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Edit: I'm a bit new to the site so I'll be fumbling around trying to respond properly, but thank you all for so many great responses!

xxx

This is a bit of a touchy one for obvious reasons, but the narrator of this story is a haughty academic who thinks himself better than everyone else, and he's explicitly racist & classist against members of a culture he deems to be less "advanced" or "civilized" than his own. He insults their food, clothing, traditions, physical features, and even compares them to animals on multiple occasions.

Clearly he's a monumental jerk, and the trajectory of the narrative is set to put him in a position where he needs to be vulnerable and interact on a human level with the people he disdains, which causes him to reconsider his understanding of the world, all that -- but it's a long way off, and until I reach that payoff, how do I make it clear to the audience that his behavior isn't something I endorse?

Because it's all written from his perspective, asides are often spent justifying his positions in ways that make some kind of sense, at least on the surface, and I worry that people will take it straight and assume his perceptions are accurate to the story's world, or representative of my own feelings. Very often satires or criticisms of similar behaviors end up being completely skewed by audiences who wind up identifying with the bad conduct of flawed characters instead of recognizing the criticism. Is there anything that can be done to discourage that sort of thing from happening?

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    Trust your audience. Probably more common in film than literature but too many hit their audience with a mallet because they are afraid their point won't get across and it's annoying. – DKNguyen Dec 30 '20 at 18:54
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    I'd alter the title to what you wrote down below in the body: "isn't something I endorse". I;ll read a book with a disagreeable character, but never "thinly disguised views of the author" – Owen Reynolds Dec 30 '20 at 20:35
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    This has been done before many times... on the top of my head I can remember Joyce's Dubliners, or Kazuo Ishiguro's Remain of the Days, as examples of stories where the narrators are oblivious to their own shortcomings, or illusory perceptions of the world... until a disturbing event in the story jolts them into awareness. – An old man in the sea. Dec 30 '20 at 22:46
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    Is the narrator narrating in real time, i.e. not after the fact? Because if it's after the fact, he won't be biased anymore since he already had his epiphany before he started narrating. Also, note that not every narrator is part of the story they're telling, which can lead to a dramatically different answer to your question. – Flater Dec 31 '20 at 12:45
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    Just be careful not to make him too much of a strawman. Making him a shallow parody of ideologies you dislike might make you look bigoted as well. – vsz Jan 1 at 19:40

16 Answers 16

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You need a counterweight - a character (or characters) who have to deal with the fallout from the main character's attitude.

  • Maybe a friend (or coworker) who recognizes what a colossal jerk your main character is and tries to keep him from going completely off the rails.
  • Maybe a boss who has to keep smoothing over problems and incidents - your main character is some how important to the organization, so the boss smooths over the problems while wishing he could get rid of your main character.
  • Main character incites a really violent incident with his attitudes (say, like giving a speech to a predominantly black audience and dropping the "N" bomb on them.) Have him be surprised that people of his own kind would then side with the "lower orders."
  • Have random members of the public stand up for the "lower orders" when the colossal jerk is nasty in public - have some "Joe Average" punch colossal jerk for insulting a woman of the "lower orders."

You could a lot of things like that from the point of view of the colossal jerk, and have him constantly wondering why all these people are being so "mean" to him - and him consistently failing to realize that it is his behaviour and attitude causing the problems.

In other words, surround colossal jerk with normal people for contrast.

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    +1, and in the same vein another example of a counterweight could be a supporting character who doesn't necessarily actively involve themselves trying to keep your character going off the rails, but who is still hurt or upset by their actions. In this case it's usually important that the audience like that character, because we tend to get defensive over characters we like when they're hurt in some way. – DoctorPenguin Dec 30 '20 at 15:48
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    For point 1 see: Wilson in "House MD". – Carcigenicate Dec 30 '20 at 16:05
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    This assumes the main character is way out of the norm. What if the whole upper strata is almost as bad? In Gattaca nearly everyone believed in genetic superiority. – Owen Reynolds Dec 30 '20 at 20:40
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    @OwenReynolds: In Gattaca the protagonist was one of the victims of that society, so you still get the same contrast in views, just from the other side. – Kevin Dec 30 '20 at 22:12
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    @Carcigenicate and for point 2 see: Cuddy in “House MD”! – Tim Jan 1 at 12:40
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My advice is to show in-universe that the character's actions or thoughts don't make sense, preferably in a way that's all too common in real people. Show , don't tell; we don't need another character to contradict them. Your need reminds me of a short story covered in one of my English literature lessons at school, and I wish I could remember its name and author. Its protagonist was a hypocritical monk (I think of Buddhism, but it doesn't matter which religion it was), a young man who judged others in the story, although he held his tongue. He was particularly mad with a scantily clad pretty woman, because of the prohibited feelings that entered his mind upon seeing her. So in other words, he blamed her for something that was his fault. Not that that stops anyone thinking in that way to this day.

