Can what your protagonist thinks and does really be that important? Can it actually have an impact on how readers understand the story? Yes, yes it can, and that’s what we’re talking about today. This episode is all about authorial endorsement: what it means and how it affects the message of your story. We discuss the protagonist’s role, unreliable narrators, rewards, punishments, and, of course, torture in fiction. It’s a serious episode, but that’s only because we’re talking about something important.
Generously transcribed by Mouse Bowden. Volunteer to transcribe a podcast.
Chris: You’re listening to the Mythcreants podcast, with your hosts, Oren Ashkenazi, Wes Matlock, and Chris Winkle.
Oren: And welcome, everyone, to another episode of the Mythcreants podcast. I’m Oren. With me today is…
Oren: For the two of you, I have a question. If I just ranted for the next few minutes about how dogs and children’s hospitals are just the worst and I hate them the most, and then we just kept going – we did the normal podcast after I’d done that for a few minutes – do you think we could just say, “Oh, well, you know, that was just a thing that we said on the podcast. It’s not like the podcast is against children’s hospitals and dogs. And thinks they’re the worst. It’s just a neutral thing that happened. These things just happen.” Do you think that would work if I did that?
Chris: [jokingly] I mean, this podcast does have an unreliable narrator.
Wes: I was gonna say, what Reddit thread are we talking about.
Chris: Shots fired.
Oren: Though I bring this up because we’re going to talk about authorial endorsement and messaging. And I wanted to talk about this because there seem to be a lot of authors who don’t understand that when they have their main character do, say, or agree with something, that is not a neutral act. They can’t just do that and then say, “Oh, well, that was just the main character. It’s not like the story embraces that idea. It’s just something I had the main character do. The one who you are supposed to sympathize with and agree with and cheer for.
Chris: Stories really wouldn’t work if we were constantly questioning main characters and assuming that what they were saying was false. That would make it very hard to consume the story. You kind of have to assume that what they say is right most of the time, like ninety-nine percent of the time.
Oren: Nobody actually reads stories that way. People say, “Oh, well, it’s an unreliable narrator,” but that’s only in specific instances when you critique something. And they’re searching for a defense. They don’t read the story that way any other time, they just accept what’s being told them unless they have a reason not to, because that’s how stories work.
Chris: And it’s also worth saying with unreliable narration: in order for an unreliable narrator to call a message that the story has into question, you not only have to give a compelling reason why the narrator is unreliable, what you have to really show – here’s what reality is, here’s what the narrator is saying. And show an inconsistency. But you have to do it for that particular thing.
Even an unreliable narrator is not going to be unreliable one hundred percent of the time. Probably most of the time, you have to assume that there’s something about what they’re saying that is true. Otherwise you can’t really consume the story. [laughs] Not practical to constantly question reality. We don’t do that when we’re going about our day. “Am I dreaming now? Am I dreaming now?” So it just doesn’t work.
Oren: Even if you are planning to show that your main character is wrong in some capacity, you should still have to stop and think, “Is this an idea even worth entertaining? Is there some value that we get out of first having the main character think a certain way and then having them learn otherwise?” Because sometimes the answer is yes. Sometimes, that is a worthwhile thing. But other times, it’s not, and all you’ve done is created a situation where your protagonist agrees with the thing that is just awful, objectively awful. And then at the end, you have delivered the startling message that, actually, that awful thing maybe isn’t okay. [sarcastically] Thanks for that, I guess.
That’s not the level of discourse we need in fiction. You can just say that thing is wrong. You don’t have to first entertain the concept that it might be right. I’m going to use an example here.
Content notice for sexual violence in fiction. There is a novel called Too Like the Lightning, and it is a Hugo nominee, for gross reasons. In this story, one of the many things that happens is that the main characters go to this sex club for the elite. And when they are captured, the guards threaten to rape them. This is a horrible thing. When you’re reading it, you’re like, “Why is this happening, it’s very unpleasant.” And the narrator tells you, “Actually, no, this is great, this sex club is great, and if you don’t like it, then you are repressed. And a prude.” This narrator actually is unreliable, unlike most times when people say “unreliable narrator.” This narrator is actually shown to be unreliable in certain circumstances. This one he’s never contradicted on, but in other circumstances, he is. I’m willing to give the benefit of the doubt that in the next book, the author has the main character be shown to be wrong, that the rape guards at the elite sex club are actually bad. But what was the value of that? What was the benefit of entertaining the idea that actually, the rape guards are good? It’s just nothing. There’s nothing to be gained from that. It’s just awful. You might as well have your character start off thinking, “Actually, eating excrement is good.” And then have someone explain to him that it’s wrong.
