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I have a five book series and I have plotted them all out. The main bad guy wins in the end. My problem with this is my girlfriend keeps telling me that bad guys winning will make readers upset that they invested in the heroes only for them to die or lose. So now I am second guessing the entire series.

Can a book series be successful even if the bad guy wins in the end?

marked as duplicate by Cyn, linksassin, wetcircuit, April, Arcanist Lupus Jun 28 at 5:45

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    I think this question is Primarily Opinion-Based as written. Perhaps you could ask what the likely reaction would be for a reader to find that the "bad guy" wins, or whether there are any best practices in presenting this to the reader without making the story too depressing. – Robert Columbia Jun 26 at 21:16
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    So your genre is which: Horror or Tragedy? – wetcircuit Jun 26 at 21:20
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    Even in many classic tragedies, it's not so much that the "bad guy" wins but that the "good guys" lose. In some cases (cough)>Shakespeare(/cough), this ends in a literal pile of bodies. – Robert Columbia Jun 26 at 21:25
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    So you have an evil protagonist. – wetcircuit Jun 26 at 21:34
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    I think that it's more the quality of the ending that will affect how the reader feels about the story than whether it was a happy or sad ending. Most readers will get far more angry at a sort of Deus-Ex-Machina / Ass-Pull or a cliché or rushed ending than one which their hero dies or fails to stop the baddie, especially if it's telegraphed a bit (e.g. the hero fails because of a flaw which is the point of his character, or the villain wins by being extra clever). Leaving the reader with an emotion - whether positive or negative (as long as it's not frustration or irritation) is a good thing. – colmde Jun 27 at 14:19

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It is perfectly fine for your story to end with the "bad guy" winning. Consider for example George Orwell's 1984:

He loved Big Brother

Complete and utter defeat. 1984 is one of last century's masterpieces.

@Wetcircuit mentions tragedy in a comment, for good reason. Tragedy does not necessarily imply that the "bad guys" win, but it does imply the "good guys" lose, or at best earn a Pyrrhic victory. Consider Antigone or Hamlet, or For Whom the Bell Tolls. In fact, tragedy is often considered a "higher", more "literary" form.

Yes, your readers are going to be upset when your characters die or lose. At least, hopefully they will have come to care about your characters, so their death would sadden them. But that is not a bad thing. One feels sorrow when one finishes For Whom the Bell Tolls, but does one go "what a bad, disappointing book?" Never! On the contrary - one is profoundly touched by that sorrow, one appreciates more the fleeting beauty of life through it. @Amadeus apparently looks for entertainment in the books he reads. Me - I look for art. I look for that which would touch me, and take me out of my comfort zone, and make me think. Formulaic "good guys defeat bad guys, then live happily ever after" bores me out of my mind.

Now, there is a question of what you're trying to say with your story. Why does your "bad guy" win? What does it all imply? If all your story suggests is futility, for example, then your readers might well be disappointed. But if your story does have something else in it, like any of the examples I've mentioned above, or countless others, then go ahead.

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    See also: A Song of Ice and Fire / Game of Thrones. One of the biggest complaints that people made about the last season of the TV show was that suddenly it went from "emotionally nuanced Tragedy" to "insipid, happy, Heroes-win-everything" – Chronocidal Jun 27 at 10:30
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    +1 for mentioning 1984. If the story is meant as a warning, giving it a happy ending is going to ruin the message. Give 1984 a happy ending and it goes from "Don't let this happen" to "You let your country turn into a brutal dictatorship? That's okay, it can be fixed." – Evil Sparrow Jun 27 at 10:54
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    Was 1984 a series though? I think considering the reader's investment of several books leading to a twisted tragedy may be part of the question. – lucasgcb Jun 27 at 14:48
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    @Chronocidal I guess the Game of Thrones guys pissed of both fractions of the fans - the ending was neither really satisfyingly dark nor the happy ending they arguably teased people with and quite a few probably hoped for. – Frank Hopkins Jun 27 at 19:32
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Your girlfriend is correct that the bad guy winning at the end limits your audience, and will anger some readers. But it's important that you write your own book, not the book you think you should write. If you really connect with the material, and you execute it well, there are readers out there who will be as passionate about it as you are. A book aimed at please everyone will reach no one. Plenty of classics (and plenty surprise bestsellers as well) break rules that no one else would think of breaking, and it works because it resonates for that particular writer.