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    Thinking in what way? That women (and men) should dress modestly, or that it's OK to be mad with, or to have "prohibited" feelings for, or to lust after someone who doesn't? – mwfearnley Dec 31 '20 at 12:38
  • Many of us have been guilty of certain unwanted feelings or ideas entering our minds upon being punched. I don't blame myself though, I blame the one dealing the punch. – user48219 Dec 31 '20 at 14:11
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    @mwfearnley In the way, "how dare you make me have feelings that I shouldn't". – J.G. Dec 31 '20 at 14:22
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    @user48219, you are a good argument for why movies have to 'splain it to everyone at the end. Being punched is far different from seeing someone wearing clothes that "offend" you by causing you to think "forbidden" thoughts. Buddhism teaches detachment, obviously the Monk needs to work on himself if he is "feeling" or thinking things that he "should not". – boatcoder Dec 31 '20 at 16:13
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    Possibly this example reveals how the more subtle truths in a matter can be obscured by event obvious hypocrisy in a narrator, if the reader is left wondering “whose fault” it is. A woman is responsible for her choices in deciding what to wear. A man may experience feelings of attraction or irritation (or both) towards an inappropriately dressed woman. How he chooses to respond to those feelings is his responsibility. – mwfearnley Jan 1 at 10:46
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While not a monumental jerk, Lemony Snicket is a great example of a narrator with a subjective side to them. He takes time out of his narration to point out his subjectivity, almost as a disclaimer to the story he's telling.

You could invert this by having the narrator take the time to go on racist diatribes, rather than Lemony's subjectivity disclaimers. Lemony does it intentionally (and with good intentions), your narrator probably can't help but go on that diatribe.

But in either case, they take a break from narrating the story to directly address the reader, which is how they can reveal something that is not the alleged statement of fact (i.e. narration).

Something along the lines of:

"But I need a roof over my head!", the Elbonian yelled angrily. Damn Elbonians. Always demanding handouts and getting angry when they don't get their way. This is exactly why we shouldn't have let their refugees in our city. I'd sooner let the sewer parasites come up from the sewers before I'd interact with another filthy Elbonian.

Which can eventually become a musing on an observation that contradicts the initial racist diatribe:

The old Elbonian offered the remaining half of their rations to the children. That's the first time an Elbonian gave something away without asking for more in return.

Optionally, if you're going for a comedic tone, you could have the narrator resort to petty name calling or other childish behavior, e.g. calling them "smellbonians", insisting on using an insulting collective noun for a group of Elbonians, or being genuinely annoyed at the presence of any Elbonian content in their narration that they can't avoid.

Which can turn into a soliloquy when the final observation causes the narrator to reconsider their stance:

When the Elbonian delegation arrived carrying emergency rations and medicine, we finally felt some relief after the weeks of continuous agony since the event. But I felt conflicted. How could I accept help from those I've considered to be parasites?

This is just a hastily written example, but I hope it helps.

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I think that is not necessary to make your standpoint as author explicit. It will be revealed through the story arc. He starts out as a jerk but because he is not a bad person he is able to learn from experience and become a better person. That is probably part of what you want to tell: Even (modestly) good characters can be full of prejudice and stereotype, perhaps due to their upbringing, their lack of relevant experience, general attitudes in their environment etc. Aren't we all?

The story may actually profit from not dealing an explicit judgement. The reader may sympathize with the narrator, as one naturally does, and then take this journey together with him and, like him, feel some embarrassment when they broaden their horizon just like the protagonist. In order to achieve this you may actually do the opposite of making an explicit judgement: Be subtle, display his stereotypes as natural and self-understood because everybody around him thinks the same. In other words, instead of making an open judgement conceal any objection you feel and let the readers participate in his journey.

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One of the best examples of an unreliable narrator is found in Lolita. Basically, you don't have to, and you shouldn't try to, signal to the reader that you're just faking it. Quite the contrary - you must believe in the character entirely and report the world as you see it through his eyes. The contradictions in this will be obvious to the reader. Those to whom it won't be obvious are unlikely to be book-readers anyway.

