Do Heroes Ever Truly Fail in Fantasy Books?



Did you ever doubt Harry Potter? How about Frodo or Katniss? Did you ever honestly think the writers would let them fail?

If you’re like me, you had a voice in the back of your head saying “s/he can’t fail, s/he’s the main character.” No matter how emotionally involved I got, I never really worried. After all, it would be a crappy story if it ended with Sauron becoming immortal or President Snow taking over District 13.

There were times I thought the writers might let them die. I never for a second thought they would suffer true defeat.

Books have boundaries.

In the world of stories and storytelling, I have always felt there was this net. In western storytelling especially, we’ve gotten used to this sense of safety. There are things writers just cannot or will not do. It’s considered crappy writing.

Even George R.R. Martin doesn’t do away with this net entirely. I have never feared for the life of Daernerys, just because her death would solve too many problems for the Westerosi. (He also has to consider the angry mobs of fans who would come after him, but still.) The King of Killing Characters himself has restrictions.

But what if the hero does fail? I don’t mean failure in the “all is lost” sense that usually happens three quarters through a book. I don’t mean failure to protect a loved one or complete a specific task.

I mean true, irredeemable failure.

What if, in the original stories, Dracula had set up shop in London, Morgan Le Fay became queen of Camelot, or Conan hadn’t defeated the undead?

There are some writers who have addressed the aftermath of these sorts of scenarios. Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn series takes place in a post-apocalyptic world where the hero failed. Rabia Gale’s The Mourning Cloak is an example and I know there are others.

If you think about it, The Lord of the Rings is also takes place in the aftermath of a hero’s failure. Isildur was seduced by promises of power and because of him the Ring now needs to be destroyed. Yet looking at these examples, they seem to disprove the very point they prove. You see, even though the heroes failed, there was a second chance.

The story went on.

Then again, is true failure possible?

These fantasy stories actually reflect reality. Even if you die for your cause, that doesn’t mean someone else won’t take it up.

There are countless revolutions throughout history that ended with the revolutionaries slaughtered and the oppressed nation impoverished. That’s the vast majority of revolutions, actually. Thus far, it doesn’t appear those countries are getting anywhere, but those stories aren’t over.

William Wallace was drawn and quartered, but Scotland eventually won freedom. Seeing as how the Scottish king became king of England, I think they even technically conquered their former oppressor.


I don’t believe irredeemable failure exists.

People can fail. Armies can fail. We can fail specific tasks and fall short. But that is never the end. As someone who believes human beings have eternal souls, I think that so long as we accept the redemption offered us, the story goes on.

The potential for soul eating monsters aside, I don’t think true failure exists in Fantasy books any more than it does in real life. There is always hope. Like I said, it’s a crappy story otherwise.


  1. I’ve always thought about how the hero never fails, but I never stopped to consider the “reflection of reality” bit. That’s a really interesting way of looking at things!

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