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I have a protagonist who has to deal with the guilt of failure. He works a lot, usually away from home, and has little time to be with his wife/girlfriend. He always creates for himself the duty of protecting the ones he loves. But one day, she is killed while he was away from her. He wasn't there when she needed him. He failed his duty.

If he was a teenager or an average Joe, maybe this would be a little more comprehensible. However, the problem is that he is not. Instead, he is a late 20s, tall, muscular, handsome, charming, cool, successful, powerful, smart and skillful medieval [fantasy] warrior.

That's a lot of qualities, I know (that's another problem I still need to fix in him; and yes, he has flaws and some life problems), originally the intention was that he was the aspirational type of protagonist, the type of protagonist the reader would like to be, but I think I went the wrong way and he became closer to a Marty Stu than an aspirational character, and then now he's just a character with his personal story. But anyway, the real problem here is that his qualities put an astronomical weight on his failures, because he has so many qualities, that failure is not expected, and if it does happen, it's just disappointing, shameful and off-putting.

This failure is discussed/lampshaded in the story (although it's not the main theme), the protagonist knows how bad it is and feels guilty about it, and his enemies/haters mock him about it. But I think it's not enough to convince the reader to accept this failure and to take this fact seriously.

What can I do to prevent this negative effect?

  • I am not sure I understand the situation. He was away and suddenly he should be ashamed, because if you're tall and handsome he should have seen this coming? That conclusion looks very wrong. I also don't see how "You were not at home - and you are so charming!" would be any more important than "You were not home". There is no additional astronomical weight. That he is grieving about the failure that others seem to perceive instead of grieving about his loss is extremely off-putting. Didn't he care about her? In that situation he should distance himself from those "haters", think about emotion – Sec SE - clear Monica's name Nov 28 '17 at 10:30
  • The problem is that his failures seem bigger because of his great power? I'm not sure if that's really a thing you should worry about. Ask a beta reader to read and AFTER they have read, ask them if they share your opinion. – FFN Nov 28 '17 at 12:19
  • He never created the duty to protect his loved ones at all, imo. 'Cause as you said, he's never home. Financially, he can provide for her, but physically he can't since he doesn't stay next to them all the time. Tell the truth, I think this character is selfish and his job really comes first. If he went on missions to fight for his country, then that's another matter. He shouldn't feel guilty like that because he did go to fight to protect his wife and his country. It was his duty and priority to go fight. He needs to turn the despair into revenge and accept he can't be in two places at once. – A.T. Catmus Nov 28 '17 at 13:02
  • I'm having a very difficult time understanding what exactly you're asking for. Exactly what is "this negative effect"? – r12 Nov 30 '17 at 0:23
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    @r12 The reader finding his failure shameful enough to be off-putting. – Yuuza Nov 30 '17 at 0:26
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I think you're framing the problem wrongly. It's not a too-perfect character has failed --that's usually a recipe for more believability, not less --it's that the failure itself isn't real. In other words, it doesn't sound like the wife (or girlfriend?) was ever a fleshed out, three-dimensional character he had a real relationship with. She's just a transparent excuse for the character to feel guilty.

Even if it's all backstory that never makes it onto the page, you need to spend time making this relationship real to you. How did they meet? What did he love about her? What's his biggest regret in the relationship? What's the last thing he said to her? If it doesn't live for you, it will never live for the reader.

The way you've currently framed it, it sounds like she was just a possession to him, something he thought was pretty, and feels bad about losing, but not something he really cared that much about. It's certainly possible to write an interesting story that way, but only at the price at making your protagonist super-unlikable.

  • "The problem...is that the failure itself isn't real." There's plenty of stories where characters feel guilt for somebody else's death, and the fact that their guilt may not be "real" doesn't lessen the impact of the feeling. E.g., in Batman Begins, young Bruce wants to leave, and so the family leaves in an ally and his parents get shot. Throughout the film, Bruce wrestles with the guilt of causing his parent's death, even though that guilt may not be "real", and so it creates more meaning when he becomes Batman, because it's more than just a rich guy who dresses up and beats up thugs. – r12 Nov 30 '17 at 0:27
  • I don't disagree with your analysis of a perhaps flat character, but I don't think the flatness of the character is necessarily the problem (without reading the actual text). – r12 Nov 30 '17 at 0:29
  • @r12 Feel free to offer your own answer. – Chris Sunami Nov 30 '17 at 1:18
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I don't think that guilt is the emotion that you would be working towards in this situation. It is more like a catastrophic shift in world view with a a resulting shift in self-assessment/self-identity.

