Lymond 1: the anti-hero and the witness

to people who are more clever than I (but see how clever I am! I even use correct grammar!) this may be obvious. To me it was not.

It is very, very difficult to write a successful anti-hero if you allow the reader inside his head.

This answers a lot of questions as to why bad-boy romance heroes are so often nauseatingly noble and misunderstood. Or rather, why the fact that they are noble and misunderstood is nauseating.

We are inside their head, we are privy to their struggle and their real motivations, and the things driving them that no-one else can see or know. Unless done with a masterful touch, being inside their head bursts the bubble of cool around them.

Dunnett’s incomparable anti-hero, Lymond, is almost always seen from the outside. We are not privy to his motivations or his plans. This distance creates the tension at the heart of the books:

His actions from the outside look villainous, cold and destructive; we see him as his world sees him. As the narrative draws to its climax the two versions of Lymond become mutually exclusive – one must give way to the other. It is then that we’re let in on the master plan that retrospectively reshapes the whole narrative, and transforms Lymond into a hero – albeit a dangerous, complex and self-destructive one.

In being kept distant from him we long for access, as the people around him long for access, and this slavish devotion to a character who won’t share himself, no matter the cost, lies at the heart of the series.

And how does she keep us out? Enter the Witness.

Each novel takes a different kind of witness: a person who falls in with him, and tries to make him out, and fails. In Queen’s Play, Lymond even becomes the witness to himself as his disguised self begins to take over his true self. In carefully choosing what these witnesses want from Lymond, and by what ideology they order the world, Dunnett is able to show Lymond in whatever deceptive light she choses.

The final element that I think makes this such an effective technique – the hero misunderstood by the witness – is that Lymond never feels compelled to defend or explain himself. He allows himself to be misunderstood because common opinion is not important to him. His actions speak for him, the man who can speak circles around any subject on earth.

Comments 4 Responses

  1. Bibliotrek

    I really liked this post and totally agree about where many writers of anti-heroes go wrong. It seems like a lot of people love Lymond but don’t really notice how very rarely Dunnett ever shows us what’s going on inside his head. I can only think of three or four places in the entire series.

    I hadn’t ever thought about the importance of the Witness as such, but of course each novel is dominated in tone by its witnesses — sympathetic and unsympathetic alike.

    Have you read Dunnett’s other series, the House of Niccolo? I’m just reading it for the first time now, but in the first novel there’s a moment where, conditioned by Lymond, I read what was going on all wrong. It was a lovely moment for me, actually, because I love it when authors toy with reader expectations! That’s probably why I love Lymond so much.

    1. superaniistar Post author

      I haven’t read Niccolo yet, but the friend who got me onto Lymond keeps shaking her head and saying “And this was only her journeyman series! Just wait till you read Niccolo!” I look forward to it, though I may need a break in between 🙂

      I hadn’t ever really thought about the witness either, until that same friend pointed it out to me. (We were brainstorming her YA novel, and she was trying to explain why her hero couldn’t narrate the story. It took me a while to get it.)

      I’m very, very curious how she will write him as a romantic hero, because at this stage (I’m about a third of the way through Ringed Castle) he’s still so completely unreachable. Can’t wait to see how she does it!

      1. Bibliotrek

        Oh, I can’t wait to see what you think of the last two books!

        I’ve only just finished the first book in the Niccolo series and am a little bit blown away. I resisted reading this series for a long time because I was so attached to Lymond, but I have to say that I really love the new characters, too. I should have known I would!

        1. superaniistar Post author

          I got excited about Niccolo when my friend said “You don’t understand. Niccolo would own Lymond in about ten seconds”.


          You’re making me want to just jump in, but I need a break after Lymond!!

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