Wed
Mar 7 2012 11:00am

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.

114 comments
Memory Arnould
1. xicanti
The Homeward Bounders by Diana Wynne Jones is another where the hero wins by losing.
Eric Saveau
2. Eric Saveau
Dragon Age 2. The narrative of DA2 is presented after the fact by a somewhat unreliable narrator (and the trope is used marvelously here) who is attempting to set the record straight. Hawke becomes the Champion of Kirkwall, but is standing against forces much larger and more powerful than he-or-she and the outcome proceeds form that fact, helped along by a horrific act of betrayal. For Hawke, what little unltimate success there is becomes escape, with a few surviving friends, from the failure to save the city-state of Kirkwall. (It's been out long enough that I sdon't think spoiling the ending to that degree is too big a deal, and besides, the narrative journey that leads to that end remains compelling even on multiple plays).
Eric Saveau
3. Dietes
Horn from The Book of the Short Sun by Gene Wolfe.
Eric Saveau
4. a1ay
Indiana Jones? The guy completely fails to prevent the Nazis getting their hands on both the Ark of the Covenant and the Holy Grail.

Consider Phlebas - the hero fails to accomplish his mission, gets all his friends killed, dies (of course he does, he's an Iain M. Banks protagonist), and his side loses the war.
Pellegrina Stoat
5. Pellegrina
Mary Gentle Golden Witchbreed/Ancient Light - if memory serves (the depression resulting from reading them first time round has made me a bit shaky on the details and reluctant to reread GW because I know AL is coming) the hero accidentally dooms a planet to ecological disaster.
Eric Saveau
6. Rancho Unicorno
I'm a bit confused about the Mistborn reference. I checked the original suggestion, and get the idea - that it is built around a world where the hero failed. But the trilogy itself is about a hero not failing - that is, it is a story about the redemption of the role, if you will.

I'm just not sure if it fits in the same category as stories where the present hero fails (or am I just misunderstanding and artificially narrowing the category to suit my position?), like Frodo or Indy to stop the bad guys and ends up relying on someone else to do the dirty work for him.
Brian R
7. Mayhem
A1ay beat me to Consider Phlebas, but from a gaming point of view, both the Diablo games end with the hero breaking things worse than when he started - the first frees the Prime Evil Diablo to walk the earth once more, and the second ends up with the Worldstone corrupted and then destroyed.

I seem to remember the Black Company books being fairly dark but I'm not sure if they actually fail as such.
Eric Saveau
8. StrongDreams
If I have guesed correctly which King book Mr Awesome is referring to, I would not quite consider that a failure of the hero, but something else; best not to say more.

However, thinking of King brings up 'Salem's Lot, in which (spoiler below)the hero entirely fails to save the girl, and which ends with the hero and his adopted son setting out on an uncertain future of vampire hunting.
Eric Saveau
9. Ahimsa
The original hero is Arthur (you could list anyone who retold his story but Gillian Bradshaw's version was always my favorite.) Not only did he sleep with his sister and create his mortal enemy of a son, but he married a woman who fell in love with his best friend. D'oh!
Steven Halter
10. stevenhalter
How about Mindkiller by Spider Robinson. It's been a while since I read it but I seem to recall the ending wasn't what the protagonist would have wanted.

For film SF, Brazil certainly fits.
Eric Saveau
11. Vitiosus
Neil Gaiman's "The Sandman". There are multiple story arcs where the protagonist "fails" to achieve their desired objective. For example he "fails" to retrieve his jewel. They fail to stop the cuckoo, fail to bring back his brother. But Neil Gaiman's genius is that he is able to convince you as the reader to realize that while this isn't the "happy ending" perhaps you wanted, it is the correct ending.

As note, I started reading Gaiman based on the praise of Patrick Rothfuss. When one of your favorite authors rates books on a scale of 1-Gaiman, makes you want to check out this "Gaiman" fellow.
Eric Saveau
12. charlie read
I would add Lev Grossman's books, The Magicians and The Magician King. I enjoyed both, and both nearly broke my heart.
Emmet O'Brien
13. EmmetAOBrien
If mrawesome is referring to the series I think he is (and really, I can only think of one thing by Stephen King that could fairly be described as a series) then I disagree entirely, for reasons that would be massive spoilers. How does the spoiler white-out thing work, exactly ?
Eric Saveau
14. StrongDreams
Still thinking of Stephen King, any number of his short stories and novellas end on down notes, with the protagonist having failed to achieve whatever goal was set. "Gramma" and "The Mist" coming first to mind.

As well as any number of episodes of "The Twilight Zone."
John Hardy
15. screwtape
Hero by Dave Duncan. At the end, I think the original human race ceases to exist.
Fantasy: Heroics for Beginners by John Moore. The prince does all the right heroic things but doesn't get the credit.
Historical fiction: C.S. Forester's Brown on Resolution. It's actually a case of the hero succeeding, but nobody ever knowing about him or his actions.
Emmet O'Brien
16. EmmetAOBrien
Vitiosus@11: I'm not at all sure that the arc of Sandman counts as Dream failing at his goal, I think he succeeds at achieving a goal that's not normally considered a happy ending.
Emmet O'Brien
17. EmmetAOBrien
accidental double post, please delete.
Anthony Pero
18. anthonypero
Is there any question that the Protagonist/Hero of Game of Thrones is Ned Stark? Is there any question he failed? Did I say this without revealing any spoilers?
Chris Lehotsky
19. Tel_Janin
The hero doesn't neccessarily fail, but Matthew Stover's "Acts of Caine" series is a pretty heavy hitter when it comes to losing everything to achieve a goal. And the Law of Unintended Consequences always seems to bite Caine in the backside. Can't wait for Caine's Law, out on April 3.
Anthony Pero
20. anthonypero
The external conflict between the Buggers and Earth is totally irrelevant to Ender's Game. The story is about Ender's desire to be a normal child... which he gives up. He doesn't succed at this goal. He decided that the future of the world is more important than his own life. That's when he leaves NC and goes back into space. This is the main central conflict of the story. He doesn't fail, however, because this is not a succeed or fail story, its a story about deciding what matters. The only way to fail is to not decide.
Brian R
21. Mayhem
What about Cugel in The Eyes of the Overworld - he goes through all manner of tribulations only to miscast a spell and send himself right back to where he started.
Or Liane in The Dying Earth, who is rather foolishly overconfident.
Hmm, I think quite a few of Jack Vance's protagonists wind up failing horribly.


