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I'm thinking about a YA dystopian novel and have planned it quite thoroughly. However, when I look back, the antagonists tend to always be a few steps ahead of my protagonist, and my protagonist is always just too late to stop the antagonist. This happens multiple times during my novel, and even at the end, my protagonist fails to achieve his main goal (but he does wound one of the antagonists fatally).

In the sequels I've planned (if my novel is a hit), the protagonists still keep on failing, only ever winning the final battle of the series (so they continually fail but win the most important battle).

My question: Is this bad? Should I make my protagonist triumph fully at the end of the book?

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    Really, the specifics to mention in your edits are not germane here. The general question you pose is a good one. But we don't do story critiques of idea generation here, so you are going to have to take the general principles we can explain to you and see how they apply to your individual story. – user16226 Mar 11 '18 at 18:42
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    @Adi219 Critiques don't really work on the StackExchange network. You might be interested in this question though: What are good places to post your work where it will be read by others? – Sec SE - clear Monica's name Mar 11 '18 at 18:50
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    Judging by Blake's 7 & Death Note, no, the protagonist need not succeed in the end, whether they're sympathetic or not. – J.G. Mar 11 '18 at 19:30
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    Ever read 1984? – Lindsey D Mar 11 '18 at 20:43
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    That's a good lesson for YAs to learn too. You can try really really hard and be a better person and have the best of intentions and try to save everyone and still get absolutely crushed. Welcome to adulthood. – corsiKa Mar 12 '18 at 16:24

11 Answers 11

17

No, your character does not have to succeed.

Along the same lines as Mark's answer, in which competence and proactivity are concerned, you can also add to your mix the idea of sympathy. Each of these three attributes can be seen on a scale of low to high. For any character in your work, you can adjust how competent they are, how proactive they are, and how sympathetic they are. Here's a website and activity to play with these attributes.

We like to read about characters that grow and change, usually in a positive direction, although becoming darker is interesting too. So, that growth and change may occur in the three areas: competence, proactivity, sympathy. It sounds like your heroes start low on competence but will grow in competence. It sounds like they start off high on the proactivity scale. I don't know if they are sympathetic or not.

Example: A character who is low in all three areas (competence, proactivity, sympathy) will be hard to read about for long, but if the character grows then perhaps the character will become more engaging to read about. A character high in all three areas (think Superman) may also be hard to spend time with ... is flat ... and has little room to grow.

Villains are often highly competent, highly proactive, and unlikeable. (But, arguably so is Sherlock Holmes.) Secondary characters are often likable enough, but not very proactive (they are the side kick). You can move the sliders on your characters to change how they feel.

Note that in the area of competence, a character can have differential competence. You can offset your protagonists' failings with them being wildly competent in some other area of their lives. Maybe they are a whiz in the stock market. Which really helps, because they keep blowing their money in their failed attempt to foil the villain

Personal experience: In a recent revision I made my MC more competent at a sport that has next to nothing to do with his story arc and ultimate dilemma. (He had been reading as too incompetent, and too young, and I needed to change him up a bit.) The athletic change immediately made him seem a little older and also made him more charismatic. It was a weird thing to see, the character I had built, given an athletic ability unrelated to the story (just shown in a few scenes), suddenly being far more likable.

