It’s the fight. It’s not winning the game.
Protagonists of contemporary fiction might not win or come out on top, but they remain strong throughout the conflict. If they lose, they go down fighting. Additional strong characters support and help the protagonist achieve victory. If not joining the fight itself, they offer compassion and empathy.
Life struggles can kick our butt no matter how hard we fight, or how tough we are. The people and objects creating the conflict are strong as well. However, the taste of victory remains until the person, place, or thing behind the struggle wins. If the protagonist fails, we know it wasn’t lack of moral fiber.
Readers identify with the main character. They identify with struggling through problems, tough times, sometimes making it, sometimes not. They rely on the strength of the character. They feel it. They need it. Many people are either undergoing personal trauma and conflict or know someone who is. They know survival requires strength. It’s fighting the fight, not giving up. Character behaviors are transferred to the reader.
Strong characters give hope. Hope that we can make it through the most basic human conditions.