With that said, there are things that can make your book easier to swallow. (Strong medicine always goes down easier with a little bit of sugar --a bleak slog that ends in defeat isn't something most people will be up for.) First, foreshadow the ending, and foreshadow it early, so it doesn't come as a complete shock. Second, give your heroes some significant victories along the way --maybe ones that are moral, or emotional, or internal --so there's a sense that they've won, or at least gained something, even though they've lost. In other words, give them some story arc that reaches a satisfying conclusion --maybe the reluctant love interests finally admit their love for one another, just before the end, or something along those lines. Finally, make sure the books have at least a few funnier and happier moments along the way --some glints of light in the darkness.

Personally I'm a big fan of ambiguous endings, so I would end the book right before the bad guy wins, so that people can imagine a happier ending if they want one. But many people hate ambiguous endings even more than sad ones, so take that piece of advice with a grain of salt. (It might even be possible to have it both ways at once: The biopic Korczak juxtaposes a fantasy ending of the title character and his children escaping the Nazis with a heartbreaking voiceover detailing their actual deaths in the gas chambers. It's especially moving because your heart longs for the happy ending, even as your brain accepts that the true ending is the sad one.)

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    +1 for foreshadowing that the ending may not be a happy one by having other parallels earlier in the story. A Song of Fire and Ice has been brought up in other comments, and given the events during that series nobody reading it should be surprised if it has a dark or tragic ending. If your series is otherwise happy until the end, then the sudden change in tone will put off many readers. – Logan Pickup Jun 28 at 1:00
  • In a similar vein, you can also make it so the hero's death still has meaning -- the hero may know that the situation is unwinnable, but sacrifice themselves to save others, or to somehow make things 'less bad'. – Joe Jun 28 at 1:38
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No, I don't think it would be okay for a bad guy to win in the end.

Readers don't like it. They read for fantasy fulfillment. Happy endings outsell unhappy endings ten to one; publishers and studios don't like unhappy endings. They want something positive in the end.

Especially from a writer that has no following; if you were already a best-selling author or script-writer they might trust you and publish it anyway, but not if you are starting out.

In a series you can have a mixed ending; basically a draw. The hero doesn't win, but doesn't lose. But even that might not be satisfying.

If you are unpublished, you probably should not be writing a series, unless you intend to write all of it before trying to sell it. Publishers do not want to publish book one with an ambiguous ending if there is no guarantee you will actually finish the rest of the series. And if you are a beginner, they don't want to buy three or five books at once. And if your series has an unhappy ending, they don't want to buy any of it.

I suggest you write a book, even a somewhat long book, that stands on its own, with a reasonably happy ending in which the hero prevails, perhaps at a cost but prevails. The villain is defeated, perhaps escaping with their life and bound to return, but defeated.

The problem here is psychological. Reading fiction is escapism. What are readers trying to escape? The real world, where the bad guys win pretty much all the time! In real life, crime pays. People get away with rape and murder and abuse of others. Drug kingpins, dictators, corrupt politicians destroy innocent lives and live high on the hog without a single regret.

The real world is what we are trying to get away from. We want you to make your story and setting believable, and the dangers feel real, but in the end we don't want the realism of the hero chickening out, or the bad guys prevailing and continuing to create pain, misery and hopelessness. In the end, we want the wish fulfillment fantasy that the good will prevail and the nightmare will end.

