Aug 10 2011 9:30am

If He’s Hot, He’s an Anti-Hero; If He’s Not, He’s a Villain

Richard Armitage as Guy of GisbourneI love the romantic anti-hero, the hottie who starts out bad but is redeemed, or chastened, or blindsided or bludgeoned by love and winds up a hero almost in spite of himself. Villains don’t get redeemed, but the anti-hero makes you love him, or at least lust for him. Then you have to root for his redemption, because if he doesn’t turn to the Light Side, it means you’ve fallen for a villain, doesn’t it?

(Warning: this post contains spoilers for BBC’s Robin Hood as well as Lonesome Dove: The Series.)

I’ve been rewatching the BBC series Robin Hood which, as author Courtney Milan has noted, really should have been called Guy of Gisbourne. After all, that’s why most women watched it—to see the nuclearly hot Richard Armitage play the conflicted henchman of the Sheriff of Nottingham. I haven’t done a formal poll but I’m pretty sure Team Guy was bigger than Team Robin; it was certainly more vocal. There were a lot of Marian/Guy ’shippers on the chat boards and in the YouTube community.

Like many writers, I’ve gotten character inspiration from TV and movies. Carrie Lofty said she started thinking about a romance starring Will Scarlett after watching Christian Slater’s portrayal in Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves. (“F*** me, he cleared it!” is one of my all-time favorite movie lines, BTW.) Watching The Guy of Gisbourne Show got me to thinking: Guy almost made a great anti-hero.

Richard ArmitageHe had the necessary tragic history and emotional scar tissue. He spent the first two seasons alternately threatening, begging and rescuing Marian. He cast countless soulful gazes, made reluctant but heartfelt expressions of deep tenderness, said things like “Stay, and make this place bearable” or “It means everything to me. You mean everything to me” or “If I could show you the side of me that wants to build a home, not destroy it…” (Yeah, he burned her house down. But hey, he regretted it.)

And then he killed her.

In the last episode of the second season, Marian told Guy she’d rather die than be with him, so he obliged her by running her through with his sword. It’s one thing to burn the heroine’s house down. It’s quite another to kill her, even if you feel awful about it afterwards, which he did.

That’s not anti-heroic. That’s villainous.

It’s not like Guy wasn’t an asshole for the first two seasons. He may have been chivalrous toward Marian five percent of the time, but during the other ninety-five percent, he abandoned his infant son in the forest so he wouldn’t have to acknowledge a bastard; terrorized and killed too many peasants to count; tried to kill King Richard more than once; and generally aided and abetted the slimy Sheriff’s myriad evil schemes. Guy said it himself: “I’ve committed crimes. Heinous crimes.” (If you’ve not heard Richard Armitage speak, you should. You really should.)

Guy of GisbourneStill, we wanted to think he was an anti-hero capable of redemption, not a villain capable of killing the only person he’d ever loved. After he shish-kabobbed Marian, that was a lot harder to do.

But still we hoped, and maybe we were supposed to.

If the producers didn’t want Guy to be a morally ambiguous figure, a potentially redeemable anti-hero, why on earth did they cast Armitage? He’s taller and studlier and much more beautiful than the actor cast as Robin. I mean, Jonas Armstrong’s a doll, but he looks like a mischievous teenager next to Armitage. They weren’t equally matched at all.

Furthermore, Robin Hood wore realistic (for television) twelfth century garb, while Guy was attired head to toe in leather. Twelfth century architecture was Gothic, but twelfth century noblemen did not dress like Goths. No, the only reason to dress Guy like a resident of Caldwell, New York was to make female viewers go “Oh my God, he is SO HOT.”

And we did. And even after he killed Marian, we kept hoping he’d turn good.

Because, after all, he was so hot.

And hot means anti-hero, not villain, right?

Lonesome Dove: The SeriesG of G is not the first villain I preferred to think of as an anti-hero. Back in the ’90s, there was a series on Canadian television, a very loose spinoff of the film Lonesome Dove. Set in 1880s Montana territory, it was titled Lonesome Dove: The Series in its first season, and Lonesome Dove: The Outlaw Years in its second. It starred Eric McCormack as Col. Clay Mosby, a Southern veteran of the Civil War. If you’ve only seen McCormack in Will and Grace, you wouldn’t recognize him.