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    Lolita is a great example, although good luck to anyone who aspires to write with Nabokov's deft touch! The great irony is that Humbert is so convincing in his "memoir" that even a talented writer like Dorothy Parker can be enticed to see Humbert as a reliable narrator rather than a manipulative, egotistical monster. This doesn't detract from the point you make, that it's up to the reader to assess the characters and their motives (and acceptability). – Chappo Hasn't Forgotten Monica Jan 1 at 5:15
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One idea is to add a prologue in the form of a note from another character explaining the main character's bigotry and prejudice.

Suppose this other character is your main character's niece. She could start by explaining how her uncle, despite being pretty intelligent, also held a wide variety of prejudiced beliefs of all kinds. She could say that she found her uncle's diary or something after he died, and she decided to edit into a book and published it. She could then explain how, despite how horrifying her uncle's beliefs sometimes were, she decided that it was best to leave those parts of his writing in, in order to present an accurate picture of what his beliefs were and how they evolved over time. She might even specifically say that the book is the story of how he learned the error of his ways.

But in any case, this will make it abundantly clear to your readers that you yourself don't agree with what your character is saying, and that he's not always a reliable narrator.

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    Interesting idea. Since the main text is in first person, that might work. Maybe the MC was writing a book but never got it published. OP could even crank up the book-within-a-book system and have the publishing niece add editorial markers, e.g. "[sic]" or "[redacted]". – Llewellyn Dec 31 '20 at 13:39
  • Nabokov uses this very technique in his famous Lolita, which another answer cites as an example of the unreliable narrator (in other words, a work in which the reader is expected to question the narrator's viewpoint). Nabokov's prologue allows a "psychologist" to introduce Humbert's memoir and to loosely establish its context. Ironically, later on in the novel when Lolita's mother discovers her fiancé Humbert's depraved diary, he tries to convince her that it's merely notes for the novel he wants to publish. :-) – Chappo Hasn't Forgotten Monica Jan 1 at 5:32
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Let it be inferred indirectly from the narrator's attitude

Consider the two passages.

I picked up the phone and dialled the customer support number. It was an elbonian. I don't like elbonians because they are stupid.

We now know that the narrator thinks elbonians are stupid.

I picked up the phone and dialled customer support. My heart sank as the heavily accented voice, which introduced itself as Peter, was clearly actually from some third world backwater. I spoke slowly and loudly to explain my problem, hoping that "Peter" would understand me.

In the first passage the narrator's bigoted attitude is explicitly stated as a fact.

In the second, it can be inferred. The fact that he uses non-personal words like "which" and "itself" subtly hints that something is amiss. The fact that he SPEAKS LOUDLY TO PETER AS IF HE CANNOT UNDERSTAND ENGLISH demonstrates that he holds non-native speakers of his language in low regard. We didn't even have to mention Elbonia. If your story is set on earth, this is also a good way to avoid triggering any armchair censors who might expect your stories to be 100% free of nasty attitudes.

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    While I much prefer the second version, which does a much better job at showing the character's dislike, I wonder whether it might have the opposite effect and make the reader more likely to believe the MC's prejudices (or at least believe that's what the author wants). – Llewellyn Dec 31 '20 at 13:34
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    @Llewellyn: I think that falls under trust your audience. Yes, a few readers might misunderstand the second example (e.g. a child who’s not yet a mature enough reader for the story). But if it’s made so explicit that no-one can misunderstand it, then it’ll be so heavy-handed that more readers will just give up on it. Making your writing impossible to misunderstand is good for instruction manuals and school textbooks, but it’s death to recreational prose. – PLL Jan 1 at 11:09
  • We can't allow twitter to be an ad-hoc and unelected censor to our creative writing. Yes, a small number of vocal idiots will assume that because a character has a flaw, therefore so does the author. – speciesUnknown Jan 2 at 14:00
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I enjoyed thinking about your question. I interpreted it as having two parts.

1.) How can a writer accomplish this?

2.) How can a writer keep their work from being misinterpreted?


I have better clarity on the first part.

1.) How can a writer accomplish this?

The Luck of Barry Lyndon is excellent prior art you could consider.

I agree with @hurreechunder's advice: you'll want to make the character real and life-sized, complete with self-serving rationale. Their rationale adds to the congruence of the story.

Resist the urge to develop only the characters you personally endorse.
Resist the urge to create a strawman villain.

Your story will have greater persuasive power if opposing views reach a suspenseful referendum amidst the challenges of the plot.


