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Heroes, Protective Tendencies, and Moral Dilemmas

We’ve all heard the line, “I was only trying to protect you,” mainly used by a various assortment of heroes (aka ALL-OF-THEM) when explaining why they kept their identity a secret from their closest friends and family. On one hand, […]
| Mar 28, 2016 | 9 comments |

knight in armorWe’ve all heard the line, “I was only trying to protect you,” mainly used by a various assortment of heroes (aka ALL-OF-THEM) when explaining why they kept their identity a secret from their closest friends and family.

On one hand, the “protection” excuse makes me want to run up a wall. It’s so overused, you can practically feel it getting ready to leap off their tongues, and often at inopportune times. Its commonality has increased its annoyance to epic proportions.

Yet on the other hand, I get it. Who but the most cold-hearted person would want to willingly endanger the people they love? The inclination to protect people, even if it means boarding Dishonesty Ferry until it becomes second nature, is something we all can relate to. Would we do any less?

Most of the time, this over-protection mindset takes the form of hiding true identities, lying, and making excuses. Out of the goodness of their hero-ness, the main characters purposefully keep the curtain pulled over their hidden life of battling crime, saving the day, and ruining the villainous plans of their foes.

But when does protecting someone go too far? Is such a thing even possible?

Last week’s episode of the The Flash delved into this question of when protection goes too far, and it set me down a path through the Thinking Woods.


If you’ve been following this season, you know Zoom has entered the storyline and is wreaking a startling amount of havoc. Including in the personal life of Earth 2 Harrison Wells. For a long time, Zoom was holding Wells’ daughter Jessie prisoner. Recent events have brought Jessie and Harry to Earth 1 permanently, but while his daughter was in Zoom’s grip, Harry was determined to do anything he could to save her.

To protect her from Zoom.

He agreed to help Zoom steal the Flash’s speed. He double-crossed the Star Labs team. He murdered a man.

All to protect Jessie.

She’s since been rescued and reunited with Harry, but his protective instincts are far from quelled. He’ll still do anything to keep her safe, as was the case in last week’s episode, where he capitulated to Trajectory’s demands and gave her the V9. Even though it was the worst decision he could have made, he did it anyway.

To protect Jessie.

This is an extreme example, because a father’s need to protect his daughter is a powerful incentive.

What about Stark in Age of Ultron? Ever since New York, the world had been different. The threat of an alien invasion loomed over everyone. If it happened once, it could—likely would—happen again. Stark saw that threat as an opportunity, a duty, to protect earth. To create an impenetrable barrier ensuring the world’s safety.

We all know how that turned out.

How Far Is Too Far?

SpockThe question becomes, “Is it always the best decision to protect people, no matter the cost? Where do we draw the line?”

As Spock incessantly reminds us, “The good of the many outweighs the good of the few.”

Is that truly the case? Is life so simple we can reduce it to a formula, a numbers game where the majority always comes out on the safe side? Can we honestly expect a father to protect a building of people if it means letting his family die? After all, his first and foremost loyalty is to his wife and children.

It’s a fascinating dilemma that doesn’t have a clear-cut answer, at least in my mind. There are too many factors to consider to make a blanket statement one way or the other. However, such moral quandaries make for compelling storytelling.

This is where the beauty of a deep story shines bright. Not content to muddle through on the strength of shallow themes, it dares to ask probing questions that hook us because not only do they matter to the characters, they’re intrinsic to human existence.

Situations that place the characters on the spot bring reality into stark relief. The magic of storytelling transports us into their shoes, and we wonder, “Could I take a life, innocent or guilty, enemy or bystander, to save a life?”

“Would I give in to the villain to protect my family?”

“Could I let my best friend die to save hundreds?”

Such questions take a story to another level, and leave a deeper impact on us because they don’t give us the easy way out. Sometimes, there seems to be no right way. We’re forced to engage with the story and mentally chew on the implications—for the characters and for ourselves.

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Bethany A. Jennings

Ooooh, I love complex moral dilemmas like this. My protagonist faces a quandary of duty at the end of Book 1 of my trilogy….to say much about what he has to choose between would be spoilers, but oh, I AGONIZED over what his decision would be. I had a giant page full of a thought cloud on all the possible motivations and pros and cons for each choice. 😛 I agree with you; ultimately there is no blanket answer to all of these kinds of questions, and each provides a fascinating little problem to puzzle out. People have duties and responsibilities to causes/society/nations/family/etc., and sometimes it’s hard to say which should come out on “top.”