From an SF side, Feintuch's Seafort succeeds despite failing on several occasions, but he is more the Tortured Hero archetype.
James Kopsian
22. FesterBestertester
This is probably pretty obvious but just about any story by H. P. Lovecraft. Even in The Dunwich Horror the heroes are only delaying the inevitable. (Though using horror examples might be cheating.)
Bob Bruhin
23. bruhinb
Maybe Lord Corwin in the Amber books? That's a hard call, though, because his true quest far outstrips his original goals at the beginning of the series. Part of what makes this series so charming for me is the novel use of the unreliable narrator. Corwin really doesn't even understand what the conflict is all about at the beginning of the series, despite the fact he is one of the key players. Watching his goals and methods evolve as he heals, matures, and gains greater understanding of what the stakes really are is the bulk of the fun, as far as I am concerned.

Untimately, does he fail? In the terms of the person he was at the end of the first book, I say yes. In terms of who he is at the end of his series, it's much harder to judge.
Eric Saveau
24. wiredog
Dune where Paul tries to prevent the jihad and, in the end, realizes he can't. Dune Messiah/Children of Dune where he really can't escape his fate, either. Nor can Leto.

In Piper's overall TFH the hero may win in the short term, but it all comes to nothing in the end. The Federation always falls, then the succeeding Empires...
Rob Munnelly
26. RobMRobM
I'm in the final book of Abraham's Long Price Quartet and there is at least one, and perhaps more, hero effort that fails. (I'm thinking third book.)
Dean Tucker
27. StoryCottage
I would include Thomas Covenant from the three books that make up the First Chronicles of Thomas Convenant, the Unbeliever, by Stephen R. Donaldson. When Covenant tries to solve the problems the world faces, which he isn't even convinced is real, he ends up acheiving his needed objectives, but with long term consequences that work against him, the other characters, and the world itself each and every time.
Natasa Charlotte
28. Natasa
Very interesting article, thanks for this! Bookmarking for sure.
Eric Saveau
29. Carey G
Acacia by David Anthony Durham. The last 60 pages are a like a punch in the gut.
Eric Saveau
30. dwndrgn
I can't suggest the book I just read because I'll be reviewing it soon and it isn't out yet and refuse to spoil it for anyone.

Regarding why there are fewer hero fails in fantasy than wins...my guess is that for escapist reading, we want our happily ever after (or whatever fantasy equivalent you have) and we want an effective hero to root for and be happy about because we don't have enough of those here in real life. At least, that is my take. Depressing, downer novels with endings where everything is more screwed up than it was in the beginning is pretty much anathema to me as it makes me feel depressed and I have plenty of depression in my RL thank you very much.
Eric Saveau
31. Plarry
I don't like some of the original examples: Lord of the Rings, Earthsea. A hero failing is different from a hero sacrificing himself.

Dune and Consider Phlebas are plausible examples. But it is hard to think of good examples. Perhaps others are Mythago Wood (Holdstock) and American Gods (Gaiman). Some of Philip K. Dick's stuff doubtless qualifies as well, but the only example I can recall that really resonates is Our Friends from Frolix 8.
Eric Saveau
32. a1ay
A related question that I think I raised over at Making Light:

We expect our heroes to fight against the odds, OK? One man against many. One poor woman against a rich, powerful organisation. A little guy against Andre the Giant. That kind of thing. It makes it all the sweeter when they win.

We're OK with lone heroes, poor heroes (financially poor), heroes without important family backgrounds, excluded heroes, outnumbered heroes. Heroes who are physically weak or even disabled.

What about incompetent heroes? Do you think you could write a (non-comic) novel in which the hero is just not very good at stuff? Could that actually be a hero?
Eric Saveau
33. a1ay
Oh, and Das Boot might qualify, depending on whether you can bring yourself to regard U-boat men as heroes. Personally I think it had a happy ending...
Paul Weimer
34. PrinceJvstin
Mike Stackpole's The Dark Glory War, prequel to his Dragoncrown cycle.

The heroes do not only spectacularly fail at their tasks, but rather get corrupted to serve the evil they oppose.
Eric Saveau
35. Lynnet1
Calling on Dragons, by Patricia Wrede is, as a standalone book, actually a textbook example of this. When the book ends the main character is helpless, and the other main character is trapped and incapable of freeing himself, and the only hope that anyone has is that in 16 years their kids will maybe be able to fix things. I'd say that meets the criteria
p l
36. p-l
I think The Eyes of the Overworld is the best example mentioned so far. It's hilariously unambiguous that Cugel fails at the end.

It felt to me at the end of Raphael Carter's The Fortunate Fall that both Maya and Voskresenye (sp?) had failed, though of course it kind of felt like everyone had.
Clark Myers
37. ClarkEMyers
The Forever War definitely has a happy ending.
I'd say enough disagree to make the definitely questionable. See e.g. the discussion in Far Horizons (Robert Silverberg edited). Any hope for an expansion of the definitely with that in mind? Similarly some Drake and Pournelle.

As with Das Boot much by Hans Hellmut Kirst. Perhaps like arguably the ending of The Caine Mutiny these are books with a setting where feel good success is impossible. H.M.S. Ulysses?

Louis L'Amour has some runs of stories where each book ends with success and that success is nullified between books - a not uncommon way to keep action going.
Ken Walton
38. carandol
Tolkien's Children of Hurin is about as much of a failure for Turin as it could be.

And there's King Arthur, of course, in any number of retellings. And a lot of the subsdiary heroes fail too - Merlin, Lancelot, etc.

The characters in Michael Scott Rohan's Winter of the World trilogy win, but know that by so-doing they've doomed the world as they know it to extinction.

There's a whole lot of Germanic/Celtic inevitable tragedy going on here! :-)
Clark Myers
39. ClarkEMyers
Perhaps Officer X-127 of Level 7 - arguably reviewed as a better book at the time of first publication than it merits in retrospect.

