Heroes are all alike; every antihero is heroic in their own way.
This is a fantasy version of the Anna Karenina principle—the idea that the factors contributing to a successful interpretation of a state of being (in this case, being heroic) are both limited and very specific. The factors contributing to the opposing state (in this case, what it means to be an antihero) can be varied and wide ranging. Heroes are morally good, courageous, honest, and self-sacrificing. There are perhaps a few more characteristics, but you get the picture: A deficiency in any of those characteristics will not result in a hero. Everything has to be just right, like it is with Superman or Tim Tebow.
The antihero has the luxury of being a lying, morally-ambiguous thief as is the case with Locke Lamora, the protagonist of Scott Lynch’s aptly titled Gentleman Bastard series. He is also charming and gallant in his own way, and I find him to be a much more sympathetic character than, say, the Arthurian legend of Galahad, whose purity of spirit and purpose guide him to acts of true and noble heroism in his search for the Holy Grail.
What that says about me is probably something I could explore with a bit of therapy, but I would grow a little restless along the way if I were Galahad. Making the right choice all the time is really an impossibility for most people.
I, for one, like my coffee black, just like my magic, which is why I enjoyed Maledicte, Lane Robins’s story of a young street urchin who transforms herself, with the help of the god of revenge, into a darkly charming male courtier with a taste for blood.
Maledicte is not an easy person to like. He is jealous, possessive, prone to fits of rage, and unyielding in his pursuit of a self-serving goal, but Ms. Robins’s skillful portrayal of the character allows the reader occasional glimpses into Maledicte’s former self—the tender and loving girl Miranda who wants nothing more than to be reunited with her one true love Janus, the newly legitimized bastard son of the Earl of Last—that nicely juxtapose the less savory aspects of her alter ego.
It’s very rare when an author can make the reader care so much for a character who has, on the surface, seemingly few redeeming qualities. That is one of the great triumphs of writers like Joe Abercrombie who can make the reader care about any number of venal, egocentric villains.
His character Caul Shivers in Best Served Cold is a great example of a man who wants to do the right thing, but because of extenuating circumstances—his very nature chief among them—never seems to be able to follow the straight path. Contrast him with a character like Harry Potter, who always chooses good, despite numerous opportunities and justifications to do otherwise, and you will see that the antihero has a much greater capacity for choice than does the hero.