Mosby had lost everything—wife, home, country—in the war. He was handsome, witty, charming and sophisticated, and he had a tragic past. That’s great anti-hero material. He was also greedy, power hungry, manipulative and ruled entirely by self-interest. He lied, cheated, bullied, and blackmailed in pursuit of power and riches, and if he couldn’t execute his nefarious schemes by himself, he had thugs to do it for him.

When a storekeeper refused to pay protection money, Mosby had the man beaten in front of his little boy. He opened a silver mine and pushed its workers, who included women and children, to work round the clock until the mine blew up. When a circuit preacher came to town railing against drinking, gambling, and whoring, Mosby—who owned a saloon, a casino and a whorehouse—hired one of his girls to maneuver the old man into a compromising position. He robbed a bank. He took financial advantage of the weak and vulnerable.

In other words, he was a villain.

Eric McCormack as Clay MosbyBut mah Gawd (as Mosby would’ve said), the man was hot. Smooth as hundred-year-old bourbon, suave and witty and smart-assed like only anti-heroes are allowed to be. Again, you had to think the producers wanted Mosby to be a sympathetic monster. They dressed McCormack in stacked cowboy boots and tight jeans, his hair was long and curly and he had a beard and mustache (the man has a great mouth). McCormack spoke in a slow, drawling tenor and while his Southern accent was kinda cheesy, it wasn’t Sook-eh bad.

And just like Armitage did in Robin Hood, McCormack dominated every scene he shared with Scott Bairstow, who played Newt Call, the series’ erstwhile hero. Call had none of Mosby’s wit, sophistication or grooming. He spent most of the time dirty and pissed off. Even in the first season, before he became a bitter, violent gunslinger, he was just goofy. Of course, the heroine fell for goofy, earnest Call and not suave, complicated Mosby. When Mosby learned that Hannah was going to marry Call, he bust into her room as she was being fitted for the dress and protested that she shouldn’t throw herself away on a callow, inexperienced youth.

He was right, you know. If this TV show had been scripted by romance writers, you can be damned sure Hannah would’ve ended up with Mosby. (She died at the end of Season One, but Mosby didn’t kill her).

When I started writing the character of Cade MacDougall, I kept picturing McCormack-as-Mosby in my head. (I swear it took me a while to realize they had the same initials.) I soon realized, though, that while I liked Mosby’s suave swagger and sly wit, he was way too much anti and not nearly enough hero. Like Guy of Gisbourne, he was a villain masquerading as an anti-hero.
In the second season finale, Mosby did something completely (and completely uncharacteristically) altruistic. Another character said, “You’re a good man, Clay.” And I thought – “No he’s not! Where the hell did that come from?” Apparently, it came from “viewers-think-the-villain-is-sexier-than-the-hero-so-we’re-going-to-start-transforming-him” land.

Unlike Lonesome Dove, Robin Hood got to spend a third season turning Bad Guy into Good Guy. If you haven’t seen it, I’ll spoil it for you—yes, Guy wound up on the Light Side. After the first episode, that is.

See, in the first episode he ran away from Robin Hood, who was bent on revenge for Marian’s murder. Along the way Guy stopped to take a human shield—a little girl. He dangled her over a cliff, threatening to drop her if Robin didn’t put down the sword and back away.

Let’s repeat that. He hid behind a little girl. And dangled her over a cliff.
You know what I thought the first time I watched that scene? I thought, “He won’t do it. At the last moment he’ll think of Marian, and he won’t go through with it.” Of course, if the only thing that keeps a guy from murdering a child is the memory of the woman he loved, and killed, then, you know, he might be a villain.

In my defense, other fangurls were just as deeply in DeGuyal. One poor YouTube commenter said that Marian committed suicide by Guy.

Right. He didn’t murder her; he just helped her die.

Behold the hotness of The Armitage, so strong it melts women’s moral circuits!

Did the writers plan to redeem Guy all along, or did they point him towards the Good Side when they realized how vast and swoony was Team Guy? But then, like I said—they must have been hoping for a vast and swoony Team Guy when they cast a 6’2" hunk of sex and dressed him up like one of Wrath’s boys. (We could call him Skewerh.)

So. Let’s ask ourselves.

If Clay Mosby looked like this:






Instead of this:

…would female viewers have loved him in spite of his villainy?






And If Guy of Gisbourne had looked like this:







Instead of this:

…would we have looked for excuses to mitigate Marian’s murder?




And if Marian had said “Take me, Guy! Take me now, right here on the battlements!” would Gisbourne have turned to the Light Side sooner?

Yes, if I wrote it. And I just might.


