Your protagonist must fail

Here’s a post at Pub Rants: Your Protagonist Must Fail

Throughout your story but especially in Act II—that yawning abyss between your story’s beginning and end sometimes referred to as “the swamp” or “the mushy middle”—your protagonist must fail. They must fail big. They must fail often. Why? Because if they’re not failing, they’re not trying.

The author of the post, Angie Hodapp, identifies three types of failure:

  1. try-fail, which is obviously where the protagonist tries to solve a problem but the attempt crashes and burns.

2. The attempt succeeds, but leads to a unanticipated bigger problem.

3. This one doesn’t seem to fit to me, but: the protagonist is suspicious about something and that suspicion is quickly confirmed.

That third one is odd, because the protagonist isn’t the one trying and failing to do something; the author is the one trying and failing (to create and maintain tension). Let’s leave that one aside and consider the broader point that the protagonist must fail.

At first glance, it seems basically true that the protagonist has to try stuff and those attempts have to fail. That’s what happens in most novels. But not quite all. When I try to think of counterexamples, I can think of a few novels where the protagonist is faced with a dire problem, tries stuff that succeeds, repeat, repeat, repeat as increasingly dire problems fall like dominos, success! The end.

In fact, I can even think of a few novels where the problems aren’t actually dire. I’m thinking here of Nathan Lowell’s fun but perhaps not entirely plausible slice-of-life novel Quarter Share, where the protagonist, Ishmael, embarks on adventure and puts his life in order through general competence at working with people. None of the problems in that story are particularly important, and I can’t offhand think of any moment when the protagonist makes a significant mistake or fails in a significant way.

Slice-of-life may be like that. Hogarth’s Mindtouch is more than a bit that way. Choosing the wrong course of study and/or dithering over relationship issues constitute the mistakes, such as they are. The failures are pretty trivial because the problems are trivial and the happy ending certain. That’s why the story is relaxing to read.

There are also competence-porn novels where the protagonist faces a much more serious situation, but takes various brilliant steps one after another, basically without failing at any point. The situation may present the protagonist with increasingly dire problems, but the protagonist succeeds in dealing with all those problems. Here, I’m thinking of stories like The Martian. This sort of story can be immensely satisfying, as it’s always a pleasure watching a really competent character overcome obstacles, especially if the problems and solutions are all plausible. As in the case of The Martian, it’s not necessarily important for the protagonist to have a lot of deep, complicated character development in order for the story to work.

Still, the overall point that generally the protagonist must try and fail seems largely true for most SFF novels.

I will add a failure mode for the author that particularly drives me crazy in this context. Not the same problem with suspicion-rapidly-confirmed that the linked post pointed out. Way worse than that:

The protagonist tries stupid things that are obviously going to fail. That is the exact opposite of competence porn: it’s incompetence on display and it’s a major, major turnoff. I would therefore revise the idea of protagonist failure this way:

Most of the time, a novel should feature the protagonist trying to achieve a goal in a plausible, intelligent way and failing because of unforeseen complications. It is okay if the protagonist fails because of character-based imperfections, but being a total idiot is not just an imperfection, it’s an unendurable character flaw that renders the story unreadable. Failure should therefore not depend on that quality.

Bonus points if the complications are perceptible in retrospect, but neither the protagonist nor the reader saw them coming, even though the author foreshadowed those complications.

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3 thoughts on “Your protagonist must fail”

  1. That seems a rather limited and formulaic way of looking at things. Yeah, an easy stroll to the coronation of the Rightful King is boring. What if his life (or that of the main character who is chief mover of the effort) is falling apart because of what he’s doing. Or other things keep getting in the way. I’m supposed to be getting the doohicky of doom but I’ve got to milk the goats, feed the pigs, get the doctor for mom….And somehow doing all those things causes it all to work out. (How? I dunno, if I could do more than brainstorm I’d be a writer.)
    Or main character is a catalyst, or something. Or it’s a travelogue.
    The Passive Guy had a post recently about different types of storytelling, (Pokes at the blog and finds it – it was on conflict, not failure but the two posts sound awfully similar – which was incredibly poorly written as far as being useful, but TPG’s commentors had some things to say that were. < Story conflict
    One used the Vanishing Hitchhiker as an example of a different story structure. And there’s no failure of the sort this poster is discussing at all. Yet it works well as a story.

  2. “Unforeseen” is pitching it a bit high, and also raises the danger of a diabolus ex machina.

    Foreseen complications don’t make the character stupid as long as the risk is remote enough, and the costs of the alternative are proportional to the risk.

  3. Oh, yes, I sometimes really like the Travelogue type of story, particularly if I know that’s the type of story I’m picking up.

    I suppose the try-and-fail model presupposes a Quest story, and the Travelogue is not a Quest. Perhaps it would be interesting to try to sort out the different kinds of stories we actually see in SFF.

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