Daphne from Marin County, CA, recently asked a great question that other writers have asked:
For the climax, does the protagonist have to face and overcome her greatest fear?
The simple answer is yes, which leads to the follow-up question: What if the protagonist dies? As Daphne points out:
Doesn't that make the protagonist a loser?
Not if the protagonist — the character who takes readers on a journey — confronts and overcomes his/her greatest fear, resulting in a life-altering epiphany, before he/she perishes. That climactic moment is what readers wait for. If the protagonist gives in to his/her fear, readers are inevitably saddened and frustrated, the feeling that of, Why did I bother reading this story anyway?
A great example of a protagonist who confronts his greatest fear and then dies is Charles Dickens' A Tale of Two Cities. A novel that takes place during the French Revolution, Sydney Carton sacrifices himself for his unrequited love, Lucie Manette Before he dies, however, he experiences the epiphany that transforms him from a self-involved, greedy man into a person of integrity, leading to one of the most famous sentences in all of literature:
It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done; it is a far, far better rest that I go to, than I have ever known.
But what if your protagonist does not experience that transformation?
That's what a writer asked me a few months ago. She said her protagonist's greatest fear is of losing her husband's love, which she does. Rather than overcome that fear, however, she succumbs to it and kills herself. The story then continues to the point where the husband experiences the epiphany that leads him to understand the error of his ways.
The writer began to see that either the husband is the true protagonist, or if the writer wants the female character to be the protagonist, she's the one who needs to overcome her greatest fear. She can still die, but not before undergoing that transformation.
I'm always up for a good conversation, though, so if you know of books where the protagonist does not experience a fundamental change, let me know.