Kinsey W. Holley can be found at her own website, is published with, is at twitter @kinseyholley and blogs at

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romance reader
1. bookstorecat
God, you are so right. This got me thinking of how much more interesting Robin Hood (Prince of Thieves) was because of that pesky Will Scarlet--not to mention Alan Rickman's scene-stealing Sheriff, who was way hotter than Kevin Costner, even with bad hair and the whole being Evil thing.
Grace S
2. Grace S
I like Kevin Costner but Alan Rickman's Sheriff was exponentially hotter than Robin.
Regina Thorne
3. reginathorn
Heh! You are a kindred soul - I have a long history of preferring the villain to the (bland) hero (maybe this goes back to the Victorian adventure novels of my childhood, such as Ivanhoe, where Ivanhoe was BORING and Brian de Bois-Guilbert was complicated!!!

I don't know whether you watch "Game of Thrones" but Jaime Lannister fits this paradigm to a T!
Donna Cummings
4. Donna Cummings
I did a post on Richard, er, I mean, Guy de Gisbourne as a villain with potential to be a hero. And I may have given him a little more slack, not just because of his beautiful visage and stunning outfits, but because I could not stand Marian. LOL I mean, *I* was ready to run her through by the time that episode came on.

I adored Robin, but you're right, he was cute, and the job title of "hero" required him to always act a certain way, whereas "villain with hero potential" has a lot more intriguing possibilities.
Darlene Marshall
5. DarleneMarshall
I dunno. Just look at Game of Thrones, both the book and the HBO series. Jamie Lannister is muy caliente, but he engages in behavior that puts him beyond the pale. Part of what I like about the books is the complexity of this villain, and we'll see if the series downplays his evil behavior for the sake of his hotness.
Alie V
6. ophelial
Lonesome Dove! I remember watching the series. I was always more of a Newt Call girl myself...
Grace S
7. filkferengi
I like studly villains so much, I married that lawyer.

Music professor Dr. Mary Crowell has an album called "Courting My Muse." Two tracks from it, "Good Man Go Bad" and "Bad Man Go Good" are relevant to the discussion. You can hear clips here:
Jamie Farnik
8. JamieMF
Sooo, so true. Have you seen the Draco in Leather Pants page on TV Tropes? It simply overflows with these! I must admit, I've never been the kind of girl who could like the villain better than the hero-evil tends to negate hotness, IMO-but I can respect women who don't feel the same way. About the only villainous characters that I like as well or better than the heroes are Spike from BTVS and Damon from the Vampire Diaries, who is basically Spike Lite. In both cases, I think I didn't really begin to find them super-attractive until after the redemption part of the redeemed bad boy started to set in! And I like that you admit the willingness to forgive has everything to do with the good looks. I can't tell you the number of girls specifically in Phantom of the Opera fandom I've gotten into huge arguments with over that point. I've said (not without reason, I think) that they only love the Phantom if it's the hot G.B. version, and wouldn't find him nearly so sympathetic if he looked like the Lon Chaney one, yet they continue to insist they would love him no matter what, and his looks don't have anything to do with it. Yeah. Right.
Grace S
9. Sabrina Jeffries
I agree with everything you said! I adore (still adore) Richard as Guy, even after he killed Marian. A lot of people stopped watching then. I did not. Richard Armitage as Guy!! Need I say more?

Loved your take on anti-hero vs. villain. It's something I've pondered often, since I usually DON'T like the romance anti-hero, yet I loved Guy.
Grace S
10. Brenda D
Excellent post--and Richard has my heart--yes, I'm easily taken in by a handsome face, LOL.
As for L.D--I loved that series!!! I also remember a series on TV called How The West Was Won. It aired Sunday nights and I loved it!!!
Kinsey Holley
11. KinseyHolley
Brenda: I remember HtWWW. It starred Bruce Boxleitner (God, he was so young! Then again, so was I.) I never missed it. Lonesome Dove was an excellent series - dark and complicated and gritty. They had great guest stars - an unknown Ryan Reynolds, Sandra Oh, the English guy that played the bad vampire in Forever Knight and whose name I can never remember...

Donna - You hated Marian too? I don't feel so bad, then. She annoyed me from Episode 1.

I haven't seen Game of Thrones but I think I might try to catch up and start watching.
Grace S
12. Faboamanto
Great post!

I confess to often liking the "bad boys", and yes, they were always good looking men as well. But often the villain character is more interesting than the hero.

