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Consider that your story has a moral that points to the simple fact that we all have committed and contributed to your protagonist's crisis. The protagonist walks through life desperately needing help, and getting none. I do this in a way that is quite passive aggressive, initially painting society itself as the bad guy, though there is a villain. Family and friends are rationalizing this or the other excuse, while at the same time I am making society very relatable and identifiable to the common reader. I.e, the audience will often have "Oh, I've done that before" moments and then be exposed to the wrenching consequences this has on my protagonist.

Yes, sounds horrible. It's more common in documentaries where the audience can distance themselves from the crisis by being just among the number. An Inconvenient Truth, Supersize Me, or any conservationism documentary fit this bill. But this is literary fiction, and I need my protagonist to fall. So no "good samaritan" every walks by, they all just step to the far side of the road, as it were, and the anti-hero is born.

So while the circumstances will leave many people feeling a little dirty inside, I want it to steer the reasonable reader to introspection rather than feeling the story is finger-pointing. Obviously some readers will just not like being criticized. I can't please everybody. But to best target an open mind, what is the secret sauce?

Caveat: Society learning their lesson is the most common outlet, but society is unrepentant in my story. (Eventually it is exposed that the villain whom we initially like has successfully hidden the effects of their actions; manipulated everyone). This is necessary to push my protagonist into the major crisis.

Perhaps another way to phrase the question is, "This story makes me feel dirty and unless I see X I'm just putting it down!"

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Starting with your statement

Consider that your story has a moral that points to the simple fact that we all have committed and contributed to your protagonist's crisis.

This suggests to me that you've chosen to write a novel in the vein of a polemic or propaganda. That you have a specific point of view on some topic and are using your novel to express that. Sometimes this can create a great work which can have a great impact on the society like Upton Sinclair's "The Jungle" but more often the result is something akin to the best forgotten "Turner Diaries."

I think the reason for this is because when the problem in the story is the world then it's harder to make the character demonstrate agency. Certainly, a hero can take up arms and oppose the terrible world, and that demonstrates their agency. But that kind of character is often very two dimensional because they are largely reacting to the world's awfulness rather than acting.

A character's actions and thoughts reveals who they are to the reader. In literary fiction, it's that character development that creates the hook that interests us. For instance, in the first act of the Handmaid's Tale, it's the conflict between Offred's thoughts and her behavior, and the behavior of the other handmaids, that makes it such an engaging story.

I think it is about keeping the focus on the character, and not their situation, that keeps the readers attention. Show how they rebel or defeat or try to escape their awful situation; share their thoughts and emotions and their goals and their reasoning to create depth to the character. At the risk of sounding pompous or pedantic, MGC (motivation, goal, conflict) is fractal, it applies to the arc of the story as well as to the expression of character, in my opinion.

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  • If that’s the crux of it I feel pretty good, most of the book is essentially journal entries from inside the protagonist’s head. All the MGC is pretty naked and raw . I feel people will sympathize well with the victim but they’ll also identify with most of the bystanders who create the crisis. There’s no question it’s got a propaganda agenda to create conversations around the table. Good insight.
    – Vogon Poet
    Sep 1, 2023 at 19:29
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Just based on what you've written here, it's a little difficult to get a complete impression of what your story's about. Even still, I think I see what you're getting at, so I'll take a stab.

If I understand your question correctly, you expect that readers will identify with the society surrounding your protagonist, and you're worried that if you present content that criticizes this society, readers will feel insulted, and put down the book. Although, I wonder if this is actually the reaction people will have to your story.

The protagonist walks through life desperately needing help, and getting none. I do this in a way that is quite passive aggressive, initially painting society itself as the bad guy, though there is a villain.

Elsewhere, you've written that your story is told in first-person by your protagonist. This being the case, it makes sense that society would initially be painted as "the bad guy," as your narrator probably believes society truly is the bad guy. Most readers are going to intuitively identify with the narrator, especially if they are presented as a victim of other characters. So, unless you give them a compelling reason to do otherwise, readers will likely adopt the narrator's opinions as their own. In this case, your concern is moot, as the reader will probably never identify with this society in the first place. Despite any relatable behavior members of the society might demonstrate later on, most readers will be more comfortable identifying with the narrator.