Kettlebelly Baldwin and by extension Friday? For a short story Pugilist (Poul Anderson - and some others of his even unto Flandry?
Eric Saveau
40. Dr. Thanatos
Jack of Shadows---hero gets suckered by his best friend who appears to be Satan, precipitating The End Of The World As We Know It...

Any number of Michael Moorcock's interchangable Elric/Hawkmoon/EtcEtc books; hero may or may not succeed, but he clearly does not come out on top...

Foundation and Empire---as far as I'm concerned, the Mule is my hero and he loses here...
Clark Myers
42. ClarkEMyers
#40 -Any number of Michael Moorcock's interchangable Elric/Hawkmoon/EtcEtc books; hero may or may not succeed, but he clearly does not come out on top...

#38 -There's a whole lot of Germanic/Celtic inevitable tragedy going on here! :-)
A fair number of stories by C.L. Moore are in the same vein - Jirel of Joiry once wins by losing or perhaps loses by winning.
Anthony Pero
43. anthonypero
31. Plarry

I don't like some of the original examples: Lord of the Rings, Earthsea. A hero failing is different from a hero sacrificing himself.

For Lord of the Rings at least, this example applies, because Frodo failed to destroy the ring. He wasn't able to do it in the end. Only Gollum taking the ring and promptly falling into the lava caused the world to be saved. Frodo failed internally.
Eric Saveau
44. Hubert
The original Dune series is what first came to mind, and overall in that Universe it's hard to say any main character or group got what he/she/it/they wanted. The Amber series is one of my favorite examples of the hero failing to achieve what he thought he wanted, but ultimately being okay about it.

What about Clarke's Childhood's End? That book has haunted me for years, especially as a parent. Does the human race lose while achieving transcendance by proxy?
Eric Saveau
45. OtterB
John Barnes, Earth Made of Glass. Girault and Margaret fail spectacularly.

a1ay @32, re an incompetent hero. They sometimes start out incompetent but unless it's played for laughs, they usually get better. The only exception I can think of is Jane Yolen's middle-grade book Wizard's Hall. The main character is a student at a magic school who is prophesied to have an important role to play but just can't manage to do anything right. I remember the book because he doesn't blossom into a top-notch magician a la The Ugly Duckling. It turns out that his role is not to be a powerful enchanter, but to be an "enhancer" - his contribution is in catalyzing the magic of others, and in keeping trying.
Brian R
46. Mayhem
Scott Lynch's The Lies of Locke Lamora and even more so Red Sails under Red Skies. Fun as they are, the Gentleman Bastard series isn't doing very good at rewarding its protagonists with success at their plans.

Hmm, Guy Gavriel Kay's Sailing to Sarantium and Lord of Emperors count? Crispin might finally finish his mosaic, but doesn't exactly get to appreciate it.
Brian R
47. Mayhem
@32
I can't think of any serious works with incompetent protagonists, though they crop up periodically in comedies and parodies.
Flashman, Rincewind, and the crew from Villains by Necessity all lack that heroic touch.

Harry Potter maybe? He never really accomplishes much by himself, mostly he kind of stumbles in the right direction.
George Brell
48. gbrell
@44.Hubert:

I've always thought there was a fascinating essay to be written discussing Childhood's End, the concept of evolution towards gestalt and individual liberty. You're not alone in finding the ending haunting. I've also thought the Overlords' (the devil-like species guiding humanity) inability to transcend to be one of the most poignant moments in science fiction.
James Whitehead
49. KatoCrossesTheCourtyard
I think the original Dune doesn't count 'cause it ends as it does. Paul has not failed; he's avenged his father, brought about the Fremen revolt, & is now empeor.

Spoilers for those who haven't read beyond Dune:

Now going forward when we see what his son Leto does we do understand that Paul fails to achieve that. But Leto's Golden Path was daunting for anyone. Which is why Leto is so lonely in the end; not to mention upset with the Bene Gesserit.

As for Morcock's enternal champion series; the champion at best gets to know peace for a time. As is often pointed out in the many books, that is more than many of us get. The champion definitely does not get to live the ending that Bilbo so desparately wanted to write for his book.

This is partially because the champion, in one of his incarnations, defied the Cosmic Balance & destroyed the Mabden (Man) in favour of the Vadagh. However, he/she usually succeeds in restoring balance to the multiverse.

I don't think we can judge poor Frodo too harshly, however. Yes he didn't thrown the One Ring into the fires from whence it was made but he got it there & through his actions it was destroyed. More of a real life success where you get 8 out of 10 in your endevours.

I think characterising Harry Potter's successes as dumb luck & stumbling around is channeling a little too much of Snape's POV. Harry is the antithesis of Voldemort not just 'cause he can love & Voldy (thanks Peeves!) can't. Harry lets his friends help in the end & trusts them with his life. He doesn't have the same skill, talent, power as Voldemort but he trusts the people around him & that is something that Voldemort cannot do & ends up being his undoing.

I kind of look at the whole hero failing in the end rather like watching Terry Gilliam's movie Brazil. I saw it when it came out and thought it was visually brilliant but in the end unsatisfying as 'our hero' didn't escape the soul crushing society.

Kato

PS - For the WOTers reading this thread the line "I win again, Lews Therin..." comes to mind regarding heroes failing. ;-)
Eric Saveau
50. Susan Loyal
I read this article with the echo of Lord Peter Wimsey talking about rear-guard actions resonating in my head: the Battle of Thermopylae and Roncevaux. They frequently get retold. So does Masada. And they seem to be an absolute violation of the rule that history gets told from the viewpoint of the winners. The Charge of the Light Brigade.

Hamlet.
Eric Saveau
51. Wizard Clip
Carandol's reference to King Arthur makes me think of other mythological/legendary figures, like Cuchullain in Ireland's Ulster cycle and Samson.
Eric Saveau
52. PhoenixFalls
Hmmm. . . the first thing I thought of was Farthing. :) Agree that most Banks Culture novels fit this -- at least, the ones I've read do.

Beyond stuff other people have said. . . maybe Jacqueline Carey's Banewrecker/Godslayer duology? Given that it's LotR told from Sauron's POV, and she does successfully make her Sauron-counterpart heroic.

