Character involvement in the final outcome

by Molly

Question: I know that the main character needs to play an active role in the outcome of the story or it feels like a cheat. But is it possible for inaction by the main character (due to a fatal flaw) to indirectly lead to the conclusion?

I'm writing a novel in which a group of characters are working toward a common goal. As they near completion, my POV character starts to find out more information and suspect that achieving their goal would actually be a bad thing. But she second guesses herself (one of her main flaws is serious self-doubt) and doesn't say anything right away, deciding to find out for sure. But before she can, another in her group strikes the final blow.

My question is, would readers feel cheated if I end the story this way, or could it work as long as I emphasize that her hesitance was the deciding factor? It's worth noting that she does play a crucial role in getting them that far along in the first place, so it's not as if she could have been left out altogether and still arrive at the same ending.

Answer: A main character can certainly make the wrong choice at the crisis, resulting in either a tragic or comi-tragic type of story. It would be important to show that, in the end, the main character is worse off, less happy, etc. as a result of that decision.

I'm not sure what you mean when you say another character "strikes the final blow." If you mean that this character achieves the story goal, then what you have is a comi-tragedy, rather like The Lord of the Rings, in which the main character, Frodo, makes the wrong choice at the climax (to keep the ring). Gollum's action instead leads to the ring being destroyed. Consequently, Frodo can never fully rejoin the community of the Shire the way the other hobbits do and is left permanently wounded.

What you would have to do is arrange events so that the pressure on the main character to make the wrong choice is strong, so that the reader can empathize with her decision. Everyone makes bad choices now and then, so your reader could certainly relate to your main character as long as you make it clear why she makes the wrong choice.

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