In real life, we’re not sure what to make of loners. The media would have us fear them and if you believe what you read or hear on mainstream news outlets, every mass shooter, murderer and all-round creep is an unhinged loner. Back in 2012, I wrote an Op-Ed article about the media’s misrepresentation of loners (The Loner Myth), which was inspired by a book called Party of One by Anneli Rufus. So I won’t go into all that again here. The quick version – loners choose to be alone and aren’t the angry psychopaths you’re supposed to believe they are.
But fiction is different. We love the lone wolf in fiction. In The Future of London Series that I write, Mack Walker is a classic loner. Elsewhere, almost every character that Steve McQueen ever played was a loner. And remember, he was the king of cool. Mad Max, Dirty Harry, Beatrix Kiddo (aka The Bride), Jack Reacher, James Bond – the list is a long one. All fictional loners, all characters we love (well most of us!)
So in tribute to the fictional lone wolf, here are five examples from books, movies and TV, of some of my favourites. Enjoy.
Miyamoto Musashi (Musashi – 1935)
Yes, I’m well aware that Miyamoto Musashi existed. He was a real man who lived in the late 16th and early 17th century Japan and was pretty much the most renowned swordsman who ever lived. The reason I include Musashi in this list of fictional loners is because there was a novel based upon his life.
Any excuse to talk about the man, right?
Musashi by Eiji Yoshikawa is a great big sprawling read of a thing. This doorstopper-sized novel is loosely based on the real life of Musashi – very loosely. Don’t expect much historical accuracy here. It’s well over nine-hundred pages long and follows Musashi as he travels across Japan, perfecting his skill with the sword and seeking enlightenment. The relationships in Yoshikawa’s novel are there to make it more dramatic for the reader. The real Musashi however, rejected the patterns of conventional life such as marriage, to follow the Way of the Warrior, aspiring to great things not just in swordsmanship but in other arts too such as painting.
A few recommendations: If you’re interested in a biography of the historical Musashi, check out William Scott Wilson’s The Lone Samurai: The Life of Miyamoto Musashi. If you haven’t seen the classic movie trilogy from the 1950s, check out The Samurai Trilogy, starring the great Toshiro Mifune. And of course, there’s Musashi’s own timeless book of strategy – The Book of Five Rings.
Rorschach (Watchmen – 1986)
Rorschach is the anti-hero in Watchmen, a landmark graphic novel set in an alternate 1985 and featuring a collection of fallen superheroes. When a law is passed to outlaw masked vigilantes, Rorschach keeps fighting crime anyway and to hell with what anyone else thinks. That’s because the man in the inkblot mask is a loner and one of the typical features of fictional loners that we see time and time again is that they generally don’t give a shit about things like rules.
He has his own moral code. He’s confident in his abilities to solve problems and he’s fuelled by a hatred of conventional society. He’s a complicated guy, a violent and damaged human being.
In real life we’d stay well away from the likes of Rorschach. Most of us are probably glad that he’s an entirely fictional creation, albeit one with recognisably human flaws. We like him, but from afar. We admire him because whatever his morals are he sticks to them and he doesn’t play politics. These are admirable traits and they’re the foundation of a truly memorable character. Rorschach is the embodiment of the lone wolf at its most savage. And what a wolf he is.
Snake Plissken (Escape From New York – 1981)
I could have added Jack Burton from Big Trouble in Little China here too. Maybe a few other Carpenter characters? Michael Myers?
We’ll stick with Snake for now.
We don’t know much about Snake. He’s a former US Army Lieutenant who at some point turned to crime. He’s a loner who doesn’t have much time for authority (sound familiar?) During the course of Escape From New York, Snake is forced to work with a colourful collection of characters (RIP Harry Dean Stanton) to help the President of the United States escape from within the walled city prison that is New York.
This is definitely a character that should come again. There are a series of comics – John Carpenter’s Snake Plissken Chronicles. I also remember hearing about a crossover comic featuring Snake and Jack Burton in the same book. Sounds incredible! In terms of film, a remake of Escape From New York is in the works, possibly with Robert Rodriguez directing. Who’s going to play Snake? It’s undecided at the time of writing who’s going to be picking up the eyepatch. I wish them luck.
Bartleby (Bartleby, the Scrivener – 1853)
Bartleby the Scrivener is a novelette by Herman Melville. It’s the unusual tale of a clerk hired by a Wall Street lawyer who after a short period of time in this lawyer’s employment, refuses to perform his duties. He does this much to the bewilderment of the man who employed him. Whenever something is required of Bartleby, he says no. In fact, his stock response becomes something of a mantra that’s repeated throughout the story:
“I would prefer not to.”
The story takes place in mid-19th century New York. The Big Apple was by then an increasingly industrial and dehumanised environment. Lots of people, lots of hustle. Amidst all this busyness, Bartleby becomes a passive rebel.
What exactly is going on with Bartleby? Is he clinically depressed? Is he enlightened? Has he seen the futility of performing mundane and repetitive tasks and trying to pass it off as life? Whatever the truth about the character, this is one of the great stories of alienation.
Omar (The Wire – 2002-2008)
The greatest TV shows have great characters. When it comes to The Wire, Omar Little is on almost everybody’s shortlist of favourites. While so many of the show’s other characters were motivated by greed and power, Omar was like a breath of fresh air – a man with genuine principles who lived by a strict moral code.
Omar is a gunslinger out of the Wild West. He stalked the streets of Baltimore with a sawed off shotgun and his trademark whistle. He ripped off big-time drug dealers like a cult folk hero. He wasn’t afraid to tackle anyone as long as they were in the game (Omar didn’t go after civilians). He was a loner who worked for no man – if anything, Omar was working for a higher cause.
He didn’t swear either. No mean feat in The Wire.
Omar did find love on two occasions but his first boyfriend was brutally killed, which went a long way to fuelling his motivation to go after the Barksdale gang. Late in the show’s run, it looked like he’d gotten out of the game by retiring to Puerto Rico with a new partner. But…(and SPOILER ALERT)…the murder of his father figure and friend Butchie, pulled this lone wolf back into the game. One more time.
Any more loners you want to add to the list? Let me know in the comments below.
For some more fictional lone wolves, check out The Future of London Series (Grab the first three books in a handy Box Set, as well as Sleeping Giants – Part 4)
(Click book covers for Amazon links)