Misleading story goal?

by Colin
(London UK)

Question: At the start of my story, my main character is an apathetic delinquent with little interest in anything. He's only spurred into action by a curse that will kill him if he doesn't break it. Initially I had planned to have him achieve that goal mid story, only to realize what breaking the curse cost (i.e. people and things he's started to care about), and for the new goal to be righting his wrongs. However, seeing as my main character 13 years earlier was a young prince who destroyed his family which destabilized a nation, I'm beginning to think the main goal is redemption all along. It's assumed that someone else was responsible and that the prince died along with his family. Is setting up breaking the curse as the story goal misleading the reader? How can I foreshadow the real goal without revealing too much about his past until later in the story?

Answer: I'm a little unclear when the curse was placed. If the curse was placed 13 years ago and in response the young prince murders his family, in order to save his own life, you have a problem with the morality of the story. How do you make your main character someone the reader will empathize with if he has killed his family for selfish reasons? Or if he only acts for selfish reasons?

Even if he manages to do something heroic, like help another hero save the nation, natural justice suggests he will have to give up his life as punishment for his crime.

On the other hand, if the death of the royal family is caused by someone else (even if the prince thinks he caused it), that's a story that could work.

The family's death that destabilized the nation would be the initial driver (or inciting incident). The injustice in the story world would need to be rectified in order for the world to come back into harmony. So the story goal might be to have the prince become the new king, after defeating whoever caused the death of his family and made the prince think he did it, thus restoring order to the kingdom.

The Prince, having become an apathetic delinquent because of the guilt he carries, would be inspired at the second driver (or turning point) to take up the cause of breaking the curse. In the process, he would learn the truth about his family's destruction, which
would then lead him to confront the real villain.

In other words, this would be a story like The Lion King, in which the banished Simba must retake the throne from the villainous uncle who caused his father's death and made Simba feel responsible.

On the other hand, if you want your prince to really have killed his family to save himself, then he becomes more of a Darth Vader character -- someone who betrays his friends for selfish reasons and causes the downfall of the Republic. Of course, Darth Vader is not the main character. Luke is the main character and the real hero who gives Darth Vader an opportunity to redeem himself. But Darth still has to pay the price for his earlier betrayal. So he redeems himself by sacrificing his own life to help Luke defeat the Emperor.

In other words, if you make your prince the villain, you might need a different character to be the protagonist -- the person who will ultimately be placed on the throne. Also, you may have a challenge to get the reader to empathize with the prince.

It can be done, of course. Guilt is a common human experience which readers can relate to. But you may have some work to explain why the young prince would have betrayed his family (without making him a psychopath). We may need to see that the prince is remorseful, and that he purposely chooses a path that leads to his redemption.

(Just to be clear, the story goal either way would be the restoration of the kingdom by placing a good king on the throne. The prince would have in addition a personal goal to resolve his guilt over the death of his family in a way more satisfying way than a life of self-punishment and ignominy.)

Best of luck.

P.S. Re: foreshadowing the real goal.

At some point (not in a prologue necessarily), you may want to flash back to show why the prince carries the guilt over his family's death. Perhaps we see someone who seems to be a friend persuading him that he killed his family or that he should kill his family and the prince accepting that as the truth. You will omit some of the decisions or actions of the real villain to create a little mystery. Perhaps include some clues along with red herrings so that you can, at the crisis, reveal what was really going on.

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Apr 23, 2017
Thanks for replying
by: Colin

Sorry I didn't really explain it well. The prince is bullied and abused by his father (in an attempt to make him a strong leader) and he's coerced by his nurse into murdering him. The nurse turns out to be a powerful witch and murders everyone else while the prince realizes what he's done. He escapes with his mortally wounded older sister, who soon dies, while the witch becomes the new queen. It's later as an adult that the prince is cursed as part of a contract he agrees to without reading the fine print. To break the curse he has to fulfill his contract, which seemed simple but leads to him inadvertently helping the queen with even bigger evil plans.

I might need to simplify a few things...

Apr 25, 2017
by: Glen

Okay, so it's still the same problem. The story goal is to put a good monarch on the throne. (You will want to show how the kingdom is suffering.) The prince's inner conflict is whether/how to stand up to those who have taken advantage of him (first his father, now the witch).

You might need an impact character who can help him (by example) to see that he doesn't need to carry the guilt over his father's death, and that he can be the agent of a better destiny.

The challenge is to have the witch appear benevolent to the naive prince (if not the reader), until he can look back and reinterpret events to see that she was manipulating him all along. It's okay if the reader is one step ahead of the prince on figuring this out.

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