Heroes Who Fail

Way down in one of the recent Rothfuss Reread posts “mr. awesome” asked for recommendations for books about failed heroes.

Not antiheroes who do or want bad things, but heroes who don’t achieve their objectives or who do the opposite of their objectives. …

Other books with failed heroes please? I’ll be very grateful.

One of the very cool things about Patrick Rothfuss’s Kingkiller Chronicles is that there’s a frame story within which the main story is narrated, and it appears from the frame story that the hero has failed. He has faked his death, changed his name and gone into hiding — but he is still alive, and we don’t know yet (until the much longed for third volume) either why he did this, or whether he may yet redeem himself.

But generally, when talking about heroes who fail it’s big fat spoiler time, and you can’t even say which books are about to be spoiled.

However, I thought it was a really interesting question, and I couldn’t immediately think of many. It also raises interesting questions about Bujold’s critique of SF as “fantasies of political agency” and Budrys’s argument against Nineteen Eighty Four as SF on the grounds that if it were SF, Winston Smith would topple IngSoc. Nineteen Eighty Four is definitely a book where the hero fails where you’d expect and hope for a different outcome. In most SF and Fantasy, the protagonists succeed in their goals. That’s the way we expect it to be, and that’s the way it usually is. So looking at the exceptions seems like a really interesting idea.

I wanted to take this wider and get more suggestions.

First, books already mentioned that I haven’t read, and concerning which I therefore have no opinion. Mr Awesome mentioned a Stephen King series, saying you’d know the one if you’d read it. Ghrakmaxus and Zolt mentioned Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn series and GBrell adds more Sanderson, Warbreaker and Way of Kings. Jezdynamite suggested Joe Abercrombie’s First Law books.

Jezdynamite also mentioned Ender’s Game. I don’t think that’s an example of the hero failing, it’s an example of the hero succeeding beyond his wildest dreams. (Literally…) Only his success is also his failure, which is one of the reasons it’s an interesting book. So that’s one way of doing it.

Thistlepong mentioned Midnight’s Children (post) which is a really good example. It’s also, like Nineteen Eighty Four, written from outside of genre.

Another Andrew alludes to Frodo — Frodo fails personally, but nevertheless the Ring is destroyed. And LOTR is the origin of modern fantasy as a genre, so why has fantasy has become so triumphalist since? The only other example like this I can think of is Le Guin’s A Wizard of Earthsea (post).

GBrell suggested Gateway (post) which is an interesting edge-case where the hero succeeds in what he’s trying to do while losing something more important. It is also, like the Rothfuss, told in two timelines.

He goes on to mention John Streakley’s Armor, which I read too long ago to say anything intelligent about, and Joe Haldeman’s The Forever War (post) which is a complete reversal of Ender’s Game and Gateway where winning is losing because, in The Forever War, losing is winning.

I don’t think there would be much argument that Ender’s Game has a sad ending, though you can argue about failure, and similarly, The Forever War definitely has a happy ending. So it depends what you mean by “hero fails.” There are also books like Kim Stanley Robinson’s Pacific Edge where Robinson gets around the utopia problem by having the hero fail to get the girl or win the softball tournament. And there are books like Memory that redefine the victory conditions.

The first thing I thought of when mr awesome made his original request was John Christopher’s Prince in Waiting trilogy (post), because I read it so recently. There’s a boy who’s destined to be the Great Prince — and things don’t turn out that way.

Then I remembered Jack Womack’s brilliant Random Acts of Senseless Violence, in which everything gets worse for the world and the people caught up in it. This book has a first person female central character, and this leads me to wonder why all the others mentioned so far are men — “heroes” is being used in a gender-inclusive way in this post, but trying to think of examples of female heroes who fail isn’t getting me much. I guess I wrote a couple myself — Farthing and definitely Ha’Penny, but the third book in the series has a kind of happy ending. And there’s the near-future thread of The Sky Road (post) where Myra wins by losing.

It’s also worth considering Samuel Delany’s Stars in My Pocket Like Grains of Sand, which is a love story in which the hero doesn’t get the boy. It may not count because it was intended as the first half of two, and maybe he intended the second volume to conclude with “boy gets boy back again.” But as it stands — and Delany has said he has no intention of finishing it — it’s definitely a hero who doesn’t succeed.

I’m sure there are loads of things I’m not thinking of. Suggestions?


Jo Walton is a science fiction and fantasy writer. She’s published two poetry collections and nine novels, most recently Among Others, and if you liked this post you will like it. She reads a lot, and blogs about it here regularly. She comes from Wales but lives in Montreal where the food and books are more varied.

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