I'm writing a first person novel and main character has highly controversial views, many of which the majority of people would probably consider immoral. Would a character with controversial attitudes be a no-no for a reader? Or maybe a publisher?

Of course, it maybe possible that his attitudes instead will be received with interest or maybe even awe, but I'm not sure on this. In either way, I still think such a novel deserves a shot.

In summary, I'm afraid of a bad reception. I don't want to change the character much, he is like Zarathustra was for Nietzsche: A mouthpiece for my own beliefs and attitudes. What techniques could improve the likely reception, to make the novel and the main character more attractive? How can I prevent confirmation bias and other biases in the readers in such cases? What kind of structure should a writer use for this purpose?

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  • @Galastel, I think it is different because these attitudes in some sense are mine too. And I understand many people do not agree. But the problem is how to show what I want to show without causing a feeling of rejection in people (using naive approach because people might think "He tells pedophiles are not immoral. Therefore he is immoral" while I mean that pedophiles are people too, who also deserve being treated as people, even of they have some impulses which could harm children, but not androids). – rus9384 Sep 18 at 10:24
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    Hi @rus9384 and welcome to the site. I edited your question pretty heavily, to highlight the general question, and remove the specifics. You should feel free to revert my edits if you are unhappy with them, however, I feel strongly that it stands a better chance of receiving helpful, on topic answers this way. – Chris Sunami Sep 18 at 14:25
  • @ChrisSunami, thanks for edits, especially for rephrasing terribly written text. Not sure, though, if without any examples this question will save its meaning. – rus9384 Sep 18 at 14:30
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    @rus9384 We like the questions here to not be overly specific to one work, so that they can be useful to many querents. In addition, I felt the specifics of your views would be distracting to people, and would draw arguments around your views themselves rather than answers about the process of writing. – Chris Sunami Sep 18 at 14:49
up vote 38 down vote accepted

A work of fiction that exists only to promote a particular point of view is not actually fiction, but rather a polemic. Some of these have been successful and influential, from Plato to Rand, but they tend to have a different audience than fiction, and are read primarily for their ideas rather than their artistic value. Your best bet, in this case, may be to position your work primarily as a piece of philosophy. You may indeed have only limited interest from publishers and readers because of the nature of your ideas, but some make take you seriously because of the honesty of your approach.

On the other hand, if you want to make this a real, living, work of fiction, then having a character be your mouthpiece is a bad idea. People will find it preachy, and reject your book as a creepy form of propaganda. Instead, you'll need to build a book the same way anyone else does, with fully developed characters, plots and settings, and let your philosophy just be part of the background material that informs everything else. As a writer with strong viewpoints, it's nearly impossible to believe your philosophy won't find its way into your writing, even if you aren't forcing it in.

Among my favorite books are those that espouse political philosophies I don't share (The Moon is a Harsh Mistress) or center around characters whose moral choices or commitments I disagree with (Lolita, Boys of Life) or that contain controversial moral claims I find questionable or specious (Dhalgren), yet what makes them work for me is that the writer has allowed the book to live for itself. You don't have to agree with them to engage with them. On the other hand, nothing turns me off faster or harder than a book or a movie that self-righteously demands I agree with something I find immoral, or that hagriographies an immoral person as a hero to emulate. In fact, I don't like such works even when I agree with them.