When they cast Richard Armitage for Guy of Gisborne there was no way that the show's focus wouldn't go from Robin and his gang to his character. Not only because he looked absolutely stunning as Guy, but because he was the best actor in the series. He created a character that had so many layers and was always evolving, always on the brink of becoming a better man, yet so drawn to the dark side. He was fascinating to watch. Also the passion for Marian. I don't think I've ever seen an actor so able to express intense passion with just a look. How could any woman resist!
Grace S
13. krissapl
now i have to watch robin hood :). After reading this I immediately thought of Damon from the Vampire Diaries. SO much more interesting than his brother. I really want someone to save him. He killed the heroine's brother, which put him in the villain category from a while, before we found out it was just temporary. All the people killing lately... I don't know. I still kinda hope that he joins a slightly Lighter Side.
Grace S
14. Twinkling Moon
This is such a well written article, I just loved it! You raised all the relevant points to this discussion and in such a humorous way :) As for Lonesome Dove, I totally remember that show and have tried to find it on youtube, LOL! I'm completely guilty of rooting for Mosby, but I think he was definitely the "villian" compared to Guy. I chalk up Guy killing Marian as just bad writing, It was completely nonsensical given the previous episode and his saving her tushy and the whole "stay and make this place bearable" line, Oh well! Anyhow, just wanted to say how much i enjoyed your post, :) MTA: I also enjoyed the many comments, all relevant to this conversation; although I'm familiar with all the other shows mentioned, I've never heard of "How the West was won" I will have to look into that one! Bruce Boxleitner, is that Melissa Gilbert's husband?
Grace S
15. Kinsey W. Holley
Twinkling - I think they're divorced now but yes, Melissa and Bruce were married for quite a while. I'm glad you enjoyed the article!
16. wsl0612
@Twinkling Re:Bruce Boxleitner - you mean you didn't watch Scarecrow and Mrs. Smith? I loved that show!! you have to look for it, he's the bomb!
April George
17. AAGeorge
@JamieMF I have to beg to differ on your Phantom example, at least on a personal standpoint. For him, it was never the concept of him being "hot" or "not", it was the complexity of the character and the depths of his soul that made him attractive to me; in fact, I prefer the Lon Chaney version because his looks are more faithful to the novels!

I have to disagree with the post as a whole for once. I never understood using looks as a factor to determine what makes someone a villain or an anti-hero (maybe it comes from the fact that I'm a big book fan, and a lot of literary anti-heroes are not all that attractive). Take Severus Snape-not Alan Rickman's portrayal, but actually as he's described in the books: sallow skin, greasy hair, big hooked nose. He's one of the most complex anti-heroes I've come across in literature (ignoring the plot twists that rendered him a "good" guy, I'm talking pre Deathly Hallows).
Maybe it's just because I'm drawn to the broken souls, but I don't consider a strongly chiseled jawline and blue eyes to be a mark of an anti-hero. Good looks do not excuse heinous action.
Grace S
18. DarkJackal
This post is perfect! I agree you can't excuse Guy's behavior (no matter how hard people try!) but that the writers really wanted us to do that by the end of the show. I just accept that I love a villain. No need to defend my choice. It just is.

Mosby was also one of my favorite semi-villains, and one of the more interesting ones. And yes, most certainly HOT!
Grace S
19. LadyKate
I read your post with interest, but I have to say that on the whole I strongly disagree.

Obviously, most people would rather watch attractive characters onscreen than unattractive ones. And yes, sex appeal affects our perception of a character. But is it enough to account for the difference between villain and antihero? Hardly.

I love Guy (while not justifying his actions -- I've encountered Guy fangirls who not only make excuses for Marian's murder but would probably find some excuse for Guy if he raped and disembowelled a nun, and I've never had much patience for this kind of mindset). I think he was always a redeemable character, and I find him utterly fascinating in a way that I don't feel about, say, Thornton in North and South (to take another, much "nicer" character played by Richard Armitage). However, when I listened to Clarissa, the radio adaptation of Samuel Richardson's novel in which RA plays the cruel rake Lovelace, I had zero sympathy for the character and I did not see him as anything other than a loathsome villain (despite a brief moment of possible repentance at the end, which wasn't enough to even begin to make up for the fact that he deliberately destroys the heroine, drawing her into a web of deceit and finally drugging and raping her). I seriously doubt that this is because it wasn't a visual medium; RA's voice as Lovelace was still sinfully sexy, and I've certainly seen enough of him to fill in the visuals.

