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I'm writing a story where the villain is a powerful crime-boss. The hero is a young woman who is forcibly recruited into his mafia and is looking for an escape. In the end, I want to have the villain be taken in by the police, but I don't want the hero to be the reason for that.

Is it considered bad writing if my hero isn't the one who brings about the villain's downfall?

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    Indiana Jones never defeated anyone. – DKNguyen Feb 21 at 22:43
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    @DKNguyen Tell that to this guy – online Thomas Feb 22 at 7:42
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    In The Fitfh Element neither Korben Dallas nor Leeloo even meet Zorg. – Mołot Feb 22 at 9:52
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    Considered bad writing? Quite the contrary! That sounds more interesting than the typical storyline. – RockPaperLz- Mask it or Casket Feb 22 at 13:55
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    @Molot In Lord of the Rings, Sauron never even appears in person (except in one movie-only flashback). Also serves as an example of the hero not defeating the villain as he changed his mind at the last minute and it was only Gollum's greed and accidental self-sacrifice that saved the day. – Darrel Hoffman Feb 22 at 21:08

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Not at all.

It's not the usual, but the fact is that the hero being the one to fight and defeat/kill the villain is not strictly necessary.

Look at The Hunger Games. I think everyone was completely sure Katniss would eventually be the one to kill President Snow. Alas, that wasn't the case. And it was surprising because the novels prepared us for that, it literally put Katniss with a bow and lots of arrows in front of a defenceless Snow. But because of previous events, Katniss' choice was different to the expected one. And she wasn't the one to kill him at the end.

Some people could take it as anticlimatic... But that was the point. The story was made to be like that, as a last show that people are not just black and white.

Other example could be The Fifth Element, a brilliant movie... In which the heroes and the villain barely interact. Again, it's not the heroes who kill the villain, Zorg, but one of the henchmen that he betrayed.

So, these two examples detail your options:

  • In the first case, the whole plot is set to prepare the reader for a final encounter that won't happen, or at least not as they imagine. So you are basically playing with their expectations. However, this can result in disaster if you aren't careful enough, because they could consider it just anticlimatic instead of ingenious.

  • In the second, the heroes and villains work towards the same goal, but on totally opposite sides, to the point they barely cross each other. So there's no build-up for a final duel, and the villain getting killed by someone else is expected. Actually, in this kind of case, if you decided to force a "hero killing the main villain" situation when they are barely connected, it would only result in a lame scene.

Both can work nicely if you know how to execute them. It really is your choice.

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    Zorg was just an antagonist. She, the hero, defeats the 'villain' in the end and saves all life in the universe. - Katniss doesn't kill Snow but she is the reason for his regime's downfall. - "I don't want the hero to be the reason for that." - in both those movies the hero is the reason for that. – Mazura Feb 21 at 16:34
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    @Mazura: Those are excellent points, but make this answer more applicable to the question, not less — your analysis of the Hunger Games shows how at the same time that (in one sense) it’s not the protagonist who defeats the villain, in another (subtler) sense, it is. – PLL Feb 21 at 21:24
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This can work, but it depends on your story

The quality that makes a protagonist the protagonist is that their decisions are the primary drivers of the plot. There is a fair bit of nuance to that statement (for further reading I recommend the Writing Excuses episode Hero, Protagonist, Main Character ), but the short version is that generally speaking, if your main character's actions aren't a primary driver of how the main conflict is resolved, then they aren't your protagonist.

That said, the resolution of the main conflict and the defeat of the villain are not necessarily the same thing. It's a very common trope for heroes to defeat the villain, and then for the villain to cause their own demise. (Disney in particular loves this trope because it's a good way to kill the villain without staining the hero's hands). Furthermore, it's very common to have a powerful force sweep in after the main conflict has been resolved in order to deal with the lingering problems the main conflict created. If the main conflict is defeating the Big Bad, then the Cavalry is used to defeat the Big Bad's Army after the Big Bad themself is defeated.

For your story, the police easily could function as the Cavalry, preventing any further problems your protagonist might have to deal with from the Crime Boss. But the police should not be the solution to the protagonists current problem, the one that is driving the main conflict of the story.

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Tolkien is big on this.

Smaug is (arguably) the villain of The Hobbit and is slain by Bard the Bowman, not by Bilbo, or even any of the Dwarves. Likewise, in The Lord of the Rings, Frodo ultimately fails to destroy the One Ring, and it is instead Gollum's obsession with it that carries it (along with him) over the edge into the fires of Mount Doom, defeating Sauron.

It's perfectly possible to write satisfying stories where the villain isn't defeated by your protagonist(s), but you need to make sure that your hero's choices and actions still matter. They don't need to be the one who finally defeats the villain if they are responsible for the pieces being set up for the villain's eventual defeat by someone else.