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    Well, Rand is discredited exactly as a philosopher. I'd argue Atlas Shruggled is much more popular than her philosophical works. Maybe "my mouthpiece" was ambiguous as even though the main character shares most of my main ideas, I have actual setting and characters. As the novel is first person I try not to produce value judgements about myself (outside of dialogues), I allow the reader to do it. But that does not mean there are no value judgements about characters, situations or the whole society. – rus9384 Sep 18 at 14:52
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    But do people really read Atlas Shrugged primarily as literature? Maybe... I never made my way through it, personally. Either way, she's a prime example of a writer whose work is primarily driven by philosophical advocacy. – Chris Sunami Sep 18 at 16:32
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    Re A work of fiction that exists only to promote a particular point of view is not actually fiction, but rather a polemic.: Not true. If done well, you can have a work of fiction that a) promotes a certain political idea and b) is enjoyable. Example 1: James Bond movies promote the idea "Russians must be killed/contained" and people all over the world enjoy them. Example 2: "The Silicon Valley" TV show is a work of fiction and also highly enjoyable. There are at least two ideas being promoted there: a) Diversity (by showing minorities in almost every scene) b) Tech is the savior of mankind. – Franz Drollig Sep 19 at 7:06
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    @Franz, I don't think James Bond promotes anything but 'cool guys get hot chicks'. But indeed there are good examples of what you say; all major works of Leo Tolstoy, for instance, particularly the later ones. – Zeus Sep 19 at 8:38
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    @FranzDrollig, I think what is meant is not that it is not allowed to lean towards any particular standpoint. Chris mentions books leaning towards different standpoints. I think what he means is that a novel is not meant to exist to promote various positions. That it is not a reason for a novel to exist. That these standpoints must somehow be integrated within the setting. – rus9384 Sep 19 at 9:07

Are you familiar with G.R.R. Martin's Song of Ice and Fire? It used to have some characters whose moral compass was strict and noble. They had a tendency to die, and leave a huge mess around them - mess that cost more lives. On the other hand, more Machiavellian figures created order - killing a few now, so a lot more would get to live later. The whole series seems to argue that idealism is harmful, while morally grey actions are often the best thing for everyone involved, and for innocent bystanders.

Song of Ice and Fire is extremely popular, in part because of the controversial stance it takes. So you needn't be afraid that controversial ideas would turn readers or publishers away.

How do you write controversial ideas well? You write them with integrity, you present their internal logic, you show how and why they might be considered valid. You challenge the accepted order of things, the way Socrates did. You show where the standard order of things fails. You do not present either side as an exaggerated caricature of itself, a "straw-man". You show the pros and cons of each side of the argument, the consequences each worldview leads to. Using all those tools, you make the reader think. Readers (at least some readers) like being made to think.

  • Sorry for the short answer. Kinda in a rush. Will expand on it after Yom Kippur, if nobody else gives a fuller answer by then. – Galastel Sep 18 at 10:33
  • So you are arguing that the author should show approval to the controversial ideas by giving positive outcomes to the characters that have them, and negative outcomes to the characters that oppose them, as in A Song of Ice and Fire? – Thunderforge Sep 19 at 19:31
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    @Thunderforge Positive and negative. Tywin Lannister got results, but he also got himself killed. – Galastel Sep 19 at 19:48
  • I always thought in that way GoT was more about sin and punishment. Pride is one of the sins that never goes unpunished. – Andrey Sep 20 at 21:33

In some sense you are talking about an anti-hero; a hero that has qualities or attitudes the audience may think are bad, but put up with because the guy is intent on accomplishing something else that is an obvious good.

This is the key to making your MC acceptable instead of alienating: Despite their weird belief system, their mission in this story is to do something unambiguously good, either for humanity in general or one person in particular.

That is pretty much the whole trick. In the 1994 movie "The Professional", a brutal hitman kills all kinds of gangsters and (corrupt) cops, but we like him anyway, because he chooses to save and protect a 12 year old girl.

It is possible to have some attitudes and actions that are in fact IMO irredeemable; in particular torture, rape, and murder of innocents for the fun of it.

But I will grant the imagination of others may exceed mine, if it can be done, the negatives of the MC must be outweighed by some positive thing they are doing in this story, something nearly all readers will agree redeems them.

I have two ideas about this.

First: If your desired outcome is that readers agree with your (your character's) controversial positions, you're writing propaganda and as such the way to avoid rejection is to see if you can identify sympathetic publishers ahead of time before submitting your manuscript. This would tend to select for sympathetic readers as well.

Second: If your desired outcome is for your work to be perceived as a provocative work of fiction, without the specifics of the controversial positions getting in the way too much of a reader enjoying the work as just speculations on those positions, then, it definitely is possible to present almost any controversial position as a fictional element which it's up to the reader to react to.