Maybe also Sean Stewart's Passion Play, though the failure is foreshadowed from the start. (Also, this one has a female protagonist!)
Eric Saveau
53. musicalcolin
Spoilers for Never Let Me Go! (though is there really anyway to talk about a book on this thread without spoilers?)

I think it's pretty clear that at least in many ways, the 'hero' of Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro fails at least in some of her goals. In other goals, I think that the 'hero' believes that she succeeds, but one of the things that makes the book so brutal is that the reader feels as if her success is a failure. So I guess that there is a strong sense that like 1984 the book is about total helplessness loss in the face of greater forces. Great book. Cannot recommend it enough.
Katy Maziarz
54. ArtfulMagpie
"I'm a bit confused about the Mistborn reference. I checked the original suggestion, and get the idea - that it is built around a world where the hero failed. But the trilogy itself is about a hero not failing - that is, it is a story about the redemption of the role, if you will."

Well, yes, the whole set-up of the world is that many many years ago, a hero set out to save the world and failed and the world has been under the rule of a Dark Lord type character ever since. So in that sense, there is a failed hero set-up from the very beginning.

But, and I'm trying hard not to spoil the ending too badly, the interesting thing about the way the series ends is that the people whom you thought were the heros all along end up not actually being The Hero of the whole over-arching story. Basically, the small group of people whom you thought were going to save the world--didn't quite. And someone else stepped in at the very end and saved everyone else's butts. The main Hero-type characters got very close, but couldn't quite seal the deal... So is that a failed hero scenario? Well, yes, in its way!
Rob Munnelly
55. RobMRobM
@54. And there also a big fail by one of the main characters at the end of Book 2 (Well of Ascension). Two choices and, one could easily argue, picked the wrong one.
Clark Myers
56. ClarkEMyers
John Buchan has a clever sendup alt/history more or less after the Roses in which the True Prince is in hiding mucking stables and decides tis nobler to keep mucking stables than to plunge the exhausted country into more war. That's unconventional success rather than failure of course.
Mouette
57. Mouette
Oo, interesting look at the genre. There's the obvious one - ASOIAF. Ned was set up as a main character for the majority of the first book, and he very obviously failed - not only in that little beheading problem, but also in almost everything he tried to do in the books. But that is sort of the obvious example.

I don't remember the Assassin: Apprentice series (not sure of real series name, that's the first book) by Robin Hobb well enough to really comment, but I seem to recall Fitz failing at a number of things rather spectacularly.

Failure in fantasy often seems to happen in the *past*, to set up the current future in which Our Heroes live. In WOT, the past is a mess of failed Dragons. In Harry Potter, Dumbledore's failures (used loosely, I'm meaning things like his avoiding confronting Grindelwald til it was almost too late, his arguably not dealing with Voldemort the first time around, etc) create some of the situations that Harry and co. have to handle. In LOTR, Isildur's failure to destroy it the first time around led to a hobbit having to take up the One Ring. In Ender's Game, the previous military efforts' failure to deal with and/or understand the Buggers lead to the tragic victory. Ad infinitum.

I don't see Warbreaker as an example of a hero failing, really. To me it is more an example of the hero roles (and the villain roles) turning out to not be filled by the characters we originally thought they were, and the different ways to be heroic.

Now I really want to read a book that's about what happens when the hero *doesn't* succeed. Not in the past, setting up the next heroes, but as the main story. Though that might prove difficult in closure, plot, etc.
Steven Halter
58. stevenhalter
Susan Loyal@50:Those are good observations. The "heros" of the story fail quite a lot in real life and just about always in classical tragedies (often very badly). The topic of the post could probably be expanded to there not being an awful lot of actual classical tragedies in SF/Fantasy.
Clark Myers
59. ClarkEMyers
Asimov's short -- In a Good Cause----- but perhaps once again it's role reversal or least likely suspect is the hero.

Maybe Clive Egleton's Garnett trilogy - notice U.S. titles are different for no good reason I can see. Perhaps like We All Died at Breakaway Station enough success to redeem any failure - if the reader chooses?
Jim Millen
60. jim.millen
Just a quick observation as it's late here and I'm tired, but to me there's a big difference between "hero" and "protagonist".

Quite a lot of the examples people have mentioned - Banks' Culture and the Locke Lamora books spring to mind - do end with the protagonists' failure (Or at least significant misfortune!). But many of these protagonists are well towards the antihero side of the scale.

Having an archetypal hero fail miserably is, pretty much, a classical tragedy - and as @58 points out, there aren't many of those in SF. The story of Turin Turambar is about the closest I can think of, and definitely can't think of anything at all recent.

Wonder if that's 'cos nobody's writing them, or 'cos the perception is they won't sell?
Eric Saveau
61. Finny
Perhaps Vampire$ by John Steakley? Crow certainly seems to fail, by my estimation, at least.
Rob Munnelly
62. RobMRobM
Re Hobb - I don't really agree on that. Fitz had lots of small failures, and had a whole bunch of conflicting loyalties that took their toll on him and the people around him, but he succeeded in all the big things, both in the original series and in the follow up Tawny Man. (Fitz is a better example of a character who gets put through hell by the author and still keeps on going - that's one of the reasons I love those series so much.)
Eric Saveau
63. (still) Steve Morrison
Zelazny’s The Dream Master was a classical tragedy, i.e. the story of a great man destroyed by a single flaw.
Eric Saveau
64. cheem
I'm not sure if this counts, but there are plenty of novels in Steven Brust's Vlad Taltos series where Vlad fails or, at least, doesn't entirely succeed. And, in the Paarfi novels, there was that whole "creation of a sea of amorphia" business.

As mentioned above, Stephen King has had a few spectacular hero losses - Pet Sematary comes to mind... everyone's dead or worse in the end, more or less as a result of the protagonist's actions.

And there is Lemony Snicket's Series of Unfortunate Events, which really does pile up the misfortune, doesn't it?
Andrew Barton
65. MadLogician
The Cold Equations where the whole basis of the story is that there is nothing the characters can do to avoid their fate.

