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It's really hard for me to write questions here without giving a complete info dump on my story. Every time I start to explain my problem, I find myself writing an entire synopsis. This is my third attempt.

Basically, I have someone who starts out as a protagonist. In the first part of the story, she saves the day by force of personality. The villain did something horrible at the end and completely deserves punishment, but he escapes at the last moment.

In the second part of the story, the villain comes to terms with his crimes and redeems himself. He changes his ways and starts a new life.

In the third part of the story, the original protagonist has spent her time obsessed with bringing him to justice. She fears people won't see how evil he is, so she decides that the ends justifies the means. She ends up doing some very questionable and possibly evil things to make sure he's caught, arrested and executed. She eventually ends up doing things worse than he ever did, but feels justified because she needed to do those things to get him caught. It works exactly as planned. And everyone around her sees her as a hero, but she knows that she's not. Her victory is hollow and she's not happy at all.

Anyway, I like the story myself. But I thought it might be off putting for readers to invest love for a character in the beginning who ends up going bad in the end. I am afraid people want clear lines between good and evil. Would they feel cheated if I slowly turned it all around?

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    There is people out there (including me), who are so much more interested in character development than a strict separation into "white/good" and "black/evil". (Actually, I don't believe in the concept of "good" and "evil".) I believe that people spend their life undergoing one change after the other. Sometimes, one of these changes turns them into a person they never wanted to be. This can be an excellent story, just think of Macbeth. So please don't be afraid of comitting your readers to "grey" characters. You may leave traditional "entertainment" territory, though ... – Filip Jan 3 '16 at 14:49
  • Walter White from Breaking Bad (I know, it's a tv show) comes to mind... – Isaac Sep 5 '17 at 1:45
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Your protagonist will still be the girl. She's the "main character". A protagonist doesn't have be a hero. They can be a reluctant anti-hero, amoral, or even a villain. You could write a book with Satan as the protagonist if you wanted.

As long as the readers have built an attachment to the character, and her actions make sense from her point of view, your readers should be okay with her getting dark or making mistakes. Note that's in general. Some people will be turned off (they don't like grey) but there's nothing you can do for them given your storyline.

Being a "puppet" (for long) isn't a great idea, as you're taking away her agency. She isn't driving the plot anymore AND her actions don't really matter. The villain can drive the plot for a while and the story can be fine (think of the Joker in Dark Knight).

You say that you're worried about turning a "good" character "evil". But I'm sure she does not so good things at the beginning, and has flaws. And the "evilness" of her actions can be justified by her motivations. Everything turns a bit grey.

As I said before, as long as your character is relatable, and her choices and actions match her characterization and situation, your readers will be fine. Now stop worrying about this and go write! If you're hesitant, put your mental effort into making her relatable and her actions understandable.

Good luck.

  • I get frustrated when people ask for advice and then they brush it off and do what they want anyway. So I apologize in advance. Some of my favorite classics are stories where the characters had no control of their destinies. The more they tried to escape from it, the deeper down into it they got. @filip mentioned one of my favorite tragedies -- Shakespeare's Scottish play. Oedipus Rex and his daughter Antigone were also favorites. It's not everyone's taste, but the Greek stuff has managed to stick around a few thousand years. Not too shabby! I swear I wrote this somewhere else and it moved. – Keobooks Jan 4 '16 at 4:49
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Your story has only one protagonist, the "she" whose story drives the plot from the beginning of the story to the end. That the protagonist becomes evil means that this story is a tragedy. The antagonist is a character (or characters?) who oppose or frustrate your protagonist from achieving her goals.

In the story structure you describe, the villain's redemption in part II seems like it would eliminate him as the antagonist for the remainder of the story. Without an antagonist, part III might be less engaging. If you address this structural problem by inserting a different antagonist, there's no reason for your readers to dislike the story. Tragedies, such as "Gone Girl", can do well at the bookstore and the box-office.

