So I am still in the primitive stages of creating my own world and story, if I even do it that is. I am still trying to get a feel for where I want to go with it. The biggest issue would be that, my world would be heavily influenced from novels like Lord of The Rings, Redwall (children's series similar to Lord of the Rings with personification of animals), Shannara series, and so on. These are stories I grew up with and loved. This would also mean that, my story would be very cookie cutter fantasy. You can apply various elements from across literature works, but they will have a familiar feel due to the fact that the story wouldn't be "original" as the influence would be pretty evident.

  1. Would having a cookie cutter story be okay? We see this recipe often repeated in anime where the story has a similar feel and an expected outcome with similar character personalities. It seems to work in anime as many of these shows are popular.

  2. Because stories and books for that matter seem to be on the decline as more and more visual media becomes available, would I need surprise elements or twists that are otherwise unexpected from the said genre in hopes that the story would be read and not passed over as "another one of these"?

  3. Would creating a story that ends with the enemy winning be something interesting to others? Let's face it, if a more realistic version of LOTR was created, chances are, middle earth would be ruled by Sauron right now. I for one, would love to read a follow up novel about a world ruled by orcs. Would a story that ended with the "bad side" winning be a desirable fresh outcome that people would read? The anime Attack on Titan is heavily popular. This story is depressing, hopeless, many main characters die, and humanity is losing the fight.

I hope these questions are not too opinion based as I am more interested to see if such a world would be desirable by an audience. What literature works would fall into a dark fantasy? Game of Thrones would be the closest body of work, however it still isn't quite the tone I am looking for. Would this be too niche?

I wonder if I would alienate the fantasy reader because it would be a different expected outcome. Take Star Wars for example. I personally was kind of put off with Rogue One for deviating too far from the Star Wars theme and plot. Many people do not feel this way, but I personally did.

EDIT: "If you yourself aren't going to buy into the world you're creating, you can cast-iron guarantee no-one else will." Let me clarify something that I have been seeing popping up in responses. It isn't that I am not passionate enough about my idea or that I am not 100% sold on the idea, it's that I am writing for others and not myself. You can be 100% passionate about the earth being flat and you believe it to your core, but that doesn't mean I am going to listen to you just because you are passionate.

I just wanted to say WOW. The feedback and offering of help and good research materials (books to read) has been more than I ever hoped to have received. I really appreciate everyone's positive critique that gave me a TON of thoughts to ponder over. It probably is pretty evident that this is my first attempt at writing a non academic piece of work so that is also why I am a bit nervous/hesitant. So thank you to everyone who offered advice and will provide any future insight after this edit. It is greatly appreciated and it gives me more confidence that I should further pursue this.

  • 4
    The Inheritance series is set in a familiar world with a familiar main storyline and the author is quite open about how much other books influenced his. However it is still a god series, still enjoyable. Cliches can be good if the story is written well...
    – Mirte
    Jan 26, 2017 at 9:35
  • 2
    If a great speaker is really passionate about the world being flat I will listen. Good speaking or story telling is an art form in itself that can be appreciated, even if the content is total twaddle. If a beggar on the street has a good original imaginative story to tell, they're far more likely to get money out of me than someone just saying "please"
    – Separatrix
    Jan 27, 2017 at 11:00
  • 1
    @Separatrix you are correct sir and that is a very good point. This is why Hitler to this day is considered one of the best if not the best public speakers of all time. He may have been whack, but his speaking was poetic and used in many modern day public speaking classes as examples.
    – ggiaquin16
    Jan 27, 2017 at 15:16
  • I used to love listening to Art Bell on Coast To Coast Radio. If he had read the phone book, I would have listened for awhile! I haven't read too much Russian literature, but isn't it mostly about people losing and failing - just in exquisite ways?
    – Joe
    Feb 1, 2017 at 6:21
  • You have a lot of really good questions, but I would recommend splitting them up. This question needs to be more focused. Jan 21, 2021 at 18:25

14 Answers 14


Well, consider the term cookie cutter. Now imagine that you love cookies and you want to go into the cookie business. Which do you think would be the best strategy:

  1. Bring out a totally original line of rhubarb and pickle cookies.

  2. Bring out a line of exceptionally well made chocolate chip cookies.

Like you, there are millions or readers who grew up reading these stories and want to read more. At the same time, of course, there are thousands of people trying to write these stories. So, there is a definite demand for these types of stories. And there are a lot of, frankly, pretty lousy attempts to write them. So if you want to be in this market, learn to write this sort of story really well so you stand out above the crowd.

Either way, you need to learn to be really good. Because frankly, if you want to sell rhubarb and pickle cookies, you are going to have to make them really really good rhubarb and pickle cookies, because no one want a mediocre rhubarb and pickle cookie. But lots of people want a really good chocolate chip cookie.

