Apr 26 2009

Several problems with persecuted heroes

Published by at 7:10 pm under Writing Articles

When a hero runs into an obstacle, there is usually one of two reasons: 1) what he has done and 2) who he is.  Persecuted heroes, like the X-Men, face major obstacles because of who they are.  Here are a few problems with persecuted heroes.

1.  Persecution usually makes stories more grim and less fun.  This could be problematic.  People usually read fiction because they want to have fun.  Is there some other reason people will want to read your work?

2.  Being persecuted may compromise the hero’s likability.  Even though the persecution is probably beyond his control, being persecuted will probably cast a cloud of angst over him.  In particular, the hero will become very unlikable if he comes off whiny or starts moping.

3.  Persecution stories often lead to unsatisfying conflicts and cartoonish antagonists. Good villains are usually at least a bit likable and stylish.  If your antagonists come off like racists that hate on mutants (or whichever persecuted group you’re using), it will be hard to like them.

4.  Adding persecution may compromise the likability of the world.  If pretty much everyone hates on (say) mutants, readers may feel the world is so messed up that there’s no point trying to save it.  If readers assume there’s no prospect of a happy ending, they will probably move on.

5.  Persecution stories may take on an ideological, politically charged tone, particularly if the persecution is something people face in real-life or is clearly meant as an analogue for some real persecution.   For example, X-Men’s writers repeatedly compare mutant-phobia to homophobia.  This is problematic because it may cause your readers to draw in their emotional and ideological baggage about gay rights (or whatever).  The good news is that if you have a publisher for your proposal, they’re okay with the potential for lost sales.  The bad news is that sales are key to getting published (and getting called back for next time).

6.  A persecuted hero usually comes off as more reactive and passive.  When a hero is persecuted, the story draws attention to how he was born, not what he does.  That’s not a great setup for a proactive hero.

7 responses so far

7 Responses to “Several problems with persecuted heroes”

  1. ikaruson 27 Apr 2009 at 8:30 pm

    What if you wrapped up the persecution early, like in Naruto?

  2. Mr. USAon 27 Apr 2009 at 8:41 pm

    What of a champion of the people who is hunted by the government, who is always optimistic, and has faith in his fellow man? And the reason the government hunts them isn’t racist at all? Would that work?

  3. B. Macon 27 Apr 2009 at 9:06 pm

    Hello, Mr. USA. If the government goes after him because of something he did, or something they incorrectly think he did, I think that’s fine.

  4. B. Macon 27 Apr 2009 at 11:08 pm

    Hello, Ikarus. I’m not at all familiar with Naruto, so I can’t say anything about how it works there. In general, I’m kind of ambivalent about the idea of introducing persecution and drawing it away fairly early. If you pull it away too early, your hero will probably come off as a Mary Sue. (He’s so heroic that it’s impossible to hate him!) If you wait too long, the series will probably get really dark.

    I think it could work as an intermediate objective for a series. For example, the heroes earn respect for mutants by saving humanity at the end of your first novel. (For a comic book writer, that’d probably be around issue #6-10. Then it’d be plausible that persecution would kind of fall out of the story.

  5. Gerhi Janse van Vuurenon 28 Apr 2009 at 6:58 am

    Because you rightly say that a persecution story starts of with the question who the hero is you have a problem with reader sympathy.

    The story only starts with who the hero is. The question is, who will he become. In this sense a persecution story is nothing other than a coming of age story.
    Will the hero rise up to the challenge to start a revolution for a new dispensation where he and his kind will not be persecuted anymore? Or is he doomed to a life of eternal resistance carrying forever on like Sisyphus? Or will he changed by his ordeal so that he become accepted in society or at least tolerated and not persecuted anymore?

    Personally I find a persecuted hero to be both likable and intriguing.

  6. Vixis Shiar'Deluson 02 Jun 2016 at 2:06 pm

    One of my main characters with a POV (one of about three or four [still determining if the fourth actually needs a POV or not]) is bisexual, but it isn’t the largest plot point out there. It plays in a little bit when the villain attempts to use his and his bosses relationship as blackmail, but that is resolved very quickly. The only other time it really becomes important is in his personal part of the story when his ex-fiancé’s new husband arrives in the town (the wife/ex-fiancé was captured along with the husband, but managed to help him escape to go to the city and ensure their kids are safe) to check on his step-children (since they are the main characters[he didn’t know she was pregnant, and after events in the backstory assumed she’d died]). He ends up finding them in the city, around the same time as the main character, Alfred. Things happen and he doesn’t like him because he’s bisexual, but it still eventually goes away and doesn’t come off as horrible, preachy persecution.

  7. dmgon 31 Aug 2017 at 12:31 pm

    Yet, despite the proposed problems with this element being weaved into a story/series, the one cited as the most obvious example of it ( X-Men) is one of the most successful superhero franchises in the history of the genre. And of course if people were completely put off by stories getting rather dark and grim, how to explain the immense popularity of, for example, Batman?

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