Protagonist-Centered Morality: What It Is, And How You Can Avoid It
Are you trying to write a story with protagonists who are supposed to be perceived as (at least mostly) good or heroic by your audiences? Are they supposed to be in opposition to characters who are supposed to be perceived as villainous and evil? Then one thing you'll want to try to minimize is protagonist-centered morality because left unchecked, it can potentially make people see your characters exactly the opposite of how you intended!
Table of Contents
- What Protagonist-Centered Morality Is
- What Protagonist-Centered Morality Can Look Like
- Ways To Spot & Avoid Protagonist-Centered Morality
- In summary...
What Protagonist-Centered Morality Is
In works with protagonist-centered morality, the merit and value of characters, actions, choices, and so forth will be judged largely on how they affect the protagonists and how the protagonists feel about it:
- Whether you're good or bad will depend on whether you help or hinder these protagonists (no matter what they're demanding from you!) and/or whether you're on the "right" side (regardless of what you actually do!).
- The protagonists always deserve what they want, no matter who might be inconvenienced or even endangered for it. They deserve it more than anyone else, too – no matter how innocuous or reasonable the competition's motivations actually are.
- Anyone who disagrees with the protagonists will be portrayed as wrong, even evil, no matter what positions they take – and in some works, the protagonists will end up taking the exact opposite position from what they took earlier, and be completely right again.
This isn't simply about having flawed or short-sighted protagonists – in such works, other characters (including characters from outside of your protagonists' clique/crew/group) will be able to disagree or disapprove without constantly being vilified or depicted as unfair, contemptuous, haughty, arrogant, presumptuous, bullyish, bratty, whiny, disrespectful, and so forth; and their opinions will sometimes change the protagonists' minds and make them consider new perspectives. Protagonists might sometimes get bitter when things don't go their way, but the stories won't treat these instances as grave injustices.
What Protagonist-Centered Morality Can Look Like
In a story that focuses on a group of lab technicians, new technician Tessa comes along and notices that the lab is filled with safety hazards – bottles of dangerous chemicals set where they could easily be knocked over, lighting is extremely dim, scientists are wearing watches and long loose hair while neglecting to wear proper protective equipment, etc. Tessa points this out and tries to get them to correct these problems for the sake of their work and for the sake of their own safety. Rather than it being acknowledged that these scientists are skating on thin ice, the story treats Tessa as a jackbooted killjoy – and when she finally leaves, everyone breathes a collective sigh of relief and goes back to merrily violating safety protocols as before.
In real life, safety protocols like these don't exist to squash people's fun – they exist to protect the health and lives of the workers, the projects they're working on, and the equipment they use (which the owners of the lab might not have the budget to fix or replace if something happens to it). Someone like Tessa would be absolutely correct telling these people that they needed to straighten up their act, and any employer would be well within their rights to fire them all.
Howell, the leader of a small task force, has been behaving increasingly strangely. His orders make less and less sense, and often as not his tactics end in disaster and loss. He's been disappearing for hours on end without saying a word beforehand. When questioned, he becomes defensive to the point of hostility and refuses to explain himself, pulling rank to shut his subordinates up. The few who remain loyal to Howell tell the others that they should have more faith in him because he always has a plan and things always work out in the end.
Finally, things do ultimately work out for the task force – but it's despite Howell's orders and actions rather than because of him, because their victory was ultimately decided by a lucky break that nobody could have seen coming (whoda thunk that the guy Howell insulted back in Chapter 3 would come along with a truck full of weapons just in the nick of time?!). At the end of the day, Howell is once again lauded as a hero and those who criticized him have to admit that they were wrong.
Now for the reality check: Any leader you win despite of, rather than because of, is the opposite of what a leader should be. Secondly, there are many, many reasons why a leader should never be given eternal implicit trust - wielding too much power for too long can go to one's head, stress can impair one's judgment, and certain medical conditions can impair one's judgment or even cause a significant shift in personality, so any sudden erratic behavior or drop in performance should not be left unscrutinized. And what's more, a leader being held above scrutiny or reproach is a surefire sign that the leader, if not the whole group, is corrupt.
Cay works for an agency that tackles supernatural threats, and has been trying to hunt down and stop a mage whose activities are killing a lot of people. But when Cay's sister Agatha falls seriously ill, Cay drops everything to go and see her - without so much as clearing it with the boss and making sure the case gets picked up by someone else who can handle it. When Cay returns to the job a week later, the boss does not give a reprimand, but instead allows the agent to return to work as if nothing happened. Anyone who expresses disapproval over Cay's behavior is depicted as cold and insensitive.
Now, wanting to visit one's ill sister is understandable - but Cay's choices have ensured that even more people die by delaying the mage's capture, and thus, chose to sacrifice these people and put their family and friends through unimaginable grief for Agatha's sake. What's more, it's not going to reflect well on the agency, either - whoever is giving the agency its funding probably won't be pleased to learn that agents are being allowed to fritter their time away on personal matters while people die because dangerous criminals are going uncaught. Realistically, this could also end up in the agency having its funding cut, a lot of its employees being fired, or the whole thing being shut down altogether in favor of a program that stands a better chance of getting the job done.