2.) How can a writer keep their work from being misinterpreted?

I find this more difficult to answer succinctly. It goes beyond technique. Interpretation comes with the territory. A Zen-like ability to be okay with that is the best defense we have from the discomfort it creates for us. We do not want that discomfort to rob us of our creative energies.

Breadth of appeal and depth come at one another's expense. We get/have to choose who we're writing for.

Before spending too much creative energy on this problem, could we stop and answer the following question: What is the cost of being misinterpreted? Is it balanced by those who interpret it as we meant it to be?

Another guiding question I find helpful is: Who am I writing for, and why am I writing this?

I hope that is useful. Thank you for posing a provocative question.

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It's not so much that the narrator character is "wrong"; it's that most readers aren't going to like him. You have two problems: how to keep people reading, and how to let them know that you, as the author that created him, don't like him either.

There are lots of unlikable protagonists but first-person makes it harder. There's a very real risk that many readers who share his faults (racism, elitism, etc, being all too real-world) will read him at face value and take him as a role model and you'll find yourself invited to give a keynote to a group you really don't want to associate with.

I started off thinking this is an "unreliable narrator" situation, except those are more commonly used where the narrator-protagonist is delusional or deliberately deceptive on objective matters, which the readers can eventually figure out cannot really be as the narrator tells us. But for subject matters like biases, there isn't objective factual things for reference. The only reference is the narrator himself.

I recommend working up to a big cathartic awakening in which the narrator sees the hurt he's caused and makes amends.

In other words, write A Christmas Carol, first-person as Scrooge.

If you don't want the character to be redeemed, then you need to make sure his behavior leads to such torment that even people who agree with him see that these beliefs are unsustainable. I'm thinking of an old book called "The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner" by James Hogg (d.1835). However, I guarantee your sarcasm will be lost on some and your narrator will become a martyr for their cause.

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    I'm frustrated that this was downvoted without a comment - it's a good answer in my opinion. The character must believe that they are "right" if they are to transform in any way. And this is a problem with "bad-boy" protagonists with supposed hearts of gold or are otherwise misunderstood – Brian says Reinstate Monica Dec 31 '20 at 5:35
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    Isn't that what OP is already planning? "the trajectory of the narrative is set to put him in a position where he needs to be vulnerable and interact on a human level with the people he disdains, which causes him to reconsider his understanding of the world, all that -- but it's a long way off" – Llewellyn Dec 31 '20 at 13:31
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I'd advise caution in writing a character without trying to understand them first. Otherwise they come out very flat. Narrators especially need some depth. No one thinks they are the villain, everyones the hero in their own story.* A director friend of mine called me out cold on being judgemental of the character I was playing. "You have to understand him, love him even, before you ever try to be him." Some of the best writing advice I've had to date. You don't have to agree with the character to really listen to them. Liking them despite will give a great bittersweet dynamic to them.

*not my line, I'm quoting somebody, just don't know who. Still true though.

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Another Answer touched on it, but I think an "unreliable narrator" would work here.

Show, don't tell

Show how the narrator is just plain wrong about the people he's talking about. Have him say something about how completely horrible a person is, then have that character be a regular person or even a "goodie 2 shoes".

This would be something like the part in "Meet the Robinson's" movie where Bowler Hat Guy talks about his life as a young kid.

He says kids were horrible to him, yet the video shows them being really nice and trying to include him in their social activities.

You can eventually have this come to a head where the narrator finally realizes their own double-talk or how the results of the character's actions were positive, instead of the expected negative consequences.

"Carol acted like she was nice, by asking people how they were, but she really didn't care. She just played a part to get people to like her. And it worked, too! What morons. I mean, she actually went so far as to get Christmas cards and bake cookies for people! Can you imagine the nerve! I heard she even baby sat for people when they needed a night out. Is there no depths of depravity she won't sink to? Aaagh, I hate her so much."

Sure, I laid it on comedically thick there, but maybe that's what's needed at times.