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    I think there is still something to be said for simply making a character human. Defining them by points on a three part scale sounds more like a video game than a novel. What we want in any character, fundamentally, is to recognize them as human. There are far to many plastic heros and plastic villains. It is in the fallibility and complexity of flesh and blood that we really find characters with whom we can truly sympathize. – user16226 Mar 11 '18 at 21:01
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    I know you are looking at Sanderson's lessons; I think a fourth slider is missing; namely something I would call mission. Sherlock (BBC, Elementary) would be less likable if he wasn't solving murders and heinous crime; his mission in life matters. The same holds for Superman. Denis Leary's char in Rescue Me is a jerk, alcoholic, philanderer, cheat: But he is a true 911 fireman that risks his life to save lives. Same with some vigilantes. Sanderson's lesson is all true, but missing an element: A char can be a total asshole, but his mission in life can make him our asshole. – Amadeus-Reinstate-Monica Mar 11 '18 at 21:50
  • What I have found is that it's the entirety of all of these ideas that makes writing a satisfying novel such a challenge. There must be a plot, characters, they must be described, there is setting, it must satisfy the five senses, but no triggers, some topics are taboo; characters must have motivations, goals, plots must have twists and arcs and each portion should be of a length to accomplish its role, in my case I have message and this is part of it too, there should be a villain, there should be stakes and tension, drama, but no adverbs, no passive voice, dialog tags should be creative... – DPT Mar 11 '18 at 22:02
  • ... the characters should face a decision, often there is a target word count, and don't forget the market that you are writing to; avoid purple prose, don't use too many names, because readers won't know if they are supposed to remember the names, and do remember they are reading to be entertained, so if your story isn't entertaining it'll never sell, blocks of text are bad, don't manipulate the reader (or do, through the above) etc etc... There are many things to consider, and a person either enjoys the puzzle of it for its own sake or not, I suppose. – DPT Mar 11 '18 at 22:07
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    I learned a lot from this answer – Stilez Mar 12 '18 at 7:53
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Promises to the Reader

This is one of my favorite models for understanding what readers will or will not accept.

The idea is that every story promises its readers that certain things will happen. Some of these promises made by the genre. A murder mystery will reveal who the murderer was, and how they achieved the murder. A space opera will include epic space battles. Horrible things will happen to the characters in a horror novel. Some of the promises are made by the title. Of Mice and Men was not going to see the protagonists achieve their plans. Other promises are made in the story. When Luke leaves his training early in Empire Strikes Back, it promises an duel between him and Darth Vader.

Fulfilling these promises is vital if you want readers to enjoy your story. At the same time, how the promises are fulfilled is left up to the author. Indeed, fulfilling promises in unexpected ways is keeping your story interesting.

Leaving promises unfulfilled is dangerous. It is, however, possible to trick readers into thinking you promised one thing while instead promising something else. This is basically the purpose of a red herring.

Identifying what promises you've made to the reader, and how well you've fulfilled them is an excellent way to predict how the story will be received

What this means for you

Your story should not promise to end in the hero's victory. This promise is not intrinsic to storytelling - a Tragedy, for example, promises to end in the hero's failure. It is, however, incredibly common. Many readers will assume that you are promising a hero's victory (particularly in YA, where this promise is even more common than average) unless you very carefully signal that this is not a promise that you are making.

Signaling that you are not promising a hero's victory is not the same as promising the hero's failure. But signaling properly will help ensure that your readers are satisfied by the ending you provide them.

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    This is an excellent lens to examine this question. Not every story has a happy ending; the question is, what did you promise the reader when you started? And did you fulfill that promise? That is arguably more important than whether the protagonist succeeds in a task. – Lauren-Reinstate-Monica-Ipsum Mar 12 '18 at 9:59
  • Just wanted to point out, I'm promising a victory in the same way that Katniss wins the Hunger Games ... sure, she survives it and cheats the Games, but this will have astronomical consequences later on. – Adi219 Apr 29 '18 at 9:32
9

There are several risks you run with a character who mostly fails.

Your character may feel incompetent.

A protagonist usually needs to gain our sympathy and our respect. If the chain of failures is absolute, if they have no victories or notable accomplishments, that doesn't necessarily mean we don't love 'em. But, it does mean we don't love them for their heroism or their brilliance -- because they haven't managed to achieve any.

So, you probably want to spend serious effort making sure the protagonist is likable despite their failures -- or, find Moments of Awesomeness to give them, so we continue to see them as capable, worthwhile people, who are just up against something really really tough.

Your plotting may feel forced.

As an author, one of your jobs is to stack the deck against your protagonist; keep the conflict rolling; give them something epic to overcome.

But if you tip your hand too much, if you're too blatant about how the protagonist can't get a break, the reader can begin to find the story boring -- because all the tension has seeped out of it. If you know that the protagonist can't succeed at anything meaningful, then it's not a lot of fun to watch them try. If they always get there Just A Minute Too Late, then watching them race loses its edge. Sooner or later the reader is going to cotton on to the pattern, and then their reaction might just be a kind of,

Charlie Brown and the football: "Oh, no... not again!"

The kind of pattern you describe -- of the protagonist failing again and again and again, and only being "allowed" to win at the very end, is... kind of an uninteresting one.

