Monday, June 25, 2012

Things Not to Do: Protagonist-Centered Morality

I recently came across this term for the first time (there's a first time for everything): 
Protagonist-Centered Morality.   

My reaction:  WHAT IS THIS THING and why are people ranting about it on the internet?  Also, AM I GUILTY OF THIS in my writing? 

The term is pretty self-explanatory, but I did a little casual research.  It seems that basically, protagonist-centered morality is when
A.  things are only bad in a story if they're bad for the main character and...
B.  only good if they're good for the main character. 

(Here is TV Tropes' entry on the term.) 

To some extent, protagonist-centered morality makes sense.  It's called self-interest.  It's part of being a cognizant, living thing.

But it can definitely go too far.  If this is not just part of the protagonist's mindset, and becomes the morality of the narrative itself...that's a little skewed, and it appears to annoy the audience

From what I've gathered, protagonist-centered morality becomes a problem in cases like this: 
A terrible genocide occurs.  But the protagonist is not bothered by this, and **the narrative does not encourage distress in the reader** until people the protagonist knows and loves become victims. 

Or this: 
The protagonist's enemies are not presented as real, valuable human beings; rather, they are demonized and over-simplified because they are against the protagonist.  There are little or no emotional consequences for the reader when harm comes to these adversaries.  (I believe Tolkien's Lord of the Rings has a small but excellent example of how NOT to do this when the Haradrim or "Men of the South" are introduced--in both the book and the movie, if I remember correctly...?) 

I'm still trying to wrap my head around this, so what do you know about protagonist-centered morality?  Can you give me a better definition?  Can you think of any stories that seemed to have a problem with it?  Any that did a great job of avoiding it? 

And...I might be opening a can of worms here, but was anyone irked by protagonist-centered morality in The Hunger Games series?  I admit I haven't read them, but the rants I came across were referring to Suzanne Collins' work... Do you agree? 

Also, in case you haven't been here recently, Tyler-Rose and I are writing serial blog fiction together for a bit of summer fun!  So far, our heroine is dealing with sickly dragons, flying horses, handsome strangers, tragic backstory, an uptight older brother, and impending danger. 
Check out the first two installments in the tab labeled "Blog-Epic." 


  1. It's funny, but I started thinking about The Hunger Games while reading this before you mentioned it. So, yes, I did notice that, and it did bother me. Katniss is a fascinating character simply because she is so self-centered. Yes, I know she refuses to kill Peeta, but it can be argued that she does that for selfish reasons too.

    My favourite stories have always been the ones where the villain/antagonist(s) is a real person and I feel a little sorry for him/her. Even in Harry Potter, although Voldemort is clearly evil, we are given a backstory and motivation for him, and in the movie Harry says to him, "I feel sorry for you."

    1. "Katniss is a fascinating characters simply because she is so self-centered." Oh dear. I see. I need to read them to give my opinion...hopefully that won't annoy me too much when I do.

      And I agree with you about the villains. Additionally, I think it's important not to pain the villain as *evil* simply because he's anti-protagonist. He has to be evil because he is actually EVIL. If that makes sense. ;)

  2. Protagonist-Centered Morality goes a little bit deeper than just "events are only bad if it inconveniences the protagonist," but more "It's only bad if the villain does it, but I can do it because the author likes me more."

    Take "A Sugar Cookie Murder" from the Hannah Swensen Mysteries by Joanne Fluke. Hannah is in a love triangle with a detective and a photographer, and she just can't make up her mind. However, she rejoices that the detective's secretary is moving far away because the secretary occasionally flirts with him (even though the detective isn't interested in her that way). Hannah is so upset about the detective doing the decent act of giving his secretary a ride to the airport that in revenge she bakes brownies filled with jalapeƱos -- even though she is the one who is actually seeing two guys at once and even has a date with the photographer later that evening to go to the Christmas party with him instead the detective. So, if Detective Lover receives a little flirting from someone outside of the love triangle, that is a mortal sin and must be punished swiftly, but Hannah is allowed to string both guys along because she can't choose between them. (After I had read the book, I looked up the TV Tropes article on the series. Hannah doesn't even choose either guy. She marries a completely different man.)

    I might have stomached that more if the people around her called her out on her hypocrisy, but everyone who finds out about the brownies agree that Detective Lover totally deserve it because how dare Miss Secretary flirt with Hannah's man?