Chris and Wes: [laughter]
Oren: There’s no reason to do that. It doesn’t add anything.
Chris: So just to get some terminology, we’re talking about messaging and authorial endorsement. Messaging is from the storyteller’s perspective, and authorial endorsement is from the reader’s perspective. You can think about it that way. Authorial endorsement is whether or not the story sent a particular message. When, for instance, a main character says something like, “Children’s hospitals are bad,” that has authorial endorsement unless there’s something done specifically to negate that in the story. That means that it sent a message that children’s hospitals are bad, which would not be a good message to send.
There’s a lot of debates about some stories and what messages they may or may not have. But the thing to remember is that, like anything else in storytelling, messaging does have rules. And there are always going to be some places for discussions and some things that are subjective, but there are often messages that it’s not subjective whether the story sent that message. If Oren went on a rant against children’s hospitals, that’s what our podcast did. He said that. That was a message. He sent it.
We can look at stories and, in some ways, objectively say, “This message has authorial endorsement.” And that’s not the same thing as intent. Intent from writers can be so all over the place, it’s really hard to predict what the writer intended. We follow “the author is dead” philosophy. In other words, when we’re analyzing stories, we’re just looking at the text of the story. We don’t think that the author’s intent is very relevant, just because the author’s not going to be there to explain their story to every reader. Stories do need to stand alone. And so what messages you put in matters.
Oren: When people start arguing about whether or not the message is actually that, usually you can tell that they are just being defensive, because they never talk about this message as something other than what it ostensibly is until you are critiquing the book. And then suddenly: “Oh, that’s not what it means.”
Dune is probably my favorite example of this. I’m not going to say that nowhere on the internet is there someone who proactively talks about Dune as being a commentary and a subversion of the white savior narrative. But every one I’ve ever been linked to is a reaction by someone who is upset that a critic is calling Dune a white savior story and has written this very long and elaborate explanation of why Dune is not a white savior story. You could just tell that they only wrote that because someone was criticizing a story they liked. It didn’t actually enter their mind as something useful until their critique was happening.
Chris: You have to defend a story that way, because a whole bunch of a story’s audience interpreted that message as being serious, as being white savior. That’s a failure on the storyteller’s part. If a message only gets through to some people, and other people interpret it a different way, that was a weakness in communication. It’s the storyteller’s responsibility to send their message. And you can tell when messages are effective because they piss people off.
Chris: If the only people who see it are the people who want to see it, and the people who disagree with it don’t see it, it doesn’t make anybody angry, then the message is probably less effective than it could be.
Oren: I get a lot of people who are so confused, like, “How can regressive people like Star Trek? It’s such a progressive show.” Yeah, it is…usually…but there are also lots of episodes that have very regressive messages, especially the original series. It’s not a coincidence that a lot of the people who are regressive Star Trek fans happen to like the original series the most – not universally, but that tends to be pretty common. Because the original series, despite its many progressive messages, is also about a white dude going around to other people’s planets whether they want him to be there or not, and just being great. And showing them how “cool” he is. Then there are even more specific ones. There are certain episodes that are against the side of restorative justice, ’cause it turns out it’s weird and creepy. And there’s a whole episode about how hippies are bad. And another episode about how [sarcasm] “drugs are bad…k?”
I’m not actually surprised there are a lot of regressive Star Trek fans. I can see where they get that idea from. Even if they’re clearly interpreting the show incorrectly in other ways to justify why they like it, I know where the hooks came in, in the first place.
Wes: That’s really an important thing to take into consideration, because I think a lot of these people that’ll argue about, “Well, it’s not a white savior story!” or whatever – they probably will also tell you that stories are meant to just entertain. Authors shouldn’t waste their time wondering if they’re endorsing problematic messages or not. That’s not the point of fiction. Fiction is meant to just entertain you! So they should never try to limit themselves by whatever they’re doing by worrying about how this might come across. They just need to choose what is best for the story.
I’m full of disbelief that people don’t think that there are lessons and messages in every story. [chuckles] Unless it’s literally text describing a backyard. But even then, there might be a message in that. [laughs]
Oren: This is like the whole debate about video games where people desperately want video games to be taken seriously as art, but then the moment we start criticizing them the way we would criticize any other piece of art, suddenly it’s like, “Oh, how dare you. They’re just for entertainment, sir. I say, how dare you, sir.” Who am I kidding, it’s always “ma’am.” People are always mad at women who are doing this.
Chris: I’ll also say there’s a certain style of “stick your head in the sand” method of navigating politics, where if we ignore implications of what we’re saying, we ignore politics – somehow that makes us politically neutral…? Doesn’t actually work.
