I just finished reading a lengthy epic fantasy novel. As I closed it, I did not feel satisfaction, pleasure, or anticipation for another book. I felt… disappointed.

I’m not going to share the name of the book here. I don’t like to talk negative about books, if I can help it. (If you’re desperate to know, you can check my Goodreads profile.) And my likes are not the same as others’ likes.

Some of the disappointment came from the ambiguous ending. Did the good guys win? I wasn’t quite sure. And the primary reason for that was… who were the good guys?

The novel had three point-of-view characters. Based on the way it was written, I assumed they were the ones I should be rooting for, the protagonists, the “good guys.” And so it seemed, right up through the end. Did those three “win”? Kind of, I guess. They lived through it all, anyway.

But anther character definitely “won.” And he was portrayed as a good guy sometimes and a bad guy at other times. It wasn’t that he was conflicted, or was struggling with temptation or anything like that. It was deliberately ambiguous. I have no idea if what he accomplished in the end was a good thing for this fantasy world, or a bad thing, because I never understood his motivations or whether he understood the consequences of what he wanted to do.

Please note that I am not asking that all the characters in books be 100% good or 100% evil. I’m talking about character motivation and development.

In my novel, Until All Curses Are Lifted, one of the main antagonists is Volraag. It would have been easy to make him a straight-up villain. But I worked hard to give him a serious motivation that made sense from his point of view. That’s what I want to read. With this novel, I never got a clear understanding of the antagonist’s motivations (if he was an antagonist?).

This is one of the reasons why I love J.R.R. Tolkien so much. When I put down The Lord of the Rings for the 30+ time, I am satisfied. And it doesn’t matter which character I think about in the story, I can identify his/her motivations and status in the story. More than that, every character inspires me.

I could write a whole series on this (maybe I will, at some point), explaining how each character in The Lord of the Rings inspires and encourages me – even the “bad” guys!

I’m not opposed to making the reader wonder whether a character is good or bad. And I love to read stories where heroes fall, or villains are redeemed, because we’re all human and both those possibilities loom large in our stories. But I don’t want to read a story that ends with me wondering what I just read.

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