As a reader how do you feel about this?

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Mike Dickson
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As a reader how do you feel about this?

Post by Mike Dickson » August 21st, 2010, 10:19 am

Thriller novels, there's a protagonist and antagonist. Usually the antagonist is defeated, end of story. As a reader how do you feel if the antagonist is not defeated but gets away?

In my outline I'm playing with both. In one ending I have the antagonist killing the protagonist girlfriend and getting away. As a reader, how would you feel about that? Let down maybe? Bummed? Or something else?

I also have the protagonist defeating the antagonist but the pro still loses his girlfriend.

Nathan, if you read this, how would an agent and publisher feel about this?

I like the twist of the antagonist winning every once in a while, it helps set up for a great series if the first is well written.

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Re: As a reader how do you feel about this?

Post by J. T. SHEA » August 21st, 2010, 11:28 am

There are previous examples of that sort of thing, though I can't recall one offhand. Not to mention alternate 'Chose Your Own Endings'. I guess most readers would prefer the more just ending, but the villain winning would stand out more.

Are you perhaps thinking of making your villain the (anti)hero of a series, Hannibal Lecter style?

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Re: As a reader how do you feel about this?

Post by Mike Dickson » August 21st, 2010, 11:52 am

No this antagonist is not going to be well liked by the readers. With that said, my goal is to get the readers to believe that defeating him will be very difficult. My thoughts are to have the pro come close to defeating the ant and to have the readers believe he will be defeated but in the ant gets away.

My fear is that I will leave my readers disappointed that he got away and the end will fall flat.

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Re: As a reader how do you feel about this?

Post by polymath » August 21st, 2010, 12:33 pm

Regardless of genre, a protagonist is to all contemporary intents and purposes a character most changed by the circumstances of a narrative's dramatic complications, its minor and major dramatic complications, the causal purposes pursued and opposed, and ongoing and final outcomes.

The Greek origins of protagonist survive from the mists of ancient times. Proto agōnistēs, proto meaning first in time and/or place, agōnistēs meaning someone who struggles for a cause. In other words, a protagonist is also a first position hero or champion of a contest audiences root for.

The first documented agōnistēs were from Ancient Greece, the Attic Orators of circa 500 BCE. They were ranked for their oratic performances by their audiences first, second, third, fourth through tenth place in oratorical contests. The winner of a contest was crowned proto agōnistēs, first place hero-champion of a contest, with a laurel wreath. Later, circa 350 BCE in Aristotle's time, a protagonist was an actor who took first position on stage.

The cultural coding convention of first position is so strong today readers expect the first character they're introduced to to be the protagonist. It's a default expectation that's so common place the mere introduction in first position establishes who the protagonist is without needing any other introductions. Introducing another character first and seducing readers into rapport with a nonprotagonist character challenges reader comfort zones.

One protagonist convention common to Aristole's time up through to today's is a protagonist is the character who experiences the greatest transformation. In order to be fully satisfying, a denouement must portray an unequivocal and irrevocable transformation of the protagonist as a consequence of portraying the final outcome of a main dramatic complication. Not every narrative does that. From that deficit, a narrative falls short in the emotional satisfaction department.

Antagonist is no less a noble and time honored narrative tradition. However, many writers and not a few readers limit the role an antagonist plays to that of nemesis or villain. The Greek word roots, again, illustrate the full potential roles of an antagonist, ante agōnistēs, before or against someone who struggles for a cause. Before someone struggles they must have a cause to struggle against. Antagonism provides a cause, be it a character, a force, a setting, an object, or whatever, antagonism causes a change. The introductory change a narrative requires is an upsetting of a protagonist's emotional equilbrium by an inciting First Cause.

The self is an antagonist. Parents are antagonists, coaches, mentors, teachers, leaders, acquaintances, siblings, offspring, friends, lovers, love interests, and so on and so forth, top down or bottom up in animacy. Persons who mean little to a protagonist can antagonize, deliberately or otherwise. They compel change, for good or ill, self-servingly or self-sacrificingly. The role of who's responsible for causing who what blurs across a gamut of possibility, but the individualist condition of human nature leaves it up to the individual to steer our own courses with or against a flood tide of antagonism as we choose.

A nemesis isn't necessarily an antagonist. An enemy isn't necessarily a nemesis. A villain isn't necessarily a nemesis, an enemy, or an antagonist. Each of the above plays distinguishable roles, not necessarily divisible roles. Sherlock Holmes' arch nemesis is Dr. Moriarity. However, Dr. Moriarity only appears in two of the Holmes' saga installments. He's not a fully revealed antagonist-nemesis-enemy until the final novel in Doyle's original saga. Moriarity is, however, and remains an influential villain up through the final installment, when Holmes and Moriarity come into final, personal contact.