Making yourself ignorant of the implications of your messages doesn’t erase those messages. If somebody actually wanted to come off as perfectly neutral, they would need the most awareness and knowledge of all of the potential groups out there. And what the implications of everything they’re saying would be. That would be very difficult.
Oren: When it comes to bad messaging, there are two general areas where it’s a problem. One is just that it’s just kind of unpleasant when characters do things that obviously don’t make sense and are endorsing things that are morally wrong, even when it isn’t part of some bigger issue.
The show Merlin is like that, because Merlin is about how the character Merlin has magic but he’s not allowed to use it because then he would get spotted by the king. And then he would get killed by the king, even though he has enough magic, he could stop that from happening. And Merlin is kind of all over the place, and I wouldn’t say that most of its episodes embrace a specific bad idea. It’s just kind of weird to watch Merlin be told, “No, you can’t use your magic to save this person, because then the king might spot you.” You should definitely save that person. Saving life is good!
Chris: Sometimes the show forgets that saving lives is good. There’s also a weird thing going on with Merlin. We talked about tragedies earlier. It is set up as a tragedy, as a traditional tragedy, where Merlin trying to avoid this bad fate ultimately is what causes it. I wonder to what extent the writers were just biting off more than they could chew by pretending to be clever and being like, “We made you think that this was the right thing, but really this was the right thing.” It doesn’t work. That’s really hard to do.
You can sometimes make your audience more sympathetic to some actions if they are very conventional in stories, and they have been conditioned to accept those actions. For instance, we’re also talking rescuing people against all odds when that’s actually all bad idea. But audience members have been conditioned to accept a hero’s deciding to go rescue a friend, even though they will probably all die. And then the people who depend on them will also die. So you can sometimes do a little bit of that, but this was clearly too far, if that’s what they’re intending. I really would like to know what was happening behind the scenes on Merlin, because the morality of that show is just so, so messed up.
Oren: And in that case, it’s mostly just an annoyance. I don’t think that are any specific regressive ideas that Merlin is supporting. But in other cases—there’s a novel called The South Coast, which is a story about fishing in space. And by space, I mean an alien planet. Part of the story is that suddenly the bosses of this fishing planet are like, “Y’all gotta catch five times as much fish.” And they’re all like, “That’s impossible. We can’t. We’re catching as much as fish as we can. What’s going on.” And the bosses refuse to explain. And so they’re like, “Ah, well, something is going on. There’s some kind of problem. Maybe the bosses are trying to undervalue the planet so they can sell it in a shady deal.” So they investigate.
And then, at the end, the bosses show up and they’re like, “No, there was no shady deal. We were just telling you to suddenly quadruple your productivity, and we expected you to do it. And it’s weird that you didn’t.” And they’re all like, “You’re right! It is weird that we didn’t just spontaneously quadruple our productivity.” And then they go and do it, and they do it, and it’s so dangerous that they have to get a literal wizard to save them. And the end, they’re all like, “Man those bosses are just great. Just great bosses.”
Chris: So nice capitalist messaging happening there.
Oren: That is specifically an actual problem that people have where they imagine that your boss always has your best interests at heart, which is simply not true. And I don’t think you need to be a socialist to know that. Being a socialist might help –
Chris and Wes: [laughing]
Oren: – But I think we can all recognize that your boss doesn’t always have your bests interests at heart, and thinking that they do is bad for you. It will hurt your ability to advocate for yourself. That’s beyond just being unenjoyable. That enforces a specifically bad message.
Wes: Have we run through all the ways in which a reader could tell that something in the text is endorsed? We mentioned no meaningful challenge to an action or event. Somebody being rewarded for what they did. A good one for that – we’ve talked a lot about torture on this podcast before. Torture’s bad! But people continue to show that it is the way to get what you need from somebody. I don’t understand why they don’t know that it’s not. People will say anything. Don’t do it.
Oren: Torture is specifically a weird one because it’s not only morally abhorrent but it also is not a practical tool. It doesn’t actually work. But thinking that it works is making people think it’s more okay to do. So in this case, that’s reinforcing a specific myth.
There are certain myths that you just don’t want to show as being correct on TV. The same reason why it would be wildly irresponsible to make a TV show about how scientists actually are faking global warming. Even in today’s hellscape of Hollywood, I think most producers would know not to do that. You know, I say it…I’m sure someone out there right now is –
Wes: Someone just started right now.
Chris: If somebody was doing that, I’m pretty sure that’s somebody who wants to spread that as a message on purpose.
