Proposition: All stories are, to some extent, allegory.
Yes, writers often write to entertain, to divert people from mundane life, to get the stories out of their heads. Often, it is no more than that. As someone who was writing stories since I could hold a pen and telling them before that, I always hated English teachers who read all kinds of ridiculous symbolism into books. Take The Yellow Wallpaper, for example. We all know that the wallpaper itself translates into both bars and eyes, the bed nailed to the floor is marital slavery, etc. But what does the pen represent? What pen? Why, the pen with which the narrator writes her recollection! The pen that is never actually mentioned in the story! It’s the most important symbol of all! In the end, I made up some BS about the pen representing the narrator’s bid for intellectual freedom and made an outstanding grade on the essay, but it was nothing but BS, and I digress.
Every story contains a parallel to life, a thread of exploration of the human condition. That’s what makes a story worth reading. If the story gets too trippy and too far off base, it ceases to be engaging, and the reader puts it down. Stories tell us things we already knew, reinforce our beliefs about ourselves, and challenge our thinking. They elevate us.
That’s why I can’t stand over-powered bad guys. For me, they’re as off-putting as over-powered protagonists.
That’s not to say that I see happy endings as a requirement for good fiction. Quite the opposite, in fact. I sort of like vaguely dissatisfying endings that tie off all the loose ends in a way I never expected and am really not sure I wanted. Happy endings are well and good in their place, but we’ve all sort of become inured to the feelings they produce. I would rather cry at the end, because that means that I feel more. I would rather throw the book across the room and curse at the author and write my own ending, then tear it up, because even though the ending was horrible, it was also right.
No, I don’t insist on happy endings. I do insist on the possibility of a happy ending. Even if I know from the start that this can’t possibly end well, I want to be able to hope right until the last page.
Unbeatable villains kill that possibility.
I bash on Twilight a lot, and I’m going to go at it again. Twipires fall under this category. I’m not talking about “bad villains” in the sense of being ridiculous, because they’re not. Leaving aside the sparkling, Twipires are terrifying. They can move faster than the human eye can follow. They can throw cars and uproot trees and literally crush a human body to pulp. You can’t punch them or stab them or shoot them. You can’t fend them off with a cross or holy water or any of the standards. If one goes for you, you have to hope it kills you quickly, because if it doesn’t, you’ll spend your last minutes in unimaginably excruciating pain, thanks to the crazy venom these guys secrete. If that wasn’t enough, they tend to develop bizarre EXTRA powers, most of which can be weaponised. And to top it off, they’re irresistibly attractive, drawing in victims like a sparkly, rock-hard venus flytrap.
There is no way to defeat a Twipire, much less destroy one. At least, if you’re human.
And that, right there, is what killed Twilight for me, plot-wise. There is no way a human could possibly be the hero in Twilight. The only creatures capable of defeating the bad guys are other Twipires, and Meyer spends a lot of time making sure that the reader cannot identify with the Cullen family. They’re perfect, inhuman, aloof, distant, unrelatable. They are beyond human. Even when Bella is transformed, a lot of description is dedicated to her forgetting what it was like to be human, because her new experience is so completely detached from her previous existence.
Even the wolves, who are more human than the Twipires, have their crazy temper problems and their hive mind and their immortality, super strength, and all that other good stuff that makes them… not human.
Meyer created a villain that logically, even in her own ‘verse, should have taken over completely and wiped out human civilisation.
It is not necessary for a bad guy to be unbeatable. I can list off any number of bad guys who are pants-soiling scary without trespassing on this Scary Sue territory. Dracula comes to mind, to contrast with the Twipires. Dude can control weather, turn into a wolf or a bat, turn into mist and sneak into people’s houses, hypnotise people, turn meek Victorian women into raging undead infanticidal nymphomaniacs… And he was defeatable. Sauron, Voldemort, Max Brooks’s zombies, Moriarty, the Joker, the Borg, the xenomorphs…
And you notice, not all of those were defeated. The important thing is that they could be defeated. Pretty much all of the Batman villains are constantly breaking out of prison and wreaking more havoc. They can’t be permanently contained. In World War Z, the zombie plague wipes out most of mankind, and it’s entirely likely that North Korea is still full of them. The xenomorphs just keep killing everyone.
But in every case, it’s possible to get rid of the bad guy. It’s possible to win. If the protagonist fails, it’s because of human shortcomings and not because of inhuman indestructibility.
Human beings thrive on hypothetical scenarios. Our favourite interview questions begin with the word “if.” If you won the lottery, if you could have one wish, if you could visit any place, if you only had one more day to live. We spend a lot of time preparing for things that will never happen. Young people buy life insurance early even though they probably won’t die for another fifty years or more.
There is a whole nerd subculture that has already prepared for the unlikely-but-remotely-possible event of a real zombie apocalypse. Canned food, bottled water, machetes, shotguns, flamethrowers, sealed packages of seeds, stockpiles of gasoline.
That’s because, in the unlikely-but-remotely-possible event of a zombie apocalypse, there is also a possibility of survival. The monsters are horrifying, but they can be beaten. There is a reason to try.
Living through a situation vicariously through a book is similar, for those of us who prefer our zombies on paper. We expend our time and energy on reading because there is a possibility of following the protagonist through into victory. If the protagonist cannot win, there is no point. (Mind, not if it looks like the protagonist can’t win, but if the protagonist actually, really, truly cannot win.) Why invest emotionally in a character only to watch him fail? Or (possibly worse) only to watch somebody else swoop in and save the day? It’s an investment with no return. I can’t have fun or find distraction by putting myself in that character’s shoes.
We as humans do not like to imagine that there is absolutely nothing we can do to save ourselves. Even if the protagonist is not human, it is nearly always a human-surrogate, be it an anthropomorphic Disney animal or a sentient AI. There is something human, connectable, in every engaging protagonist, and that is what the reader latches on to as an anchor to carry her through the story.
And somewhere in the mix, there must be hope. The reader can lapse into despair when all hope seems lost, and it falls to the character to pull through. When the character despairs, we as readers can keep hoping in his stead, because even if the bad guy wins, it’s not because the bad guy had to win. It’s because something went wrong somewhere. Tragic endings are real. They’re life-like.
Resemblance to reality must end with despair. A story without hope, without any hope, either from reader or character, is a a black hole in a world where hope has fallen out of fashion. Cynicism in fantasy is unforgivable.