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You can do it. But the expectation has to be set that this is possible, and it should be written like a tragedy. The market for such a book may be small, but it isn't nonexistent.

Check out the grimdark genre (third law series is an example). People do buy into it and even like it. But it's unlikely to sell as wide as something that has a feel good ending.

Or, go see the musical Hamilton.

As a writer you'll have to be excellent to even have a chance. And putting "the tragedy of" in your title might not be a bad idea.

  • Why Hamilton? I did not have the impression that: a) there was a bad guy, b) that the bad guy wins. – NofP Jun 26 at 23:07
  • Burr, the vice president of the United States, shot his political rival and was never charged or convicted. Yes his political career was over, and maybe you have a more black and white definition of bad guy, but the point is that's a modern and very popular tragedy where the bad guy sort of wins. – Kirk Jun 26 at 23:37
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    Definitively I have a more black and white definition of bad character. Also, it is not that Burr went sniper-mode. They fought in a duel, and they did so in a place and in a manner conducive to the expectation of avoiding prosecution. Chance is perhaps more to blame than Burr himself. – NofP Jun 26 at 23:50
  • So grimdark is niche again? – Ruther Rendommeleigh Jun 27 at 10:50
  • @RutherRendommeleigh Grimdark is a subgenre of a subgunre. I suspect it will always been a niche genre with some break out works people love. – Kirk Jun 27 at 13:08
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I think Amadeus hit on the core of the issue with doing this - "good" ultimately triumphing over "evil" is by far the more popular archetype, and for very good reasons.

Setting aside the idea of "good guys" and "bad guys" for a moment but thinking about it in terms of "protagonist" and "antagonist", the reader is (typically) intended to sympathize with the protagonist and is invested in them and psychologically shares in their triumphs and failures. When the protagonist wins so does the reader. It's the same mechanism as supporting sports teams, when "your" team wins you feel like a winner too.

That's not to say you can't have failures and losses along the way, if anything they are almost an essential - but ultimately we all want those we support to win.

That's not to say you can't have the antagonists win, but it all comes down to why you want that ending. You need a very strong reason for doing it and the outcome needs to be something that is crucial to the story you are trying to tell rather than a twist for twist's sake. You haven't said why you want the series to end that way but if it's nothing more than "because the good guys usually win" I would say that's unlikely to be enough.

1984 is, as others have mentioned, one of the more famous examples of the "Bad guy winning" formula. As with the other Orwell novel everyone knows (Animal Farm) this is the novel as a political and social commentary. Here it's crucial to Orwell's intent in writing the novel that the protagonist lose because he wants the reader to believe that were the dystopian world of 1984 to become a reality that they would lose too. 1984 doesn't aim to entertain, it aims to teach - the fact that it's wrapped up in a well written novel is just the delivery mechanism for Orwell's political message.

This is an area you need to be very careful operating in, especially in a series. The longer the reader spends with a group of characters the more invested in their "cause" they will become and the more personally they are going to take it's ultimate outcome and the more substantial reason you need to end it with them losing.

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    +1 it should be obvious that 1984 is not a hero's journey saga in 5 books, or a tournament plot where superheroes punch a melodrama "bad guy" in the face to get time crystals. Big Brother isn't even an actual character in the novel, it's just an image because Orwell avoided making it about a "villain". Weird comparisons to out-of-genre literature can't justify every narrative decision. – wetcircuit Jun 27 at 14:00
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Yes, provided that it were not inevitable from the outset

Suspense and uncertainty are vital ingredients to many a great novel. When it comes to making a good narrative, the outcome itself is less important than how we get there. Readers are often excited by outcomes which could have gone another way but for a few unlucky occurrences (for a classic case study, see Romeo and Juliet -- Friar Laurence's crucial message to Romeo fails to reach him owing to quarantine occasioned by plague, causing Romeo to think his wife had died... one almost wants to shout at Romeo "do not take the poison -- she is not actually dead!"... and then Juliet wakes just after Romeo had taken the poison... if only she had woken a bit earlier), or by an "underdog" triumphing against the odds (or coming close enough that he/she almost triumphed). However, the "underdog" need not be a "good guy". Many great authors, in fact, have managed to cast the main protagonist as an apparent "good guy" despite having done horrific things (a brilliant example is Tolstoy's novella Hadji Murad, whose eponymous character is undoubtedly a brutal and ruthless killer, but with whom we are made to sympathise, and whose death we are made to mourn).

