Q&A

How Do I Avoid Endorsing My Protagonist’s Actions?

questions and answer talk bubbles

Do you have advice for avoiding preachiness in your work? I assumed I had this problem because I like to write stories that teach and inspire and was getting too caught up in that motive. But I’m plotting a story with no teaching motive at all, and I still have this problem.

For context, the hero’s internal conflict is a moral dilemma between doing what’s right to rectify her past wrongs and doing what’s wrong to save herself from a position she was wrongly placed in. […]

No matter what decision she ultimately comes to, I can’t find a way to make it look like it’s HER decision and not my attempts to endorse an opinion via that character. Do you have any suggestions? […]

Thanks in advance.

-Alice

Hey there, thanks for writing in!

In my experience, when audiences describe a story as “preachy,” it means one of two things.

  1. The story is trying to impart a message or lesson that it doesn’t support.
  2. The audience doesn’t like the message the story is trying to convey.

Not much can be done about #2. You could try to make the message subtler, but doing so risks losing the message altogether. In my experience, it’s usually better to plant your flag firmly and let people say what they will. Of course, it’s always helpful to have some self-reflection and ask why audiences might object to a story’s message. James Cameron could have saved us all a lot of trouble with Avatar if he’d realized that audiences wouldn’t respond well to a message about how what native people really need is a white man to save them. But outside of something like that, audiences will either appreciate the message or they won’t.

For #1, it’s usually an issue of covering the show-don’t-tell fundamentals. If the characters spend a lot of time talking about how publicly funded healthcare is better than privately funded, but the audience only ever sees bad outcomes from publicly funded healthcare, it’ll create some dissonance. Often, this problem arises from a message being added afterward, rather than tailoring the story to fit the message.

This is a major problem with Star Trek: Discovery, which is a story about a morally black-and-white conflict against the Klingons, but the writers keep telling us it’s a commentary on Federation ideals. In order to make that work, they would have needed a conflict in which Federation ideals actually played a major role, but instead they wrote a grimdark war story against evil space cannibals. If you ever find yourself in that situation, the best options are to either drop the message and save it for a more fitting story or make some major revisions to the story so it fits the message.

For your specific scenario, it’s tough to have a main character do something without making the action feel like it has author endorsement. The first place to look is the action’s outcome. If the action has the desired effect and things turn out well for the character, it’ll always seem like the action had author endorsement. There’s no way around that. To prevent this, either the protagonist has to realize their mistake before they go too far, or the action has to turn out badly. That either mean it fails, or it turns out to have such steep costs that the protagonist realizes it was a mistake. They might actually succeed in taking the throne through murder and deceit, but once they have it, they see that their actions have spawned more violence, plunging the country into civil war. Greek tragedies are a great place to look for inspiration, as they pioneered the genre of a sympathetic hero who makes the wrong choices.

Once you have the ending figured out, you need a way to signal to the audience early that the protagonist is heading down the wrong path; otherwise, the audience may not wait to see how things turn around. I’ve found a good way to do this is to have another character – possibly a friend or mentor – there to warn the protagonist against their chosen course. If this character seems credible, most audiences will take their warning to mean that the protagonist’s choices are supposed to be wrong, even though the protagonist doesn’t realize it.

Another option is to make all the protagonist’s choices seem reasonable until the end, when you reveal they’ve really been making the wrong choices. This is tough, but it can be done. Perhaps the protagonist is a queen whose family has been the target of multiple assassination attempts, and to prevent more she starts having her allies interrogated, since they were the only ones with the knowledge to plan such attacks. That’s an understandable reaction, and it’s only later revealed that the assassins specifically wanted to provoke the queen onto this course.

Either way, the key is to preserve sympathy for the protagonist. Even if you have a direct aside to the audience that the protagonist’s actions are wrong, it won’t be enough if they make choices so unsympathetic that the audience doesn’t enjoy reading about them anymore. This may take some trial and error, but in general audiences don’t life selfish characters or characters who cause unnecessary suffering, so it’s often a good plan for the protagonist’s mistakes to come from a need to help others rather than themselves. It also helps if the protagonist is avenging a wrong done to them, which it sounds like you’ve already got in your story.

Hope that’s helpful,
-Oren

Submit your own question here. If you’d like more than an answer to a general question, you can hire us to look over your story.

Read more about

 

Comments

  1. Michael Campbell

    If you’re talking about expressing character agency, I’ld point to some cinematic examples.
    The Breakfast Club:- Bender raises his fist in the end. He still chooses his own destiny no matter the pressure brought against him to confirm.
    On Her Majesty’s Secret Service:- Bond ignores the directive to stand-down and organises with his future father-in-law to blow up Blofeld’s headquarters. He’s choosing to rescue Tracy whether his government endorses it or not.