The moment the reader feels it's the author holding the protagonist back, rather than the actual plot and circumstances, the story loses a lot of the reader's investment.

This isn't a necessary consequence. Some stories manage to manage stakes masterfully; always offering a light at the end of the tunnel, even if the readers' hopes are consistently dashed. In others, the constant failure is the point, and the reader feels that the failures are, themselves meaningful.

Another way to deal with this is to allow personal victories, partial victories, or temporary victories. Enough for the story not to be predictable and monotonous; enough to feel that things are dynamic and important things are happening in the middle of the story, too.

(George R.R. Martin, in A Song of Ice and Fire, might be said to be relevant here, on all these counts. But do bear in mind, after basing a whole series on dashed hopes, he seems to be having a lot of trouble bringing the series to an actual close...)

Your book may feel hopeless.

It's possible that your protagonist's constant loses just make the book feel... hopeless. If it makes sense within the world for the protagonist to lose again and again, you might wind up giving the sense that the entire struggle is pointless, lost before they even started. The reader might get the sense that the hero can't win, and have trouble getting excited about yet-another desperate shot.

This is a very particular problem (and, in some books, a feature rather than a bug). You probably won't do this by accident, but it's worth keeping an eye out for, and reminding yourself of what the reader is hoping for, invested in.

A great example of this, both in strength and in weakness, is A Series of Unfortunate Events. In this series, a sense of despair and futility are very much at the core of the books. Even so, the first books fall into a very repetitive cycle, where the children are thrust into a horrible situation, and only barely escape it, while the villain remains at large -- which makes for a discouraging read, simply because it grows to feel formulaic. But around Book 5, the series sets off in a new direction, with a larger plot and moving further and further from the simple initial formula. The series remains morbid, and the characters do fail continuously,but you want to read on and see how.


This is all heavily dependent on execution.

These are considerations, not well-quantified rules. Advice can give you things to think about, but you're not doing anything wrong, and certainly not anything irreversible. So, don't let this block you too much when you've only just planned out your book. Write, because it's only from a finished draft (and, later, reader feedback) that you'll be able to tell if the failure is "too much," or just awesome and exciting. Keep the risks in mind, be ready for the possibility of needing to add some Moments of Awesome in when you revise, and you'll be fine.

All the best!

  • Thanks! Just a few points... 1. My protagonist is a teenager in a cell of a resistance movement and the antagonists are essentially the dictatorial governments, so its gonna be tough (as you stated). My protagonist is shown as clearly being very clever and skilled, but its just that their opponents are tough. My protagonist isnt incompetent; its just that every time theyre lucky to get out alive (but mostly fail since they couldnt stop the bad guys) – Adi219 Mar 11 '18 at 21:27
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    @Adi219 If they escape confinement, that is a victory. It's like the Millennium Falcon getting out of Mos Eisley - we all cheered - even though in fact the ship had been bugged with a tracer and now the Empire could find them after hyperspace. The resistance still hasn't won even after eight installments or so, but they have victories along the say. Escaping prison is one such victory - and you can manage the run up, in the story, to frame that as the goal. – DPT Mar 11 '18 at 22:15
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    This reminds me of A Series of Unfortunate Events, where the whole concept is that the Baudelaires never (fully) succeed--they unmask the villain by the end of each book, but he always gets away. The series starts to drag after 4-5 books, IMO, because it does feel hopeless. Then the Baudelaires meet some new friends who are kidnapped by the villain--and now they have a goal to pursue (finding and rescuing their friends). There's also a secret-society plot that adds a mystery for them to investigate. And they still fail--but now the failures feel like they're going somewhere. – DLosc Mar 12 '18 at 3:59
  • @DLosc : That's a great example! :D I'll add it into the text. – Standback Mar 12 '18 at 7:22
  • @DLosc Love those books! 😁 – Adi219 Mar 12 '18 at 7:44
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No, your protagonist does not have to succeed. Your protagonist has to arrive at some difficult choice and make a choice that the reader finds emotionally or morally satisfying. That does not mean that they have to win the fight with the antagonist, either immediately or in the future. Sometimes the fight with the antagonist is simply the catalyst that forces the protagonist into making their climactic choice. The protagonist then dies, but dies having chosen well.

