Heroes—no matter the trials they face on their journeys—seem inherently lucky. No matter how long it takes, in the end, they usually win. But the universe is all about balance, and if someone wins, someone else must also lose—and that’s not always the villain. Sometimes the people who lose biggest in sci-fi and fantasy stories are those unlucky folks just trying to survive the apocalypse, make their way in a world gone mad, or simply get through the day without being turned into something terrible. Here are 13 of the unluckiest character in SFF.
Gollum in The Lord of the Rings, by J.R.R. Tolkien
We tend to think of Gollum as the sketchy guy who pathetically spends centuries searching for a bauble he never really owned in the first place, but please, a moment of pity for poor Sméagol. It’s not his fault he stumbled upon the most powerful evil artifact of all time,or that this powerful entity—essentially the impure distillation of Sauron’s evil essence—used Gollum to hide and protect itself, then cast him aside the second its slumbering master began to stir. Since using the One Ring is sort of like taking a hit of magical meth, Gollum spent his final decades jonseing for the ring, scrabbling out a desperate, restless existence that was essentially endless torture—all because of one epic moment of bad luck.
Arthur Dent in Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, by Douglas Adams
Despite being one of two humans to survive the (spoiler alert) destruction of Earth, Arthur is an incredibly unlucky fellow. First, his whole life is destroyed as the result of a cosmic bureaucratic screwup. Then he goes on what should be the adventure of a lifetime, but spends it being abused by about everyone he meets—not to mention he goes through all of it while wearing his bathrobe, the only clothing he took with him. In fact, Dent’s bad luck seems to be more or less programmed into his very existence, as any situation he finds momentarily tolerable takes a quick, sharp turn into chaos and madness. At one point, he is stranded alone on an empty world, being driven mad because he made the mistake of learning how to speak bird—only to discover birds never shut up. What are the odds?
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Violet, Klaus, and Sunny Baudelaire in A Series of Unfortunate Events, by Lemony Snicket
When you’re a part of a book with “A Series of Unfortunate Events” on the cover, is safe to say you’ve started off a few steps behind in the “good luck” department. Every turn in the Baudelaire children’s lives leads to a worsening of their situation, which quickly becomes an orgy of near-impossible bad luck. Their entire childhood is spent shuffling between guardians who die or disappear, from burned-down homes to hostile hospitals, from murder attempts, to shipwrecks, and into the clutches of various fiendish devils (V.F.D.s) who all resemble their evil uncle Count Olaf to an alarming degree. The fact the children are not raving sociopaths by the end of this series is the most unbelievable thing about it.
Rincewind in Discworld, by Terry Pratchett
Poor Rincewind. You might imagine being the favorite of The Lady—the personification of Luck—would be kind of fun, but it also makes him the person Fate hates most. Being the object of a battle of wills between Luck and Fate means many things: it means Rincewind might live forever, since Death itself can’t figure out when he dies; it means he bounces around time and space like a ragdoll; and it means every time his life calms down, he knows it’s only the calm before the next storm of torturous events. Rincewind’s also a terrible wizard; his only true skill lies in his ability to solve small problems by transforming them into immense disasters.
Alex Hergensheimer in Job: A Comedy of Justice, by Robert A. Heinlein
Heinlein’s 1984 novel is the gloriously demented story of a Christian man, Alex, who is gleefully turned down a dark path by a pagan cruise ship hostess. Alex and Marga love each other, but Alex is apparently the target of a malevolent deity of some sort who ruins every chance the couple has for happiness—often by altering reality itself. Alex and Marga continuously work towards their modest goals of making some cash and living in happiness, only to see the universe shift in ways that render their stake worthless and their goals ever more distant—until finally the Rapture comes, sending Alex to eternal life and Marga…well, nowhere, because she’s a pagan. The first clue that this is a story of epic bad luck is right there in the title.
Christopher in Thirsty, by M.T. Anderson
Christopher lives in a town where an ancient vampire is trapped in a magical prison that must be reinforced every year with a ritual at which a virgin is sacrificed. Also in this town, vampires are killed on sight. When he begins to show signs of vampirism, that’s bad, but it gets worse. His life quickly descends into a series of unlucky misfortunes, culminating in the worst luck of all: as a vampire, the forces of good despise him. As the man who triumphed over the Big Bad, the forces of darkness despise him. As a vampire, humanity despises him. To say becoming a vampire was the worst thing that ever happened to him is an understatement.