    I’ld recommend asking yourself, where can the protagonists give their master’s “the finger”?
    Digitus sceleratum was a thing Roman slaves did to their masters. It’s a very old tradition.

  2. Michael Campbell

    “No matter what decision she ultimately comes to, I can’t find a way to make it look like it’s HER decision and not my attempts to endorse an opinion via that character.”
    Actually, why should; endorsing the lesser of two evils, be considered a bad thing!?!

  3. SunlessNick

    In order to make that work, they would have needed a conflict in which Federation ideals actually played a major role, but instead they wrote a grimdark war story against evil space cannibals.

    Not having already done a much better one might have helped too (Deep Space 9 interrogated Federation values on several occasions and levels, including the level of when and how the Federation lived up to them or didn’t But it was nothing like the whole show).

    • Oren Ashkenazi

      Yeah there’s no question that DS9 was much better at everything Discovery is trying to do, but I believe there’s room for more than one morally questionable war story in Star Trek. Discovery just aint it.

      • Michael Campbell

        Considering the PTSD rates of justifiable wars; bemoaning the morally questionable nature of a justifiable war seems to me to be quite sensible.

        Having not seen the show, I have no idea as to whether they hit the nail on the head or not, but there does seem to me to be a nail somewhere around there.

        What I have seen lately?
        An episode of She-Ra, written by J. Michael Straczynski.

        • Cay Reet

          The problem with the show (Star Trek: Discovery, not She-Ra) is that it’s basically clear from the beginning that not having this war is no option. It’s not just about having a justifiable war, it’s about deciding whether or not to protect a huge number of worlds from a species of aliens who literally commit cannibalism on those they defeat (yes, that is another can of worms – the pre-STOS Klingons here are cannibals). It would not be justifiable for the Federation (and Star Fleet as its executive branch) by any means to leave their colonies and the alien races they have allied themselves with to this fate, if there’s the slightest chance to prevent it through a war. It’s no question, for instance, about the first directive, because most the worlds we’re speaking about are already part of the Federation and also partially have been colonized by humans or other species who are part of the Federation and thus no longer fall under the first directive.

          • Michael Campbell

            If colonists were being eaten by native animals.
            The Federation would give itself permission to withdraw the colonists from that colony world.
            Yet somehow this isn’t true if the colonists are being eaten by an invasive species (that has warp drive and star ships).
            I can see how that would be an issue of debate.

            (Less so if the world was a natively populated member of the Federation but certainly in the case of colony worlds.)

  4. Alice

    Thanks for your response, Oren. This has definitely been a big help. Also, I apologise for not reply to the email you sent with my thanks. I meant to and kept forgetting.

    I guess it’s true that any successful choice that the protagonist makes will look like it has author endorsement, but would you say you could lessen this by putting a character in a position where they know any choice they make will have both good and bad consequences? As in, they’ll lose something either way? My character isn’t in this position but your examples got me wondering about it.

    I suppose you could inadvertantly create the message that no choice is perfect or that tough decisions are necessary, but perhaps that would be better than possibly sparking controversy on something you didn’t want to debate in the first place, I don’t know.

    • Oren Ashkenazi

      It would be super sensitive to context, but in general simply giving the choice a price won’t be enough to make it look like the choice doesn’t have author endorsement. If anything, it can seem like the author is endorsing that kind of action even if it comes at a cost.

  5. Michael Campbell

    “I suppose you could inadvertantly create the message that no choice is perfect or that tough decisions are necessary”
    Don’t do it inadvertently: do it deliberately!

    If the film Galaxy Quest has a morale:- it’s that human beings have feelings that make them weak but they also have feelings that make them strong. And how you come to terms with that dichotomy is a little thing human beings call “growing up”.

    It was Richard Nixon who said that if he had one more win in his life than his failures, he’ld be willing to consider his whole life a success.

    Having your character consider future consequences (either through dialogue with a confidant or mental consideration) and choose, even if they choose wrongly by the measure of a bunch of readers. Even if they say they could be wrong (I like the expression; It’s six and five and pick`em) choosing the 51% that might have been slightly miscounted shows an attempt at being a good person.

    Theologians argue that all sin is a violation of 1st commandment.
    But the thing about the first commandment is that in order to violate it, one must choose to violate it.
    Therefore all sin is a product of “choice”.

    Maybe you write that your character has an abortion. Maybe you write that the character gives the baby up for adoption.
    That the character is conflicted, that the character can see that both options have pros & cons, that the character can see that what she chooses is right for her but that doesn’t automatically make it the right choice for others:-
    These make for a deeper character and a more considered story.
    I’m not saying go down the termination road in your story as readers already see that one as super-preachy; but I am saying that walking along morality’s tightrope can be super-hard and stories about that fact can be well worth reading.

Leave a Comment

By submitting a comment, you confirm that you have read and agree to our comments policy.