Make your intentions clear

One comment says to trust your audience/readers. I'd have to disagree. There's plenty of people around that will twist any piece of writing to mean what it's not supposed to. Just look at politics. When people take things out of context or take a piece of sarcasm as real because it mirrors their beliefs, it can make things go horribly wrong. Definitely show how this narrator is wrong, pure and simple. Do it early and often. Make it completely clear this behavior is unacceptable, otherwise you might end up in a situation like Ricky Gervais got himself into at the 2020 Golden Globes.

https://youtu.be/LCNdTLHZAeo?t=419

He told people not to get into politics when they won and just to shut up. That got him a large Conservative following, which he had to shut down due to him actually making that speech because of not wanting to hear them speak.

https://decider.com/2020/06/03/ricky-gervais-alt-right-liberal-targets/

I can't find it anymore, but I read a piece about how Ayn Rand wrote "Atlas Shrugged" basically as a horror story about how unchecked capitalism can get real nasty real fast. Then Conservatives took it to be their bible on how things should be run. According to this article, Ayn was disgusted with how this turned out.

Then there's the whole "Black Lives Matter" debate about whether it means "only black lives matter" or "black lives matter too".

Just don't leave anything like this to be a decision of the reader. This is your story, you need to keep it yours and have the reader understand your intention, not use it as a mirror or reasoning for their own bad behavior.

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  • Ayn Rand definitely believed what she wrote. Most of her work heavily promoted the idea that unchecked capitalism was the best thing ever. If anything she would have thought that modern conservatives weren't going far enough. And the article you cite says nothing about Gervais' speech being directed towards conservatives. It just says he thought it's hilarious because conservatives were praising him and liberals hating him just because he happened to say something that praises/criticizes something they do or don't like, regardless of his political stance. – user2352714 Jan 2 at 7:52
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I don't think anyone else has mentioned this one so, for what it's worth ...

Chapter 1

"How dare that woman call me a monumental jerk!", I said to the bartender. I was fuming.

Just because I had expressed my honest opinion ...

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I think you have two problems, here. The first is that your reputation is going to be a distraction to you as you are creating the story. If you are worried what people will think while you write, you will end up self-censoring and compromising your vision. The second is a character who is simply "wrong" is not an interesting character. A realistic character is complex and has multiple motivations, some good and some bad. Imagine a character who is not all bad, or not bad all the time. The character may have aspects which elicit the reader's sympathy, as most real people do. In this context, the reader becomes absorbed with the character and forgets about the author. In short, it is not something you need to worry about in your story. You can deal with it outside your story, for example, in your biographical snippet.

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I think that, aside from having him do something blatantly morally reprehensible (burning live puppies, raping a toddler, etc.), you could best achieve this by making the most sympathetic, relatable character repeatedly contest their behavior/beliefs [ie: having them try to fix/make up for to something the "bad character (the morally bankrupt one) does]

I frequently write stories in which the character who is perceived as bad has moments of seemingly uncharacteristic humanity by saying something such as although his face was stony and uncaring, there was a moisture of regret in his eyes

Obviously, it would be the opposite in your circumstance, where the character is doing something "good" but has a steely, uncaring harshness on their face.

I mean something like "Although the homeless man was grateful for the change the man had given him, the disgust and disapproval evident on his face was impossible to overlook" is an example of demonstrating that a character is not the best person.

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As soon as I read your question I thought of a little angel or devil sitting on his shoulder and adding comments, either directed at him or at us, those who read his actions and so on.

It does not have to be the little figure we would see in a cartoon, but a voice that inserts that kind of remarks, often or just when he is very bad. Or not at the start but coming up after he has done something very bad.

If MC has a bit of concience left, had an upbringing in which he learned that what he is doing now is wrong, it can be that little voice in his mind, that reminds him of what he learned back then. Maybe in the voice of one of his parents or grand parents.
On the other hand, if MC is not aware of how bad he is, you could introduce an 'angel' who is acting as teacher or giving comments, which is not related to MC and his brain or memory at all.

If it also possible to have people outside MC make remarks that cover this role but that is not the kind of 'single and nagging outside voice' I was imagining.

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    But who would the voice belong to? The narrator? MC's conscience? Other characters? It would be helpful if you could add a bit more detail... – Nai45 Dec 30 '20 at 16:18
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Make the character justify themselves, when they see actions that go against their worldview. Some of these examples, especially early on, might need to be somewhat exaggerated, to prime the reader to understand that the narrator is wrong.

For example, if they are under the impression that a certain group of people are undereducated, and unable to speak 'properly', and is watching a quiz show

Hearing a cultured voice answer the question — no, not merely answer, but explain it so clearly and concisely that even a child could understand the subject — he looked up from his book at the TV.

He scowled. It was that damned [slur]. What was he playing at, faking an accent as though he could speak like normal people. He'd probably been fed the answers in advance, too. After all, the public don't like seeing those degenerates show how inferior they really are. He grabbed the remote and changed the channel, his mood soured by that faked quiz.

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