Tabitha joins a team of superheroes. On her first mission, she loses control of her powers and destroys an art gallery, injuring several people inside. The team chalks it up to bad luck and lets her have another try. However, on her next mission she makes a mistake that brings down an entire house. Third mission, Tabitha's powers wonk out again, enabling the villain to escape from her capture. Similar happens on the fourth and fifth missions.
At this point, a member of the team suggests that Tabitha be removed from active duty until she can gain better control. Tabitha immediately says that this isn't fair because she didn't intentionally cause these mishaps. Finally, the group consults with their boss, who ultimately rules that because Tabitha didn't mean to do it, she can remain an active member.
The purpose of a team is to get a job done - in this case, protecting the innocent and preventing destruction. If Tabitha's presence isn't stopping more hurt and destruction than it's causing, then she needs taken off the team, period. Her intentions are completely irrelevant – what matters is whether she can do the job. Plus, if Tabitha heads out into the field knowing that there are high odds her powers will hurt someone or damage their stuff, then she is at fault for the harm she causes because she knew it would probably happen and didn't try to prevent it. At this point, she has about the same moral standing as someone who drives a vehicle or operates heavy machinery while under the influence.
Hayden's group has been fighting a cruel enemy faction for some time now. The faction is eager to resort to torture and exceptionally cruel methods of execution, which has been used to establish just how evil the enemy is. When Hayden's friend Emily is captured by the enemy, Hayden goes to Reed, who defected from the enemy long ago but still knows how to get around in their territory. Reed refuses to help, citing that if he's caught, his entire family could be hunted down and painfully executed by the faction's agents in retaliation – and he's got precedent to think this might happen.
Hayden calls him a coward, then threatens to tie him up and leave him on the enemy's borders with a sign over his chest reading 'traitor,' where the enemy will find him and take him off for whatever punishment they deem fit to give him… if the wild animals don't eat him first.
None of Hayden's friends or allies ever remark on the cruelty of this, let alone point out that this course of action is just as horrible as anything they condemn the enemy for or that it's unfair to risk Reed's entire family just for one person. Neither does Hayden ever have to confront and face the fact that the course the group is taking is no different from what the enemy might do, and that they might not have the moral high ground after all. In fact, the entire story goes on depicting Hayden's group in a favorable light despite them getting up to similar shenanigans throughout.
Done correctly, an arc where the protagonists start behaving just as badly as the enemy can be amazing. But to be done correctly, tough questions have to be asked and harsh truths have to be faced. Protagonists and other characters whose opinions matter have to acknowledge that lines have been crossed, and the fact that they have crossed these lines should trouble them. Otherwise, people may start questioning just why the protagonists should be considered the "good" guys, and subsequently, why they should even care whether or not they win.
Ways To Spot & Avoid Protagonist-Centered Morality
Ask yourself what makes the protagonists and the antagonists so different from each other. Do the protagonists really and truly show more regard to the welfare, freedom, dignity, and safety of other people than the antagonists do? Or do they perhaps talk about how they do, but their actual choices and actions are little different from those of the antagonists? Do you basically have an "us versus them" situation, with the banners they stand under being the only functional difference between them? If so, why exactly should we see your characters as better people?
Ask yourself how far the story values the wants and needs of the protagonists above the needs and welfare of others. Do the protagonists readily endanger the lives of others to save the life of one of their own, and A: those others didn't willingly choose to endanger themselves for this person, and B: there's nothing bigger at stake to justify this kind of trade-off? Do they have a firm "we'll never abandon one of our own!" policy – to the point where they'll readily endanger, hurt, or kill others to see it through, up to and including bystanders and those who pose no immediate threat? Do the protagonists act as some kind of great injustice or insult when people don't want to set aside their dreams or passions or to rearrange their lives to do what the protagonists want? And is this type of behavior never treated as a problem in the story?
Or are your protagonists really only "good" by comparison? When you make a list of what makes your protagonists better people than the antagonists, are you mainly listing off bad things that they don't do, or reasons that they're not as bad as the villains? (EG, "they might lock up people with strange powers up, but at least they don't vivisect them!", "they might steal from random people wherever they go, but at least they don't carpet bomb entire towns!", or "they might lie to their love interests a lot, but at least they don't hit them!") This doesn't make your characters look particularly good or heroic – if anything, it mainly makes them look like slightly less evil villains, but still villains nonetheless.
Ask yourself: Are characters judged as deserving or undeserving based on what they are or who they're with moreso than what they actually do? For example, is the fact that someone is a law-abiding citizen of the empire (who hasn't actually done anything to harm the protagonists) while your characters are outlaws who "believe in freedom and justice" (or similar) seen as justification enough to steal from, rough up, lie to, threaten, sabotage, manipulate, or even kill this person? Or do your protagonists easily and readily do this kind of thing to just about anyone who isn't in their group (or an ally of their group), and it's never shown to be unfair or cruel? And on the flip side of the coin, is it treated as wrong or awful whenever a member of the empire or someone who isn't part of the protagonists' group treats them thus? If so, you probably have protagonist-centered morality going on.
