On Wish Fulfillment in Fiction

I think people have a very… shallow understanding of wish fulfillment.

See, being able to effortlessly win and never be challenged may be seen as wish fulfillment – and to some people it is – but to many it would not be.

Human beings want to be challenged. Even if a human has all their needs fulfilled, they will often seek out challenges on their own to engage them. Either they will work, or engage in sports, or do creative outlets and so on. We like the sense of accomplishment that comes from overcoming challenges.

The key word there is overcoming. See, a wish fulfillment character isn’t one who wins without effort. In fact, the more effort required, the better! Because the fantasy isn’t to do easy things, it’s to do hard things. A wish fulfillment character will often face extremely stiff competition, but they still always win in the end, because it’s wish fulfillment and we all want to win.

Think of video games for a moment. I like Dark Souls a lot, because it’s hard and I can beat it. I don’t play online because I can’t beat people who invade me. Losing is Not Fun, so I don’t allow it to happen. I would not play Dark Souls if the game involved me pressing X to defeat every opponent, because it would be too easy. One of the keys to Dark Souls was that while you often died, you never actually lose the game, you just get sent back to the last bonfire minus your souls as a sort of trivial punishment. This is just one example of how brilliant the game was in creating a sort of perfect difficulty curve.

Most games try to work toward that ideal; create a game just difficult enough that it’s a rush to beat it but not so difficult the player gets frustrated and gives up.

It’s the same with fiction. You want your wish fulfillment hero to be challenged just enough that the audience cheer on his victory, but not so overwhelmed that he actually loses. Oh, he may get a setback, but that’s only so you can amp up how awesome he looks when he wins anyway.

The reason characters like Tatsuya (from Mahouka no Rettousei) grate on us isn’t so much because he always wins. The hero almost never loses in any fiction. It’s that we never see him challenged, really. We, deep down, don’t want to effortlessly win at everything. We want challenges, and so when our wish fulfillment character wins effortlessly it comes across as shallow. It’s like if we got into a foot race with a quadrapalegic. Sure, we’d win, but we probably wouldn’t feel good about ourselves for doing so.

At least, this applies for most people. Some people really do want to be effortless victors over everything. Thus, Tatsuya exists.

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