What should I do if my story's plot is built around the antagonist being extremely strong, and by the end it's clear that the protagonist cannot possibly defeat the antagonist, unless the antagonist makes a stupid mistake in the "final battle" (or the protagonist magically gets super strong)? Is rewriting the entire story (so the antagonist is weaker and the plot is changed to compensate for that) the only solution?
Actually, most stories that have a specific antagonist depend on the antagonist being stronger than the protagonist, so logically the antagonist should win most of the time -- unless they do something stupid.
We love to root for underdogs. After all, most of us are underdogs. If the hero was clearly going to win, it would not be much of a story. So what is an author to do?
- Have the hero win anyway
- Have the hero lose heroically
- Have the hero lose realistically
You will find all of these in literature but in popular works the first is obviously the most common. So the question becomes, under what circumstances is it satisfying to the audience that the hero wins anyway, even though the antagonist should clearly win.
The key to this question is virtue. Why do we want the hero to win? Because they are more virtuous. Why do we want the antagonist to lose? Because they lack virtue. So the difference between winning and losing must itself rest on virtue. This can take many forms:
The antagonist loses, despite their advantages, because their signature vice leads them to make a mistake. Not a random mistake, but a mistake that they make for the very reason we hated them in the first place. Because of their cruelty, a henchman rebels against them; because of their treachery, an ally abandons them; because of their arrogance, they leave their flank unguarded; because of their idleness they do not discover the secret that will be their undoing. All of these will seem dreadfully contrived, of course, unless they are seen as the direct result of their faults and the past actions they have taken because of those faults.
The hero wins because of their signature virtue: because of their courage, they keep fighting when all seems lost; because of their compassion, a minor character they have been good to shows them a secret passage; because of their loyalty, a friend sacrifices himself for them; because of their learning, they discover a secret unknown to the antagonist. Again, all of these will seem dreadfully contrived unless they are the direct result of their established virtues and the past actions they have taken because of those virtues.
Shortly after I took up fencing, I had an epee bout with the long-time county champion. I expected to get thrashed and everyone in the club expected me to get thrashed. However, I won the first couple of points accidentally by having my epee point exactly where he exposed his wrist when lunging. I recognised this fault of his and he didn't and went on to take the bout by a ridiculous margin: 15-5 or something. Point is that your antagonist might win all his fights because he expects to win and his opponents expect to lose. Put him against a protagonist that accidentally uncovers a weak spot and has the good sense and self-belief to take advantage of it: in a duel to the death, the protagonist only has to win once!
“The supreme art of war is to subdue the enemy without fighting.” ― Sun Tzu, The Art of War
If the protagonist can not beat the antagonist in a direct battle, don't have them fight.
Have the protagonist solve the conflict in a non-violent way:
- Convince the antagonist to abandon their plan:
- By appealing to the antagonists morals or code of ethics
- By convincing the antagonist that following their plan will harm them in the long run.
- By proposing a deal which benefits everyone
- By bluffing or otherwise tricking the antagonist into believing that their plan will fail
- Have the protagonist change the circumstances so that:
- going through with the plan doesn't make sense anymore for the antagonist
- the antagonist's plan will no longer cause harm to anyone.
- Have the protagonist find and exploit some obscure weakness of the antagonist.
All of that does of course require that you have a properly developed antagonist character who has more character depth than "being extremely strong" and a more complex motivation than "being extremely mean". Discovering these depths and motivations might be the "real" quest for the protagonist and their strongest weapon against the antagonist.
And if all else fails, you still have the heroic sacrifice: Even a weaker opponent might be able to win if they are willing to sacrifice their life for it.
If the antagonist will win in a fair fight, don't have the protagonist engage him in a fair fight. One way to make this happen is to make the protagonist's objective something other than killing/defeating the antagonist - maybe the antagonist is trying to execute some nefarious plan, and the protagonist finds a way to disrupt the plan without having to fight the antagonist directly (or with only skirmish/guerilla type fighting).
If your protagonist has to fight the antagonist directly, he can try to out-prepare or out-maneuver the antagonist. For the former, perhaps he coats his sword in poison so he only has to scratch the antagonist to kill or weaken him, sabotages the antagonist's equipment before fighting or takes performance-enhancing drugs before the fight. For the latter, instead of challenging the antagonist directly the protagonist can ambush him, or start the fight in a place more advantageous for him.
Strength is not a simple one-dimensional attribute. Everyone has different strengths and weaknesses. A clever combatant may recognize how to shift the battleground to where the opponent’s strengths are neutralized.