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    Didn't Bilbo spot the "hole" in the dragon's armor? – NomadMaker Feb 22 at 13:46
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    Bilbo played a crucial part in the default of Smaug. No, he didn't pull the trigger, but he owned part of the dragon's defeat. – NomadMaker Feb 22 at 13:54
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    my last paragraph explicitly suggests as much... – Tristan Feb 22 at 13:55
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    I think it worth noting that in LotR, Gollum's obsession was caused by his long contact with the Ring so that, in effect the Ring destroyed itself because of it's own nature. – RBarryYoung Feb 23 at 17:19
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    @MichaelRichardson If you want a less deus ex machina example, how about Return of the Jedi? Luke couldn't defeat the Emperor, Vader did. It wasn't the hero but actually the main villain of the series who defeated the secret even-bigger-villain. (Never mind Ep. IX undoing that) – Darrel Hoffman Feb 24 at 13:58
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Another plot-line to consider is one often used in film (Seven Samurai, High Plains Drifter) wherein the hero uses his influence to inspire/empower others to take down the antagonist. Often the others have been subjected to the villain's predations but are initially unwilling and/or think they are unable to fight back.

This trope has many possible nuances available: sometimes the others aren't the greatest group but become better selves after interacting with the hero and succeeding. Sometimes the hero is not a good guy either, but is still heroic for helping the downtrodden.

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  • Yojimbo is another example. – RonJohn Feb 23 at 19:57
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A common alternative to having the hero defeat the villain, is for the villain to be defeated as a consequence of their own actions. This makes the villain's defeat seem more karmic, and if the villain is killed in the process, it handily absolves the hero of any responsibility for their death. A well-known example would be the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark. Indiana Jones does literally nothing to defeat the villains: they open the Ark, foolishly thinking they can control its power, and instead it melts their faces.

So in your case, instead of the hero arranging the mafia boss' arrest, it's someone else that the mafia boss has wronged over the course of the story. Perhaps an underling that they've mistreated or betrayed somehow, who retaliates against them by turning them in. Perhaps someone who has been hurt by the mafia's schemes, or whose loved ones have been hurt. Or perhaps the boss, distracted by their dealings with the hero, gets sloppy and starts leaving clues, allowing the police to track him down on their own.

The important thing, however, is that their defeat has to be a natural consequence of the events of the story. If their arrest comes out of nowhere and has no connection to any previous plot points, then that is bad writing. Even the infamous anti-climax ending of Monty Python and the Holy Grail gets foreshadowed.

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    It has to be a consequence of the story, but that doesn't mean it has to be a particularly dramatic or "interesting" chain of causation. Holy Grail is a good example, but even Shakespeare has stories like Much Ado About Nothing (where Don John is defeated, through the actions of Dogberry of all people, solely because Borachio and Conrade are incapable of keeping their mouths shut for five minutes). – Kevin Feb 22 at 22:34
  • I don't know, any crime and police eventually showing up have a causal connection, even if it doesn't matter much to the story. Consider any story about stranded people, where the resolution is that finally a ship shows up out of nowhere. I don't consider these bad stories because of that. – kutschkem Feb 24 at 10:45
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Is it considered bad writing if my hero isn't the one who brings about the villain's downfall?

This is quite common in historical fiction. The author has to keep the story reasonably consistent with generally known historical facts, which may not leave a lot of room for fiction in that area. If you write a story about your hero storming in and killing Hitler, somebody will probably complain. (Although it's been done...) So a lot of historical fiction is written around smaller players, who might contribute something to the grand victory but are usually part of a much larger team.

Jack Higgins' "The Eagle Has Landed" describes a plot by Nazi commandos to assassinate Winston Churchill. The last of the team is shot when he's almost about to succeed in his mission... but the final twist of the story reveals that the whole plot never had a chance to succeed because the man they were targeting was an impersonator, used as a decoy while the real Churchill was travelling to a secret meeting. So the whole storyline has very little effect on the outcome of the war, but it was still a very successful book.

Small-stakes stories can be just as fascinating as those where the fate of the world hangs in the balance.

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In the 19th century novel the Betrothed the villain dies from completely external causes. The villain is a local noble, surrounded by hitmen and practically untouchable by the heroes, which reminded me of your Mafia boss.

The real closure does not come with the villain's death per se although it does allow for that particular resolution to happen. There are many obstacles for the protagonists in the story. Some are initiated by the villain, like the kidnpping of the female protagonist, others are not, such as surviving a riot, an invasion and a pestilence.

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Readers prefer active heroes because part of why we read fiction is to imagine ourselves facing dilemmas, and to work through different scenarios of how we might respond. There's not as much to learn from a passive hero, whose destiny doesn't revolve around their own choices. For that reason this scenario is challenging to write well.

The key is to give the character an arc that doesn't revolve around personal defeat of the villain. If she learns, and grows, and makes consequential decisions that earn her ending, then the fact that she doesn't defeat the villain could be a strength, not a weakness.

