I think the antihero can be a very misunderstood character in fiction, and not just in literature. Movies and television, as well. I believe those of us who love villains have a tendency to embrace the antihero archetype.
I'm not sure I'd have the guts to have a dyed-in-the-wool antihero star in one of my novels, but I sure do enjoy playing with them as important secondary characters. I think it's the unlikelihood of them doing heroic deeds that appeals to me. I adore strong contrasts because they shake things up and keep the plot interesting. And I love when the unexpected happens to turn the story on its head. Antiheroes are great for that.
The most recent antihero I embraced is the star of an older television series called The Guardian. If you haven't seen it, I strongly recommend that you do. You can stream it from Netflix if you have an account. The main character is a corporate lawyer who's working off a drug conviction with 1,500 hours of court-mandated community service. He's forced to be an attorney ad litum, hence the show's name The Guardian. Now this guy is cold, self-centered and ruthless, such a contrast to the type you'd expect to represent the interests of children. But his character is captivating. You love him and hate him at the same time. His moral scruples are questionable at best, but when his vulnerable side kicks in, you better have a box of tissues handy. Personally, I think the series was brilliantly written and is a very good study in antiheroism, if you're into that kind of thing. Which I am. :)
Vigilante type antiheroes are fascinating. They're well known for their appearances in noir detective novels. Sam Spade is a good example. In modern fiction you might consider the urban fantasy heroine Anita Blake as an antihero. Antiheroes are protagonists we love to hate, or hate to love, depending on the scene.
I think that's also the appeal of the alpha hero in romance. He appears to be a bad egg on the surface, but when his shell is peeled away he turns out to be a good guy. Antiheroes are human (well, not always) with weaknesses and vulnerabilities who often do bad things for good reasons. Their complexity is what wins us over.
Here are a few examples of antiheroes who rock:
Han Solo in Star Wars
Max Rockatansky in Mad Max
Captain Malcom Reynolds in Serenity
Snake Plisskin in Escape from New York
Rick Deckard in Blade Runner
There are female antiheroes, too:
Nikita in La Femme Nikita
Scarlett O'Hara in Gone With The Wind
Lara Croft in Tomb Raider
All the characters mentioned above are not benevolent knights in shining armor, yet their goals are in the best interest of the story. Their armor is tarnished and their swords a bit bloody, but they do what they have to do to get the job done. It ain't always pretty.
Do you have any favorite antiheroes you'd like to share?