Oren: At this point, enough people are aware of global warming that if you want to have a show with that message, you would have to be a global warming denier yourself. Other ways in which ideas can be given authorial endorsement: respected characters being the one to say them. This is often where the wise mentor character comes in.
Chris: If you want your protagonist to think something that’s wrong, a common technique is you have the wise mentor character come and be like, “That was wrong.” Because the mentor generally has more credibility than the protagonist does. And then usually you have the protagonist: “Oh, you’re right. That was wrong.” If you do that, that’s pretty thorough. It’ll be pretty clear that that is not the message that the story is endorsing.
Going back to what Wes was saying about something succeeding, there is the message that torture works. But there’s also the karma of the story, and the way that stories are structured as lessons where, when the character does the right thing, they succeed, and where they do the wrong thing, there are negative consequences for that. And that’s what makes an ending satisfying. That’s what gives us a feeling of satisfaction. Therefore it’s a really strong pattern. When you have characters succeed, that comes with an endorsement of them and what they did. And when they fail, that seems like a condemnation.
And sometimes this is related to things that have nothing to do with the tactics they used. For instance, if your queer characters die, a lot of times it looks like that’s a karmic punishment. You are saying that being queer is immoral. And this has happened a lot with characters that are marginalized dying in stories, where it’s pretty clear that the storyteller just valued those types of people less. And they were given more minor roles, and then killed off very quickly. And the traditional horror story, there’s always a woman who has sex – sometimes also her partner, but particularly the woman – who dies early. That’s a karmic punishment. It’s a condemnation of women who are sexually active.
Wes: Also the “Black guy dies first” trope is similar. Although in that case, there’s not an action, it’s just being Black.
Chris: Looking at the characters and the outcomes, not just – it’s an endorsement of their tactics or condemnation of their tactics. But also, if your characters with certain traits, bad things happen to them: again, that’s a judgement. That’s going to send certain messages. Even if that’s not your intent.
Oren: And I think it would be worth talking about stories where the bad guys win. ‘Cause that does happen, and usually these stories manage to avoid making it look like they are endorsing the bad guys. There are a few ways you can do this. Usually it’s done by having the villains be overtly villainous and then making the ending sad. Even the Star Wars prequels managed to do this, right. At the end, you don’t feel like the Empire is supposed to be correct because they won. And they way that they do this is by showing all of the sad Jedi and the characters of Yoda and Obi-Wan whom we have known and, at least on some level, come to respect.
But even in Star Wars, there is a problem in that the Jedi are shown to be kind of bad people because they kidnap children and are weirdly sex negative. And that kind of messes with the ending and is how you get all these YouTube videos about how “well, maybe Anakin was right, because the Jedi are actually also bad.” And it’s sort of unclear whether or not that’s supposed to be a thing in the movie or if Lucas just has a bad sense of morality. So this is why you have to pay attention. Because unless you really want people to be making YouTube videos about how your child-murdering villain maybe had a point…
Oren: …Then you have to know what you’re saying.
Wes: Well, that doesn’t define the whole message of the movie, Oren. You can’t hold them to that standard.
Wes and Oren: [laughter]
Chris: Within taking this, it can get pretty fuzzy, because sometimes the story has an antagonist with a “point”, TM, and it can be unclear whether that antagonist is supposed to be right or not. But in general, without other signals, any differences between protagonists and antagonists, again, is an endorsement or a condemnation. So when we have women wearing sexier clothing, when they’re antagonists, once again, we are condemning women who wear sexy clothing.
But you can generally fix that pretty easily just by taking some of those traits that the antagonists have and giving them to your protagonists. This is one of the reasons why we don’t generally recommend making a villain a marginalized character unless there is also a significant protagonist with that same trait. Villains can be pretty cool, so as long as you also have a protagonist that’s, for instance, Black, or a woman, or what have you, then generally it’s okay to do, because having a protagonist with that trait kind of cancels out the condemnation of it. You still have to watch out for things like stereotyping. But that’s a way that you can erase that message if you did not want the traits that your antagonists have to be something that you’re shaming.
Wes: There’s definitely a thread through here that basically says, “Don’t do tropes. They’re bad. And they all have bad messages.” Which is just good advice. Tropes can be used good-ish…. It’s kind of like how we talk about cliches. Myths and tropes can persist and get into us through our consumption of media that has this type of authorial endorsement. And then we perpetuate it. Like what we talked about with torture. Even on just differing levels of vigilantism. We love those stories, they’re all over the place, about the protagonist disregarding the rules and saving the day. But I just think that’s kind of interesting, what you’re talking about with certain tropes. We need to be trope savvy to make sure that we’re not offering messages that can endorse harm.