This sort of ending is not going to be satisfactory to everyone, of course. But then a story in which a protagonist goes on to an inevitable eventual victory without every facing any defining moral choice of their own is not going to be satisfactory to everyone either.

You have to ask yourself, what kind of story am I telling? What is the emotion and moral payoff in this story for the reader? There are approximately 8 billion holiday romance movies in which small town girl with career in the big city comes home for Christmas and meets soulful hometown hunk. Does she give up her high power career to marry rural and dreamy, or does she go back to the city and become president of General Motors at 35? There is an audience for both endings. The writer needs to choose which audience they will serve.

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    While this is a good answer, I sort of feel like it redefines "success." The protagonist doesn't have to succeed at a task, but if the moral and emotional choice is satisfying, then the protagonist has suceeded in making the right decision. The emotional arc is the real plot of the book, not the macguffin. That's a completely valid plot, and "dies having chosen well" is a completely valid ending, but I would not define that as "failure." – Lauren-Reinstate-Monica-Ipsum Mar 12 '18 at 9:57
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    @LaurenIpsum Not entirely. We can certainly distinguish practical success from moral success. One may fail practically but succeed morally. One may succeed practically but fail morally. But one may fail both morally and practically, as does Macbeth or Raskolnikov. You can build a successful novel around any of these patterns. – user16226 Mar 12 '18 at 15:16
  • Or Winston Smith in 1984. I take your point. – Lauren-Reinstate-Monica-Ipsum Mar 12 '18 at 15:20
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    Sometimes, the protagonist dies fighting the good fight, and people notice it. And they decide they're going to fight that fight too, or they're already fighting it and now they're going to fight that much harder. Talk to a Texan about the Alamo some time. They lost that battle, but the bravery of those who lost fueled the ultimate victory. – Monty Harder Mar 12 '18 at 21:42
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Your hero does not have to achieve their goal, but (IMO) for a YA novel, they must achieve something of note. Luke Skywalker did not kill Vader (in the first movie) but destroyed the Death Star and defeated Vader's plan, this was a major setback and victory for the rebels.

Killing one antagonist in a vast government conspiracy does not seem to me a satisfying ending.

I also do not think (again, just my opinion) you should plan on a trilogy with this strategy, unless you are going to write all three books before you try to get published.

Publisher's won't commit to a book with a poor ending, with nothing but a hope you will write the sequels in a few years, so your poor first attempt will finally sell something.

If you are a new author, every book must sell on its own as a complete story. The publisher hopes you can take advantage of your fanbase (and expand it) with each new sequel for a decade. That is built-in cheap marketing and cheap profits for them.

I buy books on a whim all the time, probably thirty a year, and I'll try a new author if the first page reads well. I'd buy a trilogy. But I would not buy the first book of a trilogy from a new author, unless all three books were published.

I think something significant and life-changing must be accomplished by the hero, or I don't like the book, and wouldn't buy a sequel. If they do not win the war, they must win the battle at hand and kick the villain(s) in the metaphorical face. You didn't stop the mob like you wanted to, but you sure made an epic kill of the kingpin in your town. You didn't reform corruption in government, but Nixon was forced to resign in shame.

And your hero survives and their battle continues. That is the epilogue to the first book, and allows the next book, which your publisher will be happy to pick up if the first one sells.

4

Ctl+f for tragedy and only found one hit! :O

So every story is a comedy or tragedy. Comedy has a "happy" ending and "tragedy" a sad ending. In almost, but not quite all cases, a tragedy involves the protagonist not getting what they want. This is the simplest example of failure. While happy endings dominate the industry, tragedies do break out and succeed now and again.

The second example would be where the protagonist isn't the main character. In that case you could have a comedy or tragedy, and the protagonist may fail. The protagonist is the one who wants something and acts to get it. In the Great Gatsby, the protagonist is not the main character, it is Gatsby.

And on it goes with many variations. It is simple to see that the answer is: yes, people lose all of the time, so can main characters. The question is, why is it still an engaging story and how do you make it satisfying.

I highly recommend you watch or read The prestige. It is an excellent story in which nearly everyone loses.

