"Bad Guy" Protagonists, Story Goals, Outcomes and Judgement

Started writing this in New storyforms for Empire Strikes Back and True Detective but then I thought it might deserve it’s own thread.

Reading through the analysis on The Empire Strikes Back here:


brings up a couple of questions.

@jhull you says that Darth Vader functions as the Protagonist of the story in terms of pursuing Luke, which totally makes sense. You also say that the story feels most like a Tragedy (failure/bad) which I also agree with.

But it’s also a little weird – if the story goal was to turn Luke to dark side (pursued by Vader), and that fails, why does the story feel like a tragedy? Aren’t we rooting for Luke to not turn bad? Surely if Vader had succeeded, it would have felt even more tragic?


Nah. If he had succeeded we would’ve felt really conflicted about how triumphant it would feel.

It’s like the Vikings in How to Train Your Dragon and the Failure there. They “win”, and yet there’s something stranglely bittersweet about the ending. That’s the Failure/Good dynamic at work. Same thing with Michael Clayton. We kinda sorta want Tilda to “win”, even though she’s doing some really heinous things.

Who doesn’t root for Darth in Empire? I mean, not if anyone asked us would we admit to it, but inside we kinda sorta need to cheer him on.

In addition, EVERYONE fails to Be in Empire—dark or light side. There’s a bit of objective success with Leia and Luke escaping, but overall no one comes out ahead.


If I’m understanding this correctly, it’s structurally a brilliant way to both give the feeling of a complete story and set things up for the grande finale in Return of the Jedi.

1 Like

I think rooting is subjective. Some people root for the Joker in The Dark Knight even though he is an antagonist with a very dark goal.


I believe Vader is also the main antagonist of the second storyform (OS Doing). Thus, the largely “losing” feeling is likely due to Vader losing twice. That is, Vader loses two OS goals essentially simultaneously when Leia & Luke bounce from Cloud City & then completely beyond reach:

  1. As the protagonist of the “turn Luke” story, he loses since that OS is a failure.
  2. As the antagonist of the “precious cargo” story, he loses since that OS is a success.

Also, I feel visceral loss & frustration due to story costs & specific events:

  1. One MC (Han) is a popsicle. Leia’s man is gone. One RS ends with separation (and possibly death). --> sadness.
  2. Vader survives --> frustration.
  3. This story isn’t over / neither side has definitively won --> frustration.
  4. One MC’s (Luke’s) dad is revealed to be Vader near the very end. Whether it’s true or a deception --> bewilderment.

The more I think about it, the stranger the whole thing seems to me. We feel loss structurally because Vader fails as protagonist and antagonist in two different storylines? I buy it, it just feels very odd – maybe part of what makes it so interesting.

Okay really good point and minor epiphany for me, because the other RS (Yoda & Luke) seems to end in failure too – Luke says “I’ll come back” but clearly he and Yoda are separated – the mentor/mentee relationship feels like a failure (I think). So it feels like this complicated interplay of unusual OS roles (e.g. Vader as protagonist) , RS “failures”, consequences and the weaving to two storyforms with different domains creates something both fully “in genre” and yet with a quite layered and unique feeling. Very instructive!