What I'd recommend is to not treat this protagonist as your Mary-Sue, but instead let what happens to them in the story proceed in a realistic fashion.

  • Some examples of controversial topics addressed in science fiction include several novels by Robert Heinlein: Starship Troopers has drawn criticism for perceived pro-fascist views (I disagree it's pro-fascist) and Farnham's Freehold has (ironically) drawn criticism for being racist (whereas in actual fact, it uses a time travel story to a very anti-white racist black-dominated future society to examine the ugliness of racism, just by flipping the equation). – Wildcard Sep 19 at 3:17

Would the reader have done different?

In a book I am reading, the main character just committed mass murder on a gigantic scale. They sunk two innocent ships — a merchant vessel and its escort — to protect their family.

From the perspective of everyone else, this was a hideous crime... dozens of families losing their loved ones to an act of needless brutality. There is no question at all that from the other perspective, the protagonist is a villain of the worst order.

But as a reader, we are never treated to that perspective, we are only give the protagonists's view. And given how they ended up in that situation, a combination of — by no other label — piracy, and a big oopsie during the heat of battle... the protagonist is not left with any other choice, unless they expect to get mercilessly hunted down and have their whole community — and their family — eradicated.

So the way to bring this to the reader is to go up the path that leads the protagonist to their decisions, step by step, in such a way that the reader feels that they would not have done any different, lest they put themselves or people they love at great risk.

  • Don't know if appeal to egoism alone would be sufficient. Maybe if the pirate was not free to choose to be a pirate this would work better. If we was saved by pirates during childhood and lost parents then this would be more justifiable, don't you think? – rus9384 Sep 18 at 16:52
  • @rus9384 Just trust me on this (I will not say the book's name because this is a major spoiler) then I say: that as a reader, you do not feel she did anything wrong at all. Objectively, it is very wrong. Subjectively, you think she did what she had to do. It works. – MichaelK Sep 18 at 17:34
  • @MichealK Are you talking about the April stories by M. Chandler? Though, to be honest, I could probably name half a dozen SF series that use a similar plot. Somebody, to save himself/his family/his home destroys the military capability that is threatening them. Even Heinlein may have used this. – NomadMaker Sep 19 at 18:41
  • @NomadMaker No, that is not it – MichaelK Sep 19 at 18:45

Chris Sunami's answer best gets at the root of the problem: what you've described is a rant wrapped in the covers of a novel.

You're writing a first-person novel for the primary purpose of advocating for a wide variety of unrelated ideas that are broadly not well thought of. That sounds like the makings of a screed, not a novel. If people aren't interested in hearing your arguments in favor of, say, peeing "in some lawgivers' faces," they're going to be equally uninterested in hearing an author-insert first-person character make those arguments on your behalf.

What conceivable story includes all of: pedophiles and childlike androids; killing and kidnapping to prevent a war; a desire to "pee in some lawgivers' faces"; a friend's sister afraid to have sex with an older boyfriend; drug users who want to use drugs but can't; and an even longer list of positions too long to enumerate in your question? Were all those things honestly chosen because they're all opinions that are necessary to best tell the particular story you're looking to tell, or because they're all views you happen to hold and you want to advocate for them?

You're telling a story first and foremost. Figure out a good story first, rather than trying to cram every one of your unpopular opinions into one character in one story.

  • Story was figured prior to that, thanks. The story coves a few years, thus it is nothing unrealistic when all these events can happen with one character. What I have highlighted are controversial positions, while most positions are still those most people can agree with (like total harm minimization or respect for others). Those are just some kind of extremes. It's hard to say what is necessary and what's not because my story is not like a big one wire, it rather looks like a bunch of small wires in parallel, otherwise it is unrealistic (the universe still uses our laws of nature). – rus9384 Sep 18 at 20:20

There´s a few tropes to do this. Read the works of notorious nazi Joseph Goebels to learn more (seriously). My personal favorite is the Ralph Kane aproach: a secondary character that had the same principles as the main, but takes those as a zealot up to 11, making the main look nice and sound by comparsion.

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