Of course, this is an issue, because you DO want the readers to identify with that society. Instead of worrying about readers feeling insulted and giving up, you should really worry about readers finishing the book and feeling vindicated, not introspective. "Oh, I've done that before" seems integral to what you're trying to accomplish here, and rightly so. This is a worthy objective. What stands in the way of this objective is how comfortable it is to identify with the narrator and how uncomfortable it is to identify with the society. You have to make sure that the narrator, though victimized, is not a perfect victim, and that your society, though guilty, is not monstrous, and, above all, you need to establish this from the get-go. Doing so in the first person is a bit tricky, especially if your narrator believes that they ARE a perfect victim and that society IS monstrous, but it isn't impossible. Consider the opening lines of The Great Gatsy:

In my younger and more vulnerable years my father gave me some advice that I've been turning over in my mind ever since. "Whenever you feel like criticizing any one," he told me, " just remember that all the people in this world haven't had the advantages that you've had."

By invoking this bit of paternal wisdom, Nick, the narrator, implies that he, like his father, values having empathy for others. This fact, in tandem with his status as narrator, inclines us to identify with him. However, his saying so should raise alarm bells. Imagine, if some stranger came up to you and said "My father always told me to respect others, and I think about that every day." That's a pretty conceited thing to say to someone you've just met, but that's exactly how Nick introduces himself to the reader.

The key here is having your narrator say one thing, but betray something else in the process. If your narrator always describes their outfits in lavish detail, most readers will rightly suspect that they're a little vain, even if the narrator claims otherwise.

Another tool is dialogue. Even in a first-person narrative, all description is filtered through the narrator's biased perspective, but dialogue doesn't have to be. Try having a character say something vague, only for the narrator to assume the least charitable interpretation possible. This might signal to the reader that the narrator isn't the most objective judge of character, especially if the narrator's interpretation is actually wrong.

By all this, I don't mean to argue that your narrator must be just as evil as the society around them, but they do need enough grime that the reader doesn't wholly identify with them. The inverse is true of your society. You don't need to make them good, but if their only relatable traits are bad traits, people aren't going to identify with them.

Consider that your story has a moral

I don't think it should. The fiction author has no right to "instruct" the reader. To say otherwise is to imply that the author is somehow superior to the reader. Even if this were true, fiction deals with emotion, not logic, so any argument presented through it is bound to be manipulative. A novel arguing against abortion isn't particularly valuable. Those who already agree won't learn anything, and those who disagree will rightly write it off as propaganda. Yet, a novel that explores the topic of abortion, which depicts characters both for and against it, and makes a genuine, empathetic attempt to understand why these characters believe what they do, will undoubtedly leave the reader with something to think about. Of course, this paragraph might just be a wasted effort. I think you already understand this when you say

I want it to steer the reasonable reader to introspection rather than feeling the story is finger-pointing

If you want to inspire introspection here, you need the reader to see themselves in bad people. Yet, all people, even bad people, have both good and bad traits. If you only give your society characters bad traits, the most they'll ever be are collections of bad traits, not people.

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  • This is very helpful. For brevity I omitted the fact that the diary is being investigated ahead of a threat, so the reader does have several outside perspectives interpreting (and debating those interpretations). Something bad is about to happen, they find this diary, it creates a profile, the “bad apple” starts turning into a victim in some eyes, but the course is set. Specifically Protagonist “survived” being weaponized in a ridiculously ugly divorce, falls, and a disaster looms. The polemic is: Grownups! Keep the kids out of it!
    – Vogon Poet
    Sep 21, 2023 at 22:32
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Yeah, I want to double down on this answer. Your readers will identify themselves in the “I’ve done that before” moments.

I think, for the message to be effective, they will have to identify with and see themselves in and empathize much more deeply with the protagonist. The way you describe it, this novel I think will succeed or fail based on the depth of that connection with the protagonist, with society acting as a foil

One idea you might explore, which could be effective at explicitly walking this divide, is getting the protagonist to face a choice of becoming perpetrator. Their reflection and struggle (even if it's just internalized, without much external agency), informed by their having been a victim, could deepen the connection for the reader.