Consider some historical conflicts where a relatively weak combatant defeated a vastly stronger opponent:
- The Viet Cong vs. the United States
- American colonists vs. the British
- Greeks vs. Persia
- Russia vs. Napoleon
David versus Goliath. Heracles versus Antaeus. Batman versus Bane. Or one nice scene from Braveheart, the big hurled boulder versus a small stone thrown accurately between the eyes. There are so many examples in fiction where the strongest person is beaten by a smart opponent.
In fact, if the protagonist is clearly strongest then generally there isn't enough depth to the story to be interesting to a modern audience. The classic "hero's journey" requires the hero to fail repeatedly so that he (or she) can learn from their failures and find how to defeat their enemy. This is the difference between "barbarian" myths such as Greek legend where the strongest man almost always wins (or, exceptionally, the strongest man has to be incredibly stupid for the weaker man to win), and modern story-telling where the cleverest person wins. In "barbarian" societies, authority comes through personal strength, and their stories reflect that. In modern societies, authority comes from intelligence (or it should), and our stories are examples to children that the cleverest person wins.
If you actually read Aesop's fables in a proper translation, mostly the hare wins. Or the wolf wins. If the stories have a moral (and most don't), the moral is to be the wolf. That's a stark contrast to a modern equivalent like "The three little pigs", where the lesson is that any pig can kick a wolf's ass if he's intelligent and prepared.
Being opponents can take lots of forms, leading to a lot of different outcomes.
This could be a physical fight with bare hands or weapons. This surely is the least complex form for a writer but also the one which leaves least room for ideas on how to form the outcome. Either you make it realistic based on your setup (then the villain should win in your scenario) or you introduce surprises (e. g. any kind of deus-ex-machina or unbelievable incidents like the villain stumbling while charging or similar).
This could mean to choose a different battleground than expected, e. g. charging Al Capone with tax fraud. This opens way more options for ideas. Of course, all these can seem constructed (which of course they are); one trick to lower the appearance of being constructed is to place hints on these options in the beginning of the story when the reader does not yet think about these aspects. Good hints come disguised as something else which fits neatly into the story without raising too many red flags.
This is like grabbing the fist which is going to punch you and doing something with it, like biting it, hurling yourself up on it, pulling yourself towards the opponent along it. It can mean to take a punch to get in a better position (like a gambit). In a way this could mean to let the opponent strike first to change the situation. Lure him into a trap, e. g. make him appear cruel or unjust or dangerous to the rest of the world, which can help raise supporters against him.
This could mean to let the opponent run into empty space again and again until his resources are diminished and another form of combat seems more promising. A policy of scorched earth is such a strategy in which an opponent is lured into coming deeper and deeper into one's own territory but where no resources are to be found. Another form could be setting up meetings and not appearing again and again (while giving excuses or even better: while staging independent reasons like problems with the meeting place). Such situations can exhaust the one who always has to prepare for the fight.
Changing the Perspective
This is closely connected to plot-points. Introduce new information which lets things appear in a different light so that the complete enmity is questionable. The information can be fraudulent, and the created confusion can shift the power. E. g. make someone tell your opponent in the box ring that you are about to be shot in round two by a mobster. Combined with a sudden loud bang in the hall in round two this makes it believable enough for lots of things to happen.
Staying the Underdog
Several other answers deal with this option. To be the apparent underdog opens options which derive from the arrogance of the villain. Typical ways of exploiting such a situation can be to surprise the villain with an action which does not fit an underdog, e. g. being beaten down and kicked around for some time, but in the last second thrusting a poisoned dagger into the villain's foot.
Forming and Shattering Alliances
The basic difference between protagonists and antagonists is that between good and evil. Being one of the good ones often means to (be able to) form alliances while being one of the bad ones often means to have trouble keeping them (more betrayal, less confidence, more jealousy, more general hatred). Forming alliances based on being one of the good ones can shift the power, especially if the alliance is a surprise to the villain. That's what happened on Endor when Luke befriended the Ewoks. It turned the "pitiful little band" of rebels into a force which could beat a whole Imperial Legion.
The other option is to let alliances of the villains shatter at the right moment; this could happen repeatedly in a chain reaction when started, causing significantly more effect.