It really depends on how you structure and frame the story. If the story is all about defeating the villain, and the hero doesn't participate, most readers are going to find that unsatisfying. If it's all about her finding courage inside herself (for example) and she does, then that could be a completely satisfying story.

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    In your first point, I think you marry a correct premise with a correct, but unrelated train of logic. Yes, readers prefer active heroes but that's because no one likes passive, boring, characters. And yes, it is more difficult to write such a scenario but that is because it requires an interesting, well-developed framework and society within which to work where external agents can resolve the problem in a satisfying way while the protag's own struggle is meaningful. You can't half-ass things because it's the subtlety and complex interactions that make the conclusion satisfying. – DKNguyen Feb 22 at 19:44
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A protagonist should solve his or her problem personally, not just stand by while someone else does, although there may well be many people working together that achieve the solution. But the "defeat of the villain" is not always the real issue for the protagonist. Sometimes the villain or antagonist is merely an obstacle, and the real issue is something else, perhaps a character issue.

Consider The African Queen by C. S. Forrester (the novel, not the movie version). It would seem that the task of Charlie and Rose (the co-protagonists) is to destroy the German patrol ship Louisa and thus end the German lock on the key travel route. But at the end the Louisa is sunk by a British armed cutter, and would have been in exactly the same way had Charlie and Rose died half-way through their trip.

The real victories are ones of character and habit. Charlie changes from a somewhat lazy go-along, get-along person to one able to tackle problems that are almost insurmountable with energy and good humor. Rose changes from being dominated by her brother to being able to plan and force through prodigious efforts, and to more or less run Charlie. And the two come to love each other, and learn to work together. Those are the issues that they solve, and the destruction of the Louisa proves essentially irrelevant.

Or consider Shakespeare's Macbeth. Macbeth is the protagonist, but also arguably the villain. He has no ultimate victory, and is destroyed in the end. He could be called an anti-hero. He is a very active central character, however, and the play generally works well. What he does achieve, he achieves largely through his own efforts, including his own final defeat.

In your work, if the protagonist is not going to be the one to "destroy the villain" then there should be something else that s/he does achieve, that can become the real point of his or her efforts, even if s/he did not know what the point was, at first.

There are stories where the central character is more of a witness to events than a mover of them. In many such cases, there arguably is no true protagonist at all. That can work, but many readers now find such a design unsatisfying, and such stories are out of fashion now, so one must be particularly well done to succeed.

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Reverse the order of causality: instead of the protagonist's attempts to escape the mafia leading to the villain's defeat, have the cause of the villain's defeat provide the opportunities for the protagonist's escape.

So, you have a second plot running in the background, of someone else bringing down the crime-boss: it might be the police, someone he's wronged, or even another crime-boss looking to remove a rival.

The important thing is that their actions cause disruption to the mafia's operations and hierarchy, which allows your protagonist access to information, locations, or people that she normally would not. The villain's downfall is background — his arrest may not even be the climax of the story — but it opens doors.

As an analogy... Imagine a story about a chef, forcibly recruited in 1940s Germany to work for the Nazi party leadership; as the war draws to a close, and the Generals begin to bicker and worry among themselves, she is able to pull together supplies and plans to make her escape. Hitler dies, World War 2 ends, and it's nothing that she did. But, from the events that have gone on around her, we have been able to piece together the shell of a larger story taking place behind the curtain. Or, if you prefer, taking place outside the entrance to the cave.

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Is your character really the hero/protagonist or just the main character?

The film The 13th Warrior shows the difference. Ahmed ibn Fahdlan is the main character. The hero is Buliwyf. It's his decision to go to the aid of King Hrothgar that kicks off the main plot. It's his leadership (which ibn Fahdlan sees only peripherally at times) which moves the group along. It's he who kills the Wendol leaders, the Mother and the Warlord, making a heroic last stand in taking down the latter before dying and being honoured as a great hero. Through the film, ibn Fahdlan is, essentially, just an extra sword. The only two things he does which move the plot along is suggesting the Mother might live in a cave (which Buliwyf and crew probably would have figured out from their scouting anyway) and figuring out a way out of the cave. Everything else is the other characters, including providing the information on how to finally defeat the Wendol.

Now, this doesn't mean ibn Fahdlan is a passive observer. He's in the action, he's interacting with people, he's just not the one in charge or, in the end, the one responsible for solving the problem or for saving the day. He helps, certainly, and limited though his actions are in the plot, the second--getting away after killing the Mother--certainly is critical to the eventual success, but it is Buliwyf who the story revolves around.

And there are, of course, other examples. To cite the obvious one, Watson exists in order to observe Holmes deal with the issue, sometimes contributing the resolution, but it's always in support of Holmes.

So it can be done, and successfully.

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  • I completely forgot that movie existed :) – mishan Feb 23 at 18:21

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