Bilbo writing his book.

In Lord of the Rings, we mostly know Sauron is evil because Tolkein tells us.

For all the time we spend arguing about plot holes and magic systems, we spend even more time arguing about what a story means. Fiction can send a powerful message, but first we have to understand what that message is. That’s where authorial endorsement comes in. This concept is critical for both storytellers and audiences to understand, but it’s rarely identified for what it is. Instead, people tend to argue around it, sending critical discussion into unproductive circles. So today we’re going to pin authorial endorsement down and find out what it all means.

What Is Authorial Endorsement?

The Lorax standing on a platform labeled "Unless."

Have you ever read a story where the protagonist did something really distasteful, but when you went online to say you didn’t like that distasteful thing, someone else explains that you aren’t supposed to like it? If so, congratulations, you’ve just discussed authorial endorsement. Also, I’m sorry, that was probably a pretty unpleasant argument.

Authorial endorsement means the story supports a specific action or message. Sometimes this is easy to spot. We can all tell that Dr. Seuss’s The Lorax is endorsing environmental conservation. He speaks for the trees, after all. But does the Star Trek episode A Private Little War endorse military interventionism? Kirk and company do give weapons to a less advanced group of aliens who are fighting a war, and the Federation has a vested interest in that war’s outcome, but Kirk is sad when he does it, so who can say?*

Note that authorial endorsement is different from authorial intent. In most cases, it doesn’t matter what the author meant to say; it matters what’s on the page.* Authors can give their endorsement without ever meaning to, and even if they realize their mistake later, no amount of protesting their innocence will change what they wrote.

How Is Endorsement Bestowed?

Kirk giving a musket to the Hill People.

Now that we’ve covered what authorial endorsement is, we need to talk about how stories hand it out. As with so many abstract concepts, there are a lot of ways this can happen, but we’ll focus on the most common.

An Action Is Rewarded

If a protagonist in the story takes an action and it turns out well, the action has authorial endorsement. In the case of A Private Little War, it is clear that Kirk arming his faction of aliens will be an effective method of halting Klingon encroachment, protecting a less powerful culture from being conquered, and furthering Federation interests. Considering that this is the very justification used by American politicians to justify conflicts from Vietnam in the ’60s to Syria today, this is enough to put the episode firmly in the pro-intervention camp.

It’s also possible for actions to gain authorial endorsement through unintended consequences, as long as those consequences are positive. In season three of Stranger Things, Hopper is a huge jerk to Joyce, and then Joyce suddenly wants to date him. That wasn’t Hopper’s goal when he was being a jerk, but the positive outcome still gives his behavior authorial endorsement.

Both these dynamics flow from character karma, the idea that whether or not a protagonist succeeds depends on whether they make the right choice. Readers expect that if a hero succumbs to temptation, they’ll face consequences. If they take the high road even when it’s hard, they’ll be rewarded. Even if a protagonist’s actions are blatantly immoral, success makes it seem like the author wanted to reward them.

Respected Characters Give Support

If a character the story respects lends their support to an action or idea, then it has authorial endorsement. The audience looks to these characters for guidance in a story’s alien world, even if the story is set in the modern day. When those characters say something is good, we’re inclined to believe them.

Returning to A Private Little War, not only do we see that Kirk’s plan works, but it is supported by Kirk himself. Kirk is portrayed as a decisive and intelligent leader, so if he thinks this is the best option, it must be. Doctor McCoy does argue against the plan, but he does so from the position of an idealist who isn’t willing to make concessions to reality. Kirk overrules him, casting this as a hard choice that must be made for the greater good.

Characters are usually respected based on their intelligence, morals, insight, and accomplishments. Kirk draws the lion’s share of respect from his accomplishments, then from morals, and to a lesser extent from the other two categories. McCoy is also respected, mostly from his morals, but not to the same degree.

The Narrator Says So

A really obvious sign that something has authorial endorsement is when the narrator themself endorses it. This is especially true with a third-person omniscient narrator. As the name implies, these narrators know everything, and so if they say something, it is assumed to be true within the context of the story. You can see this in the novel Space Opera, where the premise is that every sapient species must prove its right to exist by competing in a music contest. That’s absurd, but the omniscient narrator still tells us this is a good system. That gives the Music Contest to Avoid Genocide unquestionable authorial endorsement.

