It is often said that every action creates an equal and opposite reaction which can also be very true in fiction. However good our protagonist is or bad our antagonist is they can easily bring about their own downfall; this may be by angering the wrong person, setting a plan in motion that back fires or literally creating their own worst enemy.
In the previous article we discussed Frankenstein, in which Victor Frankenstein literally makes his own worst enemy in The Creature. He commits a massive act of hubris by trying to create a man and the act comes back to haunt him. Quite literally as he and The Creature spend the rest of the novel dogging each other’s steps until Victor dies of exhaustion and exposure.
We don’t have to be so literal in the idea of a character creating their own downfall it could be a choice they make coming back to haunt them; it could be the vengeful relative, the prophecy ignored or even their own act of revenge. There’s a multitude of ways for a person to create their own downfall but it generally starts with one choice, which may or may not happen early in the story.
The prophecy ignored, or self-fulfilling, was a common theme in Greek myths but revenge is perhaps the most obvious path that leads to a character’s downfall. There’s a saying that ‘the man who seeks revenge should dig two graves’ and it was a lot more than two in Hamlet, V For Vendetta and The Iliad, though it wasn’t technically the protagonist looking for revenge in The Iliad. Obviously this doesn’t mean that because you’ve written a revenge story doesn’t mean the protagonist can’t ride off into the sunset; many Westerns were revenge plots and the protagonists often survived, and sometimes got happily ever after.
This gives rise to another possibility, the bluff. If we chose to we could build a story where the reader might expect the protagonist not to make it out alive, such as a revenge story, and have them survive at the end. There are difficulties in this because we would have to walk a fine line between making the reader think the character(s) will die and making them want the characters to survive. If we lean too far towards the suggestion that they will die if the characters don’t then, even if the reader wants them to survive, the ending might be disappointing because it may feel that there was only one way the story should’ve gone. Alternatively if people aren’t rooting for the characters to survive and they do this can also create an unsatisfying ending. Of course, in this case we might also have the problem that if the reader isn’t rooting for the character they won’t finish the story.
There are plenty of stories that have done this well, it’s merely a matter of finding the right balance in your story but a general rule might be not to repeat the likelihood of the characters’ inevitable demise too often. Doing this might either become annoying or make the reader think the characters will obviously survive. It’s usually not the case that a reader will assume a character is going to die from the outset of a story but that doesn’t mean we can’t create ambiguity as the story progresses.