  • 1
    Thank you sir for your reply and when you put it that way, I definitely see where you are coming from. This actually makes me feel better about where I originally wanted to take the story. I was more afraid though people would be bored of reading the same story with different characters. Okay, maybe they wouldn't be the SAME story but the feel would be very familiar. One thing I personally hate is predictability. Stories and movies I love these days do a great job of fooling me on predicting the ending and will definitely work on my writer's slight of hand as well :)
    – ggiaquin16
    Jan 25, 2017 at 20:50
  • 1
    Not to mention, tragedy has been with us since at least ancient Greece. Read Aristotle's Poetics and some Shakespeare and you'll see that it ain't that hard.
    – Raydot
    Jan 26, 2017 at 17:37
  • 6
    That's true, of course, but tragedy is really a different genre. That is, it meets a different set of user expectations. A genre is a promise to the reader, so subverting genre is breaking that promise. My point here is that you don't need to subvert your genre to stand out. You stand out through exceptional execution of the promise of the genre.
    – user16226
    Jan 26, 2017 at 17:42
  • 6
    Rhubarb cookies sound pretty good. Jan 26, 2017 at 21:55

warning: TV Tropes links ahead

Downer endings are okay

There's nothing inherently wrong - or, to be honest, all that original - with a downer ending. Stories where the villains win, or the heroes only win Pyrrhic victories, are really pretty common. As long as your story is compelling, and the villain's victory is more than just "They had more troops, so they steamrollered the good guys", it can be done. HOWEVER...

Don't tell a Shoot the Shaggy Dog story

Such stories can also be difficult to pull off. If you go too far into downer territory, you risk alienating your audience with a Shoot the Shaggy Dog story, where your readers end the story thinking "Well, what was the point of that??" You just spent a dozen hours with a group of people, got to know them, got to like them, rooted for their victory...then they all got squashed like bugs. Why on earth would I want to read a story like that??

Now, I'm going to declare some bias here and say that I hate downer ending stories, in large part because, no offence, mediocre writers tend to use a downer ending to disguise the fact that they have nothing new to say. Despite being a massive sci-fi and fantasy junkie, I don't watch The Expanse or Game of Thrones, because I'm sick of the bleakness that's infesting those genres at the moment. So in fact, you're as likely to lose readers as you are to gain them by writing a downer ending.

If you don't believe it, you won't write it well

This is the most important part. You can't write a novel by following a checklist; there's no magic formula for success. You need to have a story you want to tell, a message you want to get across, or your story just isn't going to work, you're going to be miserable writing it, and your readers are going to be miserable reading it.

Tropes Are Not Bad

As Terry Pratchett put it, "The reason that clichés become clichés is that they are the hammers and screwdrivers in the toolbox of communication." There's nothing wrong with telling a derivative story. Hell, William Shakespeare was telling derivative stories. As long as the story you tell is imaginative and interesting, there's nothing wrong with telling it.

One of the best fantasy series out there is the Belgariad, by David Eddings. The characters are fresh and lively and leap off the page at you as you read. The plot is also deliberately incredibly derivative - and it works.

In the end, you've got to tell the story that's in your mind. If the heroes fail because of their own faults and weaknesses, that's a powerful message to send, and it's a story worth telling. But if your heroes fail because Sauron simply has more orcs and he steamrollers them before Frodo even reaches Mordor, that's an anticlimax. It's a bad story, and there's no reason to tell it.

  • 1
    Excellent answer! particularly citing the Belgariad — some days I feel like I'm the only one around here who has read it! :) Jan 25, 2017 at 21:25
  • Thank you @Werrf for your answer. Also gave me a really good angle to look at and gave me thoughts to consider. To be honest, this world has been in my head for several years now as the characters are actually based on my game names I use in PRG games such as World of Warcraft. These characters have taken on a personality and traits that I thought would be fun to turn into a fantasy story. I don't mind being cliche. I know they have a purpose and I enjoy them because they are expected to be there. What I am more afraid of is the same story with different names for characters.
    – ggiaquin16
    Jan 25, 2017 at 21:29
  • 1
    I think stories where heroes lose by simply being outnumbered (and the way they got into that situation) can be very interesting and compelling. Above all, I tend to like stories that are well-developed enough that everything happens for a natural rather than forced reason, and I'd rather read about situations that don't work out for logical reasons, than stories where the heroes survive because they're the heroes and it'd be a bummer if they didn't.
    – Dronz
    Jan 26, 2017 at 19:03
  • 3
    I agree that there's clear potential for interest in the decisions and failures leading to defeat, but I think interest isn't an absolute and isn't about the situation but more about how the story is told, what's mentioned or omitted, and how. I think an interesting story could still be told where Sauron struck first and destroyed Gondor, as well as one where Frodo failed. I'm into Hamlet and MacBeth and The Man Who Would Be King and many others, despite protagonist death & defeat. Tales where heroes should've died but win for no particular reason tend to be particularly unsatisfying to me.
    – Dronz
    Jan 26, 2017 at 19:34
  • 2
    @Dronz: I do rather like "documentary style" realistic narratives, where things happen for internally consistent reasons and not just for plot convenience. But it's important to remember that there are two parts to a realistic narrative: "realistic" and "narrative". Even documentary writers pick and choose which stories to tell. The story of someone attempting the impossible and succeeding against all odds is intrinsically compelling; the story of someone attempting the impossible and failing as expected is not, even if a good writer might find other ways to make it interesting, too. Jan 27, 2017 at 9:58

I for one, would love to read a follow up novel about a world ruled by orcs.

