shorn is an alien from a warrior race, among his people’s greatest warriors, and exiled to the world of Atria for the crime of showing compassion to his people’s mortal enemies. He, like his people, are significantly larger than humans—he stands a head taller than the tallest person and is half again as broad—making him a fearsome warrior, to the point where fighting people presents no real challenge to him. His power and speed give him the ability to cut through human fighters like a force of nature.
His disdains the people who take him in, all his focus on the life he has lost, the family he will never see again. But he is not able to completely close his heart and when their village is attacked by minions of the dread Guardian Kasai, he saves them by wreaking havoc on the attackers.
Tormented by his self-loathing, the gratitude of those he saved is intolerable to Shorn. He is determined to find a worthy foe, one powerful enough to give him the warrior’s death he craves. Yet his plans are to be foiled—a healer saves him and binds him to a life-debt, one he is bound to repay before he can die.
Golden-skinned, frail and sickly, with hourglass eyes that enable him to see the effects of Time on all things, Raistlin Majere is a Wizard of High Sorcery.
He serves the Red Moon of neutrality, his skills in magic are nearly unparalleled on the continent of Ansalon. That gives him a superiority complex that only adds to his resentment and jealousy of his physically fit brother and condescension towards all around him—all of which lead him to ultimately don the Black Robes of evil wizardry.
Raistlin has killed his mentor, stolen books of evil magic, destroyed the ancient city of Palanthas, and almost eviscerated Takhisis, goddess of evil. The only way he will ever truly feel at peace with himself is if he becomes the most powerful being, a compensation for his physical weakness. He also identifies with other physically-weaker races and people, those mistreated because of their weakness or disability.
Though he is driven by a heroic nature, Geralt’s disfigured, scarred face causes people to fear him. His role as a Witcher, a monster hunter-for-hire, leads him on an endless quest to eliminate loathsome creatures and hideous beasts. Magic and mutation experiments gave him greater speed, stamina, and strength, yet turned his hair white.
He is known by many names: White Wolf, Gwynbleidd, and the Butcher of Blaviken. His nature is dour and cynical, his personality threatening, yet his outward coldness hides a fierce loyalty, sparkling humor rarely shown to any but the few he trusts, and a compassion for suffering.
World-weary and driven by remorse, he is not immune to the temptations of the world or the burdens of loss, which have broken him more times than he cares to admit.
At 9 years old, after a childhood of mental abuse by his cruel father King Olidan, Jorg watched his mother raped and killed and his younger brother murdered by his Uncle. Helpless, trapped in a thorn bush and bleeding out, young Jorg Ancrath vowed vengeance on all his enemies.
Charming, witty, yet utterly amoral, Jorg has a quick, fiery temper and a cruel disposition—albeit, never cruel for cruelty’s sake. He is creative, finding ingenious ways to win against impossible odds, and refused to fight by “fair” or “honorable” standards.
His weapon of choice is a longsword, and he is deadly with the blade, but over time his magical and necromantic skills grow until they are sufficient to defeat large armies.
Son of Adam and Lilith, Kane is a powerful, left-handed swordsman cursed to wander the world for all eternity as punishment for strangling his brother. He is vulnerable to wounds and can be killed, yet he heals impossibly quickly.
An accomplished sorcerer and peerless warrior, it is said men cannot hold the gaze of his piercing blue eyes long before they see his true nature: a butcher, killer of men.
He is unconcerned with human morality, for no relationship or philosophy can last more than a fraction of his eternal lifetime. Devious, intelligent, cynical, and reflective, he is a sort of man who can rip an enemy apart with bare hands yet master any situation intellectually. His weariness with his immortality drives him to seek death or a meaning to his existence.
Failed wizard, coward, and gifted with the unique ability to turn minor problems into major disasters, Rincewind is “the magical equivalent to the number zero”. He has no gift at magic, the wrong temperament for fighting evil, and a coward’s approach to surviving everything.
He has just two skills: a world-creating magical spell that imprinted itself on his brain by accident, and the speed of a long-distance sprinter to carry him out of harm’s way.
The only reason Rincewind has survived this long is due to the world-creating spell keeping him alive, and his fierce Luggage—a magical wooden chest with hundreds of legs—following him everywhere. He trips, falls, and bumbles his way through every adventure, somehow managing to wind up saving the day—usually by accident—through sheer tenacity.
Knight of Darkness, Lord of Moon’s Spawn, Son of Darkness, leader of the non-human Elder race known as the Tiste Andii, Anomander Rake wields the two-handed magical sword Dragnipur, an inky black-bladed weapon that consumed the souls of all it killed and bound them forever to the Gate of Darkness.
Seven feet tall, with a silvery-white mane, jet-black skin, and features as sharp as a cut onyx stone, he wields enormous amounts of power beyond the imaginings of most humans.
He has looked on a hundred-thousand winters, tasted the blood of dragons, slain demons, and sits in his Throne of Sorrow in his floating city of Moon’s Spawn. Yet though many people believe he is evil, he simply kills to protect the magical Kurald Gurain gate from the forces of Chaos. He seeks the right time and place to free the souls he has collected and save the world.
The Hound, younger brother of Ser Gregor Clegane and personal bodyguard of Prince Joffrey Baratheon, is not a kind man. Abused by his brother, his face scarred and disfigured by a fire, he believes that killing is the best thing he can do.
Thus, he has dedicated himself to becoming one of the most skilled, dangerous men in Westeros. He became a knight so he could kill legally, yet he knows the truth: honorable men are more like butchers and murderers than glorious heroes.
Yet he is not all bad. After Sansa is stripped and beaten by Joffrey, Sandor Clegane offers her his cloak to cover up. He fights a mob to rescue Sansa, even offers to help her escape back to Winterfell. During the Red Wedding, he saves Arya by knocking her out and fleeing the Twins, then fighting Frey soldiers that could threaten her. He even joins the Brotherhood Without Banners and travels with them beyond the Wall, where he proves instrumental in helping Jon Snow survive the battle with the Night King.
Dreaded. Hated. Feared. The two brothers, Drast and Tyran Kaligula, have been molded to be unloving and uncaring, a broken reflection of their tyrannical father. Early on, they were taught to set their own ambitions aside to carry out their father’s will, no matter how dark and devilish his schemes. The inevitable outcome of their conscience being ripped from them during early childhood is that no deed seems to fall outside their scope of immorality.
With the blood of primordial dragons flowing through their veins, Drast and Tyran are deadly enemies for any lone hero. Not only can they cast wild magic that drains their life, but Drast is a marksman with his bow and arrow and Tyran can break skulls with his mace and shield. Their spell-slinging soldiers serve them with utter loyalty.
Something enchanting exists among these two, who were tormented until they could do nothing but lift a finger at their father’s command. While they may hate the world who hates them in equal measure, their loyalty to one another knows no bounds.
Azár grew to womanhood in the dark wastelands of Malikar. She never knew family, friends, comfort, or home. As a Lightweaver, she was destined to spend every waking moment of her life weaving light to grow food for her people. Yet she can weave death just as skillfully, and she needs no weapons—the hone of her mind and the brutality of her disposition are dangerous enough. Married to a demon, ruthless to an extreme, she will do whatever it takes to achieve her ends.
But Azár was destined to be something far greater. When her people are forced to flee their dire circumstance, Azár becomes their warrior and champion, her bond with the demon the only way to give the ones she loves a safe haven.