Home > Blog, Common Story Problems, Graphic Novel Writing > A Tale of Two (or more) Stories Example: WATCHMEN by Alan Moore

A Tale of Two (or more) Stories Example: WATCHMEN by Alan Moore

In my previous post, I discussed a common problem in writing: trying to tell more than one story within one story. Typically, this is made apparent by having more than one protagonist and/or more than one problem for the protagonist(s) to face.

This happens all the time. It is so common, that professionals do it constantly. Pixar did it in Ratatouille. Christopher Nolan did it with The Dark Knight. And even the It-guy of comic writing, Alan Moore, did it in Watchmen… (Note: If you haven’t read Watchmen, there are spoilers below.)

First, a little vocab:

1) “Protagonist” = the character responsible for handling the main problem and the one most in need of change, emotionally.

2) “Mentor” = the protagonist’s conscience. They are the prevailing side to the thematic argument. They voice the lesson that must be learned by the protagonist in order to change for the better.

(Update 10/31/09 — see the Eight Character Roles for more)

Many people have argued with me that Rorschach is the protagonist, but I disagree. Dan Dreiberg is the protagonist.

The Comedian’s murder is the catalyst Dan needs to change from a complacent wimp to the embodiment of Rorschach’s message, “Never Surrender” (theme). Rorschach already embodies this theme; he has no room for change. It is Dan that needs to change.

FINAL - WatchmenClip1Therefore, Dan Dreiberg is the protagonist of Watchmen and Rorschach is the mentor.

The entire structure of the story is built around Dan gradually incorporating Rorschach’s message: Dan saves people from a burning building, he defies the warnings of the police, he breaks Rorschach out of jail, and even confronts Adrian Veidt on Adrian’s turf.

Each act of deviance builds upon the other so that when Dan ultimately makes his final choice to either succeed or fail at embodying the theme in the face of certain adversity, his experiences within the story will support that decision and he will have changed for the better.


Watchmen - Dan SurrendersIn the end, Dan folds, repeating his mistake to be complacent to the wills of society, as though he hasn’t experienced a thing, and Rorschach is given center stage as a false protagonist.

We watch as Rorschach continues to embody “Never Surrender” and Dan wilts away. Bummer.

It is my suspicion that Alan Moore lost his focus and forgot that Dan was the protagonist.

It’s entirely understandable. In the final chapters, a great deal of effort was spent on grounding the rather odd logistics of Adrian’s crime. In the cloud of the murder mystery (not to mention all the other stories he was writing at the time), Moore could have easily forgotten that the point of the story is not the murder mystery itself but what it means to Dan’s mid-life crisis, resulting in a finale that has two protagonists instead of one.

So, you see? Even professionals make this mistake! Fortunately for Moore, readers either don’t notice or are forgiving enough to enjoy Watchmen for it’s numerous strengths. But, I wouldn’t recommend relying on that.

I hope that helps!

  1. Pat
    11/04/2009 at 3:54 PM

    I’d argue that Dan makes the right choice in the end. After all, Rorschach is a Randian/Ditkovian crank who doesn’t see any complexity in things. Sure, Dan needs this kind of person to break his inertia, but in the end he is able to look at things from all sides and make a rational, deliberated decision.

    • 11/05/2009 at 9:49 AM

      Thanks for the comment, Pat. You’re the first! And that is a fair argument. I’m not sure what you meant by “right”, but let me be clear, I’m not concerned with the morality of his actions. I am concerned, however, in the craftsmanship of the story.

      Dan was already able to make rational and deliberate decisions at the beginning, it’s what got him into his “impotent” situation in the first place. Too much thought and not enough passion. In order to grow as a person, Dan’s got to remember why he started fighting crime in the first place: to stop bad guys. He needs to stop thinking so much and kick some bad guy butt. That’s what he does throughout the story, gradually increasing the intensity of his actions until he comes face-to-face with a real challenge (Adrian) and… returns to his original, impotency-causing method of making rational decisions.

      One could argue that Moore has done this intentionally, thereby making a statement about people and failures but I just don’t agree because the weight of Dan’s decision (impotency, worth as a man linked to crime fighting) is not addressed or alluded to. I may be wrong, but it feels like Moore forgot — which happens all the time.

  2. 10/13/2010 at 1:07 AM

    I do think whether or not Dan made the “right” decision is central to determining his role in the final moments of the story. “Right” here means, did he learn what he was supposed to learn, and did he act on that lesson? Not in the sense of outside moral, but within the context of the themes of the book.

    It’s true that his “mentor” teaches him to take responsibility for the world he lives in, but Rorschach’s methods and motivations are called into questions are called into question constantly. Yes, according to him, the lesson Dan is supposed to learn is the importance of fighting bad guys. But is that really the lesson the book is pushing him towards? Rorschach’s fatal flaw is his inability to deviate from his single-minded path, and he expressly punished for that inability. Dan’s ability to recognize that the good of the world is not always best-served by unrelenting punishment of wrong-doers is precisely what makes him a stronger candidate for protagonist that Rorschach. Especially given the background themes of two nuclear powers at odds with each other, on the brink of destroying the world, precisely because neither one is able to admit that the fight is un-winnable. I would argue that knowing when to fight is just half of the lesson Dan is meant to learn; the importance of knowing when to back down is the other half, and is the lesson Rorschach could never learn.

    All that said, I’m not sure why Watchmen needs to have a single identifiable protagonist. I’d have called it an ensemble and left it at that. (And in trying to identify a protagonist, I’m curious why you haven’t considered Dr. Manhattan as a contender for the role.) I certainly don’t think it’s a “mistake” that it’s difficult to point to a clear protagonist–I would guess that it’s intentional, especially as the book presents a multiplicity of moral philosophies, each with it’s representative characters, and leaves the reader to hash out for themselves which choice is the “right” one. For the book to settle on a single clear protagonist by the story’s end would be to reject moral complexity–it would essentially be picking a winner, something I think the book very consciously avoids doing.

    To end, though, I should mention that I have a bias here: I reject the notion that a central protagonist is necessary. I find Hollywood’s need to always give us a single identifiable protagonist frustrating, and am always glad to see a story fight against it. So what you are here referring to as a “mistake” is the same thing that I tend to try to do on purpose in much of my own writing. To me, it’s more satisfying storytelling.

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