Norse myth ends with the death of all the characters and the destruction of the world.
Eric Saveau
66. Evan H.
Katherine Kerr's Deverry cycle involves reincarnation; the souls of the main characters are brought together by fate again and again in a whole series of lives, and they fail every time until eventually they don't. It's complicated, but very effective storytelling.
john mullen
67. johntheirishmongol
Since I hate stories about failed heroes, this is really good, so I don't have to read a bunch of books I will hate. But at looking at some of the posts, I would argue some of them are wrong.

Paul Atriedes is not a failed hero in Dune (ignore all sequels and prequels)

I don't think Fitz is a failed hero.

But this is why I never liked the Arthurian stories though. I hate the ending and a lot of the associated story, which seems to be more about destroying the idea of chivalry than setting it up as an example
John Hardy
68. screwtape
@67 - I have always found the Arthurian cycle interesting, because whether Arthur was a success or a failure really depends upon your perspective on time. When you read most versions of it, you get this overwhelming feeling of 'Camelot as one very brief shining moment' and then everything crashes down. Sort of an English Alexander the Great - at age 18, asserts control over Greece and starts the external conquests that will create an empire extending from Greece to India, dead at 32. Empire divided on his death between his 4 most successful subordinates. Total elapsed time from start of career to collapse of personal empire following death - 14 years.

In fact, if you look at the Arthurian cycle more closely, Arthur actually reigns for at least 30 years, which was an extraordinarily long time by early medieval standards. Arthur is in his late teens when he puts forth his claim to the throne and is at least 50 when he dies in the civil war with his son who is trying to seize the throne.

So the Arthur cycle is really the story of a man who comes to power in a country wracked by war, invasions, and general brigandry; who unites the people, defeats the invaders, suppresses the general lawlessness, establishes institutions of good government and thus provides a period of peace, stability and prosperity for the general populace for decades; and who even in his death, takes the biggest potential cause of future anarchy, tyranny and civil war with him so that the basic framework of stability that he created has a chance to survive into the future. Is that really a story of a hero failing?

More importantly, would the original medieval audience have seen it that way? Actually, the Arthurian cycle is a very typical description of the life cycle of many (perhaps most) effective early medieval European rulers: they would start out as young, energetic and vigorous rulers, instituting reforms and establishing the foundations for great things, then gradually would become old and tired and their realms would stagnate with them. Eventually, the great Achilles heel of the monarchical system would reveal iself -- the issue of succession and all too often the lack of a good Succession Plan. A strong and effective ruler would either be succeeded by a weak and ineffective heir, raised with a feeling of entitlement but without the competence to justify it, or else by several strong and ambitious competing would-be successors, who would tear the realm apart in civil war.

Any European audience from the 11th to 17th centuries (when the cycle was popular) would have been intimately familiar with the rulership arc. And I think most would have felt that a ruler who managed to provide an entire country with a middle period of stability and prosperity for long enough to let an entire generation grow up in peace was a successful hero indeed.

I would have thought that the whole story arc (rise as young man, unite shattered country into strong prosperous empire, be destroyed by civil war with ungrateful bratty children, have empire dissipated by said children) was modelled on the life of Henry II of England and the Angevin Empire, except that the first variant was gathered together in its medieval trappings by Geoffrey of Monmouth during the early / vigorous part of Henry II's reign.
Sujay Naik
69. simoquin
Hawkwood and the Kings and it's sequel... Without getting too spoilery the eponymous character inadvertantly helps to bring about the destruction of his 'world' and the other 'hero' eventually is unable to save his society as he knew it - it is entirely remade at the end. In a sense, epic failure for all the characters who had a 'goal'.
Eric Saveau
70. Juanito
GOD, FitzChivalry from the Royal Assassin trilogy. In fact, him and EVERYONE else opposed to Regal completely bugger each other in their desperate, whiny attachment to god-knows-what. Nobody does anything REMOTELY effective in halting Regal's ambition and FitzChivalry ends up dead, reborn, thought dead, until he sees everyone who MIGHT have a chance of winning out turned into a dragon and fly away.

GOD that was- RRRRGGHHH!!!!
Eric Saveau
71. Andrew Mck
Screwtape @68. The point is, Arthur is a failure in his terms. Yes, he reigned for a long time, but what the arthurian cycle is about is his attempts to leave a legacy of a permanently changed - for the better - society. At his death not only has he not achieved this, but everything is back where it started. A civil war, fratricide and patricide, death, gloom and despair and, the cycle says, caused, indirectly but inevitably, by decisions and actions that Arthur had taken. That's why it's a tragedy.

It's interesting how many heroes of our foundational literature are tragic figures of failure:
Moses doesn't make it to the promised land.
Gilgamesh's city returns to the desert.
Roland bursts his temple summoning reinforcements to a misconceived attack he leads on his moorish opponents.
Hector is killed by Achilles, Achilles is killed by Paris. Paris, Priam and the rest of their family end up dead. Agammemnon wins the war, goes home and is killed by his wife.
Odysseus does eventually get home. But 1o years to sail across the Mediterranean? With his entire crew dead? And a path of death and destruction all the way from the walls of Troy to his marital bed.

Maybe great stories, or even stories that just tell us important things, don't have to end with the hero living happily ever after.
Eric Saveau
72. a1ay
I read this article with the echo of Lord Peter Wimsey talking about
rear-guard actions resonating in my head: the Battle of Thermopylae and Roncevaux

"The British Army has, of course, a long and glorious tradition of heroic last stands. The Royal Navy does not have such a tradition. It has a tradition of winning."
Brian R
73. Mayhem
There is a difference though between a tragedy, and a hero failing.

As an example: I was going to suggest the Redwall book Martin the Warrior, which ends on quite the downer note, but Martin doesn't fail - he succeeds in everything he sets out to do at the start. The tragedy element is that he tries to change his goals midway through only to have his love die at the end and render the changes moot.

I wonder if the idea of the hero actually failing is more suitable to a farce, which tends to be fairly rare in genre fiction.

