As webmaster for a couple of New York Times bestselling authors, I see a lot of comments and questions from fans. Some I’ve seen thousands of times. “Where do you get your ideas?” “Will you come to my town to sign?” “Are you going to make a movie based on your books?” “When is your next book coming out?”
But every once in a while—and it’s a rarity these days—a question comes in that I haven’t seen before, one that makes me wonder. One I know other readers might have great interest in. The question in today’s poll pops up every few months but I’ve never really seen it addressed outside of a writing seminar about the durability of the Hero’s Journey and its importance to storytelling in our civilization from a very early moment:
Will you ever write a book where evil ultimately triumphs over good?
For me personally, I haven’t really seen it. Maybe Elric? Maybe Thomas Covenant? The best story I’ve seen where evil is presented in flattering light is The Sundering duology by Jacqueline Carey. Banewreaker and Godslayer are super underrated.
I’ll let a menagerie of today’s best writers to take a crack at answering it the question though. They are the ones you are interested in:
Brent Weeks: “Your question is flawed. In many of the most memorable exemplars of SFF, evil does win. Or at least it wins in a way. Or if good wins, it’s a pyrrhic victory. There’s quite a few ways to tackle this question, and I will leave the approaches I miss to the capable hands of my colleagues, who will doubtless wrap it up above and below me. But let me give you a few examples. In the Odyssey, Odysseus wins… except. He wins except that he has missed raising his son, he’s missed having more children, and he’s been absent from his wife for many years. When he comes back, Ithaca is a shattered remnant of what he lost, and he himself is greatly scarred by his experiences. In the same way, in The Lord of the Rings, Frodo wins. But that victory takes so much out of Frodo that he can never again be that simple hobbit from the Shire. He stays for a time, not truly connected to anyone except the other wounded warriors, and then must leave for the other Grey Havens. In The Empire Strikes Back, now widely heralded as the greatest of the Star Wars movies, Luke loses. He loses his hand, and his innocence. Even attempting to die rather than join his father, whom he admits is stronger.
To these shining examples, I will immodestly add my own work. In The Way of Shadows [minor spoiler here], the good guys don’t win. The city is lost, and many of the people we love die.
So between these titans of literary history and the genre, and modern publication, I don’t think that we can say that “the bad guys winning” is unheard of. It does happen, even in stories we love, and that tells us something about the truth of human conflicts. As Tolkien knew, intimately, the veterans who come back from war are not the halcyon boys who naively went to fight it. I think this recognition is key to the efforts in our genre to temper the triumphalism of the adolescent thought that war is cool.
The greater question, behind your question, may be why do we want happy endings? And that I will leave to my colleagues.”
Why do we crave happy endings, indeed? What psychological need drives it? Why is it a cross-cultural phenomenon? Terry Brooks touches on this in the next piece:
Terry Brooks: “Publishers will publish anything if they think it will sell. Writers will write anything if they feel strongly enough about it. And all sorts of stories, both long and short, fiction and non-fiction, in which evil wins out over good, have been published over the years. So even to suggest that evil never wins at the end of the story is wrong-headed.
From my point of view, the question should be more personal. Why do I not write stories in which evil wins out?
The answer is both simple and complex. Simple, because the short version of any response begins with my disinterest in writing such stories. Complex, because my life and worldview do not readily embrace the prospect of obtaining any enjoyment from writing or reading stories of evil triumphant.
I am a positive sort of guy, and I don’t want to write stories in which good does not prevail. I sometimes read stories in which evil wins out – at least in the short run – but this never makes me wish that I could sit down and write one myself. I know the world is a tough place and lots of bad things happen and right doesn’t always prevail over wrong. But I’m really not interested in exploring those kinds of stories. This gets back to how I grew up. I was a small, dweeby sort of kid who got beat up a lot and later simply got in fights a lot, and who never felt that he fit in. So I spent my time lost in books where kids like me struggled with problems but always found a way to work things out.
So those were the kinds of stories I set out to write long ago. What interested me was how the underdog overcame the odds and emerged victorious. Not unbloodied or whole or with friendships intact or with the girl or with a clear path to the future, but with some semblance of success and at least the suggestion that better things lay ahead. What interested me then and now was looking at the ways in which we struggle to find our path and do the right thing – even without knowing where our path lies or what the right thing is.
I guess the bottom line is that I don’t think another story founded in evil overcoming good would be refreshing or compelling. I think it would be banal. I think it would just make me sad. Especially if I wrote it.”
Is Terry on to something here? Do readers who ask this question really have a banal desire to have their asses kicked by a story that is not uplifting? What is it that drives these kinds of readers? Dave Wolverton/Farland tackles the question from an emotional angle:
Dave Wolverton: “Readers read in order to engage in an emotional exercise. They place themselves under stress as they vicariously live through an adventure. To have evil win would force your story to have an unsatisfying ending, which would leave the reader feeling as if he had been cheated. He hopes to see the story brought to a successful resolution.
In other words, if I had the bad guys win, my readers would abandon me and never buy another one of my books. They’d feel cheated, and rightly so. The author has an unwritten contract with the reader, one that the author dares not violate, at least not on purpose.”
Peter Orullian also follows Terry and Dave:
Peter Orullian: “Evil (or the bad guy) winning is certainly done. Sometimes it’s called “Karma Houdini.” Dystopian novels do this quite a bit. Horror fiction does it fairly often, too. Examples of evil winning include: The Silmarillion, The Children of Hurin, Brave New World, Storm of Iron, Pet Sematary, Animal Farm, Madame Bovary, Hannibal, much of Mieville’s work . . . you get the point. So, I’m not quite sure it would qualify as refreshing if the antagonists won, since they get their fair share of wins. For my money, though, even when writers do this it’s not so refreshing. It’s going to sound maudlin, but I think most readers want their escapism to provide a degree of hope and uplift, triumph even. Reality is rife with bummers. I’m glad to read about characters going through hell to get to a more hopeful outcome, but failure on top of that? I’m thinking life is too short to read to many such stories. If I want to be depressed, I’ll turn on the news.”
C.S. Friedman takes it another way:
C.S. Friedman: “Those are really two different questions. An “evil” character is someone with reprehensible qualities. A “protagonist” is the main character of a book. There is no reason one could not have a protagonist who was evil. Moorcock popularized the concept of the anti-hero, a main character with a dark nature, and it was particularly popular in the 80’s. Most vampire literature depends upon blurring the line between good and evil, and often evil characters — or at least semi-evil characters — win. Barbara Hambly’s Those who Hunt the Night has a human protagonist who winds up having to protect some really nasty vampires. His “win” is not having his wife murdered by them, while they continue to prey upon makind. And my own Coldfire trilogy has a character of indisputable evil, forced to ally with a religious idealist who once vowed to destroy him. They win some battles — and lose others — together.
The protagonist question is different. Protagonists are generally the main characters of a book, with whom the reader identifies. Most people find a book satisfying when the protagonist accomplishes his goal, for the same reason that they find a football game satisfying when their home team wins. How many die-hard sports fans have you heard say, “Wow, my team got trounced and won’t be in the playoffs, but it was worth it, because the other team was so much fun to watch!” Very few. It’s the same with readers.
But there is no reason a protagonist has to be a good guy.”
So there you have it. From some of the best in the genre weighing in. What do you think? Would you be satisfied reading a book where evil wins? If so, why? Vote below and comment!