We can maintain tension by one or more of:

  • keeping the outcome unknown until the end (usually associated with a strictly chronological narrative); or
  • making the outcome known, but inciting curiosity as to how it happened (usually associated with an epic narrative or with journalism); or
  • disorienting the reader by bringing into question the reliability of the narrator(s) (usually associated with first-person narratives).
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My two cents:

Some of the examples others have cited, like 1984, or other similar novels like Animal Farm or Brave New World have endings where the main characters lose, but I think that's because these books aren't about the characters, they are about painting a picture of some ugly aspect of society. There's a sort of catharsis that comes from identifying with stories like this.

I guess I would ask, why do you want the 'bad guy' to win? Is it for logistical reasons, like it makes sense because of some plot mechanic you want to use? Or is it because you really like his character? Is he an anti-hero, an "evil protagonist", or a legitimately evil, everyone-hates-him, deserves-to-lose villain? Or do you want to make a statement about how the good guys don't always get to win or about how no one is purely evil?

I guess I would say that whatever reason you have, make sure that the reader is able to pick that up and relate to it. If you like his character, make sure the reader will like him, if you want to make a statement about life, make sure that it is deep and fleshed out enough to make sense and not just come out of the blue.

  • Welcome to writing.se! Take the tour if you haven't already (you'll get the usual badge). This is a great first answer. Thanks for contributing and happy writing! – linksassin Jun 28 at 1:51
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When I was much younger, my actual "definition" of a "novel" was a book that ended unhappily. Old Yeller, The Red Pony, Where The Red Fern Grows...decades ago that was what was in the libraries, so I read them. All the examples that people are giving of "successes" are from books written many decades ago. They probably wouldn't have much of a market now, if they were newly written.

If the bad guys win, where's the payoff for the readers? Normally, the payoff comes when a character who you, the reader, have invested in, triumphs over the antagonist. You are able to experience this victory vicariously. That's why writers deliberately create situations which readers can identify with, giving protagonists problems and characteristics that they think their readers might also have.

There are other possible payoffs, of course. Readers might not care about the characters as much as they care about the amazing worldbuilding, or the mystery, or the brilliant technology. But even those things aren't going to be enough if your reader is left feeling unsatisfied or blindsided.

If you are going to take the readers for a ride, you don't deliberately crash the car at the end of it.

Are there people who get a kick out of being in a vicarious car crash? Sure. But the target market is small, and editors aren't likely to waste publishing resources on a book with a very narrow appeal. They can only publish a limited number of books per year, and they want the greatest number of sales possible.

One exception may be the niche market of role playing novels (ie, novels whose settings are from computer and role playing games. Many of these tend to be "dark", and their readers have a much greater tolerance for Bad Stuff. I once was asked to edit a book which a friend of mine had been commissioned to write for the role playing game which he had authored. I made a lot of edits, including some plot changes. He later told me that he thought the book was a lot better after my changes, but that the editor had rejected many of them because they weren't "dark" enough. The game was set in a world of perpetual tragedy and loss and the idea that you can never really win because the opposition was just too powerful.

You might think about doing some research into that niche market, figuring out which of them your novels might be adapted into, then write a couple of chapters and pitch to them.

If you are content to self-publish or are just writing for your own pleasure, then go for it. You will probably be able to find many people who will enjoy reading what you have written and it would be a good exercise. My one guilty pleasure as a writer is fanfic. I love writing fanfic, mostly because my favorite part of a story is the conflict, and the fanfic community is all about conflict. There's a huge target audience, and for the most part the fanfic audience is quite appreciative of writers' efforts. It's a great playground to indulge in. But there's no money in it.