Strengths and Weaknesses
Being strong or weak, being smart or stupid, and being good or evil—all these can have multiple dimensions. Achilles was very strong but had a weak heel (similar stories for Smaug and Siegfried). A hobbit is a weak creature but can resist the One Ring longer than other beings. Sauron is not depicted as stupid but is outright stupid when it comes to considering whether others would want to destroy the One Ring (it would have been ridiculously easy to guard Mount Doom). The shrewdness of stupid characters like Stan Laurel's or Forrest Gump leads to believable successes. So if you say that your "villain is stronger than the protagonist" you maybe just lack multidimensionality in strength.
Your protagonist could avoid any combat, go into hiding, support an underground movement, a rebellion, a resistance, leave the country. This can lead to many people changing their positions, shifting powers, etc.
Losing any kind of combat also is an option which should be considered. Sometimes a loss can be turned into a victory later, given time situations can change, powers may shift, maybe the story is taken up by descendants, by colleagues, by friends, by allies.
Is rewriting the entire story (so the antagonist is weaker and the plot is changed to compensate for that) the only solution?
You do not have to rewrite the entire story. Think of one advantage the hero could use to win, go back a few pages and add one scene that puts that advantage into the story.
Aliens: Ripley has to fight an alien queen that is much larger and stronger than her. It seems impossible! She succeeds because she finds a powerful robot 'exoskeleton' suit that makes her super-strong. The suit appears in one earlier scene that shows it was at the right place for Ripley to find.
Iron Man: Tony Stark has a robot suit but has to fight an enemy with a robot suit that is more powerful in every way. It seems impossible! He wins by flying really high until his enemy freezes. In one earlier scene, Tony tries flying really high just for fun, learns that this makes the suits freeze, and then redesigns his suit so it won't freeze any more.
In both films, the writers only had to add one small scene to justify the victory.
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Note: I understood the OP as the villain being extremely powerful (intelligence, strength, strategy, connections...) in any aspect relevant to the final confrontation, not just physically strong.
If your story is built around the antagonist being extremely strong, and impossible to defeat, the reader is probably waiting for any kind of silly Ex Machina to happen.
So... what if it doesnt?
That would surely pull the rug from under their feet. And if it's well done, it can be really satisfying.
In the case of a prequel it could explain the antagonist motives and give your original book a second reading, now being glad when the antagonist wins.
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There's nothing at all wrong with having your villain make a stupid mistake. Villains do it all the time. The trick is to make sure that the mistake is also believable - that it stems naturally from an established character flaw, and doesn't just happen because the plot requires it. Here's a few suggestions:
- "Why should I bother guarding the secret entrance to my base? It's already so well-hidden, there's no way the hero will ever find it!" The hero finds it.
- "Why would I just shoot him when I can throw him into an elaborate deathtrap that'll kill him slowly and painfully? There's no way he'll get out of it alive!" Except he does, and now he has the element of surprise because the villain assumes he's dead.
- "Why should I waste time finishing/testing my superweapon before using it? There's no way anything can go wrong!" Something goes wrong.
- "The hero has infiltrated my lair? No matter. My super laser is already armed and will fire in three minutes! There's no way he can stop me now!" He stops him. Most likely with two seconds remaining.
I could go on all day with this trope, but you get the idea by now.
- Instead of trying to kill the hero, the villain tries to turn him to the dark side. He's shocked when the hero refuses and then beats the tar out of him, because he legitimately can't comprehend why someone would choose to remain on (what he believes to be) the weaker side.
- If you're willing to consider a heroic sacrifice, then perhaps the villain didn't consider that the hero might do such a thing.
He's just that evil.
- The villain is so evil and heartless that he commits atrocities without caring about whether they might come back to bite him later. He'll raze villages to the ground, even though someone might survive and come after him. He'll betray his loyal second-in-command, even though they know the secret to shutting off his doomsday device. He'll break his promises to people ("You said you'd let them go!" "I lied!"), even though it may turn those people against him. It might not make sense for him to do something, but he'll do it anyway just for the evulz.
Your antagonist could be strong, devious and evil, his/her strength represented through their power and ambition and demonstrated through early gains. But evil is flawed, and can be shown through personality traits which ultimately undermine the villain's competence.
Power corrupts, especially unchecked power, so weaknesses can manifest like vanity and hubris. The villain is obsessed with their own awesomeness, they overreach, they don't pay attention to details, they unleash powers way beyond their control, they punish underlings and betray partners, people switch sides to help the hero.
Your hero makes the most of luck, but they should win on merit, they take a path defined by their sense of decency and they are rewarded for their bravery and sense of purpose. The villain may be stronger, better resourced and unconstrained by morals, but ultimately sets the stage for their own downfall. The hero perseveres, applies growing pressure and ultimately pushes the villain to destroy themselves.
