Friday, July 3, 2015

5 Reasons not to let the Hero Win

Does the hero of your story win?
I should hope so; that’s what your readers want, and your job as a writer is to give people what they want, right?

Well, yes and no.
If you gave people what they wanted, then they’d complain. “It was too easy”, they’ll say, or “it was soooo predictable!”
You certainly don’t want that.

However, if you don’t give people what they want, then they won’t like your story at all. If your hero wins too easily, then reader will feel cheated. Yet the hero losing would send audiences into fits of rage. (As a side note, a lot of Asian movies set in the past will deal with heroes who die and/or lose. These stories may seem nihilistic, but when you consider what was gained in the loss, these stories become beautiful.)

So how do we get a balance? When is it not okay for the hero to win?

Enter: five answers 

     1. Dues ex Machina. This queer little Latin phrase is commonly heard among critics and speakers at writing conferences. It means “god in the machine”. When applied to literature/theatre, the ‘god’ reference is literally you, the author. The ‘machine’ is the story. So, when someone says “the ending was a little Dues Ex Machina”, they’re saying the author was clearly involved in making the story end the way it did.

Your hero should never win because of Dues Ex Machina (nor should they lose because of it, but I’ve never seen that happen). A convenient car, bomb, sword, treasure map, decoding of the villain’s secret language, uber-powerful magic/magical artifacts, cats, dogs, flying things (including eagles, owls, and dragons), and any other item/entity which appears just in the nick of time to save the hero without any form of foreshadowing or preparation on the hero’s part is Dues Ex Machina. 

Don’t do it.

It’s really that simple. If you have Dues Ex Machina in your novel, cut it out. Burn it with fire (ceremonial or otherwise). And if it means your hero having to work extra hard to win, then all the better.

     2. Too many villains. I’ve read a few books with what I call PVS (Plethora of Villains Syndrome). Basically, the main villain(s) have an army that numbers in the literal millions and each of the minions is near invincible.
Somehow, by the end of this four hundred page book, the hero manages to come out with maybe a missing finger and a limp.

It’s one thing if said hero has a faithful Samwise, the hosts of Gondor as a diversion, and the ability to kill the evil overlord just by losing aforementioned finger and pushing a shriveled old man off a cliff into lava, but it’s quite another thing when said hero is working all alone, excepting his girlfriend who just happens to be pretty good with a revolver.

No hero can fight the good fight alone. So, naturally, we give him a girlfriend, a dorky ally (I’m going to address Allies in August, so stay tuned), and a wizened mentor who dies in chapter twenty-two. But is that enough?
Well, the villain has mutated his human soldiers into half-dragon robots, so…
Let’s give the hero a few random bystanders.
There. Good enough.

Proceed with an epic battle in which somehow the hero, the ally, and the girlfriend all make it to the end.

(Best answer I could find)
If there are too many villains, you have two options: one, cut out half of them. Two, make the hero work harder. Personally, I like the second option, but if there’s half a million cyborg dragon men on the loose, then it might be time to shrink the villains’ plans a little.

     3. The Price is too Great. One of the most commonly accepted ‘rules of thumb’ in writing is that the hero must sacrifice to win.
While I agree wholeheartedly with this statement, sometimes people take it too far.
If the hero has to lose their entire family, village, their dog, their cat, their girlfriend, their friend, their mentor, their other friend, their king, their country, their king and country, their arm, their leg, the feeling in their right eyelid, and be banished forever, then something is wrong.

The price to win should be great. It should be so great that the audience needs to consider whether or not the price is worth it. But when the price is paid, and the hero wins, do we really feel like all those things needed to be paid? I mean, come on, let the poor guy keep the feeling in his right eyelid, at least!
I’m done talking about this, but for a good example of when the Price becomes too Great, check out this post on Suffering in Writing.

     4. Unresolved Subplots. Does your book have an epilogue? How far into the future is it? And what percentage of the epilogue (or last chapter) is explaining away all the plot holes and subplots that didn’t get explained in the first forty chapters?
If the answers are yes, more than two years, and more than 15%, then the hero can’t win yet.
Subplots and plot holes can’t be fixed by using 95% of an epilogue to tell the reader “then this person got married, this person dueled his brother, and they both shot each other in the head, and mentor actually did die when he fell of the cliff”.
The reader comes to your book needing to be satisfied at the end of the second to last chapter.
I say second to last, because the last chapter (or epilogue) is there to reinforce our contentment. It’s there to give us good feelings about the future for this character (or bad feelings, if there’s a sequel). Therefore, most of your subplots need to be resolved before the last chapter. One or two can still hang around to keep us asking questions until the end, but 4-24 is pushing it. And plot holes need to be eradicated, not explained away.

     5. Twisting clichés. This might be one of my favorite things to do.
Let me give you an example:
Last November, I wrote a book with NaNoWriMo, called Asher’s Song. It just barely qualified as a novel in its first draft, coming in at ~53,000 words. It’s a dystopian-steampunk, and, based on that first word, might qualify for some hazard signs. There’s a cliché rebellion against the government, a cliché government which lies about things, and a slightly cliché main character who sets out to reveal what the government is lying about.
By the end of this first draft, I had him reveal the secret, and blah blah blah happy ending.
When I came back to rewrite it, I realized it didn’t feel complete. For one thing, there were a few subplots I never resolved (yay NaNo). Secondly, I had tried to avoid the clichés of dystopian novels, but fell into several.
So in the rewrite, I came up with an idea. What if the government was right?
*existential crises as the conservatives ponder what this means*
The idea sounded fabulous to me, so I wrote it. It turned out wonderfully, if I do say so myself. Suddenly the book was thirteen chapters and thirty-two thousand words longer.
Does your novel feel cliché? Does the ending not feel right?
Flip the ending on its head.
Maybe your character found a treasure map and then finds the treasure.
Flip the cliché around. The map doesn’t lead to treasure, instead it leads to an empty cave, or maybe nothing at all. Maybe the character learns that treasure isn’t just a pile of gold in an ancient chest.

How about this one:  the kingdom is overturned, and the displaced prince(ss) fights to regain the throne.
In the end, the prince/princess wins, and the evil uncle who usurped them is killed/imprisoned/banished.
Instead of boring us, flip it around and try something new:
The prince or princess is overturned in a rebellion and must learn to live as an outcast commoner, never to regain the throne.
Possibilities for a story like that are endless, because it’s not a common storyline. The character could learn to be content with what life throws at them, learn that power isn’t everything, that life in the lower classes isn’t so bad after all.

When your story ends, does the hero win?
I sure hope so.
Every story needs a hero who wins.
Even the story of your own life needs a hero who wins. Are you winning?

(Wow what a cheesy end. *wince* Let me try something different: tune in next time for an important announcement! It might possibly involve me giving out free critiques and things. Possibly.)


  1. Your posts are so inspiring. I've been trying to create helpful posts about writing on my own blog, but...maybe I haven't been writing /successfully/ for long enough.
    Anyway, this is my new favorite writing blog. Keep it coming!

    1. Oh, thank you!

      Really? I'll have to check your blog out; I'm sure it's more helpful than you think it is. ;)

      Thanks for your comments! :D

    2. Heh, have fun on my blog! *sarcasm* But thank you in advance for checking it out :)

      You're most welcome!

    3. Ha, no sarcasm needed!
      I really liked your post about Cliches and the one about Allies (I'm considering doing an "Allies in August" theme, myself, so it was good inspiration.)

    4. Thanks so much!
      I actually just revised about three of my "writing help" posts today, so I hope you got to read the most recent versions ;)
      Awesome, I'll be looking for that - hope you do it!