  • It's on my to-do list :) – Adi219 Apr 5 '18 at 16:53
3

The protagonist does not have to win in his main goal, but he has to win in something. Unless you are clearly writing a tragedy.

That the hero keeps failing is quite typical. What readers would expect is that shortly before he suddenly turns things around and wins the final confrontation, something happens that explains why. He understands why he keeps failing, he discovers the antagonists weakness, he gets some help, etc.

You absolutely can write the story so that he keeps failing and only in the end succeeds, but the story must lead to it. All the clues come together, the hero finally gets the lesson - if all his failures set him up for the final success, by making him stronger, smarter or by teaching him something important, it doesn't feel forced.

2

The first thing your question brings to mind is Stan Lee saying he wrote Spider-Man to be the first superhero “who’d lose out as often as he’d win—in fact, more often.” So the story structure of having terrible luck and losing until he wins at the end of each installment works, and can sell a lot of books. But he always wins in the end.

You don’t want your story structure to get too formulaic or predictable. You also don’t want your heroes to look so inept or helpless that the audience doesn’t buy that they could win and thinks you cheated at the end, or for the story to get too unremittingly, repetitively bleak. It’s a good idea to let them accomplish something and have some happy moments along the way.

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No, your protagonist does not have to succeed.

If you like thrillers, Frederick Forsyth's Day of the Jackal is an incredibly good read - it's the sort of page turner that you can't put down till it's finished.

Semi-Spoiler alert. Since it is known that Charles de Gaulle was never assassinated by the OAS you know ahead of time what the end result will be. With that in mind, the main protagonist, the titular Jackal, is a hired assassin who ultimately fails in his mission to assassinate de Gaulle. Despite this failure, the ending is satisfying, including a beautifully crafted little head scratch moment at the very end.

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    You have 50 reputation, you do have the privilege to comment under every post. Once you have 200 reputation on one site of the network you will get a bonus of 100 reputation giving you the first privileges like upvoting and commenting on new sites (the 100 association bonus rep don't count for answering protected questions, but that is another matter). As you said youself that this should be a comment (or two comments) I am flagging this as "not an answer". – Sec SE - clear Monica's name Mar 12 '18 at 7:38
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    Hi dgnuff. As already pointed out, you do have the reputation required to comment everywhere. That said, this looks to me like it's providing at least some sort of answer to the question, but the beginning of your post is a distraction from that. I removed it; do feel free to edit back in how your answer compares to those of others, but do make sure to keep the focus on the answer you're providing, as answers that do so tend to be better received. Enjoy your stay! – a CVn Mar 12 '18 at 10:49
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It really doesn't matter IMO. It depends on how you feel with your story. It sounds to me like you have it planned well. Do you know what it will be called?

  • @Adi219 NP! Cool! What is the main character's name? – user30154 Mar 12 '18 at 14:36
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I think this could be done so long as the Protaganist's quality of limited successes out weigh the quantity of numerous defeats. I know Star Wars was brought up a lot, but learning from your mistakes and acceptance of Failure were major themes of Avatar: The Last Airbender. Consider that the three "books", only the final one ended with a truly happy and upbeat ending (In book one, a major sacrafice was required to turn the tide of the battle. In book two, the heroes have to retreat so they can fight another war.). But this is constant in the entire book. Aang is plagued by his failure to stop the war from starting and running from his duties as Avatar. His impatient attitude often wounds him more than helps (In the first episode, he triggers a trap which alerts the fire nation to his location and the location of innocent people. In "Day of Black Sun" his choices lead to the failed invasion of the fire nation and the capture of most of the fighting forces.). With each failure, the enemy grows bolder and the stakes are raised until he finally cannot run and must face his foe.

But along the way, he is given victories that are important. Such as saving the Northern Water Tribe in the end of Book 1 or the Defense of Ba Sing Seh from the Fire Nation Drill. Even some of the darker and sadder moments work to small victories (like the retreats, which allow him to regroup and plan for another fight). These victories, while small, are decisive enough to keep him from falling completely to the antagonists and compelling to allow the reader to see that while there are a lot of things that go wrong, they go right enough in the right ways to make the game still winnable.

  • Thanks! This is essentially along the lines of what I was thinking. – Adi219 Mar 13 '18 at 16:19

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