Oren: And I hope people didn’t take from this “don’t use tropes.” I do think that tropes are tools, and some tropes are bad, and some are fine, and some are good. And then some can be used in bad ways. Being trope savvy is definitely very important. In particular, the trope of the superhero who needs to punch street crime. Probably not a trope you want to be using. I don’t think you should use it ever. But you definitely probably don’t want to be using it right now, for pretty obvious reasons.
Be aware of what you’re doing. Tropes are repeated for a reason, and often that’s because we find meaning in them. But if you aren’t aware of how they work, you can just end up stumbling into some pretty serious problems.
Chris: I mean, “trope” is such a general term. Trope can be almost anything. It’s just a pattern. And some of those patterns are there because that’s what makes stories work. But certainly, knowing what’s out there and thinking about “Is this something that I should be emulating, or is this something I shouldn’t be emulating?” is definitely very productive and can help your messaging.
Oren: Even beyond just the issue of sending a bad message, there is also simply “Is my protagonist just a terrible person?” That can also happen if you aren’t careful. If you aren’t aware of what your character’s doing. Like, are they being really selfish? Are they ignoring the obvious plight of others? If you do that, then they just coast to victory and get what they wanted, it seems like you’re saying, “Oh, well, that’s okay. That’s not a problem.” And even if that isn’t reinforcing a specific political agenda, it is still just a bad way to write your story ’cause I don’t particularly like reading stories where the asshole gets rewarded at the end.
Chris: Sometimes we have characters that are assholes, and we acknowledge that they’re assholes in the story, and maybe there’s kind of an apology. But the level of apology needs to fit the level of assholery. And so when you have a character that’s terrible to other people and then gets a light slap on the wrist and then goes about their business, that does feel like an endorsement to some level.
A lot of times, this is just judged against “What are our current modern values and standards?” At this point in time, we should not be congratulating male characters for not being rapists. Our stories still do that, where we make the love interest look good because he’s hard on some other guy for being a rapist. And it’s like, [with fake admiration] “Oh look! Isn’t he great? He doesn’t rape women!”
So looking at that level of appropriateness definitely says a lot about the values that the story is conveying to the audience, that people may not be consciously aware of always.
Oren: Now I do want to bring up this idea that people sometimes get mad at you when you talk about this, saying, “Well, you’re judging that from a twenty-first century liberal perspective.” And it’s like, “Well, yeah, that’s the one I got. What would you have me judge it as? Do you want me to imagine that I am a nineteenth-century farmer trying to judge this story? I don’t know how to do that. That’s a weird idea. I think you’re also judging it from your morality, now in the twenty-first century. We all live in the same time period.”
Chris: Shall we pretend that we believe in the four humors?
Chris: This medicine seems really unrealistic! They didn’t talk about bile in it.
Oren: And it’s especially weird when you’re an editor and someone will tell you, “Oh, well, you shouldn’t judge that story because it was written fifty years ago, so you can’t expect it to do better.” Well, I can’t expect it to retroactively change. But I still have to critique it, because people send me manuscripts constantly, inspired by that story from fifty years ago, doing exactly the same thing that story did. Because they don’t know any better. They don’t know that that’s a bad thing to do. That’s what critique is for. [pained chuckling] I don’t know how else to explain it to you!
Wes: You’re just going to have to keep doing it, because that is the fundamental thing. We’re critiquing this long-dead person’s work. They can’t defend it. They don’t need to. We don’t need to adopt their mind view. But we gotta improve things going forward. Bring it forward. It’s the most we’re asking.
Oren: I don’t find unknown stories from the eighteen hundreds to critique. When I critique a story from the eighteen hundreds, it’s one that we are still reading and celebrating today. And that’s why I chose to critique it. There’s no point in me finding some old dime novel that no one today has read. I’ll still critique some Twain. I like critiquing Twain. It’s great.
Chris: If you like a story that has some harmful messaging, that’s okay. You can like stories that are bad in various ways. You have our permission. But it’s definitely very helpful to acknowledge that the messaging is bad, and keep that in mind. It’s that active awareness that we use when a story could be harming us by sending bad messages. That’s how we push back against those bad messages, is acknowledging them and critiquing that story.
Oren: I think that will have to be where we end this podcast for today. Those of you at home, if anything we said piqued your interest, you can leave a comment on the website at mythcreants.com.
But before we go, I want to thank a few of our patrons. First we have Kathy Ferguson, who is professor of political theory in Star Trek. Next we have Ayman Jaber. He is an urban fantasy writer and a connoisseur of Marvel. And finally we have Danita Rambo. She lives at therambogeeks.com.
We’ll talk to you next week!
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