So let me ask you this: Why not write that book instead?

In fact, why not make the orcs the heroes of your story?

  • Could the orcs be in rebellion against your Sauron character? Could they be done with the entire thing and just want to wrap up the war so they can go home to their orc families? Could they be bored and just want to go home and watch Dancing with the Nazgûl?
  • Are there band-geek orcs and slacker orcs and intellectual orcs and middle-manager orcs? Are there anal-retentive orcs and messy eater orcs and orcs who have an allergy to bonefish?
  • Is there a rivalry between different tribes of orcs like sports team fans? Is there a racial rivalry which is more serious? Is there a rivalry between orcs and Uruk-Hai?

Figure out what fascinates you here. Is it that the Good Guys always win and you're curious about what happens if the Bad Guys win? Have you read any of the myriad post-apocalyptic dystopian YA series currently in vogue? Are those not appealing because the Good Guys still find a way to win? Do you think that exploring the other side of the story is inherently more interesting?

I agree entirely with @Werrf that Downer Endings Suck for the most part, so don't do that. If your orcs are the bad guys and they lose at the end, that's okay, because you can show that even though they are rounded characters, they are still the bad guys and they should lose. Or reverse it and the Good Guys lose because they are in fact not as Good as Tolkien would have it.

  • 4
    Yes! I think you hit it on the nail with my worries or struggles. It isn't that I hate seeing the good guys win. It's that too many times, they just magically win when otherwise should not have. I would love to explore a story where, the good side loses whether it be temporarily or not is still debatable. I would love to write a story from a different point of view such as you described with bullets and the second question asked. To me, this would be like a test of humanity in itself. What happens when humanity loses? Too many times they win and everyone goes home happy.
    – ggiaquin16
    Jan 25, 2017 at 21:41
  • 2
    Also wanted to say I love your ideas about doing it from the orc POV. that is actually what I had in mind XD with a slightly different twist to it.
    – ggiaquin16
    Jan 25, 2017 at 21:49
  • 2
    @ggiaquin Try the various dystopian YA series (there are too many to list) or watch the reboot of Battlestar Galactica from a few years back, which explored a lot of those questions, down to which group (Cylons or Humans) were really the Bad Guys. Jan 25, 2017 at 22:09
  • 2
    For inspiration, you could look at the Orcs series by Stan Nichols, which features orcs as main characters, and people as the bad guy Jan 26, 2017 at 14:05
  • 2
    Another "What happens if the bad guys win" - the Mistborn novels (first trilogy, particularly).
    – alex_d
    Jan 26, 2017 at 14:29

In fiction there are protagonists, the characters that the writer wants the readers to identify with, and antagonists, the characters who have opposing goals and seek to stop the protagonists from achieving their goals.

There are also heroes and villains in many works of fiction. Heroes tend to be noble and heroic and good and villains tend to be evil. And there are many variations of heroes and villains.

Imagine a story here a child tries to get cookies from the cookie jar without permission and the mother tries to prevent it. It would be equally easy to write a version with the child the protagonist and the mother the antagonist or the mother the protagonist and the child the antagonist. But it would be kind of hard to convince most audiences that either was a hero or a villain.

Now imagine a history book or article written by a modern professional historian. It might describe a conflict of some sort between different leaders and/or groups. But according to the dispassionate tone of most modern historical works it would try to determine causes and effects and motivations and describe the events accurately but not describe anyone as being a hero or a villain. Most modern history works can have protagonists or antagonists but rarely have heroes and villains.

Of course if someone has an ethical code and reads a modern history they can form opinions about where on the scale between total good and total evil various historical characters were based on their actions. If good and evil are real, certainly every person who ever lived had some type of good/evil score, even though we might not have enough information to estimate that score very well.

Of course historical fiction based on historical events is quite common. And it is common for the protagonists and antagonists to be depicted as noble heroes and evil villains in historical fiction. And in different orks of historical fiction different sides in a historical conflict are depicted as the heroes or the villains. In one version of history side A are the heroes and side B are the villains and in another version side A are the villains and side B are the heroes.

Since there are only about three possible outcomes in a conflict, a victory for side A and defeat for side B, or a draw, or a victory for side B and defeat for Side A, and since people disagree about whether side A or side B was the heroes, there are many people who claim that the losing side in various historical conflicts were the heroes and the winners were the villains.

