I’m writing a political drama that’s meant to be protagonist vs society. However, the story opens with a king that wants to punish the protagonist because of a personal grudge against their family. The king dies less than a third of the way in.
I want to subvert the idea that simply killing one person will fix everything. How do I keep the audience from feeling duped when the king dies and show it’s a systemic issue? Do I replace the king with another antagonist, or would that just make it look like the problem is a bunch of individual people who are evil?Anonymous
Mainly, you need to make sure the problem your protagonist faces isn’t actually solved by killing the antagonistic king. You want it to look like the king is the cause of the protagonist’s problem at first, but after the protagonist defeats the king, they should learn for themself that the root of the problem is deeper than one person.
You’ve made that harder for yourself by making the king motivated by a personal grudge. What you want is a system that inevitably produces more leaders that will do the same thing he did. So after one ruler is dethroned, up pops another one who’s twice as determined. This should force the protagonist to notice the system and start fighting the system instead of individual people.
For example, let’s say your protagonist is the local leader of a religious community that’s in the minority. The current king seems to have a huge personal bias against this minority religion and starts insisting that everyone has to follow the kingdom’s more powerful church, and those who don’t will be punished. The protagonist manages to stand up to the king, causing him to be killed or dethroned. A new monarch is crowned, someone who’s always been friendlier to this minority religion.
But as soon as this friendly noble becomes the monarch, they make an about-face, declaring the minority religion a threat to the kingdom’s security, so now things are worse than before. The protagonist discovers that the powerful church is deeply intertwined with the monarchy. The church influences who is chosen as monarch, but more than that, the church tells the populace that the monarch has the divine right to rule. A minority religion competes with the bigger church and in doing so, inherently threatens to reduce the influence of the monarch. That means people are more likely to become the monarch if they promise the powerful church they’ll get rid of competitors, but also once they are monarch, they have an incentive to get rid of minority religions anyway.
After that, the protagonist should change tactics, targeting the monarchy itself, the powerful church, the relationship between the two, or all of the above.
I hope that gives you some ideas. Your audience won’t feel duped as long as the protagonist genuinely believes the king is the problem just like they do, and once the king is defeated, the protagonist still has to face what is essentially the same threat. You don’t want to make it feel like the protagonist has wandered into a different story.
You’ll also want to avoid allowing the tension to drop too much once the king is defeated. I would look for a way to insert some tense foreshadowing to signal that something will go wrong soon or minimize the time between the king being defeated and the next antagonist popping up.
Then, make sure the protagonist learns the lesson you want your audience to learn, and that you demonstrate how the system is causing the protagonist’s problems rather than individual people.