Even if the narrator isn’t omniscient, their opinion carries a great deal of weight. In limited narration, the POV character is the narrator, and readers will trust that character unless they’re given a really good reason not to. This is doubly true if the POV character is the protagonist, which they usually are. Protagonists have to be likable, and if we like a character, we’ll usually take what they say at face value. When Kvothe from The Name of The Wind explains how easily he masters everything he tries, the idea that Kvothe is good at everything gains authorial endorsement.

Scene Framing

It’s also possible for the way a scene is set up and executed to bestow authorial endorsement, even if the characters and narrator never specifically comment on the issue in question. This comes up most often in visual mediums, since artists and filmmakers have more tools at their disposal than novelists, but it’s applicable to all stories.

If a scene is framed as funny, joyous, sad, or any other particular emotion, that’s a kind of authorial endorsement. Most of this goes by without notice. Of course a scene where the hero’s parents die is sad; why wouldn’t it be?

But then you have scenes like the cross-dressing sequence from Mulan. Even though the characters never say that men dressing in feminine clothing is inherently funny, the scene is set up to make us think that. The three men in question are all bumbling sidekicks. They’re funny because of what they do, not because they crack jokes or otherwise perform comedy. Even the fighting in that scene is framed as comedic, with the three men taking down their enemies with fruit rather than weapons. Mulan, the hero, fights with non-comedic martial arts, and her clothing is much more subdued, increasing the comedic contrasts with her friends’ courtesan garb. Meanwhile, Captain Shang, a very serious love interest, doesn’t get in on the cross-dressing at all. The message is clear: men wearing feminine clothing is supposed to be funny.

What Effect Does Endorsement Have?

Mercer and Grayson sitting on the bridge of the Enterprise.

Now we know what authorial endorsement is and how it’s conveyed, so what’s the big deal? Why is this so important to understand? Mainly because what aspects a story endorses will determine how audiences view it, the effects of which can be split into two broad categories.

The Story’s Internal Logic

Authorial endorsement is really important for establishing the conceits of your story and your world. Even the grittiest, most down-to-earth stories operate on rules that differ from the real world, and it’s important for audiences to understand what those are. In Star Wars, it’s important for us to know that the Empire is evil long before the Death Star blows up Alderaan, and the film demonstrates that through scene setting and having characters like Luke and Obi-Wan just say the Empire is evil.

This can pose a problem when the story’s conceits veer too far away from reality, as we’re seeing more and more in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Every new MCU film adds more heroes to the mix, until there are dozens just on Earth. But when noted smart-dude Nick Fury says that there are no other heroes available to help in Spider-Man: Far From Home, that clearly has authorial endorsement, even though it’s nonsense. Marvel will probably be fine, but blatant reality breaks like this drive sections of the audience away.

The Story’s Message

Next, there’s what message a story is sending, which is often harder to measure but is just as important. In most cases, authorial endorsement translates directly into the story’s message, so it’s important to be careful. When nearly every character in The Orville agrees that Mercer’s harassment of Grayson is understandable because Grayson cheated on him, including Grayson herself, it sends the message that men harassing women is fine as long as the woman did something wrong at some point.

The potential harm here is the same as it is with any toxic message. It’s not mind control – no one watching The Orville is forced to go and harass their ex – but it reinforces harmful ideas people already have. Men who treat women badly are validated by The Orville, and they’ll have even fewer qualms about their behavior. Besides, any woman who’s ever been bullied by her ex is likely to get the feeling that The Orville doesn’t want her viewership. I can’t think of many reasons a storyteller would want to reduce their potential audience like that.

Can I Avoid It With an Unreliable Narrator?

A Hover Car from the Novel Too Light the Lighting.

Probably not. Moving on…

Okay, seriously, this is an idea I see a lot, that an author can’t be endorsing something because the narration is unreliable. Anything harmful or illogical can supposedly be written off as a quirk of the narrator. While it is technically possible for this strategy to work, few stories I know of have ever pulled it off. Consider the novel Too Like the Lightning, a Hugo finalist from 2016.

Content Notice: Discussion of sexual violence in fiction.

In this story, two characters break into an elite sex club and are grabbed by club security, who then gleefully threaten to rape them. This is played as kind of sexy, gross as that is. Then another character shows up and assures us that those security goons wouldn’t really have raped anyone; they just get their kicks by threatening to rape people. Okay? The book then muddies even this pitiful defense by hurrying the characters away before the goons can do… something bad. So, how much of a threat they actually were is left an open question.