Almost everybody believes that in real life the villains sometimes win and the heroes sometimes lose, and can point to historical examples where in their opinion the villains won and the heroes lost.

So it certainly shouldn't be hard for you to find historical models for fictional fantasy stories were the heroes lose and the villains win.

I may point out that The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings have more or less happy endings - though marred by various losses - but in most of Tolkien's other Middle-earth stories the heroes and/or protagonists lose.

  • Thank you for your very well thought out response. As others have stated, the truth is held by the victor or that a truth is only as powerful as those who are there to witness it. That being said, I do realize that good or evil, good side, bad side, is relative and subjective. As you said, it would be easy to write a story in which the orcs, from their point of view, are good and the humans are bad. That would defeat the purpose of my tone or intent though.
    – ggiaquin16
    Jan 25, 2017 at 23:53
  • I could very well write a story from the orc perspective in which they are the good creatures from their POV and it is something I have in mind on the idea shelf. For this one however, I am looking to create a story that captures the human emotions that we mostly want to ignore. Where it goes through a story that you fall in love with a set of characters and they lose. Maybe not all die, but definitely lose. Willpower, dreams, hopes, were not enough and they lost because they were inferior. Followed by the observance of change to strive to be better and in the future potentially overcome
    – ggiaquin16
    Jan 25, 2017 at 23:59
  • 6
    I bears pointing out that there are many stories that are not about a pitched battle between two sides at all. Indeed many of the stories that feature a pitched battle between two sides are not about that, it is merely the crucible in which the crux of the real story is recognized. And indeed, LOTR is one such story. It is not, after all, Aragorn's story. Frodo is not victorious -- he succumbs to the ring, which is destroyed not by heroic action but by the flaw of the logic of evil -- in a mean squabble between two of its acolytes: Frodo and Gollum.
    – user16226
    Jan 26, 2017 at 5:11
  • 7
    Sam is the closest thing to a hero, and he just follows his master out of love and then goes home to his wife. Evil destroys itself and love goes home for tea.
    – user16226
    Jan 26, 2017 at 5:13
  • 4
    @MarkBaker "Evil destroys itself and love goes home for tea." Holy crap, I want that on a T-shirt! :D Jan 26, 2017 at 11:08

Saving Private Ryan is probably the best example I know of a well-received movie where all the protagonists died. Looking at it, its pretty clear that it got away with this because their deaths were an integral part of the narrative (the final scene pretty much beat this into the audience's head). The movie was about sacrifice, so the character's sacrifice was clearly the entire point. That you lost everyone you cared about was in fact the entire point.

Novels are much more apt to have disappointing (to the audience) losses, deaths, and even endings. As a reader, I do tend to really hate those while they are occurring. However, if they can be made meaningful, that swings things 180 degrees (for me at least). The best example of this I can provide is the Paskenarion Series. The third book in particular Oath of Gold, had the character losing everything she'd worked in the first two books to achieve, followed by multiple chapters of abandonment, abuse and depression that were really difficult to read. But by the end you realize that, while not what she was, she was in many ways far better because she'd had that experience. This put it up in my top 3 personal choice as best works of fiction of all time.

I guess what I'm saying here is that if you need to do that to a character, go ahead and do it. But don't do it maliciously or flippantly. There needs to ultimately be a meaning in there worth the price we pay.

  • Very good point. I too hate senseless killing and if I kill anyone off (losing doesn't directly correlate with killing main character), it would be in a meaningful way.
    – ggiaquin16
    Jan 26, 2017 at 0:22
  • 1
    Could you please add spoiler tags to the part about Saving Private Ryan? Not everyone has seen the movie or knows the ending.
    – Nzall
    Feb 7, 2017 at 18:13
  • @Nzall - Does this stack have any guidance on the use of spoiler tags? Insisting they get put on details of a 20 year old movie seems more than a bit extreme to me. I'd figure after a decade or so, anyone who wants to see it "unspoiled" has had more than enough opportunity to do so. But if that's the policy...
    – T.E.D.
    Feb 7, 2017 at 19:22
  • 1
    I'm not sure if Writers has a policy. I personally don't consider the age of a story as anything more than a minor factor in determining spoilerability due to new potential viewers being born every second. More important to me are how successful the movie is and how unexpected the story element being spoiled is. that particular story element sounds like it would be pretty unexpected and is part of a movie that earned wide critical and box office acclaim. However, the decision is yours, and I agree that the policy would be more important than a single judgment based on nebulous criteria.
    – Nzall
    Feb 7, 2017 at 19:40

No one seems to be addressing

  1. Would creating a story that ends with the enemy winning be something interesting to others?

Are you telling a “big picture” story, or human (orc, dwarf, elf, whatever) interest story? And why can’t it be both?

Use the enemy winning as a backdrop. Maybe not Love in The Time of Cholera, but isn’t Gone with the Wind the classic example of the enemy winning, but everyone enjoying the book?

