A criticism some reviewers offer of my two novels is that the protagonists have it too easy, that there is never any serious doubt that they will ultimately win. It is, on the whole, a fair criticism. Part of the reason may be that I am an optimist, and so find it hard to believe in really bad outcomes even in my fictional worlds. I tried to fix the problem in the final section of Harald
, my first novel, by reorganizing the sequence of events so that the bad guys appear to be winning until near the end, but it does not seem to have worked very well.
Considered as a literary judgement, the criticism is legitimate, but I am wondering whether it is also a legitimate criticism if the objective is not to write well but to sell. Part of the reason people read fiction is to imagine themselves as the protagonist. Imagining yourself as smarter, stronger, faster, in all important ways better than all the people around you may be a base pleasure, but for a lot of people it is a pleasure. Make a protagonist like that, and it is hard to make it plausible to the reader that he might lose.
For a particularly successful example, consider Superman. Strong, bullet proof, fast—he can even fly. Surely part of his success came from readers wanting to imagine themselves like that. One consequence was that, in order to provide him with threats adequate to support a halfway interesting plot, the writers had to introduce a variety of kludges to the story line, of which the most famous was Kryptonite.
I have never studied the pattern of best selling fiction; my impression is that much of it—The Lord of the Rings would be a striking exception—consists of books I probably would not much enjoy reading. But I wonder how much of it shares my fault and, unlike my novels, is successful as a result.