Later, a character tries to argue that this sex club is in fact bad, which seems obvious, and half a dozen other characters, many of whom have been portrayed with those respect-granting properties from earlier, all explain that he’s wrong. This sex club with rape guards is great and anyone who disagrees is a sex-negative prude. Even the narrator, a fellow named Mycroft, gets in on the action. Clearly, the rape guards have authorial endorsement.

Now, we know Mycroft is at times an unreliable narrator. He’s been shown to have a bias in the past and has even been corrected by other narrators. But we have no reason to think he’s lying in this particular instance, and even if he is later shown to be, what would be the point? Best-case scenario, we have a book that for a while is perfect happy to say that rape guards are good, then later says they’re bad. Really groundbreaking thought right there.

Too Like the Lightning is an extreme example, to be sure, but it shows how you can’t count on the mere presence of an unreliable narrator to remove authorial endorsement. The unreliability has to be demonstrated clearly in the moment, something that interrupts the flow of the story in a way most authors don’t want.

How Are Villains Different?

Ozymandias from the comic Watchmen.

Villains represent a major curve ball in the field of authorial endorsement. All things being equal, a villain doing something or supporting an idea does not convey authorial endorsement on a moral level. In Star Wars, we’re not left thinking that it was good for the Empire to blow up Alderaan just because Vader and Tarkin were into it. This is really important, since otherwise it would be difficult to generate conflict without sending bad messages.

This doesn’t mean villains can’t send problematic messages, of course. They can normalize bigoted behavior, and they can play into the same toxic tropes as any other character. One reason I talk about torture so often is that even if a villain is doing the torturing, it can still send the message that torture is a reliable way of extracting accurate information. That’s a harmful message no matter who is doing it.

These rules change yet again if a villain is meant to be sympathetic, if they’re trying to achieve good ends through evil means, or any other type of villain who seems to “have a point.” Consider Ozymandias from the graphic novel Watchmen. He kills half the people in New York City with a giant psychic squid monster, which is bad. But he’s got a noble goal: creating world peace. Within the story, it seems like his plan is going to work. His squid attack convinces everyone in the world to unite so they can defend themselves from further possible squid attacks. The only possible hang-up is that the famously unstable Rorschach drops off his version of events with a newspaper, but we don’t see the results.

That’s some pretty strong authorial endorsement. Whether you consider it a problem depends on if you think there are a lot of people out there with bad ideas that this would reinforce. That question is beyond the scope of this article, but it illustrates that you can’t simply count on a villain to dispel endorsement.

Can Authorial Endorsement Be Removed?

The cave duel from Empire Strikes Back.

Under the right circumstances, it is possible to have your protagonist do something without granting it authorial endorsement. This is particularly important for growth arcs, because the hero typically needs to have some negative trait that they then grow out of.

The most immediate way to withdraw authorial endorsement is to have a character’s action fail or have major negative consequences. In The Empire Strikes Back, when Luke runs off to face Vader with incomplete training, it blows up in his face. This is a major part of Luke’s arc toward becoming less overconfident. It’s clear to viewers that this was a bad idea.

Another option is to have a respected character speak out against whatever the hero is doing. Empire Strikes Back also has this with Yoda and Obi-Wan both telling Luke not to go, but this method is especially useful in situations where the outcome of an action isn’t immediately obvious. In the novel The Curse of Chalion, the main character Cazaril is extremely self-deprecating, but we quickly hear several other characters explain that he is in fact very competent. This is important to Cazaril’s arc of recovering from trauma and learning to value himself. If you’re using an omniscient narrator, you can also just say a character’s actions are bad, the way Lewis does for Edmund in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe.

It’s important to remember that any effort to remove authorial endorsement has limits. If a wise mentor cautions against an action, but then that action succeeds without a hitch, it probably has authorial endorsement. This is a major problem in Legend of Korra’s first three seasons. The titular Korra is always being warned not to rush in and solve her problems with violence, but she does so anyway, and it always works.

At the same time, removing authorial endorsement is not a free pass on a hero’s actions. Even if you make it clear that audiences aren’t supposed to like it when your protagonists kills puppies, they’re still killing puppies. It’ll be hard to come back from that no matter how many redemption arcs you craft.

While understanding authorial endorsement would certainly make online discourse more pleasant, the people who really need to understand it are authors themselves. We need to be aware of what we’re saying when we write our main characters and sympathetic villains. If we don’t, our stories can quickly get away from us, which can both hurt our sales and play into some really harmful tropes.

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