Look at the enduring appeal of Anne Frank's diary, which hardly has a happy ending. Nor, really, do the fictional works The Handmaiden's Tale or A Canticle for Leibowitz, both told many years (centuries) after the death of the main protagonist. In all, the “enemy” wins.

Basically, you are telling an adversarial story.

And, more importantly, you speak of a series.

The James Bond novels were never a series, because Bond always won (yawn).

An adversarial series provides you the scope to flip/flop and reverse the tides of fortune.

Think Cliff Hanger Ending. Think “it’s always darkest before the dawn” as the ending of each book. When people hear that the next has been published they will flock to buy it, to discover how the protagonist is going to “get out of that”.

Short answer to 3) is a resounding YES

  • 1
    "Anne Franks' " should be "Anne Frank's ". Too short of an edit for me to do. Jan 26, 2017 at 15:46
  • Yes, you are very correct in that, I do have this planned out to be a series which goes back and forth. Thank you for citing all these books. I am writing them all down on a list to read and review as people suggest as many of them I have not heard of before :)
    – ggiaquin16
    Jan 26, 2017 at 16:05
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    Well, none of them have orcs :-)
    – Mawg
    Jan 26, 2017 at 18:10

Would creating a story that ends with the enemy winning be something interesting to others?


Your book is the story of your protagonist. That protagonist may win or lose in the end, but the focus must be on him or her, because that is the person the reader cares about.

Certainly, when the protagonist loses, then the antagonist wins. But a story that ends with the protagonist losing is not the same as a story that ends with the antagonist winning. In a story that ends with the antagonist winning the focus of the narrative shifts from the protagonist to the antagonist. And that is something that readers don't want to read. That is a form of betrayal. What you do is tell the reader that the protagonist that they have identified with and hoped for is actually a loser and that they were fools to root for him and that you have decided to degrade him to a side character and replace him with the person that made the hero's life a misery. Some readers will love a story in which the protagonist does not win. But the focus must remain on the protagonist and what that failure means to him and not shift away from what would give that failur meaning. So, to answer your question:

Creating a story that ends with the hero losing would be interesting to others. But creating a story that ends with the enemy winning would not be interesting to others.

I hope you understand the difference.

  • Yes :) I think you are also miss-reading what I am meaning too. I don't mean that the story follows a hero around and then at the end switches to the enemy and they win and yay happy ending for enemy. The narrative will be focused on the protagonist and their journey as well as their trials, it will follow the hero(s) even after they lose. It will then rebuild the heroes and have character growth and change. What I want is a story that appeals to the full spectrum of emotions, raw emotions, rather than something light-hearted and easy going.
    – ggiaquin16
    Jan 26, 2017 at 22:11
  • and one of those elements to me is not having an all powerful romance style hero like in LoTR where, even though the heroes do have their setbacks, they won every fight (even if a character is stolen or assumed dead) they managed to escape all bad situations, they managed to jump in and fight 100 vs 2 and emotionally, you never had the feeling they were going to lose, you never had the feeling that one of the core characters were possibly in danger because of the style of literature.
    – ggiaquin16
    Jan 26, 2017 at 22:22
  • Even when Frodo put on the ring, you had the feeling that Sam would step in some how and fix it or something would happen to still achieve the expected ending. When Frodo was hanging from the cliff after the tumble with Smeagol, you knew Sam wasn't going to let him go. Even though they add dark elements, you don't FEEL it. I want the reader to cry, I want them to laugh, I want them to be nervous. I want them to feel the emotions and journey of the characters. When Boromir died, no one really cared because it was too early and hey was written of as corrupted.
    – ggiaquin16
    Jan 26, 2017 at 22:28

I've heard many times "there are only x number of stories," (sometimes as low as 4) just told in different ways with different characters. Right off the top of my head, I think of Rocky (yes, Sylvester Stallone as a boxer Rocky) as one of the best "the hero loses" stories. What makes the story in this case is the seemingly insurmountable odds against not only winning but failing miserably, the character development, and the process by which the hero gets to where he ends up, even when and though he loses.

I think you can tell this kind of story in any genre and have a "winner" of a story, if you tell it well.

  • This is more of exactly what I was looking for in terms of plot. A lot of the people were still trying to twist it so that the hero ends up winning at the end, even if it isn't in the first book.
    – ggiaquin16
    Jan 27, 2017 at 20:41
  • Even if you take, GoT for example, you knew Jon Snow wouldn't die. His role is just too valuable to the story and there are still many hidden questions about his life still that need to be answered. They could have milked it more by waiting a little instead of bringing him back in episode 1 but it was still expected for him to revive by the red lady. They made that obvious when she showed up to the castle at the end of the last episode.
    – ggiaquin16
    Jan 27, 2017 at 20:46
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    The other type that comes immediately to mind is the "win via self-sacrifice" story, like Braveheart or Stephen King's The Running Man (the book not the movie). The hero dies but either becomes a symbol stronger than his living being, or the hero dies yet accomplishes victory of a sort with his dying effort.
    – Cory
    Jan 27, 2017 at 21:30

Consider these possibilities:

  1. The hero achieves what he desires, and what he desires is good.

  2. The hero does not achieve what he desires, but what he does get is better, because he desired wrong. (Think of the movie "Stardust", where Tristam loses the annoyingly selfish girl he loves but finds a better woman to marry.)

