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How To Make a Good Story Where The Protagonist Fails

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koomori
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What do you think are good techniques to use to keep a readers interest specifically in stories where the protagonist fails at the end of the story? How do you make failure interesting?

I've read some stories looking for critiques where the protagonist was very passive, or there didn't seem to be any effect of the failure on the world, or the situation was so depressing I really didn't want to finish it.

In a book like Nineteen Eighty-Four, the workings of the society are rather fascinating and you really want to find out what will happen to the main characters.

It seems as though a cat-and-mouse approach where you are guessing who will win out until the end is one way of doing it, or 'If I had only known then what I know now' is another way of creating suspense as hopefully the reader will want to find out what went wrong. What are some others?

If you have some short story examples of where this has been done well that are available on the web, I'd love to know.

 
Posted : April 12, 2022 1:28 am
angelslayah, Yelena, Wahlquistj and 2 people reacted
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pdblake
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I can't think of any shorts offhand but it really works for 1984 (iirc - it's been a while since I read it). In the Lord of the Rings Frodo ultimately fails to destroy the ring and we all know how well that one did.

I thinks it's alright to have the MC fail, so long as they accomplish something or change the world or themselves in some undeniable way.

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Posted : April 12, 2022 10:36 am
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Morgan
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I'm also struggling to think of any stories I really enjoyed where the MC failed. 1984 is awesome, yes, because it's really a milieu story; the world is so fascinating to read about that it sort of overshadows the MC's wants and needs. In LOTR, yes Frodo failed personally, but the ring was inevitably destroyed, which was the purpose of the whole mission in the first place. So the mission was successful even though it came about in a way we didn't anticipate.

In general—and this is just me personally here—I wouldn't write a tragedy. I'd much rather stick with the tried and true methods until my skills have developed enough to pull off something so experimental.

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Posted : April 12, 2022 12:26 pm
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DoctorJest
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The bitter-sweet ending can work this way--where things work out, but the thing that the protagonist set out to get, they ultimately fail to get. Whether that classes as "failure", though, is entirely down to your interpretation. I've written stories where the character fails where the character is an anti-hero, too--in those situations, failure is okay because the reader will generally want them to fail, so it produces a satisfying arc. I'd also put the series Gormenghast into this second bracket.

(My own story Ashwright--formerly a SHM here, and linked in my signature to PodCastle's recording--doesn't see the main character succeed at the end, and may fall on the more bitter side of the bitter-sweet ending style. Their failure, in this case, was central to the conceit of the story I was trying to tell--that you are watching a snapshot of his lifetime that may well repeat until he dies, but that he won't ever truly abandon trying to succeed. I'd hesitate to say this is a great example of this being done well, but hell, I like it, so I figure I'll throw it into the pile anyway.)

I feel sure I've read others, though. I'll see if I can wrack my brain and shake a few of those memories loose.

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Posted : April 12, 2022 10:03 pm
Wahlquistj
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I’d say it really depends on how you calibrate the reader’s goal with the MC’s goal. If you align your reader’s goal with your main character’s goal and your main character fails, then your reader will feel frustrated and unfulfilled.

Give your reader another promise/payoff to pursue, however, and you can throw your MC in a bottomless pit at the end of the story so long as the reader receives what you promised.

Take Neil Gaiman’s Click Clack the Rattlebag, for example. The main character definitely does NOT get what he wants. However, in the beginning of the story, Gaiman promises the reader a scary story… and that is precisely what the reader gets.

Other examples include instances where the MC thinks they know what they want/need to succeed, but what they actually need turns out to be completely different. Agatha’s Monster in Vol38 is a great example of this. Character-centered stories tend to be ripe with this kind of switcheroo.

I will also say that this need for a satisfied audience is distinctly American. I recommend reading some translations or watching some foreign films to see other interpretations of story models. 

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Posted : April 13, 2022 2:23 am
DoctorJest
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Posted by: @wahlquistj

I will also say that this need for a satisfied audience is distinctly American. I recommend reading some translations or watching some foreign films to see other interpretations of story models. 

This is definitely true, and it's no mistake that Ashwright was first sold to a Canadian market, not to an American one (and that the magazine's editor commented on exactly this fact, that they have a different taste in fiction to many US publications).

However, there's a note of caution in that too--you can write a truly wonderful story where the protagonist fails, but as far as this Contest in particular is concerned, you do need to be aware of the market that you're writing for. And although there are doubtless exceptions, it's an American publication, and it does have a lean towards an American audience. That falls in line with some of the other considerations, too, in that it's intended to be the kind of book you could stock on a high school book-shelf, for example.