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  • Nail on the head. It’s a cyclical abuse exposition. I did choose first person epistolary to deeply embed the reader in the protagonist’s thoughts and motives. I was checking here to see if I got all the ingredients. But wetcircuit’s point is helpful also, to avoid a too flat villain scapegoat. It’s not a Disney ending.
    – Vogon Poet
    Sep 2, 2023 at 18:21
  • Yeah, fair. To be pendantinc (ie not recommending this, but it completes the range of options available): punching a flat villain is “yet another tool”, so depends how you use it. A complex protagonist and deep setup, followed by a comic book ending, can cause disquiet in the reader in a “but the real world doesn’t work like this so what will you do about it” sense. Then double down on that or even 4th wall break in an epilogue if you want to make it explicit and blunt Sep 3, 2023 at 5:28
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    Another great recommendation in the 4th wall - a “Twilight Zone” ending always fits a moral dilemma. I don’t know the word for what Im doing but rather than narrator-reader fourth wall it’s narrator-“note to self” epilogue, with the surprise reveal of who has been compiling all these epistles. Ie, the scene revealing the serial killer’s “shrine” to their target. Has to be a trope by now. This should go in your answer BTW
    – Vogon Poet
    Sep 3, 2023 at 17:24
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Caveat: Society learning their lesson is the most common outlet, but society is unrepentant in my story. (Eventually it is exposed that the villain whom we initially like has successfully hidden the effects of their actions; manipulated everyone). This is necessary to push my protagonist into the major crisis.

Frame challenge

As a person/writer, you are transitioning from 'teenager' to 'adult' in your theme.

In very broad strokes:

child teenage adult
unironic heroes (superman) edgelord antihero (batman) real people dealing with real life
villains are bad villains are cool and relatable my child's education will lock them into an economic class they cannot escape
theme is about doing right and wrong theme about angst, betrayal, and blowing shit up theme is "my God, I've spent 30yrs of my life becoming someone I don't particularly like..."
good guys win bad guys win what are my own values that I can live with?

Competing themes

I am reading between the lines a little, but you are hinting at competing themes:

  • Everyone must take responsibity for the evil that happens in the world.
  • Nope, really it was just that one mastermind villain all along.

The narrative 'problem' is when you start with the more adult theme that has no solution, then regress to a less mature theme for an 'easier' ending. The story takes a step backwards in its maturity level.

It's not you, this is a common problem with '3rd Act Syndrome'. An example is Wonder Woman (2017): the naive hero leaves her sheltered island of wholesome purity to discover the world of men is complicated and morally messy – she can't fix 'men', she can't stop 'war'.... This is the theme of the film for the 1st and 2nd acts. Then nope, there a secret bad guy who she can just punch in the face. Yay. 'War' and 'men' are solved forever because she punched the 1 'real' bad guy who was behind the curtain.

Find your target demographic

I'm not going to play amateur behavioral psychologist, but the uneasiness you're feeling in your theme is because you're not quite 'there' yet. You are on the cusp, and the media you've consumed up to now has featured less mature themes that have easier resolutions.

Try to empathize with a little kid who has always read childhood stories about pure heroes and happy endings, who is on the cusp of grasping darker stories with nuanced villains that blur the moral lines. A few years earlier they would reject a 'villains win' story and would not relate to a badass anti-hero.

Similarly, you are on the cusp of a more mature story that doesn't need a villain because ALL characters have some moral ambiguity when it suits them. That's a tougher, more mature world that doesn't have a mastermind behind the curtain.

These 'maturity levels' are not attached to actual age. It's ok to like an un-ironic goodguy as an adult, and some little kids will love the villain more than the hero. Some adults never graduate to 'adult themed stories' they prefer 'juvenile' (YA) stories as escapism/entertainment.

The idea is to understand your reader demographic. The broad majority can be averaged to media that matches their maturity level. The hard thing to remember is that readers may not accept stories that violate the 'rules' implied within the story's theme.

A world that starts out 'adult' where everyone is morally complex, might feel like a cop-out when it's not able to come to a final conclusion with that premise intact.

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    The WW analogy with Aries is very good, however I use “world” a little less literally in my Q; referring to protagonist’s sphere of influence (a micro-world). But your point holds, save for the villain being a god which lets us hold humanity blameless at the end. The “world” was duped, sure. But I won’t remove its culpability completely. It’s “I should have seen that coming” rather than “Nothing I could have done about it.” The villain plays in the meta but in fact is the actual story. The hero victim pulls our hearts but the purpose of the story is exposing the complex bad guy we all know.
    – Vogon Poet
    Sep 2, 2023 at 18:11

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