  3. The hero achieves what he desires, and it causes him or others harm, because he desired wrong.

  4. The hero does not achieve what he desires, and what he desired was good.

Outcomes 1 and 4 are the typical endings, true victory and true defeat. Outcome 2 is the personal growth story: you lose but end up a better person for it. Outcome 3 is the negative ironic ending. My first novel was an outcome 3, because the hero's victory is hollow: what he gets he can't keep and it leads to crisis and loss in the next book in my series.

You may have more options than you think.


If you need to ask "would this be desirable?" then I suggest you probably shouldn't write it. If you yourself aren't going to buy into the world you're creating, you can cast-iron guarantee no-one else will.

You don't need surprise endings or twists. You just need a good story that you believe in, told well. "Sword of Shannara" was endlessly derivative of Tolkein - but Brooks had enough that was genuinely Brooks to make it work, and of course it led to "Elfstones" which was stunning. (The less said about "Wishsong" and everything since, the better; self-plagiarism is a dead end, because your original ideas went into the original version.) Conversely "Thomas Covenant" is basically the anti-Narnia - equally clearly derivative of CS Lewis, but flipped 180 degrees.

In many ways, the advantage of kicking off Tolkein is that whilst his worldbuilding was pretty good, he was really bad at writing dialogue and characters, and some of his plotting was a bit shaky too. Brooks's innovation was to retell LotR with a believable set of characters and a writing style that wasn't a pastiche of Beowulf. You do need to have something original to say though.

The 80s had a lot going on with fantasy kicking away from its origins just retelling the same story. As well as your other call-outs, you should look at David Eddings, Tad Williams, Ursula LeGuin and Raymond Feist. You should also be aware of things like Dragonlance as the ultimate stereotypes!

The reaction from there has been to go "realistic". Apart from GoT, some other authors to look into for this are Joe Abercrombie, Scott Lynch and Steven Erikson. If you need examples for modern fantasy, these are some of the go-to guys.

  • 1
    "f you yourself aren't going to buy into the world you're creating, you can cast-iron guarantee no-one else will." You have made a lot of good points and I am thankful for all of your references. Let me clarify something that I have been seeing popping up in responses: It isn't that I am not passionate enough about my idea or that I am not 100% sold on the idea, it's that I am writing for others and not myself. You can be 100% passionate about the earth being flat, but that doesn't mean I am going to listen to you just because you are passionate.
    – ggiaquin16
    Jan 26, 2017 at 16:02
  • 1
    @ggiaquin And yet if you're Terry Pratchett, you can tell a damn good story about a flat earth. In fact more than one, with "Strata" thinking about the engineering involved in making a flat earth run in a Roundworld universe. :) And what came through with Pratchett was how much fun he was having in putting all these ideas through a blender.
    – Graham
    Jan 26, 2017 at 18:00

In classical drama, a story in which the hero loses is a tragedy. If he wins, it is a comedy. The ideal tragic hero is a great man, with great power, but not perfect. He drives the action, which changes his fortune from good to bad. The tragic flaw in his character, along with fate and destiny, bring about his downfall. He suffers a reversal, where his actions cause the opposite of what he intended. He also has a sudden revelation, unexpected knowledge or insight, which shocks the audience along with him. The reader/audience should feel pity or fear as their tragic hero is crushed. This was first defined by Aristotle, the ancient Greek, plot twists included. The ancient Greeks were more interested in plot than in psychology. Shakespeare followed those ancient rules, but liked character flaws more. You may have studied Shakespeare's Macbeth, Hamlet, or Julius Caesar. All three of these plays include the fantasy element of ghosts, plus Macbeth has witches. Macbeth was a tragic hero, who was killed in the end. He was fairly evil -- his tragic flaw (shared with his wife) was big ambition, with a small conscience. Prince Hamlet likewise had a tragic flaw -- he knew that evil was afoot, but didn't act on it. He died in the end, but so did his enemy, and everybody else. In Julius Caesar, the noble Brutus was the tragic hero, an idealist who trusted his friend Cassius when he shouldn't have -- Cassius advised him to kill Caesar. Brutus' army was defeated, and he committed suicide. Brutus was the champion of Rome's republican democracy. He wanted to save Rome from dictatorship; instead, the dictator's nephew would end the republic, and become emperor. Tragic!


