The No-Win Scenario (and Why It's Generally a Bad Idea)

8:50 AM Gemma Fitz 6 Comments

As a special treat (and a way to give myself some space as I try to come up with and write blog posts), I have my writer friend, Lily Lindsey-Aubrey, here for a ghost post. Unfortunately, Lily does not have a blog, so I can't link to it (but she should totally get one, right Lily?).

A lot of young adult fictions these days contain a similar scenario: the no-win scenario. This is the circumstance where the protagonist of the story is faced with an impossible choice: a choice between wrong and worse, evil and more evil. Some examples of this are a) in Divergent, when Tris Prior has to kill her friend or be killed by him (and therefore be unable to "save the world"); b) in The Kill Order, in which the protagonist must kill others to stay alive and (hopefully) find a cure for a dangerous virus; c) in The Hunger Games series, in which the same sort of thing happens multiple times. 

But is this a good thing to make happen in your story? If you are considering putting this sort of situation in your novel, you should ask yourself some questions. First, is it necessary? Second, is it realistic? Third, does it help get across the message you are trying to convey through your story? 

Let's start with... 

Before we ask this, though, we should consider why you would put it in in the first place. In most cases, I think that the author inserts a no-win scenario to either put out a message or to just give his protagonist some good whump* and angst. We'll look at the message of your novel in a minute. First let's discuss the whump factor. Every main character definitely needs some whump. Not only is it good for his character development; it also makes the reader feel sorry for him, which in turn makes the reader root for him. And you definitely want your audience rooting for your protagonist. But there are other and better ways of beating up your lead, physically, mentally, emotionally, and yes, even morally. Because is it easier to shoot a friend in order to stay alive so that you can save the world? Or is it easier to sacrifice your own life to save a friend's so that he can go on to save the world? I'm not saying either is easy, but I think the second has more feels packed in and it also helps show that the protagonist knows what's really important: others, not himself. The first choice could mean the same thing, but it makes one quite suspicious about the lead's true motives. 

Now for "is it realistic". Would your main character ever really need to either do wrong or wrong? I believe very strongly that there is always a right choice. 

I'm with Kirk here. There is no such thing as a no-win scenario in real life. There may be losses of things like life, friendship, or  pride, but never will someone be forced to give up his integrity.
I'm talking from a Christian perspective here, so you may or may not agree with me. But I don't believe that God will ever put a soul in a position where there is no right, good choice. He is a God of justice and purity, and why would he require a person to go against His commands? And if it wouldn't happen in real life, you shouldn't put it in your story. Not that your story has to be entirely realistic, but why put a situation in that gets across the idea that there can be no-win scenarios, and sometimes people are required to sin? 

That brings us to the last question: "Does it help get across the message you are trying to convey through your story?"
 When I read one of these no-win scenarios, I get the idea that there are times when there are only two choices: to compromise your standards (for instance, killing a friend), or to compromise them in a different way (letting the world burn because you won't kill a man). But if that's the message you're trying to get across, you might want to rethink your novel. 

Because after all, what defines a hero? What makes him different from a villain? 

Batman seems to disagree with me about what makes a hero...
It's his choice to do right despite the odds; it's his choice to have a code, to live by his standards, to not let evil become stronger than him. A hero may be faced with the same situations, struggles, and motives as the villain, but he makes the right choice, and the villain makes a wrong one. It's why we cheer the hero on, because the right choice is always harder, and because we cannot but respect someone who will sacrifice anything to do right. If you put a no-win scenario in there, then the protagonist is no longer a hero. He may have chosen the lesser of two evils, but there is always a right choice he could have chosen, and didn't. Not that the protagonist should have no flaws; but when he makes a mistake it should be portrayed as one, and in the crucial moment, the moment that defines him, at the climax of the story, he needs to make the right choice.

I'm not saying all books with no-win scenarios are bad. Some I have enjoyed quite a bit. But I think that the no-win scenario detracts quite a bit from the book's quality. It leaves me, at least, wondering what the point was to the novel; if the protagonist wasn't fighting for good, what was he fighting for? So while you're working on your novel, or when you read one of these cases, think about the message it's getting across. Think about your protagonist's motives. Think about how he feels and why he has to do what's right. Remember what makes a hero. 

Why do you think no-win scenarios are so popular? Do you think there is ever a time when one must do wrong to do right? What do you think makes a hero? All opinions welcome!

*Whump is defined by Urban Dictionary (prestigious, I know) as "fandom term, commonly used by fan fiction authors (particularly in the Stargate genre) to describe physical and/or mental abuse laid on a character in a story." 


  1. I may be creating a blog eventually, when I have enough faith in myself that I'll be able to keep it going. XD Thanks for featuring my post, Gemma! :)

    1. Don't worry, you'll keep it going-- I'll hound you all. the. time. to make sure you do. :P

  2. Hmmmm. I am...actually a fan of these scenarios, when they're done right, and there's a time and a place. For example, in my favorite book ever (Red Rising by Pierce Brown) our MC is confronted by a no-win situation -- he can kill another character he's grown to be friends with, or he can let that character kill him. It's impossible and sickening but he has to choose, and he does it so that he can continue and save more lives later, but he recognizes it as horrific and finds redemption later. I think that's important -- there ARE situations like this in which someone has to make a terrible choice, and it sucks, but I don't think it's any less heroic to make that choice. It depends a lot on why you're doing the terrible thing, and what your motives are, and how you feel about it, and honestly if it's done correctly I'm a fan of making characters make impossibly hard choices rather than finding a way for them to get out of it.

    1. Wow, that sounds intense. :D I'm personally not a fan of these scenarios, but the important thing is that we know why we put them in, and what we are trying to get across with our stories. We all have different opinions and points of view-- thanks for sharing yours!

  3. You really got to the heart of the matter here, Lily. What does "saving the world" look like anyway, if you're willing to kill as many people as you need to in order to do it? Not to mention no-win scenarios are usually really contrived. Great post! Hope you write another one soon. (For my blog. XD)

    1. That's one of my biggest issue with the scenario (other than the moral implications)-- they are usually so contrived. And in the vast unlikelihood of that sort of decision ever having to be made by a person, why does it happen in SO many books?


I adore comments! Just keep it clean and respectful...please no profanity and while I respect people's opinions and love a good argument, simply bashing my post is obviously not appreciated. :)