@50
There is a very mythic resonance in the idea of the glorious defeat - say HMS Ulysses, or the Thunderchild in War of the Worlds - where the ship goes down, but in doing so wins freedom for the civilians/lets the women and children go. It isn't failure so much as a Heroic Sacrifice and still happens periodically in reality.
Thermopylae is famed because while they died they still succeeded in
delaying the advance, so could be praised by those that followed - if
Persia had won at Salamis or Platea I'd say the story wouldn't echo in the same way.

The Charge of the Light Brigade on the other hand is held up along with Custer's Last Stand as examples of sheer bloodyminded stupidity, with heroes nowhere to be seen.
Ciarán Denny
74. pCiaran
I haven't seen it mentioned thus far but if you're looking for failures then the Malazan Book of the Fallen has a few. And there's a few in the other Malazan books by Ian Esslemont. I'd have to think about it to get the full list and I'm sure there are those who are more familiar with the malazan world then I who could point out other people but offhand (andI'm trying to turn the following text white):

As it turns out I couldn't get the white thing to work. Not sure whati'm doing wrong. As such I have deleted the names in question I will just leave two points that do not provide spoilers firstly in the Malazan books dead is more flexible then one might originally assume and secondly while all the characters I can think of get POVs some get significantly more then others. I'm not sure if that impacts on the definition of heroes.

And on definition of heroes - some of the the anti-heros in the Sundering Duology by Jacqueline Carey are failures (although they may not be what you're looking for).

I'll come up with more from the Malazan books though.
Eric Saveau
75. Rancho Unicorno
@55 - yeah, but failure during the process shouldn't count as failure in the completion of the goal. Some are bothered by Rand's balefire parade (I thought it was about time he brought down the hammer on people), but I wouldn't call that failure to achieve his goal - if he "wins" the Final Battle (including not rebreaking the world in a bad way) in AMoL, he wouldn't make this list.

@54 - I see your point. I was treating the win as a win for Team Hero, and thus not a Hero Failure, but I suppose the Hero Expectant reached a plateau that was short of expectations but was needed to serve as a platform for the End of Story Hero.

Wow, dancing-around-the-spoiler-line is hard work. Hopefully that made some sense.
Eric Saveau
76. terryv
King Arthur (my personal favorite iteration being T.H. White's "The Once and Future King," but any other version of the story would work as well).
Sean Newton
77. SJN
Armor is another one with 2 timelines. Also an interesting because the stated goal of one of the main characters is to die.
It is an interesting question because in good fantasy, the quest goal is often merely excuse to accomplish something, usually more interesting, in the narrative. so whether you accomplish the quest or not is usually not as important as the narrative goal.
Anthony Pero
78. anthonypero
The other thing about the Lord of the Rings is that, really, the Hero is Sam Gamgee. And he doesn't fail in the slightest. Tolkien balances Frodo's failure with Sam's fortitude, and a bit of Providence intervening. The brilliance of it is that Providence intervened in a way that didn't scream Dues ex Machina. In the end, it didn't matter how heroic, how brave, how strong any of the Fellowship was, they all suffered Boromir's tragic flaw. No one had the internal strength to destroy the Ring. Ultimately, it was Frodo's (faulty) belief in Gollom, and Sam's (faulty) belief in Frodo that allowed the Ring to be destroyed.
Eric Saveau
79. mr. awesome
So since Jo mentioned right at the top that this was a spoiler area, I'll mention the Stephen King thing. But I'll put it in all white text so none of you will accidentally see it if you don't want to.

I didn't see this until now, or I'd have commented earlier.

SPOILER (DO NOT HIGHLIGHT BELOW)
The Dark Tower Series. Roland gets caught in an infinite time loop of suffering. Someone said above that they disagree with this, and I think that's because he also finds the Horn of Gilead, which suggests hope. I kind of agree, but the ending is still a big bummer and Roland clearly undergoes extreme amounts of suffering. The top room of the Dark Tower is far from the utopia he hoped it would be.
SPOILER (DO NOT HIGHLIGHT ABOVE)

So, yeah. And thank you Jo, and commenters, a ton for all of the suggestions. And also the Mistborn series is AMAZING, thanks to those who recommended it earlier. I don't really think it fits the "failed hero" criteria very well (I understand why people would think so though) but I don't care at all. Completely fantastic.
Eric Saveau
80. mr. awesome
Also: THE NEW GENTLEMAN BASTARDS BOOK is out and I had no idea until now. Thank you thank you thank you thank you @46. I had forgotten about this series.

yay. I will be busy for the next few hours.
Kevin Maroney
81. womzilla
Diates @3: Horn absolutely does not fail. He succeeds precisely in his quest, just not in the way he expected or wanted.

You could argue that Silk does not achieve his goal in The Book of the Long Sun (saving his manteon from destruction), but it's pretty clear by the end of the novel his sights have moved far past that initial quest, and he's mostly successful in achieving his larger goal (saving the whorl).
Clark Myers
82. ClarkEMyers
Maybe something by Mark Geston although more likely a define your terms what is a hero what is fails discussion.

Agreed the SF genre is not full of classic tragedy. There might be some retellings of say the Hindenberg disaster in the course of super science stories - I suppose the golden age of 14 is not the age for classical tragedy.
Eric Saveau
83. Plarry
Re: Anthonypero
I'm not buying your interpretation of LOTR. Frodo succeeded in his quest. Gandalf says so. Nothing in the "requirements" of the quest say that he couldn't have help, and indeed it was predicted that he would. As a hero, he is successful.
George Brell
84. gbrell
@80.mr awesome:

I hate you a little bit right now. I thought you meant "Republic of Thieves," the much-delayed third novel. That is ten minutes of frantic searching I'll never get back.
Anthony Pero
85. anthonypero
@ PLarry

Frodo succeeded? In what way? He decided to keep the Ring. He failed. His quest was always internal.
Jo Walton
86. bluejo
Mr Awesome: What GBrell said. Still, I could read those two again.

Also, more than ten years ago I wrote a version of the Arthurian story set in an alternate world specifically so I could have a happy ending, a kingdom preserved, a legacy handed forward.
Birgit
87. birgit
When I saw the post I immediately thought of the book "The Nobility of Failure: Tragic Heroes in the History of Japan" by Ivan Morris about the popularity of failed heroes in Japan.
T Neill
88. Anarra
Mirror Dance and Memory by Lois McMaster Bujold.

