Q&A

How Do I Avoid Endorsing My Protagonist’s Actions?

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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

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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.)

          • Greg

            Well, first off, it isn’t just colony worlds under attack here, so there’s that. But also, Michael, your analogy doesn’t hold up. There is a major difference between an invasion by technically advanced sentients and an uprising by native animals.

            If you evacuate a planet under attack by dangerous indigenous animals, the problem is solved. If you evacuate a planet being invaded by sentients, you aren’t stopping the invaders from going further in and attacking more planets.

            What happens when the Federation runs out of worlds and there are still Klingons coming to get them?

            It’s unfortunate that the new Star Trek show doesn’t approach war in a more nuanced fashion.

          • Michael Campbell

            Well, Greg it sort of does.
            In DS9 the marque were Cardasian and human colonists, who found that the Federation and Cardasians had agreed to turn a wiggly line into a “curve of best fit”. And thus the Marque were required to vacate the planets they had settled. And angered by this; they turned militant.

            So really it’s a question of just how intelligent (A.K.A. civilised) these Klingons are:-
            If you can get them to outline an area of territorial claims and cede those planets to them for a formal and legal signing of a binding document that states that they will; in exchange for ceding planets to them:- give up any and all territorial claims to planets beyond the boarder.
            Your war ends there.
            And for what? The loss of ten colony worlds and zero further casualties?

            The real question becomes, will the Klingons actually stick by their signatures.

            In many ways, Israel would give up land for peace if doing so would actually buy (a permanent) peace.
            So you get hawks and doves within the IDF.
            So too, there would be much debate within Star Fleet as to whether or not the Klingons could be trusted to take their claims as tribute/compensation and then live in peace.

            It seems to me that bemoaning the outbreak of war as a violation of federation ideals; would be a legitimate activity amoungst the ratings.
            It stands to reason that that if the Klingons are advanced enough to have warp drive then they’re advanced enough to know when the offer they’re getting is “here’s your winnings, now quit while you’re ahead…And nobody gets hurt” is a prudent coarse of action to accept that offer.

            The Klingons know that only a fool fights in a burning house.
            But whether or not the Federation can make that old Klingon saying work for the humans, is a different matter.

  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.

  6. Dave P

    I’m going to be honest. I don’t think you’ve really nailed down “preachiness” most of the works I think are preachy aren’t preachy because I disagree with them, or preachy because I think they’re internally inconsistent or internally hypocritical.

    Let’s take an example of a show I find “preachy”. The Wire, which is an exceptional show. I’m pretty Libertarian on drugs, and I think that the drug war is stupid and worse is not working towards its intended aims. In the version I watched. There was a line where one of the creators (in an interview shown before the first episode) says “if you think the war on drugs is working after watching the first season then you need to rewatch it”. And I was like, “dude, this is your show, you can make it say anything you want. You could make a show where the Nazi Germans were valiantly fighting against an evil Jewish Communist Conspiracy, just because your art says it doesn’t make it right.” And I was against the show from that moment, because I knew that the authors were intending to make a point and doing so without integrity.

    I think that preachiness comes in when an author lets the message they are trying to tell outweigh every other consideration, and also acts in a condescending way. I mean you can see that in a lot of works. The characters in Jack Chick tracts act in accordance with his morals, but those are the most preachy things you’ll find. Even when I was of a religious bent where I likely would have agreed with them (and might still agree with a handful of them), I still found them arrogant and condescending and therefore preachy.

    If you would use the word “obvious” to describe the moral of any story you’re writing, you’re probably going to write a preachy story.

  7. Matt McHugh

    Audiences wouldn’t respond well to “Avatar”?

    Um… you have checked the all-time box-office stats, right?

    I’m with you that the movie is cliched and heavy-handed, but that did not slow it down with the width swath of popcorn-eaters.

  8. Greg

    A couple misc points here:

    If you want to separate yourself from your protagonist a little, try to step away from first person narration. For some reason when a story is narrated in the protagonist’s voice it’s harder for me to separate author opinion from character opinion. Some writers can pull this off beautifully but many can’t. Or maybe it’s just me.

    Sometimes a work can come off as preachy if the writer includes a straw man for the other side of the issue. A while back I was reading a fantasy novel where the main character (a foreigner) was trying to buy herbs to abort her 3-week pregnancy. But the herbalist in the city was horrified and told her it was against the law to terminate a pregnancy. The main character couldn’t figure out what the big deal was, and nobody could come up with a coherent defense of the law.

    Now don’t get me wrong: I’m pro-choice. But I do think the writer could have had a character say something like, “The Mother Goddess is offended by such acts” or something that would at least sound better than, “Um, that’s just the way it is, and yeah we don’t know why it’s wrong.”

    • Michael Campbell

      Well maybe the author didn’t intend the herbs to be metaphorical for an abortion.
      Maybe it was in fact a metaphor for gun control laws.

      “Nobody knows why it’s the law, they just know that it’s in the constitution.”
      “But why not change the constitution?”
      “Because that’s impossible!”
      “A two third majority vote in a joint sitting of both houses is impossible?”
      “The way things are now; yes.”

      Maybe the author was making a comment about straw-man arguments.

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