Before the fall, your protagonist probably feels pretty proud of himself. He is good at his job and admired by his fellow warriors. He is providing for his family and defending his homeland. He is nothing but successful in the eyes of the value system under which he was raised. Defend your nation and provide for your family are his goals he was taught, and he has met both of those goals admirably.

Then his life lesson arrives in the form of his wife's death.

He realizes that his old goals were shallow and poorly chosen. In this danger-filled medieval world, his highest priority should have been her safety. Due to the frailty of any human life, his next priority should have been letting her know how much he loves her. He failed to say it earlier and can't say it now because she is gone forever. Far down the list in importance, is the issue of providing materially for her, and those other things, like the defense of his nation and the admiration of other soldiers, they don't matter at all.

Through this realization, your character transforms from a Marty-Stu into a fallen hero in his own eyes. Guilt is too kind a word for how this feels. Despair (self hatred) washes over him, sweeping away all that was bright and shiny. Anguish should pour from these pages and if they don't make your beta reader cry, then you haven't written them right. Go back and write them again.

You've ask for how to prevent this negative effect. I have to ask you why you would even consider preventing it. For through such darkness, your character can transform again, into a much more interesting kind of hero. After wallowing in misery and then charging back to battle in search of an early death, your warrior's blinding grief will eventually fade; revealing a character who is finally worth writing about.

His entire being will be different. His features may still be handsome or they may be marred by the scars of battle, from the enemy blows which he almost deliberately let past his defenses. He may still be smart, but he will no longer have faith in the infallibility of intelligence. Knowledge does not always provide answers. Success, by his old definitions, will be long lost and unmourned;

The bravery, which he used to flaunt was mostly foolishness hidden beneath a delusion of his own invulnerability. His new bravery is born from the knowledge that somethings are worth dying for; and the understanding that one's own death is by far, not the worst thing that can happen to the living.

This is a character who would disobey his king for virtues sake. One who would defend an enemy's family from his own comrades or defend both enemy and friend alike, against a greater evil. This is a character who can do great things and about whom great stories can be told.

It may take you half a book, just to transform your too-good-to-be-true character into something more real and more interesting... but once you have done that, the second half of that book has the potential to be something new and wonderful.

Keep Writing!

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Fail, fail again. Make the failure not an event of the past, but his defining flaw.

A single failure like that in the past would be a wound that scabs and scars over, a vanishing burden. By the time we're in your story, it should be a past he's nearly put behind him, rebuilding his life around new goals. There's grief, but there's hope too.

Make him fail again. Destroy what he's rebuilt. Make him fear building again. Make him afraid of recovery. And then make him fail yet again, through inaction, indecisiveness, through being crippled by grief and fear and unwilling to do his best. He can't win the game, and he can't quit the game.

With a setup like this, you're in for an awesome story: He's forced to seek a third way. Break the game, cheat the fate, exploit loopholes. Set himself up to fail yet again, join the enemy and destroy that enemy from the inside through the ripples of own inevitable failure.

"Dramatic backstory" is a very cliche trope for a Gary Stu. "Oh, I'm so angsty because many years ago my wife died and you're supposed to feel for me, even though it has absolutely no impact on my current life." It's not dramatic. It's annoying and cheap. The backstory like this may be a backdrop, a preparation, a setup for the other shoe to drop. Centering the story around them turns it into a cheap, crappy sequel to something semi-decent that has never been written.

  • +1 Grief (assuming he feels grief at the loss of the girl) is like strip mining. – DPT Nov 28 '17 at 15:52
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Guilt comes out in odd ways. I think his behavior should change as a result of his guilt.

  1. He may have physical symptoms of guilt, like fatigue, headache, or other.

  2. He should engage in some obvious (normal-seeming) compensation, I think, as a result of his guilt. Perhaps, after her death, he tries to help others that he really has no business helping, because of his guilt.

  3. Guilt and grief come out in weird ways - He may lash out, or build a shrine to her in his home, or start some bizarre ritual that is incomprehensible to anyone who does not know his loss.

I recommend looking at the psychology of survival guilt. And grief. Add some of these to the story following her death. The suggestion of planting stuff in the story up front, as suggested in other answers, is very good, too.

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You may want to add small flashbacks to help the reader understand and be more emersed. For instance, you could make fond memories for the character with the girlfriend/wife. Or you could just go back a little to before the driving event and give the characters a bigger appeal.

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