An answer to having the enemy win:

Having the enemy win is a nice change. Others may disagree, as it is the story of a protagonist. BUT, does the story have to end with the enemy winning? No. You could, of course, leave readers on a cliffhanger for them to imagine how good will rise up in the future - if ever. Or, you could always write another where in the future, good rises up and finishes the job your protagonist started in this one.

The protagonist seems to always win, but there are a few books out there where the enemy does win. Or, it ends with a new enemy rising up and it is never answered if good wins or not. A good ending can not actually be an ending at all, but an ending instead to allow readers to imagine, "How! Evil never wins! What will the world turn into?" Personally, I would be intrigued.

Hoping this helps :)

  • +1. On some of your other answers, I scolded you for writing quick and poor quality answers. But I can tell you put a lot more thought into this one! It is of higher quality. Thank you for taking my advice to heart! Jan 21, 2021 at 3:45

There are several ways of going about this. However, all of these solutions revolve around one central problem to having the bad guys win: audience investment. You are asking your audience to sit through a story, only to punch them in the gut at the end and tell them that none of the character's choices mattered and that the audience shouldn't have even bothered to get invested anyway. That kind of story is only going to appeal to a very narrow subset of sadomasochistic readers.

I've seen a lot of people on the Internet write "I wish for once someone would have the balls to write a story where a non-sympathetic bad guy wins unequivocally with no bittersweet ending or chance for the heroes to come back and win in the sequel or something" (no joke, this is about word for word what I've seen said), but this is a huge case of "you think you want this, but you don't". It sounds interesting to talk about in practice but it's almost impossible to pull off well in reality. Most of the people who express this sentiment fall into three categories:

  • Low-empathy edgelords who want to see the bad guy win for shock value, or worse outright see themselves as the dark lord and want to be validated by them winning
  • Bored readers who are sick of seeing the heroes win without issue and want to shake things up a bit. Probably the largest contingent
  • The "harder, daddy" readers who like to make themselves emotionally suffer. And not in a "this story made me feel emotions" kind of way.

Similar to what I noted above, this only applies to a very small subset of readers, and so your story isn't likely to have a huge number of people who want to read it.

Another big issue to having the bad guys win is that it results in very little re-read value for the audience. Seeing the bad guys win can be a huge, shocking twist, but when someone re-reads the book there is very little emotional investment because the reader knows how it will all turn out and hence there is no reason to care about the protagonist's struggles.

Authors often say their job is to make their audience feel novel emotions, but when that emotion is expressed by your audience burning your books and telling potential readers to never pick up a book in that series again because of the ending you are shooting yourself in the foot as an author. I've seen authors intentionally do that to make their readers angry because they want to make a statement, but that kind of self-martyrdom never works. Case in point The Last of Us Part 2 and Animorphs. Almost no one got the message Neil Druckman wanted to send with The Last of Us Part 2, and while many people got the anti-war message K.A. Applegate was trying to send, few would argue that The Beginning did this better than, say, The Hork-Bajir Chronicles. Upton Sinclair famously remarked that when he tried to do this in The Jungle, the public didn't care about what he had to say about how capitalism dehumanizes people and only cared about the dismal conditions he portrayed in food processing plants.

1984, Animal Farm, The Jungle, and Brave New World are exceptions, but this is because they represent a very specific subgenre of dystopian novels that has a very specific. The purpose of these novels is to show "look how bad things would be if philosophy X became the dominant power", and the characters are mostly cut-outs designed to drive the plot forward and we as readers are not encouraged to empathize with them. We aren't following the character's journey, we're taking a tour of the dystopian world to see how messed up the system is. In your case, it's not possible to do the same because these novels are meant to explore the dystopian implications of real-life philosophies, and saying "look how bad it would be if a dark lord with magic and a horde of orcs took over the world" would come off as disingenuous.

Readers also become more invested in seeing the good guys win the longer a narrative runs, because they've invested increasing amounts of their time and attention to the narrative. This is why works like 1984 or Brave New World are short, and most tragedies broadcast at the beginning that this is all going to end badly so don't get your hopes up.

Villain Protagonists

Just because a character is a protagonist of a story, doesn't make them a good guy. Light from Death Note, Macbeth from Macbeth, Walter White from Breaking Bad, and Joker from Joker are all examples of stories where the protagonist is clearly he bad guy. Having a villain protagonist circumvents the issue of audience investment because you are asking the reader to side with the "bad guy" rather than the heroes. Additionally, because you are providing either a first-person or third-person look into the "bad guy's" mind, the reader will be more sympathetic towards them and more invested in seeing them win.

Joker is a bit of an odd case. Readers are more likely to let you get away with a straight-up downer ending if they know ahead of time it is a prequel and hence later in the timeline the bad guys get their comeuppance. Other examples include The Hork-Bajir Chronicles and Fate/Zero.

