Helen Oyeyemi on the importance of anti-heroines

Award-winning author Helen Oyeyemi on her favourite anti-heroine and why they are important.

A photograph on Helen Oyeyemi smiling with woodland in the background
Helen Oyeyemi

Some anti-heroines can be considered such in the sense that they deliberately lay waste to joy; this tendency makes it tricky to call them heroines in any traditional sense. Other anti-heroines can be considered such in the sense that they choose to set themselves against the story’s (usually pure of heart, unfortunately rather dull) heroine. Many female antagonists exist in both categories. An anti-heroine has her own purity; a singleness of intention – I’m thinking of the wicked fairy Magotine in Madame D’Aulnoy’s The Great Green Worm (the book that gave this blog post its title): ‘Magotine was not one of those fairies who occasionally take a nap. The desire to do harm kept her constantly awake.’ 

Boy Novak, my anti-heroine in Boy, Snow, Bird, takes a casual but fairly clear view of her own character flaws, and the more I wrote in her voice the more I entered into her implicit belief in her talent for facilitating unhappiness, and her desire to somehow put that talent to good use – that is, the least destructive use possible. Yes, the anti-heroine changed her own brief; she has whim and will and all the rest of it.

I sometimes consider a story’s anti-heroine to be an embodied protest against the set of ideals the narrative upholds in the form of the perfect heroine. I could talk about Snow White’s wicked stepmother, but aside from being a kind of cousin of Boy Novak’s, she’s actually only my second favourite antagonist of this type.

Without further ado I give you my number one: Carabosse, the fairy in Sleeping Beauty who goes where she is not invited expressly in order to curse a princess whose life was all set up to be a bright and gracious path from birth to death. The good fairies at the christening meant well, but between them their blessings were busily creating a nonentity of a person. I’m not saying that a beautiful, clever, gentle girl with the voice of a songbird is less of a person than a centuries-old fairy with a frightful temper and a vast streak of cunning, but in the story of Sleeping Beauty, she of the frightful temper has come to mastery of her powers in solitude, presumably in part through sacrifice, whereas the girl has been given everything – her appearance, her personality, everything – by magical committee. Sleeping Beauty is not herself, and doesn’t become so until the isolation of her hundred year sleep, during which she must dream her own dreams.

Carabosse’s curse is the most meaningful gift the girl could have been given.

Discover Helen's anti-heroine in Boy, Snow, Bird.

Boy, Snow, Bird

by Helen Oyeyemi

Book cover for Boy, Snow, Bird

The fifth novel from award-winning author Helen Oyeyemi, named one of Granta's best young British novelists. A retelling of the Snow White myth, Boy, Snow, Bird is a deeply moving novel about an unbreakable bond . . .