  • I didn't think it was worth mentioning, but in the third story, she gradually discovers that she's being used as a tool by an organization she thought she was leading. She's been manipulated with flattery. She thought that she was smarter than them, and they used that to their advantage. At the end, she ends up in prison as well, but this fact is hidden and she's paraded around as a hero to make the masses loyal to the organization. Perhaps they are the true antagonists. – Keobooks Jan 3 '16 at 4:59
  • One thing you mentioned in your question came back to me: "it might be off-putting for readers to invest love for a character in the beginning who ends up going bad in the end." If you've seen a person go bad in real life, it's usually because they are a flawed person. If you've suffered watching them go bad, it's because their plight is relatable, not necessarily because they're lovable. In Gone Girl, Nick Dunne's isn't a great guy. But, he's relatable. And it's his flaws that put him at the mercy of an overwhelming antagonist, his wife. – rolfedh Jan 3 '16 at 13:28
  • Is it one story with three parts, or three stories? – rolfedh Jan 3 '16 at 16:02
  • I am trying to trick myself that it will be one book with three novella length stories. But everyone I've talked to says it's obviously a trilogy and they are confident I am up to the task of a decent word count for all three. For some reason "trilogy" scares me right now, so I still call it three short novellas contained in one book. – Keobooks Jan 4 '16 at 2:28
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I hate it when people answer a question with, "Well, it all depends". But that seems like the right answer here.

Personally, it really annoys me when Hollywood does a remake of some old and well-loved story, but turns the hero of the original story into a villain or an idiot. An example that comes to mind is "Mission: Impossible", where the Tom Cruise remake turned Mr Phelps into a villain. As a viewer, I saw that as something of a betrayal: You took everything that was good about the original story and threw it out the window.

Not to say that you can never turn a hero into an anti-hero. (Not really "antagonist", as others have pointed out, as this person is still the main character.) If you write it in a way that makes sense and in general if you do it well, it can certainly be an interesting and involving story. The reader may be drawn in to the tragic tale of this formerly good person being overcome by the situation in which she finds herself and gradually turning evil.

But I think it's relatively hard to pull off. In general, readers want to like the main character. I have very often decided that I don't like a story because the main character was so unlikable, and so I ultimately don't care if he succeeds or fails. That is not to say that the hero can't be flawed. A hero who is perfect in every way tends to be boring and unbelievable. But -- again, in general -- you want your hero to be someone that the readers like and want to see succeed.

So I certainly would not say to not write the story this way. It can be made to work. But it's relatively difficult.

  • My favorite character from a television show was Londo Molari from Babylon 5. He was a good character who was mostly used as comic relief but he very gradually kept making the "wrong" choice at key points until he ended up being quite evil indeed. At the same time, he was still so likable and it actually became even easier to sympathise and relate to him as he got more serious. Unfortunately, JMS ruined the whole storyline by changing it so instead of ending the whole series with Molari's death as he intended, he "fixed" everything so he could make another season. He jumped the shark. – Keobooks Jan 5 '16 at 15:29
  • There are lots of examples: Anakin Skywalker, Raymond "Red" Reddington - The Black List. Real people aren't black and white. "The road to hell is paved with good intentions." (And B5 is one of my all time favorite Sci Fi classics!) We all wonder how we would face such challenges and can benefit from seeing how someone else deals with them- learning from their successes and failures. – Joe Jan 6 '16 at 4:00
  • @joe As I said in my post, a hero can certainly be flawed. There's a big difference between "struggles with his dark side" and "becomes a villain". In many stories, a key element is that the hero struggles with base motives but ultimately overcomes them. If he gives in and does something evil and is never redeemed, we put that in a special category of "dark stories". Very few stories start out with someone portrayed as basically a good and likable person, the reader is sucked in to liking him, and then he turns evil. There are examples, of course, but I think it's hard to pull off. – Jay Jan 6 '16 at 4:14
  • @joe BTW From the audience's point of view, Anakin Skywalker does not start out as a good guy and then become evil. Quite the reverse: he starts out evil and is ultimately redeemed. And in any case he's not the hero. It's quite common for lesser characters to turn out to be evil: the hero thought he was his friend but he betrays him, etc. – Jay Jan 6 '16 at 4:16
  • @Jay Points well taken. I hadn't recognized a "dark stories" category, but it makes perfect sense. – Joe Jan 7 '16 at 6:05
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I think it depends on how you write it and who your audience is.

There are real life stories like that. For example, think of Napoleon. As a youngster, he used to read Jean Jacques Rousseau and probably dreamed of being a champion of freedom. After he became powerful, it took him quite a while to become infatuated with his power, but eventually, he succumbed to that infatuation and became emperor. And he ended up disappointing Beethoven.

There is the Star Wars prequels story of Anakin Skywalker who starts out as a nice kid and becomes the evil Vader. That was poorly done and annoyed me. Nonetheless, there are plenty of people who loved it for whatever reason -- I think they are under the sway of the Dark Side of the Force if you ask me.

There is also Citizen Kane, in which Kane starts out as an idealist, then becomes as corrupt as the people who brought him up. That story was well done and it worked.

The conclusion is, if you built your character right, the story will work. If your target audience is teenagers and you have explosions and vampires, it will also work, even if you failed at building the character.

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