Not every wonderful story is also a wonderful Contest entry. That doesn't mean they shouldn't be written, of course! And as I mentioned, there are always exceptions to every rule--if I say stories like such-and-such don't do well, I have to suspect that there'll then be one of those such-and-suches in the next dozen winners to prove me an idiot. But it certainly doesn't hurt to be aware of things that the Contest looks for--and stories feeling complete, or at least closing out in a satisfying way, is something that I would say categorizes the great majority of WotF winning stories.

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Posted : April 13, 2022 4:39 am
Morgan
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Oh! I just thought of one! Stephen King's Dark Tower series. AMAZING stories, IMO, however...

I 100% absolutely unequivocally HATED how the series ended!!!!!!! I was so angry with King that I vowed I'd never read another of his stories, which, to be fair, lasted about a week. *shrug* What can I say?

I know I'm not alone in this feeling either because I've spoken with other people about it and they expressed the same unadulterated rage.

Ugh...still makes me furious just thinking about it...

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Posted : April 13, 2022 12:51 pm
DoctorJest
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Posted by: @morgan-broadhead

Oh! I just thought of one! Stephen King's Dark Tower series. AMAZING stories, IMO, however...

...

Ugh...still makes me furious just thinking about it...

I read the first four of these, but then heard that people hated how it ended, so...that's as far as I went.

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Posted : April 14, 2022 1:56 am
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Yelena
(@scribblesatdusk)
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So I have some short stories in mind where the MC ultimately fails. 

Flowers for Algernon is one that automatically comes to mind: https://www.sdfo.org/gj/stories/flowersforalgernon.pdf

https://clarkesworldmagazine.com/xia_05_19/

 

Blood Music by Greg Bear is another one. 

 

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Posted : April 14, 2022 4:07 pm
Disgruntled Peony
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My personal checklist when writing a story where the protagonist fails would be something like this:

  • Foreshadow the failure in some way, so that the reader isn't completely flabbergasted by it.
  • Ensure said failure makes for an interesting and satisfying ending; this is best done by making sure you're giving the reader the right promises at the beginning of the story. If you can make it more climactic than success would have been, all the better. (PLEASE NOTE, THIS ISN'T EASY TO PULL OFF.)
  • Make sure the character who fails grows from said failure. (This is more of a personal preference than anything else--I tend to learn more from my failures than my successes, so I like to assume my characters will do the same.)
  • Give the reader hope that things will go better in future despite--or because of--the character's failure.

Hopefully this helps? I can't think of any short story examples off the top of my head, but if/when I do I'll drop them on by.

Also, I think it's important to note failure isn't necessarily a binary thing. There are degrees of success and failure for every action, and what leads to success on one front can simultaneously be a failure on another front. Random example: A character makes a new friend--success! But in doing so, they lose an older friend--failure. In cases like this, it's the context that makes or breaks the try/fail cycle. (Is the new friend they're making "worth" losing the older friend over? What does the loss of the older friend cost them?)

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Posted : April 19, 2022 12:08 am
koomori
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@disgruntledpeony I did find a story recently in Uncanny Magazine, which follows your four points.

Spoiler
Story Title
The Path of Water

 

This post was modified 3 months ago 4 times by koomori
 
Posted : May 1, 2022 3:41 pm
angelslayah
(@angelslayah)
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Posted by: @koomori

How do you make failure interesting?

I think the idea of "interest" sometimes eclipses the fundamental of "feeling."

In other words, you make it sad, even despairing. Stories that make us feel things are the ones that we will carry with us long after those that merely engaged our interest are forgotten.

Having said that, I doubt it's likely to produce feeling with the ending of a story that has done little to engage our emotions before that point. I think one can track the development of a story completely outside our ideas of "plot" by tracking it instead from emotion to emotion. 

  

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Posted : May 17, 2022 2:55 pm
Susan Chaney
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I wanted to give an example so quickly, but not a single character comes to mind, usually the main character gets his way. I have always been fascinated by people who have a talent for writing, for me this is a backbreaking job, so I usually use the services of writers " write my assignment for me uk "despite this, I really like to read, if I start a new book, I can’t stop

This post was modified 3 months ago 6 times by Susan Chaney
 
Posted : May 20, 2022 3:14 pm
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