Guy is sympathetic because he is conflicted and often remorseful about his bad acts, because we sense (along with Marian) that he has the potential to be a much better man, because he is vulnerable, because he has genuine feelings for Marian, because while he does some very bad things he is also the victim in an abusive relationship with the Sheriff. (Actually, I think part of what makes the character so fascinating is that while he outwardly looks like a classic dominant alpha male, he is actually the opposite.)

I would also dispute your contention that the stabbing of Marian should automatically move Guy from antihero category into that of villain. And no, I'm certainly not justifying it, or blaming Marian, but I think that under the circumstances in which it happened, it was more a case of blindly striking out in pain when Guy's entire world is collapsing around him than deliberately wanting to hurt or kill her. Furthermore, there is a very long tradition in fiction of sympathy for characters who commit crimes of passion, often far more premeditated ones than Guy's stabbing of Marian: Shakespeare's Othello (who strangles his wife after being led to believe she is unfaithful), ancient Greek tragedy's Medea (who responds to her husband's abandonment by killing their two children and poisoning his new bride), classical opera's Jose (who kills Carmen after she leaves him for another man) and Brunhilde (who instigates the murder of her lover after he refuses to leave the woman he has been tricked into marrying). Another popular romantic antihero in literature is Heathcliff, who makes Guy look like a Boy Scout. Is Heathcliff popular because he's hot? Well ... I'm not even sure we get much description of his appearance from the book, and inasmuch as we do he's meant to be rugged and masculine but certainly not conventionally handsome.

Even leaving romance aside, the concept of antihero encompasses characters who do very, very bad things. Like Macbeth. Who murders his king (while the king is asleep, and a guest at his home!) so that he can gain the throne for himself, and then commits more murders to cover up his crime and solidify his hold on power until he becomes, by any reasonable standard, a monster. Why is he an antihero and not a villain? Because he is in conflict with himself, and has a genuine nobility that gradually falls prey to his ambition and weakness of character (as well as external temptation).

So I think what separates an antihero from a villain is complexity of character, potential for goodness/redemption, vulnerability, capacity for human connections, and other sympathetic traits. Guy fits the bill rather perfectly, IMO.

(As far as threatening to toss the little girl off the cliff -- I really don't think he would have done it, despite being semi-psychotic at the time. He was bluffing, knowing that Robin would not call his bluff.)

I have some more specific things I could say regarding some of Guy's actions, but I will say that I've seen a few people who don't particularly like the character say that they didn't like Guy not because he was too evil, but because he was too weak and spineless.
Cathy Young
20. LadyKate
Not to spam you, but I just thought of another example that I think runs counter to your theory.

Two of the most popular characters in George R.R. Martin's Song of Ice and Fire series -- The Game of Thrones and its sequels -- are Tyrion Lannister and Sandor Clegane, both of whom are considered antiheroes. Each, I might add, has a rap sheet that makes Guy's "heinous crimes" pale by comparison. To say that neither of them is hot would be an understatement. Tyrion is a dwarf with stubby legs, a jutting forehead, and mismatched eyes, and eventually suffers a wound that makes him even uglier by severing most of his nose. Sandor is a big hulking brute of a man with grisly facial burns. Both, however, have a tragic history and potentially redeemable characteristics. On the other hand, some of the villains (e.g. Prince Joffrey Baratheon) are described as being quite good-looking ... and are universally hated.
Kinsey Holley
21. KinseyHolley
ooooh, very good point. I find Tyrion somewhat sympathetic, of course, b/c of the hand life has dealt him and b/c I generally like sarcastic outcasts with panache (and Tyrion has a buttload of panache.)

As for Joffrey - yeah, I have sympathy for him too. He's evil, of course. But it's crappy that he did what had to be done -- i.e., killed the crazy king -- and has been marked for it.
Grace S
22. LadyKate
Ooh, you're thinking of Jaime, not Joffrey. Joffrey is Cersei's son, the one who was supposed to be Sansa's husband. The one who's not in an incestuous relationship with her (ew). ;-) Jaime is definitely in the redeemable villain category (I don't know if you've read all of the books yet).

And yeah, you're right that Tyrion's wit and panache is part of what makes him attractive. Not that I'd want to jump him or anything... :-/

Oh, and I wanted to say that on RH, there were at least two villains who were quite attractive physically: Prince John and Thornton (Isabella's husband). Both of them still firmly in the villain rather than antihero category.
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