The Protagonist Fails

last updated: 14 February 2017 (approximate reading time: 4 minutes; 823 words)

I had an interesting question the other day which prompted a wider thought.

I should start with a warning that there are some spoilers here, so if you haven’t read my books, in particular if you haven’t read Bag Man, you might want to skip this post.

The question was whether the conclusion of Bag Man was the end of the story. Implicit in the question was whether the ending was a set-up for another book. If you haven’t read Bag Man—and despite my earlier warning, you’re still reading this piece—the book finishes abruptly with Leathan failing to recover a kidnapped child.

Bag Man by Simon Cann The short answer to the question is the ending is the end. There is no part two. We simply don’t know what happens to the kid. And as the author, I don’t know what happened to the kid.

This isn’t laziness on my part. This is intentional.

Keeping the Reader Engaged

The ending to Bag Man is intentional because as an author I have an ongoing challenge—to keep the reader entertained and engaged.

If the reader knows what’s going to happen, then the story will get pretty dull pretty quickly. Indeed, if the reader knows how the story is going to end, then there’s little incentive to continue reading.

Often the big question in a novel is whether the protagonist survives. With Leathan Wilkey there’s a series, so every reader implicitly knows that Leathan is going to survive. It’s kinda obvious… And if the reader knows (1) Leathan survives and (2) Leathan always wins, then something of the tension of any book is lost.

The Protagonist Must Always Fail

As an author and a storyteller, I want to make sure the conclusion of any book is not obvious. One way to be “not obvious” is to have the protagonist fail.

But if the reader knows that the protagonist is going to fail, then that robs the story of any real intrigue. Always losing is just as dull as always winning.

Beyond the simple requirements of keeping the reader guessing, a protagonist must always fail somewhere. Any human who doesn’t make mistakes is simply not believable. Any human who doesn’t face up to their mistakes and try to right their own wrongs isn’t worthy of the reader’s respect.

So the protagonist needs to be flawed and those flaws need to lead to failure. However…

The Protagonist Must Always Win

The protagonist cannot be a bumbling idiot and nothing more than a bumbling idiot who always fails. Winning or losing should both be possibilities for the protagonist.

For the protagonist to be interesting for the reader, they must be smart and must—through their actions—command respect. A character who is smart and who commands respect is going to get things right from time to time, and fundamentally, that is what the reader wants—an engaging character overcoming adversity.

The Internal Story and the External Story

There’s another aspect to winning and losing—the internal and the external story.

The external story is the more obvious of the two—it is the story that is being told. In Bag Man, the external story is the search for a kidnapped child.

The internal story is the story that is happening behind the scenes. You can often think of the internal story as the emotional story for a character. With Bag Man the internal story is more about Leathan’s relationships and his motivations for seeking out the kid. In this example, the internal story isn’t the story that gets told—it’s the half of the story that gets understood.

Winning and Losing

With the notion of an internal and an external story, there’s much more scope for winning and losing. Instead of binary win/lose choice, there are four basic options:

  • external win/internal win
  • external win/internal loss
  • external loss/internal win
  • external loss/internal loss

Having a wider range of options and more ways to win and lose means that the final outcome is much harder for the reader to guess. It also means that—as an author—I can tell a more nuanced story.

I like stories with a win/loss outcome. You’ll find it happens to a greater extent in many of my books including Bag Man where:

  • Leathan’s external story was the recovery of the kid. Here, clearly, he failed.
  • Leathan’s internal story was around uncovering the truth of the kidnapping and deciding the correct response. Here he largely succeeded.

So Leathan both won and lost, but in my opinion (and you may disagree) the loss cancels out (and more) any joy in his win.

Indeed, I would go further and say that the fact that he won on the internal story—the fact that he was right, and therefore potentially could have reached the kid if he had been less cautious—makes the loss burn that much hotter for Leathan. Hence at the end of the story we see him going to get drunk in an attempt to blank out his failure from his mind.

Filed under

Category: story
Tags: hero   failure   protagonist   Bag Man   internal story   external story