Notably, it's possible to write a story where the protagonists are heroes and win, ones where the protagonists are villains and win, or ones where the antagonists are heroes and win, but not one where the antagonists are villains and win. This is because as the author you are asking the reader to pick sides between the protagonists and antagonists, and having the characters you have been rooting against and are less sympathetic win leaves a bad taste in reader's mouths. Imagine if you wrote Harry Potter and it ended with Dolores Umbridge becoming the Minister-for-Life of the magical world and Harry got thrown in Azkaban. Readers would throw a riot.

This ties into another key concept of fiction: catharsis. Catharsis is the emotional release one gets from reading fiction, like letting the tension out of a spring. In some ways it could be described as a "release of narrative tension". The goal of almost all fiction, whether writers know it or not, is catharsis. Potential catharsis is created in a variety of situations, but one of the most common ways is for there to be some kind of moral imbalance in the universe that needs addressing. Macbeth is probably the premier example of this. Macbeth has violated the natural order by murdering his liege lord, and so as audience we know that Macbeth must have his downfall in order for balance to be restored.

More broadly, the job of the writer is not to write a story that is "realistic". Fiction almost never reflects reality, and even well-written fiction often boils down the nuances of analogous real-world issues to act as strawmen. People in real life don't act as noble or evil as fictional heroes and villains, because too much nuance distracts from the story the author is trying to tell. What the job of the writer is, however, is to tell a story that is interesting. So long as you tell a story that is interesting and readers can get invested in, you could make it about bunny rabbits on the moon for all anyone cares.

You say that you don't like stories where the heroes' victory is contrived: that's a perfectly reasonable feeling. The writer's job is not to make it so the protagonists win, the writer's job is to make it so that the readers believe the protagonists can legitimately lose, even if the outcome was never in doubt. Having a heroic victory be contrived is more a symptom of bad writing than anything else. A good example of this is Marvel's Infinity War and Endgame. Thanos losing was unsatisfying, but that's not because it's more "realistic" for Thanos to have won, it's because the writers basically made Thanos too powerful, basically purple God with an "I Win" button (example: him undoing Vision's heroic sacrifice, demonstrating that there is honestly nothing the heroes could have realistically done to thwart him), and the writers had to invent a ham-handed deus ex machina in order to undo the damage he caused.


Tragic stories quite frequently end with the protagonists losing. However, tragedies often end in some kind of bittersweet aspect in order to counterbalance the tragedy and have some form of catharsis. One common example of this are stories where the heroes fail at their initial goal, but achieve some sort of self-realization or romance that makes their lives happier. Or ones where the day is saved at the cost of the hero's life. Or ones where the heroes win a moral victory even if the villains win the physical one (Brave New World and Hero being good examples). Notably, these never happen in stories where there is some kind of dystopian regime (except the "moral victory" one. Having the hero find true love but the world is still ruled by a brutal dictator comes off as still hugely imbalanced morally, because the latter kind of invalidates the former.

The movie Hero received a lot of controversy because it basically had the bad guy win with little comeuppance, even though it was based on a real-life event in the history of the Chinese Emperor Qin Shi Huangdi, who is pretty much the poster child for "megalomaniac dark lord who conquered the world and got away with it", so they couldn't have the dark lord's attempts to conquer the world fail because that would be ahistorical. This shows the kind of reaction you're likely to get if you write this in a fantasy setting where it's not possible to justify the dark lord winning because "that's what really happened".

More notably, you’re proposing a story structure in which there is no change to the status quo between the beginning of Act I and the end of Act III. Beginning of Act I the dark lord is conquering the world, end of Act III the dark lord has conquered the world and the heroes are either subjugated or dead. To sum it up, think of it this way. Where is the narrative conflict in your proposed original story? The dark lord steamrolls his oppression and takes over Middle Earth? Where's the drama in that?

Similar ideas actually have been pulled off in fiction before. Mistborn Era 1 was explicitly conceived as “Frodo gets to Mount Doom, only for Sauron to take the One Ring back and rule over Middle Earth with a thousand years of darkness." Only Brandon Sanderson skipped ahead in the timeline to the end of that thousand years of darkness because he realized that there was no meaningful conflict in his idea as originally planned.

Your "world ruled by orcs" idea sounds interesting and has the potential for drama, but the preceding story just sounds boring. Do what Sanderson did and just set the story in the timeframe where the dark lord has already won.


Based on your comments, you want the Hollywood three act structure. Act one: introductions, the protagonist tries to solve the initial problem. Act two: Hah! The first problem was nothing compared to what comes next, OMG, this problem is stupendous, the protagonist is totally inadequate to solve it, everything falls apart, and the protagonist staggers into the wilderness. This is the longest act. Act three, the shortest act: just as all seems lost, the protagonist reaches deep down, develops hidden strength, and emerges triumphant. The End, yay!

  • I would say yes and no. It is possible to have it presented this way but not exactly what I originally had in mind. It seems though to compromise my vision with what others say would be more readable, I would have to follow this format
    – ggiaquin16
    Jan 27, 2017 at 0:58

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