Protagonist-Centred Morality is when a fictional work is eager to point out when an antagonist does something immoral or distasteful but fails to acknowledge when a protagonist does the same or something worse. This trope also comes into effect when the narrative encourages the audience to root for the protagonist despite the immoral and unethical actions of said protagonist.

In my trilogy, I have multiple characters continuously criticise the protagonist's less-than-heroic actions, with the deuteragonist serving as his conscience and lambasting his selfish decisions. In the end, when the deuteragonist scathingly berates the protagonist for being such a horrible human being, he considers the negative ramifications of his actions and becomes a better person. It's also revealed that his selfish behaviour stems from a troubled adolescence and being the pawn of a scheming otherworldly monstrosity, who goads the protagonist into gratifying his selfish desires and clinging to his nihilistic worldview while posing as the personification of his negative emotions.

Is all this enough to avoid the trap of making my protagonist seem like a saint relative to the antagonists, given that the antagonists are all irredeemably evil? If not, what else do I need?

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    Aren't you just looking for the anti-hero trope? (tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/AntiHero) Oct 8, 2018 at 12:09
  • I hope you'll forgive my heavy edit of your question --feel free to revert it if you are unhappy with it. However, you included so much specific detail that it really made it more into a writing critique question, which is specifically off topic here. So I removed the more critique-oriented sections and just kept the general writing question. Oct 8, 2018 at 14:50
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    A scolding from his BFF doesn't really sound like much. 2 athletes rape and one gets a stern lecture because his company has a policy about it, This doesn't make me feel more sympathy for either rapist, and it now makes me question the superficial band-aid and what is wrong with the "morally superior" friends. Where do they draw the line? Supporting someone whose actions are as bad as a villain just because he's a popular guy or your friend is called a double-standard. Not enough info in your question for a nuanced answer. It doesn't sound like enough to me.
    – wetcircuit
    Oct 8, 2018 at 15:51

3 Answers 3


I think you misunderstand what Protagonist-Centred Morality is. It's not just that the narrative "encourages the audience to root for the protagonist despite the immoral and unethical actions". You get Protagonist-Centred Morality when the whole narrative's moral compass appears to point not north, but wherever the protagonist is facing. Whatever the protagonist wants - it's right for them to want it. It's not OK to hurt the MC, but it is perfectly OK to kill by the dozen people whom the MC doesn't know. If the MC does something bad, there's an excuse for it, it should be understood and forgiven, but when somebody else does the same, it's irredeemably evil.

To avoid this, you show that bad actions are bad, regardless of who does them, and towards whom. The protagonist's bad actions don't get "understood" or "excused" just because he's the protagonist. Since you say your protagonist gets called out on his bad actions, I'd say you're on the right track, Protagonist-Centred Morality is not a trope you need to fear.

As for the protagonist being a saint compared to the antagonist, that's a separate issue, and is a problem with the antagonist. An antagonist who's all one-dimensional evil is boring. He too needs to be faceted, nuanced.

In fact, since your protagonist is very flawed, but eventually chooses the hard path of redemption, it could be interesting to make the antagonist face a similar choice, and pick the dark path. He could be a dark reflection of the protagonist, his choices condemning him.

Regardless, the reason to root for the protagonist should be contained in the protagonist, not "because the antagonist is worse". That path leads easily into Darkness-Induced Audience Apathy. Find a light within your protagonist, a reason for the audience to wish for him to pick Light over Darkness. Show us that there is something within your protagonist that's worth saving. Then we'll root for him for his own sake.

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    I once heard a bit of wisdom that I have always taken to heart, and it goes something like this: "It is the hero's flaws that make him interesting and the anti-hero's virtues that make him interesting." I like to read stories where the hero overcomes his flaws and the villain fails in spite of his virtues. Oct 8, 2018 at 22:35

"the antagonists are all irredeemably evil" that causes me issues, people, real people, are never all of one thing. Part of showing that the protagonist is human is showing that those he opposes are too. You have to let the sum of the actions of all the varied players speak to their overall morality. The example I always think about with this sort of question is Druss, Druss is surprisngly likeable and compelling given that he's a ruthless killer who does some strange and questionable things in the pursuit of his quest. You never doubt that he's the good guy even when you realise he's not always a nice guy.


I generally agree with Galastel answer: since you are already questioning, in your novel, the morality of your protagonist choices, you are reasonably safe from the trope.

Is all this enough to avoid the trap of making my protagonist seem like a saint relative to the antagonists, given that the antagonists are all irredeemably evil?

It's a good starting point, but it depends on how you do it.

Wetcircuit is stating this clearly in the comments to your question: having secondary characters chastise your protagonist is not enough, per-se.

In real life, if someone constantly acts against your morals or your ethics you'll eventually have to draw a line, or else you'll be acting unethically, too. If you think that stealing is bad, and your friend keeps stealing wallets from bystanders, there's a good chance you'll reconsider your friendship (either that or you'll be forced to lower your moral standards. Those are the options).

This happens for far less than immorality. It's not uncommon to cut bridges with people who acts like unappropriately, rudely, or just like douches.

Now, your secondary characters may realize that some of the protagonist actions are somewhat exscused by the current situation, his upbringing, or whatever else is the case. But here also, it's one of two cases:

  • The relationship with the protagonist gets worse and enventually breaks
  • The secondary characters begin questioning (and lowering) their own standards, condoning the protagonist actions, and eventually becoming as immoral as him

An in-between is possible: the secondary characters may still act like they have the moral high-ground, and yet the relationship with the protagonist stays unchanged. In this case, though, you ought to make clear that said characters are being hypocritical; maybe your deuteragonist (or better still, some other not-involved party) could point it out. I don't see this as a problem: humans can be bad, and humans can be hypocrites.

If I remember your previous question about Eldritch Abominations, it may be that the situation is so dire that your characters have to work together - wether they like each other or not. As you may have learnt from any workplace, working together is very different from liking (or even tolerating) each other, exspecially if there is something very valuable at stake.

It should be clear tho that you, as author and narrating voice, are not condoning anyone's actions. Present things as they are - murders are murders, and so on - and you should be fine.

Also, keep in mind that every thing I said should apply to your antagonists as well. So, no double standard there.

TL;DR: I don't think your protagonist will look like a saint. You seem to have already set up a story where morality is not a white vs black thing, but more of a scale of greys. However, there's always space for improvement on the grey-gradient.

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