The heroine of Shelby Mahurin’s debut novel Serpent & Dove is given a choice: save herself or save her people. Louise chose to save herself. The book picks up two years after that fateful choice with Louise in hiding far from home. Along the way, she meets a hunter who has vowed to kill witches like her on sight. Talk about a thrilling fall read! Here, Mahurin shares her thoughts on the rise of the antihero in YA literature and why she found writing a morally gray character to be cathartic.
If you’re active in the writing community on Twitter, you’ve probably seen a trend in the type of character we’re obsessed with these days: the antagonist.
We sometimes call this character morally gray, an antihero, or perhaps even a villain. Leigh Bardugo’s the Darkling and Sarah J. Maas’ Rhysand (à la A Court of Thorns and Roses) immediately come to mind, as do the slightly less villainous antiheroes Jude Duarte, Draco Malfoy, Kaz Brekker, Malachiasz, and—maybe—the protagonist of my book: Louise le Blanc. Each of these characters channels a sort of chaotic energy within their arcs, and none can ever be heralded as heroes. They’re too scheming, too selfish, too messy and wicked and hungry. They make the “wrong” decision more often than not, and they refuse to apologize for it. These aren’t the loyal Odysseuses of their stories. They aren’t the steadfast Raouls or the kind Cinderellas or the charming Thors. They’re the Circes and Phantoms and ugly stepsisters. They’re the Lokis and Helas.
And they are fascinating.
I’ve never seen characters inspire such passion in readers. I challenge you to scroll through your Twitter feed without seeing Jude and Cardan fan art, a thread on how Drarry or Dramione should’ve been canon, or some iteration of a “Jan stans the Darkling” username. Whether you love them or hate them, you probably have an opinion on them. But why are they so popular? How have they inspired such devotion from readers? Why are we so fascinated with monsters?
The answer, I think, is that we’re fascinated with ourselves.
Monsters, villains, and antiheroes are largely just like us—with one key difference. They have the power to fulfill self-interests because they live beyond the dictates of morality. They care little for how their actions affect others, so nothing is forbidden. For them, it’s not a matter of “Should I do this?” but “Can I do this?” And whether that means seeking vengeance or stealing the crown or setting fire to an entire city, these characters can and do act on their desires, regardless of the consequences. Their depravity—their freedom—allows us readers to explore the darker side of our own natures in a safe way. Because even though we might fantasize about eviscerating our enemies, we don’t actually want to. Trust me and my Google search history—murder is messy. And wrong. And there might be a lot of it in the upcoming sequel: Blood & Honey.
The stereotypical villain twirling his mustache stopped working a long time ago. One-dimensional characters are boring, and what’s more, they don’t exist in real life. Villains are people, and people are layered and nuanced. A good villain isn’t evil for the sake of being evil. As with heroes, she has a childhood that shaped her; he has a hurt that won’t go away.
Take Voldemort, for example. While his agenda is similar to the Darkling’s, his quest for power doesn’t garner quite the same enthusiasm from readers. Despite his enormous power, Voldemort is boring. He lacks personality. He’s inhuman. The Darkling, on the other hand, has one great, human selling point: his infatuation with Alina. “Fine,” he says to her, “make me your villain.” Jude is rejected from faerie society, Daenerys’ life is riddled with abuse, the list goes on and on. Each character multifaceted with human flaws that endear us to them. While we can’t justify their terrible actions, we can recognize pieces of ourselves in their trauma. We can sympathize with their desire to fight back, to become stronger than their enemies. Who among us hasn’t wanted to burn the world down at some point in life?
Writing my own antihero was a cathartic experience for me in this way. I grew up on a healthy diet of Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings, and other stories where the heroes are expected to make impossible sacrifices for the greater good. While I’d like to think I’d make the same choices in their shoes, would I really be able to walk through the Forbidden Forest to meet my death as Harry did? Would I be able to carry the Ring all the way to Mount Doom at great physical and emotional cost like Frodo? If I’m honest with myself, the answer is a resounding no.
Louise le Blanc, the protagonist of Serpent & Dove, was born out of this realization.
At the tender age of 16, her coven asked her to make the ultimate sacrifice for the greater good—her own life—yet instead of nobly accepting her fate, she panicked and fled. The story picks up two years later with her hiding in the streets, stealing sticky buns and magic rings, and irritating a certain huntsman. She’s living her best life. And if she feels any remorse about saving herself over saving her people, it’s easily ignored with a sharp tongue and sharper humor. Or is it? Can a selfish antihero suffer pesky emotions like remorse? Must a hero always act heroically, or are they allowed to slip on occasion? These questions just brush the surface of how we can subvert and explore common tropes with morally gray characters, and I can’t wait to see how stories evolve from them.
We love our monsters, villains, and antiheroes because they’re powerful and free— because we ourselves are not always the hero, and sometimes we need to tear away the mask and embrace the ugly half of our face.
Shelby Mahurin grew up on a small farm in rural Indiana, where sticks became wands and cows became dragons. Her rampant imagination didn’t fade with age, so she continues to play make-believe every day—with words now instead of cows. She still lives near that childhood farm with her very tall husband and semiferal children. Serpent & Dove is her debut novel.