If you are serious about getting published by a legitimate organization, it might be better to give yourself every advantage and not try to swim against the current this early in your career. If you had already written your novel, my advice would be to go ahead and give it a shot, see if you can get any editors interested. If your story is well written enough they might take a chance.

But because it sounds like you haven't got much past the idea stage, my recommendation would be to put it on your "to be reconsidered later" and write something that has more general appeal. Writing a novel requires a serious investment of your time. Writing five of them, even more serious. And apart from the writing, there's the time you spend pitching and schmoozing and getting yourself familiar with and known by the movers and shakers in the publishing industry.

Saying "write what you love" is good advice, in the same way that you are told "follow your passion" by career guidance professors in college. If you can tolerate the poverty, sure, go ahead and get a degree in Medieval Literature. But you need to decide if you are writing "for love or for money". It's not black and white, obviously, people don't often write what they hate just because it sells, and people who write what they love even though it's unpopular sometimes can "break through" but when you are a brand new writer, you will want to give yourself every advantage.

It isn't clear from your explanation which of your character(s) are/is POV characters. A protagonist is the main character. The story is about him or her. Since your villain appears only at the beginning and the end, he is obviously not the protagonist. Normally, the POV character(s) and the protagonist are the same, but they don't have to be (the Sherlock Holmes stories are a well known example of this).

I can think of two way in which you might create a story where your bad guy wins and your readers are still satisfied by the ending.

The first is if you make your villain the main character but never enter his POV. Set readers up to admire the villain, even while the POVs hate him. When the villain wins, he does so with style, by cleverness. When the heroes win, they do it in such a way that the readers are left feeling that they didn't deserve the win. Maybe they behaved dishonorably. Or maybe they just have so much power that they overwhelmed the opposition. Sabotage them even as you hand them their victories and at the end, readers will feel that the villain deserved his win.

Another thing you might consider; make one or more of the villains into protagonists. If you don't want readers to be in your main bad guy's head, tell the story from the point of view of one of his henchmen or allies. You might want multiple points of view, from both camps. That way the readers can "root" for both, knowing that one is going to lose. You haven't said why you want the villain to win. Is it because you like him better than you like the heroes? If so, you may be choosing the wrong protagonists. Rethink your story from the villains' point of view and settle your readers in the "bad camp" and although the ending doesn't change, your readers' perception of it will.

Addition after reading comments:

The idea of having the bad guy slowly take over one of the POVs is an intriguing one, and worth pursuing. My recommendation would be that you start readers off with a very strong sense of who the antagonist is and how the POV character is very different. Maybe that difference is enough to throw the bad guy out of the good guy's head. ("No! I will not do THAT!"). Over time, remind us of who the bad guy is through what he does, and who the POV is by how he reacts to what the bad guy does. Show us the changes that are effected in the good guy because of his exposure to the bad guy. Show us how the differences between them are getting less and less.

Maybe they are both changing. Maybe at the end they can both "win". You might get rid of the characteristics in each that readers will find offensive. Maybe the good guy is kind of a wimp. Or he's arrogant. Or impulsive to a fault. Or devoted to a cause that doesn't deserve his devotion. Maybe the bad guy learns to care about something other than himself.

Or, in the end, maybe the better man wins because he's better, not because of chance or because he's stronger.

All the end of the series, there should be a feeling of inevitability that creeps up. Readers should feel that the ending was the only right choice, given the factors. They should be able to feel that they "saw it coming". Readers like to be surprised, but they do not like to be deceived. If they are expecting the hero to throw off the villain's influence once and for all, they will not be happy to learn otherwise.