Shadow in American Gods, by Neil Gaiman
Let’s see…One good thing happens to Shadow in this 700-plus page novel: at the very beginning, he’s let out of prison a bit early. After that, it’s a Bad Luck Circus all the way. He learn sis wife and best friend were having an affair, and are now dead. He’s hired by a weirdo named Mr. Wednesday and roped into contact with a menagerie of gods who treat him in increasingly terrible ways, culminating in events that leave him hanging from a tree for nine days without anything to eat or drink—which, yanno, kills him. Which would typically have been good luck, since by this point all he wants is the sweet release of death, but even that is denied him—because, of course, he’s the unluckiest man in the world.
Gregor Samsa in The Metamorphosis, by Franz Kafka
I don’t think it needs to be explained that waking up to discover that you’ve been transformed into a giant roach is bad luck of the highest order. When the story goes downhill from there, it really kind of redefines being born under a bad sign by a mind-blowing order of magnitude. When your death actually solves everyone else’s problems and no one mourns you for even a moment, you have crossed over into fields of bad luck no other living thing has ever inhabited
Winston Smith in 1984, by George Orwell
Winston Smith’s bad luck is more or less tied to his existence; if he didn’t have bad luck, he would have none at all. He’s not a complex or deep man; he’s miserable and lonely, and every effort he makes to be slightly less miserable or slightly less lonely yields nothing but the complete destruction of the self. And Winston does not start off the story in a particularly lucky or even enjoyable position—when your high point is miserably pretending to conform in a ruthless dystopian society, you have a case of what literary scientists call Epic Bad Luck.
Theon Greyjoy in A Song of Ice and Fire, by George R.R. Martin
Theon Greyjoy may yet be redeemed, but as things stand right now it’s hard to argue he’s not the unluckiest character in a fictional universe filled to the brim with unlucky characters. Starting off as a smug, cowardly aristocrat who rejects the love of his adopted family but isn’t loved by his real one, Theon’s path through life can be plotted as a straight line straight down—an exciting period of failure followed by a fascinating trip through incredible torture, pausing for a moment on hideous bodily disfigurement before spitting him out in a backwash of agony. All we can say is, if the big plot twist of A Song of Ice and Fire leaves Theon sitting on the Iron Throne at the end, it would probably still be the worst of all possible outcomes for him.
Redshirts in Star Trek
Long before John Scalzi made the Redshirts subtext into text, it was well known that the easiest way to die in the Star Trek universe was to wear the distinctive red shirt of the security division. The fact that “redshirt” is now a semi-generic term for expendable, unnamed sci fi characters (the fantasy equivalent might be “orc”) tells you all you need to know about the luck your average Federation security officer enjoys.
Ripley in Alien
Ellen Ripley. Ellen frickin’ Ripley. Has anyone experienced a run of bad luck like Ellen Ripley? She ships out as a young officer on the Nostromo, leaving her daughter at home. She fights for her life, barely survives the xenomorph, drifts in an escape pod for decades, and wakes up to find her daughter is dead. She insanely agrees to go back to the xenomorph planet and barely survives again, only to be impregnated by the xenomorph before she crashes onto a prison planet, where she commits heroic suicide to destroy the embryo, only to be cloned centuries later and turned into a sort of human-alien hybrid. Let’s not mince words: that’s some serious bad luck.
Miss Fortune in Yon Ill Wind, by Piers Anthony
Let’s get meta for a moment. Miss Fortune is a minor character in Anthony’s Xanth universe, in which everyone has a single magical talent from birth. Miss Fortune’s talent is simple bad luck, which means although she was meant to be the main character of the book Yon Ill Wind, bad luck intervened and made someone else the main character; Miss Fortune appears in the book only briefly. That is possibly the worst luck ever recorded in fiction … unless you think not being in a Xanth novel is actually good luck. Discuss.
There, don’t you feel better about yourself? Happy Friday the 13th!