That’s cool. I’m working on a story where the inciting incident is the result of a dilemma the heroes faced years before the story beginning. They made the best decision they possibly could, and things still end up going south for them by the time the story starts.

Does book 1 end with the protagonist actually making a choice, or does that happen in the next installment?

Leah Burchfiel
Leah Burchfiel

IMO, there’s a certain amount of sketchiness in someone making important decisions on behalf of another non-child person without their knowledge/input. Especially when it’s dudes making decisions for ladies, because gross baggage of patriarchy. Even with spouses, because there are plenty of terrible spouses and/or ones with chronic assumption-itis. There are few kinds of people more infuriating than those with assumption-itis.

R. J. Anderson

There are so many ways to play the “secret identity” trope, it seems — some are angsty and questionable, but others are just good fun. I’ve recently discovered a cute cartoon called Miraculous Ladybug — sort of a modern 3D Sailor Moon, really — in which two tenth graders in the same class are also superhero partners fighting magical crime, and the girl has a crush on the boy’s real life identity while the boy has a crush on her alter-ego. But of course neither one of them has guessed who the other one is, and none of their schoolmates have either, even though it’s hilariously obvious to the viewer.

Sure, it would be easy to roll one’s eyes at the cliche, and ordinarily I would. But in this case the absurd obviousness is actually part of the show’s charm. It’s not trying to be edgy or sophisticated; it’s a sweet, earnest, quasi-romantic magical girl story in the best tradition of that subgenre. I can roll with that because it doesn’t pretend to be anything else — whereas I’ve frequently gritted my teeth in exasperation over shows that strive to be original and clever in every other way but still insist that the superhero can’t reveal his identity to the people he loves BECAUSE OF REASONS.

Autumn Grayson
Autumn Grayson

Sometimes a superhero keeping a secret identity hidden from a loved one wouldn’t seem to help much(at least in terms of the hero’s spouse). The most important thing would be to keep their secret identity safe from everyone else. But there is also the fact that many heroes have at least one friend or family member that disapproves of superheroes, or the alter ego of the hero in question. Of course at that point the hero is going to want to keep it a secret, because they don’t want their family member or friend to hate them.


As I recall, the webcomic Axe Cop recommends not only telling your loved ones your secret identity but giving them guns and having them hide in the bushes outside the house each night to kill any villains who try to kidnap them (with one family member on the roof to kill villains at a distance).

That’s probably what I’d do. The family wouldn’t get much sleep, but, hey, stakeouts are fun! 🙂


On a more serious note than my previous comment, I like what you’re saying.

It can be even more interesting when either choice would have a CLEARLY bad outcome (as opposed to POTENTIALLY bad outcome). Although the phrase “pick your poison” refers to alcohol, it’s really tempting to apply it to situations like this.

Yaasha Moriah

Wow, this brings up a couple thoughts.

1) Yay! I’m not the only one who is perplexed that Superhero can’t reveal his identity to his closest friend even though Archnemesis already has a clue who Superhero is! Plot hole, anyone?

2) In real life, spouses or significant others who keep secrets like that from each other end up with serious relational difficulties. Trust is vital.

3) I love moral dilemmas. For one thing, they’re realistic. We don’t always get the luxury of choosing between a good choice and a bad one. Sometimes they’re both bad. What the hero chooses in that moment, what he prizes more or fears more, is superb insight into his character, more than an author’s descriptive in-text analysis of his character could ever reveal. In my interactive episodic fantasy story, Azinae, my readers are the ones who choose between my MC’s difficult choices and moral dilemmas, and it’s really interesting for me to see what people choose when faced with these types of complex moral dilemmas. Sometimes the responses have totally surprised me.

Well done, Zachary. Who says speculative fiction doesn’t lead to deep thinking? 😉

Kat Vinson

It’s true, though I think as Christians, we have a whole additional perspective that weighs in. I remember a discussion in one of my college classes that discussed a story of a married Christian woman, alone in a Nazi prison – a sympathetic prison guard knew she would be released if she were pregnant so he offered to “help”. She took him up on the offer and, sure enough, was released to her husband and family. The class overwhelmingly condemned her actions as choosing to sin and save herself over not trusting God to save her if He willed. There’s also a story I’ve heard about a man sacrificing his son on railroad tracks rather than allow a train full of passengers to derail…