When I am reading a story, I pay a lot of attention to how I feel about the characters. I expect to like the characters who are going to "win". If I don't like a person, I expect him to be defeated. All you have to do is lead your readers to like/admire the villain more than they do the "good guy" and the villain's eventual triumph will be well received.

Another way to accomplish the goal is to redefine the win. If the Dr. Strange movie had left him trapped with his nemesis for all eternity, how satisfying would that have been? (Unless they had established beforehand that there was no other way, that if Stephen escaped so would the bad guy). If your hero poisons himself just before giving in and allowing the bad guy to take him over, he wins.

  • The antagonist is sealed inside one of the protagonists. They live in a world of magic so it isn't way out there. throughout the series the protagonist that the bad guy is in slowly becomes darker and darker until the fifth book when he finally takes over his body completely. – icefire Jun 27 at 15:56
  • So the antagonist is actually one of the POV characters? – Francine DeGrood Taylor Jun 27 at 15:57
  • His POV is only used once in the first book. he can see, hear, smell, just about everything the protagonist can. In a way he is one of the POV characters, but he just tries to over the body by becoming more intertwined with the protagonists by sharing memories with him while he sleeps. That way you can see the antagonist backstory organically. – icefire Jun 27 at 16:02
  • @icefire, I added a few more paragraphs in response to your comments. – Francine DeGrood Taylor Jun 27 at 16:37
  • I would point out that in all three of those books (Old Yeller, The Red Pony, Where the Red Fern Grows), the MC does not die, and there is no "bad guy" that wins. In fact, in all three, losses of a loved one (albeit pets) are life lessons of some sort for the MC, teaching responsibility and / or (I'd argue) the meaning of love and sacrifice for love. The OP's question is whether the MC can be killed and the villain prevail, as the permanent end of the story (series). – Amadeus Jun 27 at 19:39
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Consider giving a pyrrhic victory to the good guys in the end as an alternative.

A Pyrrhic victory is a victory that inflicts such a devastating toll on the victor that it is tantamount to defeat. Someone who wins a Pyrrhic victory has also taken a heavy toll that negates any true sense of achievement. (source)

It still resembles a tragedy, it still makes the reader think whether having such an absolute black and white perception of the good guys vs the villains is worth it. I would happily accept a bad-guy-wins ending, if it was meant to make me think how the mistakes of the good guys led to that outcome, and see if I can try to avoid those in my daily life in a way that would prevent such outcome.

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Yes.

A sterling example is the "Parker" series of books by Donald Westlake, written under the pen name Ricard Stark. Parker is a "bad guy" but the protagonist of the series, and always wins in the end, usually against the odds. These books challenge the notion of what a "bad guy" is, which is what you must do in your books if your bad guy is going to win.

A ruthless career criminal, Parker has almost no traditional redeeming qualities, aside from efficiency and professionalism. Parker is callous, meticulous, and perfectly willing to commit murder if he deems it necessary. (wikipedia)

See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Parker_(Stark_novels_character) or even better, read a couple of these books.

  • Except, that is not the OP's scenario. The OP has a good guy hero that we follow throughout, and a villain (whose POV is only shown once, and early), and after five books of following the HERO the hero dies and the villain wins and that is how the story ends. If we are following Parker, then Parker is the MC and we follow him and root for him out of interest, but he is not killing the hero we have been following all along. Any innocents he kills are just cannon fodder for the book at hand. This is not what the OP is asking is okay or not. – Amadeus Jun 27 at 22:01
  • Your example might better be described as an 'anti-hero'. Recent popular culture examples would include the TV shows 'Sons of Anarchy' and 'Breaking Bad'. Most stories that follow the mob (Sopranos, Godfather) follow this style, although you also get the stories where the anti-hero slowly evolves into more of a hero (Road to Perdition, Leon/The Professional, and maybe Happy). – Joe Jun 27 at 22:26
  • Good points... maybe I wasn't really getting what the OP wanted. – Wastrel Jun 28 at 14:12

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