Holmes' personal demons are his greater antagonisms. His need to solve crimes reflects his need to redress social injustices. His personality issues cause him to make the world a less complicated and more comfortable place for himself. Readers share that goal with him. Reader rapport.

A nemesis is a character who competes for a similar or same goal as a protagonist. An enemy is a character who would deny a protagonist achieving a goal. A villain doesn't necessarily have any standing to a protagonist, just embodies a wrong a protagonist seeks to redress.

Not to say a character cannot embody almost all the possible opposition roles, only that the roles are distinguishable for dramatic purposes. And antagonsim's oppositions come from allies, partners, supporters, loved ones, friends, and sidekicks as well, and settings' times, places, and situations. Antagonsim is a duality comprising purposes and complications. A for instance from chemistry: Carefully add baking soda to dilute muriatic acid. The two compounds are mutual antagonists of one another. Through a chemical reaction the compounds become water, table salt, carbon dioxide, and heat. Whatever purposes there are for mixing them together relates to desired outcomes. The original compounds are for all intents and purposes unequivocally, irrevocably changed.

Coincidently enough, Voldemoort is Potter's nemesis, enemy, the arch villain of the saga, and a central antagonist, but not Potter's sole antagonist. Even Ron Weasley is at times an opposing, complicating antagonist of Potter's. Voldemoort is the high-concept main dramatic complication perhaps. But in the narrative's subtext is a true main complication. Potter must grow up without the timely guidance of his parents and forge his own independent self-identity. He is unequivocally, irrevocably changed by his efforts and the efforts of all who support and oppose him.

I see no reason for a protagonist to defeat an antagonist. Cold War spy thrillers don't defeat the central antagonist, villain, nemesis, or enemy, for example. However, the embodied agents of the opposition are defeated, thwarted, setback, or defused. John LeCarre's The Spy Who Came in from the Cold.
Last edited by polymath on August 21st, 2010, 1:09 pm, edited 4 times in total.
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Re: As a reader how do you feel about this?

Post by J. T. SHEA » August 21st, 2010, 12:38 pm

A sort of cliffhanger so, with the villain winning round one, but both hero and villain living to fight another day? Readers (professional or otherwise) might accept such an ending better if they could look forward to a series.

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Re: As a reader how do you feel about this?

Post by J. T. SHEA » August 21st, 2010, 12:53 pm

I second Polymath's typically thorough analysis. Holmes vs Moriarty, Harry Potter vs Voldemort, and the Cold War, are excellent examples of 'fighting the long defeat' which only becomes a victory at the very end. It's not over until it's all over.

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Re: As a reader how do you feel about this?

Post by polymath » August 21st, 2010, 1:32 pm

Thanks for the second, J.T. Shea.

There are many ways to wrap up an installment, leave it stand-alone, and still pose a cliffhanger ending. Thomas Harris uses Hannibal Lecter's unresolved outcome for that purpose. Red Dragon, 1981, Lecter is mere unchanging villain, though in backstory he's been antagonist, enemy, and nemesis to protagonist Jack Crawford. Silence of the Lambs, 1988, Lecter is Crawford's coprotagonist Clarice Starling's ally, taking first precedence over Lecter's nemesis, antagonist, enemy, villain statuses. Hannibal, 1999, he's transformed into anti-hero/coprotagonist with coprotagonist Starling. Hannibal Rising, 2006, he's antihero/sole protagonist. The movie translations have a different outlook than the novels.
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Re: As a reader how do you feel about this?

Post by Mira » August 21st, 2010, 2:34 pm

I like bad guys who get away. As long as the novel is complete in itself, and can stand alone as a satisfying story, the fact that it could turn into a series probably won't make it a hard sell. It might even add to the saleability.

One note - although I rarely want to mess with anyone's story sight unseen, I will say that killing a girlfriend (if she's likeable) at the end of a book is a real bummer. Some readers may get mad at you and decide you took them for a ride. It's all in how it's done, of course, but readers usually want some type of positive resolution even if the bad guy gets away at the end. Usually a girlfriend or someone of some importance is killed at the beginning and the story then becomes about revenge and...oh shoot. What's the word I want? Not redemption. Darn. Can't think of it. Well, I hope you know what I mean.