They both feature the protagonist (Mark in Mirror Dance and Miles in Memory) failing in every possible way that's important to him, and then working his way out of the failure. The life goals he had been aiming for are utterly derailed and he has to find a different way to achieve the goal (Mark) or a different goal altogether (Miles). All the while standing in a pyre of his honor burning all around him.

Unlike other books where things go wrong, these things that go wrong are entirely as a result of the choices of the protagonists. They do it to themselves. (I can't even re-read the first few chapters of Memory--they're too painful to watch and I go hoarse yelling "Miles, don't do it!")

It’s the watching them work their way out of the mess they've made of their lives that's the most interesting to me. I think Memory is the best of the Vorkosigan books and, with Paladin of Souls, one of the two best books Bujold has written. (That I've read. Haven't read Captain Vorpatril's Alliance yet.)

Come to think, Paladin of Souls is also about a protagonist working her way out of bad choices in her life.
Eric Saveau
89. Dr. Thanatos
Let's give Frodo a break.

You could argue that his quest was to get the Ring to the Fire. He did that. You could argue that in the Big Scheme of Things his job was to get the Ring there so that someone else (gollum gollum) could finish the job. Just because he failed to finish off the Ring, doesn't mean he failed to do what he needed to do; he succeeded in getting Ringie to a place where Smeagol could do the job that he couldn't do if Bilbo hadn't taken pity on him ("pity I've run out of bullets...").

Looking at it that way, Frodo did not fail.
Emmet O'Brien
90. EmmetAOBrien
mrawesome@79: going to try the spoiler-whiteout again here:
Nancy Lebovitz
92. NancyLebovitz
"The Luckiest Man in Denv" by Kornbluth-- not exactly what's asked for, but there's so little I'm throwing it in. A man fails because he can't imagine the sort of hero he's in a position to be.

And I've got _Dynterix_ mentally tagged as tragedy because tragedies are so rare in sf-- but I don't remember anything else about it. It might be the old-fashioned sort of story with coincidences, disguises, and revelations.
Eric Saveau
93. anef
In The Owl Service by Alan Garner Gwyn fails spectacularly, and Alison has to be rescued by Roger.
Eric Saveau
94. Cecilia ML
Michael Flynn's The Wreck of the River of Stars.

I don't know if you stretch the genre this far, but I consider Magic Realism to be fantasy, and basically every hero fails in the works of Gabriel Garcia Marquez, esp. Col. Buendia in his magnum opus.

Also, the female scientist who's the hero of Vernor Vinge's Children of the Sky.
Eric Saveau
95. filkferengi
Don't forget Jack Williamson's "With Folded Hands" and _The Humanoids_.
Clark Myers
96. ClarkEMyers
Along the same lines: Watchbird by Robert Sheckley
Eric Saveau
97. Stargazer
Mad crazy spoilers for Tad Williams' _Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn_ trilogy:

I'd consider that almost an example of "the hero has failed", given that most of the main plotline of the series (locating and retrieving the three named swords) turns out to be a long con by the Big Bad himself, so the heros end up delivering precisely the ingredients he needs for his destroy-the-world revenge spell. Whoops! Though they manage to win in the end after all, due mostly to a whole lotta luck and a soft-hearted zombie dad-- and the main character ends up not only marrying the princess but turning out to be a long-lost prince himself, which pretty much makes it a stereotypical happy ending after all.
Eric Saveau
98. Stargazer
@88 - whew, glad I'm not the only one who has that reaction to the start of Memory!

You could argue that Bujold does the "find a new victory condition after failing at your first one" routine with many of her characters. Cordelia fails to stop the Barrayaran invasion of Escobar and instead eventually ends up married to one of the invading army's leaders - who in turn had failed spectacularly to prevent an intentional bloodbath. Leo Graf fails to find a compromise between Galactech and the quaddies, and ends up throwing his own career away to mastermind something between a prison break and high seas space piracy. Dag pretty spectacularly fails to get his family to ever really accept Fawn, to the point of moving away for good (and ending up banished from the southern lakewalker tribe too!). But of course that entire world was crafted as an antithesis to the very notion of having a single conflict that could be ended neatly a la most fantasy novels...
Steve Taylor
99. teapot7
a1ay writes:

>Consider Phlebas - the hero fails to accomplish his mission, gets all his friends killed, dies (of course he does, he's an Iain M. Banks protagonist), and his side loses the war.

Better yet, The Algebraist. I think pretty much anyone who tries to do anything in the whole book fails.
Elise Matthesen
100. LionessElise
Anarra and Stargazer, I think the reader is supposed to have that reaction to the first few chapters of Memory. It's forward momentum at its worst, where what are usually Miles' strengths are his greatest flaws.

My first thoughts for Heroes Who Fail were Yevgeny Zamyatin's We, and also Ragnarok. Well, and Flowers for Algernon.
mike dosch
101. mdosch
While SF, and an edge-case, Heinlein's The Moon is a Harsh Mistress felt like a hero failing to me. Not in that the hero's goal went unachieved, but in that the cost for success was too high, and the society that resulted from the success was no longer the one he had been fighting for.
Eric Saveau
102. Dr. Thanatos
mdosch,

In that sense you could also add the Tripods trilogy, where SPOILERS after the revolt against the Tripods human society went back to Business As Usual...
Eric Saveau
103. apokalypsis
Emilio Sandoz, and to a greater extent God, in The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell. Not a spoiler. The book starts with everyone from the mission to Rakhat dead, except for Emilio.
Eric Saveau
104. Timewalkerauthor
Some more King examples (though definitely not a series) would be the short stories "The End of the Whole Mess" and "That Feeling, You Can Only Say It In French". For that matter, his most recent book, "11/22/64", is another example--although things are set right, in a manner of speaking, the hero utterly fails at everything he sets out to do.