Remember, a hero too can have their weaknesses which can lead to early failures. But the hero can overcome and make good. The villain rises unchecked, but as a consequence falls from a much greater height.
The antagonist should be defeated by their character flaw!
Think of those movies where a villain's character flaw is pride/conceit, and they waste time recounting how clever their evil plan was, not noticing the protagonist is escaping from the handcuffs, etc. It may seem "stupid," but if you set it up as a character flaw early on, it's consistent with the character, and thus believable.
Side note: Protagonists overcome their character flaw by the end of the story, but antagonists are defeated by their own flaw.
Considering your problem from a Hero's Journey-perspective, I strongly argue that the answer to your question is: Yes. If your hero is unable to defeat the villain, your story does not work and needs revision. Here's why:
A story is about change. The Hero realizes that his world is off-balance and embarks on a quest to re-establish this balance. The quest is not a simple one -- before he can succeed, he must tackle a trait of his own personality that forbids him to find a new balance. Possibly, this personality trait is what set his world off-balance in the first place. It is called The Shadow and has the potential to destroy the hero. The Villain is the embodiment of the shadow. In the beginning of the story, he is a terrible threat to the hero and appears to be impossible to defeat. During his transformation, however, the hero gains the ability to defeat the shadow. At the end of the story, he has acknowledged the power that his shadow potentially has over him and found a way to integrate the shadow into his personality.
Once you understand the relationship between the overall story, the hero, the hero's shadow, and the villain, it is clear that a story can only end in two ways: The hero can either adapt and find a way to keep his shadow in check; or he can fail to adapt and allow the shadow to run wild and ravage his world. Both resolutions are acceptable.
From what you write, it appears that either your hero fails to adapt to his shadow -- in which case he simply has no means to win the battle and should, consequently, lose it --, or that your villain is not your hero's shadow. You can fix both problems by re-examining your story and consider carefully what the hero's transformation at the heart of the story is and whether your hero and villain support and provoke this transformation.
For more information about the Hero's Journey, refer to Chris Vogler's "The Writer's Journey". He does a very good job of not only listing the steps of the Hero's Journey and associated archetypes, but also of examining the psychological significance of each element of the Journey.
In what ways is the antagonist "extremely strong"? If this "final battle" is one that it is so "clear that the protagonist cannot possibly" win, why is the protagonist so ignorant or foolish to commit to that kind of "final battle" anyway? Why does your plot seem (as far as you've described it to us as potential problem-solvers) to be all about one very predictable and one-dimensional contest of strength? Are you or your protagonist imprisoned by predictable plot conventions?
If I'm going to read a story with the outline you suggested, I'm going to be hoping that something interesting and consistent is going to happen. If any form of deus ex machina intervenes to save a foolish hero who has no reason to expect not to be squashed in a direct attack, doing nothing with any reasonably expected chance of success, then I'm probably going to feel like I wasted my time. I'd want a hero and his allies to be dealing with the situation in intelligent logical ways and come up with something that could work and is clever and not obvious. Or if he's forced to fight a hopeless fight, I want to be really clear that he has no better alternative in logical and consistent ways.
I'd also hope that a story would involve conflicts and situations whose outcomes are not all that certain, and where what people do to improve their odds and react to circumstances is as interesting as possible.
Hopefully the situation is also not really all just about two characters getting around to having a fight, whose fight overshadows everyone and everything else.
There are infinite ways a fight or battle can seem hopeless but work out unexpectedly. You could read classic stories to find examples. You could start at the beginning, with The Illiad, for example, and see what happens with Achilles.
You could also consider that there are many ways for situations to change throroughly, which may not even involve fighting, and may not even directly involve your two main characters. Any number of events or combination of events could change the conditions of the fight or whether it even happens at all.
The idea of a protagonist "magically getting super strong" is not one you should entirely throw out the window, depending on the type of story you are telling. Luke "magically got super strong" at the end of the original Star Wars trilogy, but there were multiple dimensions to what it took for him to achieve that strength and the sacrifices he had to make that made it interesting. Your story is probably (but not certainly / necessarily) going to be more about your protagonist than your antagonist anyways, and so the ability to defeat the villain should be something that said protagonist manages to achieve by some means throughout the story before our eyes.
The journey is it's own reward. As someone who loved eragon, it was clear to me that he had no chance of winning a fair fight, as he simply did not have the time to train or the resources to win. The ending was pretty cheesy, but the anticipation and journey leading up to the end was pretty cool. If the author had rewritten the book to be more realistic and less cheesy it would have been less interesting and most likely would not have become a bestseller.