Watch out for the "I have reasons; they have excuses!" trap. You've probably been on the butt end of this mentality in real life – for example, if your mom leaves the peanut butter out on the counter, then the fact that she was tired and distracted means that she can't be blamed, but if you have the same reason for leaving the milk out, you're just making excuses for your slobby behavior. If your boss snaps out at you, he might bring up the fact that he's stressed out as a reason why he can't be held accountable – but if you snap out for the same reason and then bring it up, well, you're just making excuses for being disrespectful and insolent. And so on.
Take a good, hard look at your story and ask yourself if you're applying the same "logic" to your protagonists' actions versus the antagonists' actions. Do any of your protagonists and antagonists come from comparable circumstances? Do any of them have similar motivations or dreams? And are their methods of getting what they're after actually very similar? If so, do the protagonists' backgrounds and/or motivations somehow justify the methods they use, but the antagonists are not likewise justified? If that's the case, you've probably fallen into this trap.
Put yourself into the shoes of other characters. Imagine for the moment that you and one of your close friends were injured in the art gallery that Tabitha destroyed, and what's more, several of you and your friend's creations were completely obliterated. Would you want this person out there knowing that she's likely to do something similar again? Do the same thing with your own characters – pretend that you're one of the random citizens affected by their actions, or that you're your character's boss (and you don't have infinite money to pay your character for doing a bad job!), or that you're on the side of the antagonists. How would you, in these positions, view the protagonists and what they're doing? What would you do in this position? Looking at the situation from this perspective, are their actions really that horrible or hard to understand?
Remember that, unless they have some kind of special skill, people can't read minds or mystically sense someone's intentions. So for all a tavern keeper knows, some girl coming in late at night claiming to be the Chosen One might be the real thing… but more likely, she's a scam artist trying to cheat someone into giving her the star treatment or someone who has completely deluded herself. And so the tavern keeper has no compelling reason to treat her to the very best of everything for free at personal cost, let alone drop and leave everything behind to follow after her. And on the flip side, your protagonists probably shouldn't just look at people and "know" when they're up to no good or when they're just broken little birds who are only doing bad things because they need love and attention.
If in doubt, remember these guidelines. They might not apply to each and every situation 100%, but they can still help you gauge out the potential morality of your characters' actions and behaviors.
- The right to swing your fist ends where someone else's nose begins. In general, you have the right to do as you please up until the point that you're hurting someone else by doing it. At this point, others are well within their rights to make you stop.
- The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few. It's not just about you and what you want - the needs of others must be weighed in when making decisions.
- You can tell more about people's characters by how they treat their inferiors, rather than their equals. Long story short, someone who typically treats inferiors with contempt, derision, and insensitivity and pulls rank to silence them is not a great person - that person is a bully.
- Even genocidal xenophobes usually treat their own well. So your protagonists being helpful and caring to their friends, kin, teammates, allies, etc. might not say as much about their goodness as you think it does. How they regard and treat those who aren't like or with them will say far more.
You might have a problem with protagonist-centered morality if any of the following happen and are not acknowledged as problems in-story:
- Your story has massive double-standards for the protagonists and antagonists. Things that were considered wrong/unforgivable when other characters do them are suddenly okay/forgivable when the protagonists do them, and it's not because they've been driven to desperate measures in a high-stakes scenario and are using them as a last resort.
- Characters who do not allow the protagonists to do whatever they please are painted as unfair, even tyrannical, no matter what their motivations are. Characters who do not give of themselves and their belongings freely are painted as selfish and callous, even if they have good reasons not to.
- Protagonists somehow have the "right" to treat others and their opinions with contempt or disdain simply because they're the captains/rulers/chosen ones/whatever.
- Characters are judged as "good" or "bad" based on what they are more often than they're judged based on what they actually do.
The biggest keys to fixing the problem:
- Put yourself into the shoes of the other characters, look at things from their perspectives, and remember where their welfares, wants, and reasons might matter, too.
- Compare your protagonists to the antagonists, and ask yourself whether the protagonists are really that much better - or if they're basically doing the same exact thing but for a different side. Or alternatively, are they really only "good" by comparison?
You might also take a look at:
"Is This My Character's Fault?" - A Flowchart
On Writing Sympathetic Morally-Ambiguous Characters
Tips For Writing Lovable Jerks
On Writing Misfits, Loners, & Malcontents
On Writing & Roleplaying Characters Who Are Good Leader Material
Creating & Writing Fictional Organizations
Basic Tips To Write Better (And More Likeable) Badasses
Why "Purity" Is An Overrated Character Trait
Basic Tips To Write Better & More Despicable Villains
MORE Tips To Improve Your Villains
Mindsets & Rationales That Lend Well To Villainy
How It Feels To Be A Bigot
Changing Alignments, Allegiances, & Loyalties More Believably
Simple Tips To Put Yourself In The Shoes Of Characters Who Aren't You
More Tips For Portraying Believable, Functional, & Healthy Relationships
On Giving Your Characters Flaws & Weaknesses
Writing Better Stories With Morals & Messages
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