In the Star Wars novels, several examples come to mind from the New Jedi Order era, where the heroes fail (sometimes in spectacular ways) against the Yuuzhan Vong, even to the point of losing entire worlds. More than being just the fortunes of war, these failures are often the direct result of the actions of particular individuals. It's debatable whether this really qualifies or not, though, as the heroes collectively come back to win the war at the end.
Eric Saveau
105. LisaPadol
Alan Garner's Elidor. The success is actually a failure.
Eric Saveau
106. monolith
Certainly not classic fantasy, but has anyone read (or even heard of) the Last World by Cristoph Ransmayr? Inspired by Ovid's Metamorphoses? The protagonist, Cotta, leaves Rome on a search for the disgraced and exiled poet Naso, but while failing in that endevour nevertheless rediscovers his final work hidden amidst the tragic lives of the people in the Town of Iron. Look it up if you're keen on the obscure yet brilliant. It's actually considered one of the more important works of the last century.
Eric Saveau
107. Copper
Was scrolling down through with one particular book in mind and actually found it mentioned in post #61. I'm glad I'm not the only one that seemed to think that had a "failed hero" ending. Still a good book to read but the ending does leave you feeling kind of 'meh' when you get to it.
Eric Saveau
108. Kit
Someone earlier mentioned the Malazan Book of the Fallen series and I think it is full of examples of failed heroes. The one that springs immediately to mind is Coltane in Deadhouse Gates, who fights desperately through the whole of the book to rescue his refugee chain. Against all odds, he shepherds them to their goal, only to be betrayed by his own supposed relief forces. He is crucified within sight of his goal and has to be killed by one of his own people to save him from a worse death.
Eric Saveau
109. Kit
A very extreme example that springs to mind is Arithon, in the Janny Wurts Curse of the Mistwraith series. Not only does he fail to solve the titular curse, in the attempt, he twists the curse and makes it much worse. Then he spends the next seven books hated and hunted by everyone on the continent, trying repeatedly to protect his few friends and loved ones, and instead watching them sacrifice themselves for him. Even when he wins, the victories are Pyrrhic ones.
Mouette
110. Mouette
@62, Rob: Fair enough, I haven't read the series in a loooong time, and don't remember it too clearly.


I too argue for giving Frodo a break. Did he personally destroy the ring? No. But it seems implied through the books that no one else could have carried it as far as he did, as long as he did, without succumbing to it much, much sooner. Carrying the ring into the heart of Mount Doom, even with the help he had... by going further than anyone else could, he succeeded.

Sam was a hero, and the more technically successful one - he not only carried the ring, but gave it up willingly. However, he only carried it for a short time. His other attributes of stubborn friendship and faithfulness make him a hero in his own right, but he carried the ring for only a fraction of the time Frodo did.

Gandalf and Aragorn were both successful, not just in their respective story threads, but by willingly refusing to take the ring. By stepping purposefully out of temptation's way. (Galadriel too, and Faramir in the books). Legolas, Gimli, Merry, and Pip are never offered the choice.

Frodo carried the Ring - with any and all symbolic overtones you want to assign it - for months. It damaged him, and in the end he couldn't drop it, but he took it to the edge of the precipice. Persevering in the face of endless opposition; he earned the right to be carried through part of his journey, by his determination to keep going when he was alone in spiderbitch's caves. He falls down and gets back up, alone, determined to continue on; his refusal to give up makes him a hero, and therefore capable of receiving intervening help.
Eric Saveau
111. damon1347
I find, that there are few cases where heros really fail. I get the impression that such works dont sell well :) I mean a hero attempting something and not only not achieving it but really failing...

What seems more common is the type of hero / anti hero who get dragged along and ends up in misery...

I might be wrong though... a couple of more specific thoughts:
Ian Banks is a good example of course, generally...
I am a little bit torn about Armor (Steakley) and Forever War (Haldeman) becuase the heors arent really wanting to achieve anyting, they just get dragged along, so you can't really say the fail, I think... Having said that, I felt that Armor was a pretty pointless read anyway...
With Forever War, I guess it also depends which parts of the trilogy you refer to...

What wasn't mentioned here before is Fitlth by Grant Morisson, which I think does qualify as a anti hero failing.

Silverberg's The Live Inside has quite a number of key characters failing to adapt to what society expects of them, which in most cases translates into suicide.

Samjatin's 'Us' is very similar to 1984, I feel.

Heinlein's Stranger in a Strange Land I somehow feel, fails. Like I personally feel Jesus Christ failed spectacularly on m any levels.

Pohl's Man Plus I can't really remember, but I think the poor chap does fail, too...

Durham Red spectacularly fails. Maby most spectacularly from all I have mentioned sofar, as she wants to save, but ends up killing human kind...

The Authority (Ellis) arguable fail, depends which cycle / book you refer to.

Heinlien's The Cat Who Walks Through Walls, seems to indicate failure of some kind, as in the end all are dead. Though they fulfiled their purpose. And with all those time paradoxes, who knows...
Eric Saveau
112. Jacqueline
Darth Vadar/Anakin Skywalker in the prequel, as quoted from Obi-Wan Kenobi "You were the Chosen One! You were supposed to destroy the Sith, not join them! Bring balance to the Force, not join them!".
Michael Walton
113. tygervolant
Richard Cowper's The Twilight of Briareus was a huge hero failure IMO. One man's weak will causes Earth to fall to an alien invasion. That's how I saw it, anyway.
Fibra Parque
114. FParques
One of this is "The Homeward Bounders" by Diana Wynne Jones.
Eric Saveau
115. ropercowboy
Ok, so I did give up reading at 63 because I can't believe anyone has said it, maybe being a graphic novel makes it ineligible? Rorschach failed. Completely. I know that his journal was left in the newspaper room, but this is just insult to injury. The periodical was considered tabloid, and not taken seriously. And if I am wrong, and he did get it published and people really bought that it was "real", then Ozymandias failed. They are subjective interpretations, and both Oz and Rorshach would be considered heroes in the correct light, and yet both failed at their goals by the end. Even Ozymandias' eventual rule was based on genocide and lie. I get that he just wanted to rule, but he can't be a truly good and benevolent ruler at that point, and the truth would drive even him mad (ok, subjective again, he was already mad, but not aware of it...), he couldn't have held that inside the rest of his life. He believed he was good and had done the right thing but will become cognizant of the error when he has no way to pass on his kingdom.

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