It's hard to say what kind of fiction book you are writting and there may be some solutions. Overestimating your power is a classic, or granting the hero a fair fight/restricting yourself to prove ones power. While it's a mistake, it is one understandable honor based one, and most people take honor pretty seriously, especially an evil guy who is used to people simply following his orders and brown nosing to survive.
Your hero could also wear out the evil guy or simply divide his attention into so many parts that he is bound to make a mistake.
It much depends on the story that you are trying to tell.
The quest for something (item, allies, knowledge, etc.) that levels the playing field and gives the hero a chance against an (initially) superior enemy is actually at the core of many stories.
Overcoming a great, even impossible, obstacle by sheer willpower, resilience or stubborness is another angle you can take, if that fits the story you want to tell.
If your story revolves around the antagonist being superior and staying that way until the very end, there is always the War of the Worlds or Mars Attacks solution of a surprise weakness discovered by sheer luck, or any other variation of the Deus Ex Machina. I personally find this doesn't give the story closure, however, unless it was carefully set up and foreshadowed from the start. Watch the movie Demon for a fantastic example of how to do this kind of solution right, with proper foreshadowing that makes the reader/watcher reframe the entire story once the end is revealed.
It could be through luck, through virtue, through tricks. But I don't think that should be your main concern. There is great chances choosing one of these could create an ending disconnected to the rest of the story you have already written, too different to actually fit into what you have. I would strongly suggest you at least re-read everything before choosing an ending. It isn't impossible to make the antagonist be defeated against all odds, mind you, but the way you choose to do it might create a problem to the book itself. I suggest you analyse how your character have managed his past adventures and then find a way to defeat the antagonist that makes sense. There are great ideas in the other answers to your question that I will not rewrite here. Taking a look at books, movies or TV shows where the main characters have the same issue might also be a good idea.
This type of adventure, however, isn't at all uncommon in literature, specially modern literature, and I don't think you have to make the antagonist weaker. If you intend on making any changes throughout the book, perhaps choose the way you intend said antagonist should be (or not) defeated, and then create a setting that builds up to that ending.
If you're set in the late twentieth century you have the advantage that unexpected stealthy offense is much stronger than defense. Consider what happens if the antagonist is assassinated. Does his cause fall? If so, it would be worthy for the protagonist to hire an assassin with no scruples and equip said assassin with appropriate weapons.
If your hero can't possibly win, then don't have him win. Have him survive, but just barely! Then apply all of that effort which you were willing to invest in a total rewrite, into writing a sequel. In this second volume, you can strengthen the hero and weaken the villain or even change the nature of their conflict into something else (a.k.a. introducing a bigger villain to unit the former enemies).
Don't force your book into a fairy tale ending, just because it has gotten to the length where most stories end. Instead, take your characters through some unexpected plot twists; find an alternative victory for your hero and leave your villain's final fall for some later tale.
You've spent your entire novel creating and fleshing out two wonderful characters. Seems a shame to not keep them both around for your next book.
A is strong, B is weak, they fight and B wins because he's the good guy is indeed a boring story.
There is probably more to the story, so tell it. "Rocky" is an entire movie about nothing other than how the hero gets to the point of having a chance.
Exaggerated example: If the big bad evil guy gets a stroke while fighting the hero, and dies, use the previous chapters to mention his blood pressure issues, and a history of previous strokes in his family.
Also, the big bad evil guy can also make a mistake that isn't stupid, just a result of the circumstances, as happens in Rob Roy.
How much of a problem this is depends on how the antagonist's blunder happens.
Does the protagonist detect the antagonist's propensity for stupidity, and then goad the antagonist into making a mistake? If so, then I think it's fine; your protagonist is still the problem solver.
But if the antagonist just blunders without any inducement from the protagonist, I'd be concerned. What's the point of following the exploits of the protagonist for an entire novel if they turn out to be irrelevant to the outcome?
So if your story looks more like the latter case, I'd find a way to make it into the former. It shouldn't require anything near a rewrite of the entire story. The protagonist could observe something late in the story that he (she?) could then exploit to induce the game-changing mistake.
They could have a harder fight and still give the win to the antagonist. Or use mind games: let's say the underdog comes up with a plan that gives the impression to the antagonist that he's winning and that everything is going as expected and underestimating his opponent. Then the underdog makes his play and wins. But a well structured mind game.