Which is worse?

by Katherine


Which is the better plot decision:
To have a character achieve their goal knowing full well that it will kill them and then having the character die?
To have a character's goal taken away from them at the last moment, saving their life but making it one not worth living?


That rather depends on what the goal is and what thematic message you want to leave your reader with.

For instance, two typical choices would be...

1. Character sacrifices himself for a noble cause. Perhaps he saves the world, which gives his sacrifice meaning, even though he does not secure his own happiness. You could call this a comi-tragedy. An example would be Romeo and Juliet.

2. Character pursues a selfish goal which he fails to achieve due to a flaw in his character or a fatal error and is left with the pain of his failure. (Think of classic tragedies such as Macbeth or Death of a Salesman. The message is that readers should not make similar mistakes in their lives.

However, there are two other possibilities...

3. Character pursues a noble goal and in the process finds his own happiness. This is your typical happy ending or what was once called a "comedy." The message is that the reader should
make similar choices in his life.

4. Character fails to achieve his goal, but ends up personally happier. Perhaps the goal was not noble or based on a false premise. This type of story is a tragi-comedy.

All of the above four possibilities can satisfy the reader. Of course, if you want to create an unsatisfying, disturbing, or just plain bad ending, you can reverse these dynamics.

For instance...

1a. Character pursues a selfish goal which he achieves and finds happiness as a result. In other words, a story in which the villain wins. This is disturbing because it offends our sense of justice and morality.

2a. Character pursues a noble goal which he fails to achieve, despite making all the right choices, and ends up miserable. This offends our sense that doing the right thing ought to lead to happiness. It says there is nothing we can do to improve our fate.

However, only one choice is correct for your story, but I'll give you a hint.

The ending should reverse the situation at the crisis.

If, at the crisis, the goal looks impossible to achieve, then it will be achieved in the end, and vice versa.

If the main character seems destined for misery at the crisis, he will probably find happiness in the end and vice versa.

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