Okay than, good luck. :)

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Re: As a reader how do you feel about this?

Post by Aimée » August 21st, 2010, 4:06 pm

I am writing a crime thriller where the antagonist kills the protagonist, but then the protagonist's girlfriend kills the antagonist. It's fun to break traditions and give the reader's a little surprise. The cliché ending of good defeating evil can get boring. I say experiment away! Do whatever fits the best with the characters and theme.

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Re: As a reader how do you feel about this?

Post by Down the well » August 21st, 2010, 4:22 pm

polymath wrote:I see no reason for a protagonist to defeat an antagonist. Cold War spy thrillers don't defeat the central antagonist, villain, nemesis, or enemy, for example. However, the embodied agents of the opposition are defeated, thwarted, setback, or defused. John LeCarre's The Spy Who Came in from the Cold.
In No Country For Old Men by Cormac McCarthy, Chigurh never gets caught and punished for his murders. He gets banged up in a car accident, but that's it. The sheriff gives up and retires, and the bad guy gets away.

I know I wished Chigurh would have died in the car accident, but somehow it seemed more realistic/believable that he walked away. Scarier, too, knowing some psychopathic killer never got caught.

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Re: As a reader how do you feel about this?

Post by Polenth » August 21st, 2010, 4:24 pm

I don't mind if the antagonist gets away, but I do mind if the protagonist fails in every way. Harry may not defeat Voldemort at the end of every book, but he does succeed in stopping a small plot. Without any kind of success, you'd have trouble getting me to read more books. I don't want to read six books of epic failures, before I get the one success at the end. I want to see some progress and success on the way.
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Re: As a reader how do you feel about this?

Post by polymath » August 21st, 2010, 4:44 pm

Down the well wrote:In No Country For Old Men by Cormac McCarthy, Chigurh never gets caught and punished for his murders. He gets banged up in a car accident, but that's it. The sheriff gives up and retires, and the bad guy gets away.

I know I wished Chigurh would have died in the car accident, but somehow it seemed more realistic/believable that he walked away. Scarier, too, knowing some psychopathic killer never got caught.
Poetic justice is a hallmark of Romanticism providing for deeply emotional payoffs. Realism reacts to poetic justice and can seem flat in immediate emotional payoff. Chigurh's outcome [(unnoticed until annoying like a chigger?)] reflects the ever present reality of predatory monsters who social justice seeks to quell, but the intellectual payoff from realizing that trumps the immediate emotional payoff. McCarthy's endings tend to inspire thoughtful contemplation in order to reach a satisfyingly emotional payoff.

I"m of the time wounds all heels camp. They might get away for now, but time and the tide of social justice will catch up to 'em. Live by social injustice, die by social injustice. Moss is a somewhat sympathetic character, but for his self-serving and self-sacrificing motivations he would have never been in jeopardy. Sheriff Bell has his own noble cross to bear. Sadly, perhaps tragically beautifully, there's no heroes in the novel, just people being as real as people can be in fiction.
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Re: As a reader how do you feel about this?

Post by shadow » August 23rd, 2010, 9:48 pm

Go evil guys and antagonists! Hope that answers your question. In many books I read I root for em anyways.
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Re: As a reader how do you feel about this?

Post by sarahdee » August 24th, 2010, 6:06 am

In mine the antagonist gets away with it but I've done it so its a little twist at the end to (hopefully) shock the reader. Its a case of all along one version of events is given but at the end I added an epilogue of what really happened.

Have you ever read The Sculptress by Minette Walters? Basically the story is an investigative reporter working to get a woman out of prison. The woman is not altogether there and the reporter believes she was bullied by the police into admitting a murder which she didn't commit. Right at the end, as she is let out of prison the reporter realises the woman was playing her but its too late, she walks away. Or was she - its one of those you will never know affairs but very well done.

Also Joy Fielding's Whispers and Lies is about a woman who all along you quite like and think is in danger but at the end, she is the baddie!

So in answer to your question, I like the idea :)

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Re: As a reader how do you feel about this?

Post by sldwyer » August 24th, 2010, 12:21 pm

I like the idea. Not all stories have to have a nice ending, just one that ties up all the loose ends. Having the antagonist get away is good in that it (1) allows for a series, (2) gives the reader a chance to end the bad guys life their own way, (3) lets the read know that life isn't always what we want. Sometimes we can't always win.

I don't know how you story ends, the death of his girlfriend is a real bummer, but life isn't always good. How the protagonist deal with these two issues will tell you if the ending works.

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